John Robertson has been, pound for pound, the best manager in Scottish football over the past few seasons. There, I said it. There might be some arguments for Dick Campbell, or maybe Stewart Petrie, but I’m sticking to John Robertson for my pick.
It feels strange to be writing this after they’ve only picked up one point from their first six in the 2020/21 Scottish Championship, but he’s had to deal with plenty of adversity, both on and off the pitch in his time at Inverness Caledonian Thistle so far, and yet, continues to achieve.
He’s coached players superbly, to the point where they’ve managed to turn around previous opinions and even earned moves to a higher level.
Off Pitch Distractions
Let’s get the off the pitch distractions out of the way first. The club, arguably punched above their weight for a long time to stay in the Premiership for as long as they did. John Hughes took them into Europe and they won the Scottish Cup in the 2014/15 season, but since their relegation to the Championship in 2017, they’ve been consistently battling financial issues.
Last season was the first where the club ceased receiving parachute payments from the SPFL, and this came in addition to the struggles the club had already been faced with. Since then, they’ve undergone numerous changes in the boardroom and have had various rounds of “new investment” to plug holes in their cash flow. There’s even been talk of administration.
Fans obviously aren’t able to attend any matches at the moment, but Inverness had already seen a 30,000 decrease in the total from their last season in the Premiership to their first in the Championship. Their average attendance has fallen year-on-year since.
“Getting people through the gate is a huge challenge” was an understatement from former chairman, Graham Rae.
It’s remarkable that Robertson has ensured his players haven’t been distracted by these issues. A first season consolidation of 5th in the Championship has been followed up with consecutive finishes in the playoff spots. The club was sitting 2nd last season before football stopped and the season was called. Would they have got through the playoffs and challenged for that promotion spot against 11th in the Premiership?
Success Leads to Loss
The situation that Inverness currently find themselves in, is that if they have players that perform well, they’ll move on to bigger things. Robertson has been able to work wonders with what he’s had at his disposal.
Jamie McCart had shown promise as he came through Celtic’s youth teams and had impressed on his loan spells out, too. Inverness secured his signature once Celtic had decided that he wasn’t going to make it to the first team at Parkhead in 2018. Over 5,000 minutes later across a season and a half and he’d earnt a move to the Premiership with St Johnstone.
McCart’s partner in defence for most of that time was Coll Donaldson. He’d been cast aside by Dundee United and is still regarded by the majority of their fanbase as, well, “shite”. Donaldson and McCart were one of the best central defensive pairs in their relatively short time playing together for the club. It was no surprise to see them both move up a division.
Shaun Rooney also made the move to St Johnstone, although he hasn’t quite had the impact at the club I thought he would, after the season he had for Inverness in 2019/20. He was a constant danger as their marauding right back after he hadn’t had the best of times in previous spells with Queen of the South, York down in England and back up here with Dunfermline in League 1. A bit of Robbo magic.
I was really impressed with Jordan White last season. He might have only just hit double figures overall (seven of those coming in the league), but it was his overall ability as Inverness’ target-man that impressed me most. He linked the play superbly and was a great foil for those that played off him. Credit for that has to go to John Robertson again. White had scored goals for Stirling and Livingston before going south to ply his trade in the National League. He’s come to Inverness, played well and secured a move to the Premiership with Motherwell.
This list contains a few more names too. Tom Walsh arrived, delivered and moved on (albeit slightly sideways to Ayr United). Liam Polworth is an Inverness youth product but his performances saw him move to Motherwell all the same.
The next step for Inverness is to better manage Robertson’s clear ability to get the most out of players. The club needs to stop losing players on pre-contracts or letting them run their deals down. This is an issue that isn’t just relevant to Inverness in Scottish football, though.
The Future is Bright
Scottish football hasn’t been immune to the COVID-19 pandemic. Far from it. There’s currently no timeline for when fans can get back to matches and clubs can get back to their regular revenue-driving activities. However, taking that out of the equation at the moment, I think the future might be bright for Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
It might be out of necessity at the moment with a number of players out injured in a few positions, but they’ve started this season with a raft of young players who look very, very promising.
Roddy MacGregor (18) and Daniel MacKay (19) are the two standouts for me in midfield, both homegrown prospects. In the 29th minute (1min 56secs in the highlights) of their 1-1 draw against Ayr last weekend, MacKay picks up the ball in his own half and does a quick swivel to check if there are any short options. None of them impress him, so he looks up to spot the run of Nikolay Todorov behind the Ayr defence and if there was an award for “pass of the season which doesn’t result in a goal”, then I think we’ve got a winner already.
It’s a small sample size at the moment for MacGregor, as the majority of his appearances before this season were short stints off the bench, but he’s started both league matches this season and completed his first 90′ in the league on Saturday. It looks as though he could be one of the leagues leading passers of the ball, with a high percentage of his passes in the final third being successful.
While Robertson does have Miles Storey and Aaron Doran to return from injury eventually, I’d love to see him continue to give MacKay and MacGregor the gametime they deserve.
One player that could and should get plenty of gametime this season is Robbie Deas. It’s another very smart pick up from the club. The 20-year-old signed a three-year deal in the summer after his Celtic contract expired. Straight out of the Jamie McCart mould this one. Cammy and I were impressed with him at Alloa last season in the league, and Gav from the main podcast is a fully paid up member of the Robbie Deas Propaganda Association. He did the simple stuff so well last season and that’s exactly what John Robertson will be looking for him to continue doing this season.
Cameron Harper (18) also started the match on Saturday, along with Ryan Fyffe (19) coming off the bench to assist their equaliser and Rangers’ loanee, Kai Kennedy (18) getting his first minutes in an Inverness shirt. Summer arrivals Wallace Duffy and Scott Allardice are only 21 and 22, respectively, as well.
If John Robertson can continue the good work he’s done on the training ground with some of his past players with this set of new ones, I don’t see why Inverness can’t keep defying their off-pitch situation and perhaps get themselves back up to the Premiership.
Want to hear more about one of the most unpredictable leagues in the world, the Scottish Championship? Listen to Chris and Cammy every week on the Pure Championship Podcast.