WHAT price a goalscorer?
Terry Butcher smiles at the question, mischief spreading across the face of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager. The inquiry is made in relation to Billy McKay, scorer of 20 goals this season, but his manager has spotted an opportunity. "I think the best way of putting it is that Billy is worth more to us than Gary Hooper is to Celtic," the Englishman said. "And if I was to say Billy is up there with Hooper, that would suggesting he is worth £15 to £20m . . ."
With the laughter lies a serious point. Inverness, difficult to beat last season but lacking the edge needed to open up teams, are among the top scorers in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League this term. At times, they have been rampant and McKay has been at the vanguard, his own development mirroring that of his team. A tally of 18 goals in his last 16 games is sensational and has, understandably, attracted attention from other clubs but, with his contract still 18 months from it's expiry date, Butcher is relaxed about the potential of losing him.
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"He is a marvellous player but thankfully, he has another year with us after this one," the manager said. "If we can agree, he would sign another year on top of that, as well. The deal isn't quite on the table yet, but we're talking about it. He's very open to that.
"Billy is improving all the time. He is a much better player than he was at the start of the season, but that comes from playing regularly and the confidence of scoring. He has been a revelation, really. We always knew he could score goals and now he is really getting more clinical and ruthless. He's a wonderful player for us, not only for the goals he scores but also the way he works for the team. He's not big, but he leaps well in the air and gets in about people. He's a pest, but he works ever so hard for what he gets. His work-rate is invaluable to us."
Even so, every player has their price, particularly at a club such as Inverness. Granted, they may be without any significant debt but are operating on very fine margins and any reasonable cash bid for McKay, or more likely one of those players out of contract in the summer, would be hard to refuse.
The picture is clouded, though, by the financial rewards that might accrue if Inverness retain their trajectory. Finishing higher in the league than was budgeted for could provide an unexpected six-figure windfall, while further progress in the cups – beginning with this weekend's Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final against Hearts – would further burnish the accounts. "You have to weigh it up against what the player in question could give you between now and the end of the season," Butcher said. "If they give you a top-six place, that's worth a lot of money. So you are looking for a fee that would equate to that – if you wanted to sell.
"It would have to be an unbelievable offer because you are also looking at financial returns in the cups. What is anybody's price? But their value to us is immense because of what they can give us in terms of League and Scottish Cup runs and SPL positions."
Butcher took time, too, to praise the value of neighbourly support ahead of the semi-final. While the SPL were eager to reschedule the Highland derby postponed earlier this month for this midweek, Ross County agreed to a request to further delay the fixture.
"Derek Adams [County manager] was terrific not insisting the game was played this week," Butcher said. "I appreciate that enormously. That's a few bottles of coke or mineral water, or whatever it is he drinks, I owe him now."