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Close encounters of friends in the north

GRAEME Shinnie is choosing his words carefully.

Graeme Shinnie is from Aberdeen but has no regrets about lining up against them   Photograph: SNS
Graeme Shinnie is from Aberdeen but has no regrets about lining up against them Photograph: SNS

Aberdonian born and bred, and an occasional attender at Pittodrie in his youth, the 22-year-old Inverness Caledonian Thistle mainstay is insisting that while he never "supported" today's Scottish League Cup final opponents, he did "follow" them out of convenience from time to time.

"I didn't support them but I did go to watch them because I was a young boy who liked going to watch football and Pittodrie was my closest ground," said Shinnie, issuing the kind of non-denial denial of which Bill Clinton would be proud. "I have been in contact with a few of my pals and they are all going to the game in the Aberdeen end. Obviously my family will be supporting me and supporting Caley Thistle. I am going to enjoy it."

Big brother will also be watching Shinnie this afternoon. The left-back enjoys a healthy sibling rivalry with his older brother Andrew, now of Birmingham City, but it will be a family affair in the East End of Glasgow today as full Scotland international Andrew makes it up from the Midlands to look on, perhaps jealously, as Graeme features in the first major final of the Highland club's history.

"I am trying to get him a ticket … but he might have to pay for one!" said Graeme. "No, he has a flight booked so he will be here. He probably will be a bit jealous. He hasn't said anything but these are occasions that footballers love. He was there last season when we narrowly missed out. I suppose he probably would want to be playing, but he is down there, trying to make it. I am sure he will be supporting us and hoping we lift the cup in the end."

It isn't too outlandish to suggest that Graeme could actually have been featuring for the other team today. Developed alongside his brother and Dundee United's Stuart Armstrong at the respected Dyce Boys Club FC, he managed to escape Aberdeen's scouts and at the age of 17 he was persuaded to sign for Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Despite some time missed from the game whilst suffering from the same ulcerative colitis problem experienced by Manchester United's Darren Fletcher, Shinnie now has more than 130 top-flight appearances to his name. Whether he supported Aberdeen as a child or not, few will be more committed than he this afternoon as he attempts to defy the odds, a large Aberdeen support, and pacy wingers such as Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn.

"Aberdeen were sniffing about Andrew as a youngster and I think they tried to get him," said Shinnie. "He might say they missed something, they might not have. But these things happen. My mates played with Aberdeen as youngsters and they loved it there. But Caley Thistle came calling on me. With the number of games I have played and still being so young, it has definitely been the right move for me.

"I think it [the 40,000 tickets sold in Aberdeen] is great. Playing in a cup final, you want the stadium to be full, you want to be playing against loads of fans to make the occasion even better. Hopefully we bring at least 10,000 and that will be good for us as well. It is obviously our first cup final, and a full stadium is what you want. I am ready for anybody. Bring it on."

Such enthusiasm also extends to the ordeal of facing down a goalkeeper from 12 yards. Shinnie captained the side in the absence of Richie Foran during the harum scarum, nine-man semi-final win against Hearts at Easter Road and, as the most reliable dead-ball striker at the club, he volunteered to take the first kick in the shoot-out. But soon he was trudging back to the half-way line in despair after his effort was saved by Jamie MacDonald. Would he think twice about putting his hand up for the same chore again this afternoon?

"I was hoping you weren't going to mention that!" he jokes. "The thing is I took one the year before against Hearts and scored, but we went out. Then this year I took one and missed and we went through. So it is a bit weird. I took the first one, the worst one, then the boys stepped up after me and their penalties were really good. It felt like I had let my team down, but it would have been worse for me, wearing the captain's armband that day, if I hadn't taken a penalty and we had gone out. I did volunteer to go first, I would probably throw my name out again, yes. Football is all about pressure. It is about how you handle it."

For some the novelty factor of playing in a cup final is greater than others. James Vincent, for instance, spent the last two seasons plugging away in the Conference with Kidderminster Harriers. "We had a good season at Kidderminster and we had 5000 people coming to watch by the end of the year," Vincent said. "But other than that you'd be struggling for 1000 if we went to Braintree away down in Essex."

As for that all-important pre-cup final routine, assistant manager Russell Latapy, renowned for enjoying his social life, preaches what could be termed a laissez-faire approach.

"Once you have a reputation it is very difficult to lose it," said Latapy, who hopes that Trinidad and Tobago pals Brian Lara and Dwight Yorke could join him today. "But the truth is I played professional football until I was 40. So there is no chance I could have been all that bad. I didn't have any special routine.

"The best advice I can give the players is: 'whatever you need to do to get yourself in the best possible shape to win the cup final, get it done'. If that entails going out and having fun .... don't get caught!"

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