Their rivalry is unique, isolated and imbalanced: Inverness moved more quickly through the lower leagues, the new club grew to overshadow its neighbour and as both struggled with a common problem, Inverness established leverage over their rivals in a vital area.
Ask any manager who has tried to move either club forward and he will tell you about the players who nearly signed. The money was right, the team was right, but the geography? Not so much. The most northerly outposts in British senior football have always been a hard sell. Since Inverness first stole a march on County, escaping the third division in 1995, they strengthened their squad with the best players at the Dingwall club.
Richie Foran, the Inverness captain and perhaps their most influential player, would not have made the move north after being released by Southend United in January 2009 had they been managed by anyone other than Terry Butcher, the man who had reined in the wild young Irishman at Motherwell. Since then, Butcher has had more success in luring players from the lower leagues in England. This Inverness team has no players recruited from Victoria Park. In that regard, it may be the first of its kind, but this old avenue between the two clubs operates still.
Instead of Inverness picking up such players as John Rankin or Don Cowie on their way up the career ladder, County are now packed with those who have played for Inverness. It will be strange for home supporters tonight to see Grant Munro, Russell Duncan and Ross Tokely – who together played over 1000 times for Inverness – line up against them. Michael Fraser, the County goalkeeper, spent seven years at Inverness. Iain Vigurs joined County when he failed to claim a starting slot in midfield with their neighbours.
Andrew Barrowman was signed by County in 2007 and moved to Inverness and back again before leaving the Highlands in the summer of 2011 with as good an understanding as anyone of the relationship between the clubs, the supporters and the players there. "It is harder to attract players and both clubs know that," said the striker. "That is why you have them paying for accommodation and things like that – that's an expense other clubs wouldn't have. But ask any player who has signed for either club and, once they are up there, they will tell you how much they enjoy it. Both clubs are really trying to put football on the map up there."
Barrowman's most productive season came as County tied up the second division championship in 2008, the striker scoring 29 goals. As that season reached its midpoint, he became aware that he had the opportunity to join the group of players who had moved between the two Highland clubs. "I remember that January, Craig Brewster, who was the manager at Inverness, started phoning me and my agent," remembered Barrowman. "When it came to it, it felt like the right move for me. I was happy up there, I liked it."
And it wasn't like he had to work to get to know his new team-mates. "It's a small place," added the striker, now at Dunfermline Athletic. "If you're out for coffee or something, the chances are the players are going to be in the same place. The shopping centre [in Inverness] isn't that big – you're going to bump into each other. So you build up this friendship – it's a rivalry too, of course."
Barrowman's time at Inverness did not go well and he returned to County, but he understands why neither of those transfers led to him changing his number, or eating at different restaurants. "They [the supporters] are laid back about it," he said. "Both clubs accept that it is going to happen – they are so detached from everybody else."
Increasingly, though, Inverness under Butcher have moved away from their Highland rustling raids. His current team has been built by foraging in the lower leagues and youth programmes in England. Butcher still has less money to spend perhaps than anyone other than Derek Adams, the County manager, and has found value in players such as Jonny Hayes, now at Aberdeen, Ross Draper, Josh Meekings and most recently Philip Roberts, a loan signing from Arsenal. It is a more sophisticated recruitment policy than driving 14 miles to the north to see who can play, but it is still among the more thrifty strategies in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. It has to be.
Neither of these clubs can sustain star signings, as both have proven. Mark Hateley's pioneering of the Milan-Monaco-Rangers-Ross County career trajectory never looked quite right and when Neale Cooper cut his friend loose after two games he admitted the former England internationalist had been a negative influence on his northern tribe.
At Inverness, the capture of striker Marius Niculae was at once inspired and nearly ruinous. The £4000-per-week wage of the Romanian could support a small nation of Conor Peppers and was reportedly sustained by investment from former chairman, Alan Savage. When Savage left, the club had to get out of the contract fast and they were fortunate the player's form made him worth a €500,000 transfer to Dinamo Bucharest.
Neither kind of extravagance will be on show tonight. In the home dressing room, a newly-constructed team will gather their understanding of the rivalry from the noise outside and the gnarly urgings of Butcher and Foran. In the away dressing room, it will feel like a homecoming of sorts for the most recent travellers along a well-worn road.
Contextual targeting label: