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Highlanders have come a long way . . .

THE notion that Inverness Caledonian Thistle are still a new club is somewhat outdated.

Dean Brill saved two Hearts' penalties but the goalkeeper admits that he was simply guessing which way to go. Picture: SNS
Dean Brill saved two Hearts' penalties but the goalkeeper admits that he was simply guessing which way to go. Picture: SNS

Granted, they do not have the century-long hinterland of many of their rivals but this year marks the 20th anniversary of their somewhat contentious foundation, when Caledonian and Inverness Thistle put local hostilities reluctantly to one side to come together for the greater good. A place in the league set-up was their reward for such a sacrifice and the club has, by and large, gone from strength to strength ever since.

For all the steady progress, however, made rising through the divisions and into the top half of the Premier League last year, a maiden cup final appearance continued to elude them. That they are still viewed by some in the Central Belt as a plucky small club from the frozen north perhaps spared them the sort of pressure to taste occasional success that has tended to follow around the likes of Aberdeen, Dundee United and Motherwell. Inverness were never really expected by many to reach cup semi-finals and finals but locally there was a belief that those should be attainable goals for a club of its size and playing squad.

Now they have done so at the fourth attempt. There were Scottish Cup semi-final defeats in successive seasons by Dundee in 2003 and then Dunfermline Athletic a year later, the second after a replay, both coming when Inverness were still a first division club. It was a bit different last year when they were favourites to defeat Hearts in the League Cup semi-final only to lose out via a penalty shoot-out.

Vengeance was all the sweeter, then, on Sunday, when the same opponents were put to the sword at the same stage of the same competition, by the same method, and at the same ground. After two decades in existence, Inverness Caledonian Thistle belatedly have a major final to look forward to.

It is hard to imagine too many neutrals being anything other than pleased for the Highland club for achieving such a landmark but that is not the over-riding impression inside the Inverness dressing room.

The playing squad has been transformed hugely since the days when the Tulloch Stadium would reverberate primarily to the sound of local accents, and among the current group of Englishmen and other outsiders a siege mentality has been fostered. It seems part of the motivation for their success came from proving other people wrong and it will be the same ahead of the final against Aberdeen on March 16.

"Nobody really likes us, so it's good to get there and put in a good performance," said goalkeeper Dean Brill, one of the heroes of the penalty shoot-out. "I just feel like we're a small club up in the Highlands and nobody likes coming up there.

"Reaching a final is massive for a club of our size. It's a real community club, we're all in it together. The boys have got nowhere to be apart from in each other's pockets, and the place is a lovely place to live."

Inverness reached the final in trying circumstances. Down by a goal as play entered the final minute of injury time, and having had two men sent off, John Hughes' side showed remarkable resolve to find an equaliser and somehow take the tie to extra time. There they put up stoic defence for 30 minutes with just nine men, before eventually prospering via penalties.

The wonders of modern technology mean that goalkeepers often know in advance just what each penalty taker is likely to do but Brill was not that well prepared. "I just pick a side and go, really," he admitted. "It's one out of two, isn't it? You've got a choice, left or right, and luckily twice I went the right way."

The joyous scenes were tinged with personal sadness for Gary Warren and Josh Meekings, the two players sent off. Warren will definitely miss the final after picking up two bookings but Inverness will today appeal Meekings' dismissal - for a swipe that seemed petulant more than malicious - and will have their case heard on Thursday. "For Josh to miss [the final] for something so trivial, just a trip [would be terrible]" added Brill.

Meekings had hoped any suspension, should the appeal fail, would mean he misses only this weekend's Scottish Cup tie against Stranraer and Inverness' next league game but an SFA official confirmed that would not be the case. The 21-year-old now hopes a disciplinary tribunal downgrades his red card to a yellow. "There are a lot of different opinions. I will have to wait and see."

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