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Siege mentality disguises team's lack of confidence

IT was more the stramash rather than the siege of Strathpeffer.

US AGAINST THE WORLD: John Hughes has sought to pile pressure on Aberdeen and deflect attention from his players ahead of Sunday's cup final. Picture: SNS
US AGAINST THE WORLD: John Hughes has sought to pile pressure on Aberdeen and deflect attention from his players ahead of Sunday's cup final. Picture: SNS

The Highland spa town was the scene of a gathering of sometimes warring clans as footballers and press met to set the scene for the League Cup final with the staff of Inverness Caledonian Thistle offering their thoughts on an historic event for the club.

The mass of players, coaches, officials and the advance guard of the press crammed into a small restaurant in the town to hear John Hughes, the Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager, give a calculated lecture on the injustices inflicted on his club. It was the Siege Mentality of Strathpeffer.

Hughes insisted he was speaking out after keeping his counsel on matters that had disturbed him. But he seemed to be playing on a sort of Highland rap on the Millwall mantra. Hughes' message was: 'no-one likes us and we do care, quite a lot really'.

His words scattered across the restaurant like coins at a wedding scramble but they had a purpose. Hughes sought to increase the pressure on Aberdeen by insisting they are heavy favourites for the cup and to play up the underdog status of Inverness by pointing out the punishments that have been heaped upon the wee club by unthinking administrators and misguided refs.

It was a bravura performance that may just convince the neutral, embolden the loyal supporters and galvanise the team but it had its flaws, even stutters.

Hughes was right to claim that the tackle made by Hearts' Scott Robinson on Billy McKay in the League Cup semi-final was worthy of more than a yellow card. He was simply wrong on the "unknown reasons" on why the club cannot appeal the two yellow cards given to Gary Warren in that tie. The "unknown reasons" can be distilled into one fact: if players or clubs could appeal against cautions then the disciplinary process at Hampden would be so jammed up it would need a corporate suppository.

He was entitled to argue against the sendings-off on Sunday, though correct to state the club would not appeal. First, they risked losing the players - Greg Tansey and Marley Watkins - for the final if the lost the appeal. Second, they would have lost the appeal.

His observations on the League Cup semi-final against Hearts being played in Edinburgh at 12.15pm can be dismissed on the grounds that once clubs take television money they cannot complain when broadcasters decide kick-off times.

The alternatives to Easter Road would have been Pittodrie or McDiarmid Park and they would have had vociferous detractors.

The scheduling the Hibs game tomorrow night is more interesting. Hughes made great play yesterday of Aberdeen relaxing as his players toiled for league points, of Derek McInnes plotting for the final while he had to prepare for the visit of Terry Butcher and his not-so-merry men.

The Hibs match is the one carried over from the date of the League Cup semi-finals. Aberdeen should have played Celtic on that day and later fulfilled that fixture on the night Inverness played a postponed match against Ross County.

The Inverness manager's protest at the visit of Hibs at such an inopportune time are somewhat compromised by the match allowing two of his players to serve a suspension and by his claim that it would offer a chance of redemption to a squad who are collectively in poor form.

His railing at the cruelty of the world was also undermined by the decision to rescind the sending-off of Josh Meekings in the semi-final. The defender yesterday was predictably delighted at that reprieve but also spoke of the importance of the having to play the Hibs match.

"I think it's a good opportunity for us after the weekend," he said. "It's time to get out on the football pitch again and try to put things right, because it was not a good weekend for us and it gets us back out there before the final."

Meekings recalled the moment when his manager had told him his appeal was successful.

"I was training at the time, and the manager came up to me and told me. At first it didn't really sink in - I was just concentrating on training. Then when we finished I went and asked him again to make sure that I heard right.

"You're always nervous, but I was fairly confident I would get something because I felt at the time it was a bit harsh. It was one of those things: the referee has made a mistake, and he's put his hands up and accepted that. I can only be thankful now that I'm able to play."

These measured words contrasted with the vigour of his manager's assertions.

So what was Yogi up to and does it go beyond unsettling Aberdeen? And was he trying to be smarter than the average bear?

Certainly, the the impression was of a manager piling pressure on opponents who are shouldering the burden of a heavy history of under-achievement. Hughes was content to stick to "specifics", with the sentiment that it is time that Inverness received the benefit of the doubt from referees. He also sought to be the mouthpiece for a support who feel mistreated by game schedulers and those who decide precisely where supporters sit on cup final day.

Crucially, and perhaps most importantly, he was also removing the pressure from his players. Opponents were blamed for fouls insufficiently punished, referees were cited for decisions that he claimed they would regret and administrators were slated.

What was left unspoken? How about their recent record that has seen them lose 5-0 in successive matches, losing goals of almost absurd provenance? What about the unmistakable appearance of a team lacking in confidence?

Hughes created a media storm yesterday. The ultimate success, though, of his strategy will come on Sunday. It will have little to do with words, everything to do with action.

The stramash in Strathpeffer must be followed by a calmness of purpose at Celtic Park.

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