THE first Scottish Cup semi-final between Falkirk and Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Hampden on Saturday is, due to the size of the clubs involved and an unfortunate kick-off time, not going to break any competition attendance records.

With Glasgow behemoths Celtic and Rangers meeting each other in the other last four match 24 hours later, too, the encounter has been dismissed by many as nothing more than a runners-up play-off.

Yet, excitement in the capital of the Highlands as the on-form Championship outfit prepare to take on their League One rivals is considerable all the same.

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Billy Dodds, the Caledonian Thistle manager, took part in the Inverness Fun Football Festival, an initiative run by the SFA in conjunction with McDonald’s, at the Caledonian Stadium on Sunday and was struck by the sense of anticipation among the fans who attended. “Everyone there was wanting to ask me about the semi-final,” he said. “The interest was huge. It was great to see the smiles on their faces.”

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The former Chelsea, Dundee, Aberdeen, Rangers, Dundee United and Scotland striker and Ross County assistant has been to the national stadium on more occasions as a player and a coach than the club he is currently in charge of have during their 29 year existence. He has enjoyed his fair share of successes there too.

This outing, though, is one to savour for him as well. The 2022/23 campaign has been challenging for Dodds and no mistake.

Having reached the Premiership play-off final last season, hopes were high his team could clinch promotion to the top flight at the start of this term. But he had so few players at his disposal at one stage he was forced to ask the SPFL, in vain as it turned out, if he could recall kids from Highland League loan spells.

The worst injury crisis he had ever encountered in all of his decades in the professional game did not stop him from coming under intense pressure from the stands when results dried up. He was fortunate to remain in his job. So to see his side play in the Scottish Cup semi-final, even against third tier opponents in front of a crowd of little over 10,000, will be sweet.

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“Some people don’t want to listen,” he said. “If your team doesn’t win games then you aren’t good enough. But there was a valid reason why we weren’t winning. Sure enough, since getting players back, we have gone on a good run (Caledonian Thistle have won six and drawn one of their last seven league games and moved into contention for a play-off spot).

“In the SPFL Trust Trophy (against Hamilton in December) I put out a team of kids because we just couldn’t take the chance on putting out first team players. I was hardly able to put a team out at times. We had half, probably more, of our squad out. No business could operate properly like that.

“The way we have fought back from adversity has been satisfying, absolutely. We have been through a lot. Every day is a learning day in football. It doesn’t matter how long you have been in it. It has been a brilliant experience.

“It has been a humungous effort from all the boys. Everybody has played their part. There has been physical and mental tiredness in recent weeks and we have handled that as well.  But we now have to complete the job – by getting into the cup final and the play-offs.”

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It was announced that Caledonian Thistle had made a loss of £835,751 before tax in the last financial year back in February. Dodds has been happy to do his bit to bolster their coffers by steering his team through to the semi-final. He is well aware that prevailing this weekend will have huge ramifications for the club off the park in a difficult economic climate. 

“This run has been a great thing for the club,” he said. “It is not my remit to get involved in that side of things. But you can’t hide from the situation. The numbers did not make for great reading. But I can help with it. Getting out of the Premier Sports Cup group stages, getting to the Scottish Cup semi-final and hopefully getting though to the play-offs brings in money. It really helps.”

Caledonian Thistle, who only progressed to the last 16 after Queen’s Park were found to have fielded an ineligible player in the 2-0 defeat they suffered at home at the hands of their league rivals in the fourth round in January, have overcome Livingston and Kilmarnock to get to the semi-final. But Dodds is by no means underestimating Falkirk.

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“They are a good team,” he said. “They have a few of our former players, Coll Donaldson, Kai Kennedy, Brad McKay. They were pushing Dunfermline all the way for the League One title there. They beat Ayr United to get here. So we know they can beat Championship opposition. They are dangerous rivals.

“We’re not going into it with overconfidence. But we have some confidence and a lot of momentum. I know if my players turn up on the day we have got a great opportunity. That doesn’t mean anything is guaranteed. But we have shown what we can do against Premiership opposition this season. I want that sort of performance.”

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Dodds invariably produced the goods in semi-finals during his time as a player. He scored a double for Aberdeen in their 2-1 win over Rangers in the League Cup semi-final in 1995 and a hat-trick as Rangers thrashed Ayr United 7-0 in the penultimate round of the Scottish Cup in 2000. But he will not be reminiscing about his past glories to his charges in the coming days.

“Yes, I have some great memories of Hampden,” he said. “But it ain’t about me. It is my players who have to handle the day. I wouldn’t dare say to my players ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done that’. I want them to grab the moment and make their own memories. It’s their time to become heroes and get Caley to the final.”

Billy Dodds is not looking any further ahead than the Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk at the moment. But he knows that if Inverness Caledonian Thistle do progress then it will be foolish to write them off against either Celtic or Rangers.  They have certainly silenced their doubters in recent months.  

“I would love it to be a packed stadium on Saturday, but that is not going to be the case,” he said. “But it is just about getting there. We will take a few thousand fans down and enjoy the occasion. If we win, we can give anybody a game.”

Billy Dodds was speaking at the McDonald’s Fun Football Festival in Inverness celebrating free fun football coaching for 5–11-year-olds across Scotland. Find your nearest Fun Football session at: