Strategy in football has a curious way of setting its own trends. By its very nature, one manager’s plan will likely be successful only for a finite period, either before circumstances change or an opponent works out a successful counter to it. Football is rich with such instances at all levels, none more so than in Scotland over the last 20 years.
Leading examples are found with the Old Firm. Dick Advocaat’s arrival in Scotland in 1998 brought a return to an orthodox 4-4-2 for Rangers, after a handful of years when Walter Smith preferred to use three centre-backs at the twilight of the nine-in-a-row era, before being usurped by Wim Jansen’s Celtic. Advocaat’s strategy was an immediate success, with an emphasis on his Dutch full-backs Fernando Ricksen and Arthur Numan bringing the ball out of defence and providing quality in the final third. Rangers’ progress was hampered two years later when Martin O’Neill arrived at Celtic and bettered his rival. Celtic’s 3-5-2 was based on three dominating centre-backs, attacking wing-backs and a couple of dogged central midfielders to give Lubomir Moravcik the freedom to link with the forwards. O’Neill’s strategy trumped Advocaat’s, highlighted by the 6-2 win in the first derby of the season. Rangers got some form of revenge in a 5-1 win at Ibrox in November of that season, but Celtic won four of the five derbies and went six months unbeaten on the way to a domestic treble.
O’Neill was eventually tested by Advocaat’s successor Alex McLeish, who preferred a 4-3-3. When the sides met, Rangers’ mobile forwards left Celtic’s back three having to mark man-for-man, or rely on the wing-backs to pick up the wingers, leaving fewer numbers elsewhere; Celtic no longer had numerical advantage in defence nor midfield. Thus Rangers generally had the upper hand in matches between them in McLeish’s first 18 months, before Celtic’s strategy had to evolve further. The cause and effect of the use of different strategies and systems can be seen quite clearly from those four years in Glasgow.
One does not need to focus just on the Old Firm to find richness in the detail of different strategies used in Scotland, of course. Celtic made using three at the back seem like an easy thing to practise, but another club used their own interpretation of 3-5-2 and were fascinating to watch in the half-season it was used. Steve Paterson’s Inverness Caledonian Thistle infamously beat Celtic on their own turf in what was one of the biggest cup upsets in decades shortly before O’Neill’s reign, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that Caley Thistle really began to show their potential in league competition. In 2002/3, Paterson’s side finished fourth in the ten-team SFL First Division, 16 points behind champions Falkirk, but were in first place until the beginning of 2003, when a string of losses dropped them down to a position they couldn’t recover from. Inverness won the title the following season under John Robertson’s stewardship, but it was Paterson’s attack-minded side, typically put out in an enterprising, asymmetric 3-5-2 system, that first caught the eye and the admiration of the club’s followers.
There was something fixating about the balance of that particular team, which blended creativity, power and athleticism. The side had a strong central column, best personified by captain Bobby Mann, a burly sweeper who could turn slow possession to a quick change in direction and pace in an instant. Mann was 28 years old at the time and captained the side from a pivotal role, with either Stuart McCaffrey or Grant Munro – both in their early twenties – on one side of him and Stuart Golabek – who was a year younger – on the other. The back three were a relatively mobile but fundamentally strong unit. Yet the relative lack of experience at the time, by the standards of a potentially title-winning team, probably accounted for the amount of goals conceded as much as the team’s attacking bias did. Caley Thistle finished the league campaign with 74 goals scored, the second-most behind champions Falkirk, but their 45 goals conceded ended up being considerably more than St Johnstone, Clyde and Falkirk who all finished above them.
The team was also well defined by the starkly contrasting styles of their wing-backs. Ross Tokely was 23 years old at the time but already had the experience of playing through the lower leagues (eventually to the top flight), in six years with the club. At 6’3”, with broad, high shoulders and a swimmer’s Y-shape build, Tokely would seem at first glance to suit a centre-back role more than a position that is typically suited to tricky, pacey players with skill to match endurance. What Tokely sometimes missed in technique he made up for by his sheer athleticism, which allowed him to often dominate a flank on his own. Tokely is more recently known for being a lumbering defender who could power through almost any opposition, but whose lack of pace occasionally showed a clumsiness that betrayed his anticipation. However, he should be better remembered for the marauding runs that he often made from a deep wing-back position at the beginning of the century, and the deceptively quick top speed that he had.
Talking to The Pele Podcast about the players that fitted within Steve Paterson’s 3-5-2 system, Bobby Mann was complimentary toward his former team-mate. “Ross would say himself that he became a better player the older and more wise he became,” Mann says. “Ross didn’t set up as many goals as Barry Robson did, but we didn’t concede as many goals coming down Ross’s side. Ross was obviously not as skilful as Barry, but he won a lot of headers at the back post, we got a lot of second balls and knockdowns from that and we scored a fair amount of goals as a result”. Tokely only scored five goals during the 2002-03 season, but the threat of arriving late to get on to a cross beyond the back post was a big asset to the team.
Tokely couldn’t have been much more different in style to Barry Robson. Whereas Tokely would look to dominate the opposition by his physical power, Robson was arguably the most technically gifted player in the team and was the chief creator of chances. A cantankerous character who recently retired from first team football at Aberdeen – with the ignominy of being the player who has collected the most red cards in the top flight in the post-SPL era – he knew how to look after himself on the football pitch like the rest of his Inverness team. Perhaps an attitude held him back in his early years, but he developed into a player who would play in the Champions League and for his country. “Everybody knew he had lots of ability and talent,” Mann reminisces. “It was just getting the best out of him at the best time. Probably to this day, Barry is the best crosser of the ball I have had the privilege to play beside”.
Robson’s quality of his deliveries was important in a side that included the veteran striker Paul Ritchie, who scored 21 goals in all competitions that season, including four league hat-tricks. Whereas Dennis Wyness did most of the running for the strike partnership and caused such a nuisance with his cunning one-touch play and ability to score in a multitude of ways, Ritchie’s position in the team was as more of a penalty-box striker and he took up a more central position, allowing the ball to stick to bring Wyness and others into the game.
Paterson didn’t immediately settle on the favoured 3-5-2, instead starting the season with a 4-4-2 shape that had Tokely and Golabek as the full-backs and Christie playing as a deep forward, behind Wyness. A resounding 4-0 win away at Love Street in late August showed a hint of what was to come, against a St Mirren side that included household names such as Sergei Baltacha, Hugh Murray and Junior Mendes. Robson helped blitz the opposition into a three-goal deficit with barely a quarter of the match gone, Robson’s second goal was a particular delight: he pounced on to a loose ball from Christie to be left one-on-one against the St Mirren defence, where his dribbling left his marker falling unbalanced on to the ground before his shot from 16 yards found the bottom corner of the goal. It was a convincing win but Paterson’s post-match emphasis was on the team keeping a clean sheet, telling the press that goalkeeper Mark Brown was too good for the division he was in.
For most of his time at Inverness, Paterson used 4-4-2 and geared his strategy toward stretching teams with width. However, a knee operation for David Bagan left Paterson without a specialist winger for the beginning of the 2002/03 season. With Charlie Christie picking up a calf injury during the St Mirren match, the circumstances suited a change to picking two strikers but keeping three central midfielders. The 3-5-2 just fell into place.
“It takes a wee bit of time but the change in system was about trying to get the best out of all of the players that Steve had at his disposal,” Mann says of his former manager’s decision to alter his strategy. “He was very good at fitting players into systems and trying to get the best out of everybody,” he continues, citing how Paterson harvested Mann’s own potential.
“I played as the spare man most of the time, so it gave me a lot of time to sweep things up and read the game more than the other two defenders, and get on the ball from the back. It was always part of my game to do that, but at Inverness it was a big park. Steve always wanted to play with wide players, so we were looking to stretch teams. It was important to be able to switch the play quickly and hit teams on the break.” Few in the division were as good at doing so and it seemed that the whole team set-up played to the captain’s strengths.
Paterson’s 3-5-2 made its debut in the next league match, a 3-1 win over Queen of the South, in a fixture notable for veteran Doonhamers goalkeeper Andy Goram going off with an injury after 30 minutes. This was followed by a thumping 5-0 win against Arbroath, of which the Highland News declared the performance to be “as professional a 90 minutes as you could wish to see in Division One”. Robson was once again the chief creator through set-pieces and open play, but Paterson insisted on praising the team for defending solidly and working harder for each other than ever before.
As was typical with Paterson’s management, a winning team brought a settled line-up, which, from September to December, resembled close to the following on a week-by-week basis: Mark Brown; Grant Munro, Robert Mann, Stuart Golabek; Ross Tokely, Russell Duncan, Richard Hard, Roy McBain, Barry Robson; Dennis Wyness, Paul Ritchie.
A surprise 0-3 defeat to Alan Kernaghan’s Clyde was blamed by the Highland News on “a lack of bite, slack passing and haphazard defending”. Tokely’s absence through injury meant that ICT could only field four of five substitutes allowed, with youngster Tony Low taking his place. Low was praised for his efforts but it was simply a match where things just didn’t go Caley Thistle’s way and where Clyde had taken their chances, with Colin Nish scoring a double. Indeed, Paterson wasn’t despondent. “We came into this match after a terrific run, playing the best football I’ve seen from my side in all the time I’ve been with the club,” the manager considered.
Paterson kept faith with the same team, which beat Ayr United 2-0 in their next match, thanks to a goal each from Ritchie and Wyness. Ritchie’s partnership with Wyness improved with every game and their ability to link was best highlighted by the opening goal of their next game, a 6-0 thrashing of Alloa Athletic in the second of what would be an eight-match winning streak that took Caley Thistle to the top of the league (a run that extended to 12 matches unbeaten). Wyness had pulled out to the right flank to send in a cross that was headed clear, only for central midfielders Roy McBain and Russell Duncan to recycle the ball before starting the move again through Mann at the back. Mann saw space ahead of him to push forward with the ball 20 yards until he was on the fringe of the final third, then stroked a cute pass into Ritchie’s feet as the forward backed into his defender. Ritchie’s first touch took the ball to his right slightly, but his second touch allowed him to get the ball from out of his feet, to allow him to drag on to his right foot, feint a shot and strike the ball low into the far corner. It was a noteworthy goal due to the individual brilliance in finishing the move, but it involved some of the best aspects of Caley Thistle’s performance during the autumn season, from Wyness’s work outside the box, to the functional, if not spectacular nature of the centre of midfield, to Mann’s ability to dictate play from the back.
The third goal happened largely due to a typical surge forward from midfield by Richard Hart, who at the time wore the number 9 shirt but his position on the pitch was the third central midfielder, with more responsibility than the others to attack the penalty area. Hart was 24 years old at the time and was in his first season at Caley Thistle, having previously played for Ross County and Brora Rangers. Club legend Charlie Christie was in the twilight of his career, playing in rotation in his last full season due to Hart’s form, so with McBain and Duncan settling well into the line-up as understated players, who worked hard at winning the ball back and moving it on without fuss, it was important for Paterson to find the correct balance to give the midfield some thrust. Hart was the right player in the right place in that regard and his £5,000 transfer fee for him was justified. Hart’s attacking instincts were countered by Duncan and McBain curbing theirs; 22-year-old Duncan would eventually specialise in a holding midfield position, while left-footed McBain would often pull out to the flank, to cover for Robson’s tendency to drift infield in the final third. The three midfielders complemented one another remarkably well.
The best goal of the game was finished by Ritchie again, in a match where both he and Wyness scored hat-tricks. It was the fourth goal scored, where Robson drifted over to the right flank, carried the ball forward and took two Alloa defenders out of the play with a thoughtfully-weighted reverse pass into Ritchie’s path, after the forward had bent his run from left to the right side of the penalty area. Ritchie’s touch took him outside the box, but he somehow contorted his body to rifle a shot into the top corner of the opposite side of goal in an extraordinary show of marksmanship.
The 6-0 win over Alloa was a record–breaking win for the First Division at the time and Caley Thistle’s position at the top of the second tier was the club’s best to that point. It was followed by a 2-1 win at home to St Johnstone at the end of October, after which the Highland News exclaimed: “Don’t be fooled by the scoreline, because the difference in class was there for all to see, with St Johnstone never looking likely winners”. Hart scored the winning goal with a spectacular thumping shot and the midfielder explained it modestly: “I glanced up and saw Alan Main had covered his angles, so I thought the only way I could beat him was to blast it, and I was delighted to see it hit the back of the net”.
Caley Thistle won 2-0 in Dingwall, with Robson dribbling beyond two players and scoring from 25 yards past Tony Bullock within 40 seconds of kick-off. Ross County manager Neale Cooper resigned on Monday after the game, having failed to build on his 15-match unbeaten run from the end of the previous season. The Highland Derby victory was followed by a 5-3 win over Queen of the South; then 2-1 and 1-0 wins over Arbroath and Clyde respectively took Caley Thistle to the top of the league by the beginning of December.
Given the success that Paterson had with Inverness, taking them through the divisions, the famous cup win at Celtic, having his team challenging and leading the division with a series of convincing performances, it wasn’t a surprise to see the manager linked with clubs in the top flight. Dundee United were turned down in November, but Ebbe Skovdahl’s departure from Pittodrie gave Paterson a job opportunity that he couldn’t refuse. Paterson tried to play down speculation in the press, but ominously told the Highland News a week before taking the job that “you would have to listen to any opportunity that would better yourself”.
Until that point, Paterson seemed content in Inverness, but perhaps the club’s circumstances played a part in his move. By the week ending 2 November 2002, after the win against St Johnstone, it was clear that Caley Thistle were not going to be able to gain promotion to the SPL even if they won the league. At that time the criteria for inclusion demanded a 10,000 all-seater stadium, something which the club simply did not have the funds for. Paterson reacted to the situation with dignity, claiming that he and his players knew all along what the circumstances were, and that he hoped to be able to take the same team to promotion in the near future when the club was ready. The SPL’s rules were later relaxed, but perhaps the glass ceiling that Caley Thistle hit at the time had a bearing on Paterson’s immediate future.
There was speculation that Paterson and his assistant Duncan Shearer would commit to the club for the long term, but they joined Aberdeen on 11 December 2002. John Robertson and his assistant Donald Park left their posts at Livingston to replace Paterson and Duncan in Inverness.
A couple of draws and then a 4-1 win over St Mirren saw Caley Thistle go into the new year as league leaders, but 2003 didn’t start well for the new management team. Robertson didn’t want to disrupt the winning formula too much, but one loss in the league turned into four on the bounce, which by the end of February saw the Caley Jags ten points behind Falkirk. It was a sticky patch that the team never recovered from, despite thumping Hamilton Academical 6-1 in the Scottish Cup in between league losses. The most chastening result was a 5-1 loss at home to Ross County, which is still a record scoreline for the Highland Derby since both clubs were admitted to the Scottish Football League in 1994. More significant to Caley Thistle’s season however was a second defeat to Falkirk a fortnight earlier.
The 4-3 defeat at home to Falkirk was notable for both teams lining up in 3-5-2 formations. While the majority of the division was comfortable with 4-4-2, so each team enjoyed success from being able to have superior numbers in midfield, while still being able to field a clutch of regular goalscorers. Against each other, Falkirk generally had the upper hand through the season. It is difficult to pinpoint a defining reason why that was the case, because Caley Thistle gave as good as they got, but a recurring theme was Colin Samuel being quicker than anyone else on the pitch, which turned the Caley Thistle defenders and prompted errors that otherwise might not have occurred. Owen Coyle also made a difference, scoring a hat-trick in this match despite starting as an advanced midfielder, rather than as the penalty-box striker he was better known as.
Robertson’s approach to drilling the team was more cautious and that began to show by this match, despite what the scoreline suggests. Under Paterson, the team had more licence to express itself, perhaps at the expense of more goals conceded. Robertson wanted the team to give less territory away, on the premise that the attacking talent could look after itself.
“We probably didn’t play with as much freedom as we used to, we were maybe more tactical and a little bit more difficult to beat,” Mann says when comparing the two managers’ approaches. “No disrespect to Steve, he would give us tactics but it wasn’t the same detail that John gave.”
“Everyone knew where they stood with John, it was drummed into us”.
The significance of the fixture with Falkirk was not lost on either team and neither side wanted to give a yard of territory to the opposition. The ball was in the air a lot as a result. Three of the seven goals scored on the day arrived as a result of diagonal balls from the back, over the opposition line of defence.
Caley Thistle found themselves with a two-goal lead inside half an hour, firstly from an aerial pass out of defence to the strikers, who linked up before Robson swivelled to shoot; and secondly after a long pass was miscontrolled by John Hughes, whose studs allowed the ball to squirm through to Wyness. A Coyle header from a looping cross brought to the score to 2-1 almost immediately after. Hughes then launched a long ball over the Caley Thistle defence, where the bounce stood up for Golabek to head back to Brown in goals, only for Samuel to anticipate the move and intercept for the equaliser.
Caley Thistle were on top by the hour mark with Wyness assisting Ritchie, but the one real piece of ingenuity in the match came from the spritely 20-year old Mark Kerr, who weighted a through ball behind Stuart McCaffrey (by then playing regularly instead of Munro) for Samuel, whose fleet-footedness allowed him to escape the back three and cross for an onrushing Coyle. That shifted the momentum to Falkirk’s advantage; Coyle’s left-footed volley four minutes from full-time gave the visitors a win and a commanding position in the league table.
With a string of losses in the league and a grip on the title slipping away, Robertson moved the team to a 4-4-2 system in March. Paterson’s 3-5-2 fitted the squad well earlier in the season, but David Bagan’s return from a long-term injury gave Robertson a more natural fit for an alternative approach, with Tokely and Golabek comfortable in the full-back positions and Bagan bringing width high up the pitch. Steven Hislop’s arrival from Ross County at the end of January marked the advent of Scottish football’s first winter transfer window, and he provided competition for Ritchie as the goalscoring target man. All three of Wyness, Ritchie and Hislop ended the season on roughly a goal every other game.
The transition to Robertson’s strategy began to work. Caley Thistle went from losing four in a row in January to picking up 13 of 15 points in March, which gave the team an outside chance to overtake St Johnstone and catch up on Falkirk. However, the fourth away trip in a row – and third midweek fixture in three weeks – saw the Caley Jags falter massively at Clyde. In this instance, Robertson elected to play McCaffrey at right-back and Tokely in front of him, to add further steel into the team with two banks of four. However, Clyde still blew the visitors away with three goals in the first 16 minutes, two of those coming from errors by each full-back, and the other coming from a 30-yard blast in off the post by Andy Millen. The loss away to Clyde sparked a sequence of erratic form, with four losses in six matches, including another midweek reverse to Clyde.
It left Caley Thistle stuck in fourth place, with a visit to a packed Brockville against the confirmed champions Falkirk for the hosts’ title party. Without any particular element of importance to the fixture, the ball spent a lot less time in the air than in Falkirk’s 4-3 win in Inverness earlier in the year. With vibrant mid-May weather and a party atmosphere among the home support, it made an entertaining spectacle. One striking theme from footage of the match was just how composed and influential Mark Kerr looked, despite being the youngest player on the park. Stuart Taylor scored a couple for Falkirk, but the game is best remembered for a couple of free-kicks by Mann, both of which were equalisers before Christie closed the scoring. The first of Mann’s free-kicks was in a central area 22 yards out and was aimed to the inside of Allan Ferguson’s left-hand post, but deflected off the wall considerably to end up in the other side of the goal. There was no such luck in Mann’s second: the centre-back ushered Hart away from the dead ball before nonchalantly stroking the ball over the wall from a minimal run-up. There was so much top and side spin over the wall that the shot almost bounced the line, into the far-right corner of Ferguson’s goal. There have been few free-kicks scored as expertly as that in Scotland’s lower leagues since.
It was a good note to end the campaign, then, but the season was one of missed potential. Perhaps if Steve Paterson had stayed to the end of the season, the unbeaten run from October to December might have carried on through the new year. It is difficult to believe that Caley Thistle would have lost so many league matches in succession had Paterson and his assistant remained at the club. The club lost four in a row in December 2001, but Paterson’s squad had a year’s more experience, and, more importantly, a system that seemed to suit every player in the team. Whether it was the transition in training methods, change in personality of leadership, increased tactical detail or the integration of different players, the subtle differences to the team after Paterson’s departure had an effect that resulted in Caley Thistle falling down the table.
However, they won the First Division the following season. Robertson used his recent connection with Livingston to effect, bringing back Barry Wilson to the club and, crucially, tempted Davie Bingham north. Whereas Paterson generally relied on the same XI from week to week, Robertson had a lot of depth and competition through his squad. Robertson stayed away from Paterson’s attack-minded 3-5-2, preferring to use Wilson and Bingham on the sides of a 4-3-3, which would allow the team to defend with a unit of seven yet also cut teams open with flair and pace. Robertson’s title winning side made history, being the first club from the Highlands to win promotion to SPL, but hindsight possibly frames Paterson’s team from the previous season in a more romantic aperture. Paterson’s side was dynamic, with a playmaking sweeper and lots of thrust and creativity in support of the forwards. Players complemented and played for one another. It is a moot point, because the potential was extracted for only a handful of months, but maybe the side that played between August and December 2002 should be viewed as among the club’s best ever.
Special thanks to Neil Sargent at STV for arranging access to archive footage.