ROSS County and Caley Thistle will play a Highland derby next week – with all gate receipts going to charity.
A friendly between the two sides will be played at County’s Global Energy Stadium on Wednesday night at 7pm, with the £5 entry fees going to Maggie’s Highlands.
It will be the first meeting between the two sides since Caley Thistle’s relegation in May, bringing an end to five seasons of top-flight derby fixtures.
Both sides are likely to field strong teams, with players needing game-time on both sides of the Kessock Bridge.
Christopher Routis and Tony Dingwall played in the Staggies’ 4-3 Development League win over Motherwell yesterday, while ICT boss John Robertson needs to get games for Aaron Doran and Zack Elbouzedi on their return from injuries.
County manager Owen Coyle spoke to his Inverness counterpart Robertson and assistant Brian Rice to formalise arrangements for the fixture. “We’ve not had a derby this season and it will be a great opportunity for everybody,” said Coyle.
“The players and clubs will benefit, but all proceeds will go to Maggie’s, so everyone’s a winner. I hope everyone will come out to support the game and the entrance fee is a fiver, which is brilliant.
“Do you get friendly derbies? I don’t know if you do, but I hope people come and support it and the proceeds are going to such a wonderful place.
“Apart from how feisty the derby can be, the supporters know there’s a huge benefit to the charity. We’ve all been touched by things like that over the years. Hopefully there will be huge numbers for what should be a wonderful occasion.”
Coyle is a former colleague of Caley Thistle assistant Rice from their time at Falkirk, and he had conversations with Robertson over the summer while he was trying to assemble a new squad.
He has backed the pair to make a success of this season after a rocky start to life in the Championship for the Caley Jags.
“We want all the local teams to thrive and do well. All credit to them – they’ve had a tough run of games and turned it round. Momentum is a huge thing and hopefully they’re starting to get that now,” said Coyle. “Everyone needs to be given time to implement their own ideas and put their stamp on things. I’ve got no doubt that they’ll be a success there.”
Before the derby, however, County have the small matter of a home game against in-form Motherwell to contend with on Saturday, with Coyle looking to take back-to-back home wins into the international break.
Of last week’s 2-1 defeat to Aberdeen at Pittodrie, Coyle felt it was an opportunity missed. Michael Gardyne shot the Staggies in front early on against the Reds in what many believe could have been the last match before their manager Derek McInnes takes over at Rangers.
But a swift reply from former Caley Jags ace Ryan Christie, on loan from Celtic, made it 1-1 and Kenny McLean buried a second half spot kick when Graeme Shinnie was challenged illegally in the box by Jamie Lindsay.
The defeat ahead of tomorrow’s home league clash against Motherwell leaves County in eighth position – four points behind Hearts and three points clear of basement duo Dundee and Kilmarnock.
Coyle said: “Aberdeen are the best team we have faced in my five games so far. They are a really good side and Kenny McLean and Ryan Christie are wonderful players. We felt a wee bit frustrated afterwards that we didn’t take a point.
“We had to work hard against a team with very good midfielders, good attacking players and good pace.
“We kept pushing on and in the last 25 minutes we were the aggressors on the counter-attack. We hemmed them in for large periods without getting the killer ball we needed.
“We were nearly on the end of a couple of lovely balls from Sean Kelly, and we forced several corners and put them under pressure. We stood toe-to-toe with a very good team and showed we are progressing in the right way.
“It’s always difficult to say that when you have not taken points on the back of it, but that shouldn’t alter how good our level of performance was. The boys coped well with what they had to deal with, and on another day we could certainly have been leaving there with a point.”
Coyle says his players know what they need to do in order to improve. He said: “You learn a lot every day but you learn most when you play the games.
“As much as you are looking for things in training, you want that natural progression into matches.
“That’s when you find out who is at the level needed to move the club forward and make us better.
“It was a wonderful equaliser from Ryan Christie, although we could have dealt with the initial build-up before Ryan unleashed a candidate for goal of the season. We could have put more pressure on him so he could not get that shot away.
While winning matters most, Coyle says it’s vital Staggies supporters are going home on the back of being entertained.
He stressed: “We want to win games but equally we want to be an attacking team that’s pleasing on the eye. Jason Naismith and Sean Kelly, for example, did very well at Aberdeen and they have a lot to offer.
“They are both strong and athletic lads who can go up and down the park. When we get the crosses in we have to make sure we have enough players in the box to be on the end of them.
“The players recognise what it takes to do that, so it is very much work in progress, but there are signs that we are getting better.”