The biggest derby in Scottish football next season is not going to be between the Old Firm, Celtic and Rangers are still a league apart. It’s probably not going to be the Edinburgh derby either, with Hearts’ relegation to the Championship and the unlikely prospect of Hibs joining them. Unless Dundee are promoted to the Premiership, or Ross County fall foul of the relegation play-off, it will be the Highland Derby between County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle. This rivalry has come a long way from its roots in the old Highland League and has much more significance to it than the mainstream media and football fans of the South recognise.
The “Cold Firm” derby between ICT and Ross County began only twenty years ago, when the Inverness team were formed by a merger of two of the city’s football clubs: Caledonian and Inverness Thistle. Those two teams had themselves been rivals in the Highland League, but were amalgamated under the guidance of the Highland Council who were looking to gain a representative for the Highlands in the Scottish Football League for the first time as two new places became available because of league reconstruction. This new team, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, were elected, but so too were a team familiar to them as former Highland League adversaries from only 13 miles away: Ross County.
The Highland League rivalry between Caledonian and Thistle might well have been stronger than that of Ross County’s with their chosen adversary Caledonian. The old County / Caley derby came and went in fits and bursts, generally only when both sides were fighting at the precipice of the Highland League such as in the late 60s, early 70s and in the 90s. The Inverness teams though were undoubtedly up against each other, fighting for supremacy of the city alongside the occasional challenge from Clachnacuddin. Despite their rivalry though, the boards of both clubs decided that they should answer the Council’s call and join forces to bring senior league football to the Highland capital. The merger between the two teams was a decision that many supporters of both Caledonian and Thistle decried and couldn’t believe. Thistle fans felt particularly hard done by; losing their traditional home ground in the process. They were now sharing their team with the enemy. This paved the way for many disenfranchised Invernesians to look across the Kessock Bridge for a football team to support that wouldn’t treat them this way. Many of Ross County’s current supporters now hail from Inverness and it was claimed that in their first season in the SPL that there were more Ross County season ticket holders from Inverness than ICT had. Whether this claim was true or not has never been substantiated, but the rumour certainly would appear to have some basis in fact. The bitterness of the Inverness club’s formation is still a bone of contention between fans today.
As both Highland sides entered the Third Division their derby was formed from the old one between Caledonian and Ross County with the added spice of Invernesian fans opposing their old teams’ new form. Crowds for even the first Highland Derbies were exceedingly good for the Third Division, with both clubs’ average attendances of between 500 and 1500 being at least doubled if not more when the derby came around. There was an atmosphere about the games that proved that the rivalry between the teams wasn’t just conjured up because the teams needed one but that it was genuine. Although games between the two teams didn’t necessarily flaunt the finest technical ability that Scottish football had to offer – they were generally interesting affairs.
These features of the Highland Derby still ring true today as both clubs face each other in Scottish football’s highest echelon. Matches between the two sides still attract some of the highest attendances for both clubs of the season. The fixture is now regularly picked up by broadcaster BT Sport to be televised nationally and has a habit of being a high-scoring affair for the cameras, at least when the floodlights stay on.