John Hughes: This is as good as it gets

John Hughes kisses the Scottish Cup trophy. Pic: SNS
John Hughes kisses the Scottish Cup trophy. Pic: SNS
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Both sides of John Hughes’ character were evident deep in the bowels of Hampden Park as he digested Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s first Scottish Cup triumph. “I’ve always been a dreamer. I’ve always had great belief in what I can do and the style of football we play.”

That ambition has driven Inverness to the finest season in their 21-year history: Third in the Premiership, a European place and Scottish Cup winners after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Falkirk. Hughes is also realistic, though. The Edinburgh-born manager knows it can’t get any better for a Highland club that belongs very much in the provincial bracket.

“Can we go any better than this? No, I don’t think we can if I’m being a realist. But it doesn’t stop you setting standards and keep driving the club forward. A big part of leadership for me is: ‘Get a taste of it and really enjoy it.’ Then you want it again and again.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t think we’ll ever go and achieve what we did this year. It’s been a remarkable season. I asked everybody to sign up for it at the start of the season: ‘What you going to do to be a winner?’ They really have taken it on board.

“You’re always the underdogs at Inverness, you just have to keep it going and dig it out, siege mentality, all that stuff. We just get on with it. When you’re up there, we’ve not got too much. Sometimes you’re scrimping and scraping. What it does is bring a real spirit together and the boys get stuck in.

“When there’s not much money going about, you see people in it for the love of the game and they put their heart and soul into it. Guys like John Docherty (kitman) and Tommy Cumming (groundsman). I’m quite sure Scott Kellacher (first-team coach) said: ‘If we win the Scottish Cup, I’ll put my mankini on. So we’re looking for that to happen.”

Hughes’ mixture of raw humour and sheer endeavour has etched his name in folklore at the Caledonian Stadium. Just as every Aberdeen manager for the last 30 years has been compared with Sir Alex Ferguson, each incoming Inverness boss will now be tasked with matching Hughes’ achievements this season.

Throughout his time managing Falkirk, Hibs, Livingston and Hartlepool United, Hughes has had a habit of over-achieving. But never on this scale. Around 15,000 Inverness supporters travelled south on Saturday to witness the club’s greatest triumph. They hailed Hughes as something of a messiah at the end as he paraded the cup with his twin daughters, Victoria and Jessica.

“I never get a big ego,” he said. “I just love being involved in football, not just winning Scottish Cups and doing what we’re doing. Through it all, the style of football we played is my biggest buzz. Seeing our boys take it on board and implement it. Not in the second half, though.”

His team’s performance at Hampden was far from vintage, particularly after the break. Falkirk dominated the second period having arrived at the interval 1-0 down to Marley Watkins’ goal. A red card to Carl Termarco for denying Blair Alston a clear goalscoring opportunity reduced Inverness to ten men. They began to buckle under relentless pressure. Peter Grant’s header from Blair Alston’s cross brought Falkirk an equaliser ten minutes from time. Then the roofed caved in on Peter Houston’s side.

If any team looked like scoring a winner, it was Falkirk. Until David McCracken misjudged a bouncing ball under pressure from Watkins. He escaped the defender and drove forward to shoot, relatively tamely, at Jamie MacDonald. The goalkeeper dived to his left for what seemed a routine save. However, he could only push the ball out to the Inverness substitute James Vincent, who gratefully tapped the winner into the net with four minutes remaining.

“We talked about going down to ten men and about how we’d handle it,” said Hughes. “I’ve never prepared for a game like I prepared for this one. Usually it takes me two or three days. This one took me two weeks to get it spot on. We were not bad in the first half, without being ruthless, but in the second half we were absolutely murder.

“All credit to Falkirk, we didn’t play in the second half.

“James Vincent went back to right back after the red card and we went 4-4-1 but I felt we had nothing up front. We put Marley back up front and it worked for us. Marley hit the shot and how Vincent got up from right-back to tap it in I don’t know. Honestly.”

Vincent had made a 95-yard run from his own penalty area to convert the winning goal as Inverness formed a classic counter-attack in the dying minutes. “Right after the goal, I grabbed him and told him to get into people,” said Hughes. “When you score, you’re full of emotions and you’re all over the place and you forget to concentrate. All those scenarios are stuff we worked on. If we score a goal, what are we going to do, what’s our set up, don’t have your head in the clouds because we need to go again.”

Inverness saw the game out and captain Graeme Shinnie lifted their first ever Scottish Cup in his final game before he joins Aberdeen. “I’ve not had a drink for about ten years. When I get a drink in me, I get too excited,” continued Hughes. “I don’t usually milk it but the last Scottish Cup final I was involved in was 2008 against Rangers. ‘Go and enjoy it,’ that’s what I said to the players.”

Houston could only lament a day of disappointment for Falkirk, who were by some distance the better team in the second period. The impressive Will Vaulks had several attempts at goal, others narrowly failed to connect with crosses as chances went abegging. “I’m really disappointed for the players,” said Houston. “Inverness were 1-0 ahead quite comfortably in the first half and we probably showed them too much respect. They’ve had a magnificent 
season but we changed it at half-time and believed in ourselves and we were dominant.

“We got the equaliser and I thought only one team was going to win it. Inverness players were going down with cramp. We had guys in tears because of the second goal we lost. David slipped and Jamie is disappointed with his part in it. These guys have been brilliant for us this season, though. I’ve got nothing but praise for the players. I’m absolutely gutted for them and the supporters.

“If we’d lost 3-0 or 4-0 without having a go, I couldn’t have lived with myself. That’s why we changed it at half-time, to show them I believe in the players. They took the game to Inverness brilliantly in the second half and got a superb headed goal from Peter Grant. I thought we deserved more if I’m being honest.”

Inverness CT (4-2-3-1): Esson; Shinnie, Devine, Meekings, Tremarco; Draper, Tansey; Christie (Vincent 72), Ofere, Doran (Williams 78); Watkins (Ross 93). Unused subs: Horner, Polworth, Kink, Mackay.

Falkirk (4-2-3-1): MacDonald; Duffie, McCracken, Grant, Leahy; Vaulks, Taiwo; Alston, Sibbald, Smith (Biabi 63); Loy (Morgan 95). Unused subs: Muirhead, Bowman, Dick, Cooper, Mair.

Referee: Willie Collum

Attendance: 37,149