A draw would have been enough.
Broadwood Stadium. Saturday 8 May 2004. Somewhere around 4:35pm. Clyde 1-1 Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Both clubs might have still had one game remaining, but this was the First Division title-decider.
It really shouldn’t have come to this.
For the best part, the 2003-04 First Division championship was an open contest with Falkirk and St Johnstone offering a credible title challenge alongside Clyde and Caley Thistle. Falkirk, the previous year’s champions, had been denied promotion to the SPL due to the dilapidated condition of Brockville and spent the season groundsharing with Stenhousemuir at Ochilview. Despite the departures of the influential Mark Kerr, Collin Samuel and Lee Miller, they kept pace at the summit of the table until an indifferent run of form from the beginning of March saw them quietly fall behind. Billy Stark’s St Johnstone, meanwhile, were entering a transitional phase, and their campaign was eventually undone by four points from their final six matches.
With ten games remaining, leaders Clyde enjoyed a nine point lead over Inverness. Promotion for either team, however, was far from guaranteed. SPL criteria dictated that all stadia must have a 10,000 capacity, something neither club could provide (a decade on, such a rule seems bizarrely archaic). Both clubs had also submitted plans to groundshare, but a similar proposal from Falkirk 12 months earlier – a proposal that would have seen the club spend part of the SPL season at Airdrie United’s New Broomfield – had been flatly rejected.
Neverless, Clyde’s lead was seemingly unassailable. Alan Kernaghan had assembled a strong, combative team. Despite his advancing years, Kernaghan also played a crucial role in his side’s solidity, making up part of a backline alongside Mark McLaughlin and Simon Mensing (both are still playing with Greenock Morton and Livingston respectively). The midfield was composed of former Rangers winger David Hagan, Aston Villa loanee Colin Marshall and Jimmy Gibson, while Ian Harty and Andy Smith, the jug-lugged forward best remembered for his five seasons with Dunfermline Athletic, made up the classic “little ‘n’ large” attacking partnership.
It was just as well the Bully Wee were as impressive on the pitch, because they were a shambles off it. Despite moving to Broadwood in 1994, the club were unable to mobilise a supporter base from Cumbernauld’s 50,000 residents. With finances in a perilous position, promotion (and its prospective fiscal gains) was critical.
Caley Thistle, meanwhile, had developed into a very capable side. Managed by Steve Paterson for seven years, they had earned a reputation as an attractive attack-minded side with a 3-5-2 formation based around the deployment of pure wingers, rather than wing-backs. Under John Robertson, Paterson’s replacement in December 2002, the team didn’t immediately look as purposeful, and lost Barry Robson and Dennis Wyness, their two best players who moved onto Dundee United and Heart of Midlothian respectively.
Robertson used their departures as an opportunity to change the team’s system, reconfiguring the side into a 4-3-3 formation with veteran striker Paul Ritchie (so often the bridesmaid to Wyness in previous seasons) as its fulcrum. Equally as crucial, Robertson was able to lure Dave Bingham and Barry Wilson (for a second spell) to the Highlands, two players whom he knew well from his tenure at Livingston.
As well as the experienced trio, the manager built his side on a robust back five. The hulking Bobby Mann was partnered in central defence by the more nimble Stuart McCaffrey, while Stuart Golabek and Ross Tokely occupied the full-back positions. Mark Brown, arguably the division’s best goalkeeper, also made up the unit. Further forward, Roy McBain, Russell Duncan and Richard Hart were augmented in the middle of the park by Liam Keogh – the move to redeploy the former Celtic trainee as an all-action midfielder was hugely successful. This team won the 2003-04 Challenge Cup and took Jimmy Calderwood’s Dunfermline Athletic to a Scottish Cup semi-final replay but more importantly, they were able to grind out results while wading through their backlog of fixtures.
Inverness hosted Clyde on 16 March 2013 on a typically windy Tuesday evening. With nine points separating the teams, it was a must-win game for the home side. Despite Paul Ritchie giving them the lead after 35 minutes, Clyde immediately restored parity in bizarre circumstances – Kevin Fotheringham’s punt upfield was caught in a gust, catching out Mark Brown before sinking into the net. Dave Bingham struck shortly before half-time to re-establish his side’s advantage.
Seven minutes after the interval, Clyde were denied an equaliser from a fantastic one-handed save. It was not Brown who made the vital block, but Roy McBain. The midfielder was quickly dismissed. Ian Harty struck the subsequent penalty but it was pushed away by Brown; the striker sent the rebound crashing against the crossbar. Inverness CT’s ten men were under significant pressure for the remainder of the half but Clyde were unable to press their advantage. Barry Wilson added a late third, and the Bully Wee’s opportunity to kill off the title race had been spurned.
Did Clyde collapse? Perhaps. Kernaghan’s side did go on a seven-game unbeaten streak, but four of the seven fixtures were tied. Gradually, their advantage over a relentless Caley Thistle side was reduced to two points. The teams met for the final time the penultimate game of the season.
The match followed a similar pattern to March’s contest, with Liam Keogh opening the scoring for Inverness early in the second half. With 18 minutes remaining, Clyde won a penalty and up stepped Harty. If his previous effort was on his mind, it did not show; the scores were soon level. With a jaunt to Brechin City on the final day of the season, themselves already relegated, Clyde and Kernaghan were within touching distance of the SPL. Robertson responded by making his first substitution – off went Ritchie, on came Steve Hislop.
Hislop was a stocky striker signed from Ross County in January 2003. His general play could, at times, look erratic but his “battering ram” approach could be remarkably effective – he was brought on midway through the Challenge Cup final and scored his side’s second goal, carrying the ball more than 40 yards while shrugging off challenges from the entire Airdrie United defence. Although Hislop flitted in and out of the side and was often used on the flanks, he had already scored 13 goals that season.
Five minutes after his introduction, he scored his 14th. As the ball came in from the right wing, Hislop, unmarked, deftly nodded home.
What if… What if Hislop had taken his eye off the ball (somewhat ironic given his future career as an optician)? What if, in that infinitesimal moment, the occasion got the better of him? What if he had connected poorly with the ball and sent it spinning wide?
Clyde could have held on. Inverness had rarely threatened and Kernaghan’s side could have held on for a point, consolidating their advantage at the top of the table. The next week, they could have easily beaten Brechin to go on to claim the title. Clyde Football Club, 2003-04 First Division champions.
What might have been… While improvements would have been made to Broadwood to bring it up to capacity, Clyde would have spent the first half of the 2004-2005 SPL season sharing Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park, 34 miles away. The lure of SPL football would have made up for the inconvenience, and some of the stay-away supporters who had refused to follow the club after leaving Rutherglen would have returned. The average attendance could have swelled from 1,612 and on the return to Broadwood, the disenfranchised denizens of Cumbernauld would finally had a team worth following. The improved revenue could have bolstered the club’s finances and secured their footing.
In the end, Caley Thistle prevailed over Clyde, winning the match 2-1. Although Brechin were soundly beaten the following week, it was inconsequential as Inverness CT triumphed by three goals to one over St Johnstone. Promoted to the SPL, the Highlanders spent the first half of the new season groundsharing at Pittodrie with Aberdeen and since their promotion, they have spent all but one of the subsequent nine seasons in the top tier.
Less than two years after their flirt with promotion, Clyde entered into a Company Voluntary Agreement and returned to a debt-free existence at the expense of overhauling their playing squad. Financial problems quickly resurfaced and played a significant part as the club fell to the Third Division. The Bully Wee are now in their fourth season in the bottom tier but have shown marginal improvements since finishing in tenth place in 2010-11.
And to think a draw would have been enough.