INVERNESS Caledonian Thistle are hoping to claim the first major silverware of their 21-year history at Falkirk’s expense in the 2015 Scottish Cup Final on Saturday (KO 3pm).
The Highlanders will be the favourites to clinch the trophy at Hampden Park after ending Celtic’s treble hopes with a thrilling extra-time win in last month’s semi-final.
John Hughes’s team have enjoyed a hugely successful campaign in which they secured their highest-ever league position and European football for the first time having finished third in the Premiership – 10 points behind second-placed Aberdeen.
Hughes has worked miracles since arriving at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium 18 months ago and was deservedly acknowledged for his efforts this year by winning the PFA Scotland and Scottish Football Writers’ Manager of the Year awards.
Meanwhile, midfielder Ryan Christie scooped the Young Player of the Year prizes after an impressive debut campaign for the 20-year-old who was attracted widespread interest including Premier League teams in England.
Now in their first-ever Scottish Cup Final appearance, they will be desperate to overcome their Championship opponents to make this special season even more memorable.
Falkirk have not celebrated success since lifting the Ramsdens Cup in 2012 and the last time the Bairns appeared in the end-of-season showpiece, they were led out at the national stadium by now-Inverness boss Hughes in 2009 before their unfortunate 1-0 defeat to Rangers.
A year later, their current manager Peter Houston guided Dundee United to Scottish Cup glory with a 3-0 victory over Ross County in his first managerial role.
Now the former Falkirk striker is looking to steer the Central Scotland club to a third triumph in one of world football’s most famous and oldest competitions – but the last came back in 1957.
The Bairns – who edged past fellow Championship side Hibernian in the semis courtesy of a Craig Sibbald header – will face Premiership opponents in the tournament for the first time during this season’s magnificent journey.
They finished fifth in the second-tier – seven points adrift of the play-offs – and have not played since the regular season ended on May 2.
Since then, Houston has used the time to study the strengths and weaknesses of Caley Thistle but is not worried about a lack of match sharpness the squad may have from not playing competitively for four weeks.
“It’s something that probably has to be looked at, but we won’t make it an excuse if it doesn’t go our way,” he said in a pre-match interview with BBC Scotland.
“A bit of freshness might do us good. The fitness levels are very good, but you do miss competitive games.
“Last week, we had games against young Burnley and Swansea sides. That was the best we could get at this particular time.
“But if you can’t get the players up for a cup final then there’s no chance of ever getting them up.”
Although they will be underdogs in many eyes against their top-flight counterparts, Falkirk have demonstrated their ability to upset the big boys this term.
They were the only team to win at the home of Championship title winners Hearts, drawn twice with Rangers and lost only one of their five meetings with Hibernian.
And the Bairns are set to be boosted by the return from injury of 12-goal top scorer Rory Loy, who is set to make his final appearance before joining Dundee this summer.
Meanwhile, it will be a farewell outing for Inverness full-back Graham Shinnie with the 23-year-old moving to Aberdeen having signed a pre-contract agreement back in January.
The Scotsman was snubbed by Gordon Strachan when the Scotland manager named his squad for the Qatar friendly and Republic of Ireland qualifier next month but will be desperate to sign off his six-year Caley Thistle career in style.
It will be an occasion that will be particularly special for local boy Nick Ross, who was born in Inverness and has played for his hometown club for his entire career thus far.
“I’ve dreamt of this all my life, but you can’t let it get in your head,” said the 23-year-old midfielder. “I think everyone in primary school is dreaming of this when they are playing in the playground – to be playing in the Cup final, to score and to lift the trophy.”
“We know it’s not going to be easy and will be a tough test. But, after the semi-final, we got a lot of confidence and we are confident we can do it.”
Caley Thistle were backed by around 15,000 supporters from the Highlands last month as they came from behind to stun Ronny Deila’s Celtic, who have won the two other major domestic honours available in the Premiership title and League Cup.
And Hughes is hoping another mass turnout at Hampden could help boost attendances for regular league games, which have averaged at 3,700 this season.
“The only way to play your part is to do what we’re doing and get into Europe and cup finals,” he told BBC Scotland.
“I’m quite sure we’ll take 15,000-20,000 down to the cup final and hopefully we’ll give them a good day.
“This year, getting for the first time in the club’s history that Europa League spot through the league placing. That’s your bread and butter. That tells you how good a team you are throughout the season.
“Then the Scottish Cup final. If we can go and win it, it would be remarkable.”
Like Falkirk, Hughes has had to work under a shoestring budget at Caley Thistle, who have been in the Premiership for six seasons, but he has stamped his authority by imposing an attractive blueprint on a settled team of talented individuals.
Despite their defensive solidity, the main concern has been goals with their top scorer this season – Irish striker Billy McKay with 10 league strikes – having left in January to join Wigan.
Inverness are looking to go one better than last year’s Scottish League Cup when their first appearance in a major cup final ended in penalty shoot-out agony against Aberdeen.
They are hoping to emulate the feat of St Johnstone, who also claimed the first silverware in their 130-year existence in last season’s Scottish Cup Final with their 2-0 victory over Tayside rivals Dundee United at Celtic Park.
But Falkirk have a habit of performing on the big stage which belies the status of a second-tier club they have held since their relegation from the SPL in 2010.
The Bairns have won four of the last five meetings with Inverness but the two sides have not crossed paths since a top-flight encounter in May 2009 when Falkirk won in the Highlands to secure their survival and simultaneously relegate Caley Thistle.
Tickets for the ‘Family Final’ are as low as £60 for a family of four after the SFA announced a reduced ticket pricing policy with concessions able to attend for just £5.
St Johnstone are particularly interested spectators of the final at Hampden. A win for Inverness would see the Perth side, who finished fourth in the Premiership, earn a place in the Europa League qualifiers next season while Falkirk will take that spot should they lift the silverware.
ROUTE TO THE FINAL:
Round Four 1-0 win v Cowdenbeath (H)
Fifth Round 2-1 win v Brechin City (H)
Quarter-Final 1-0 win v Queen of the South (A)
Semi-Final 1-0 win v Hibernian (N)
Round Four 1-1 draw v St Mirren (A)
Round Four Replay 4-0 win v St Mirren (H)
Round Five 2-1 win v Partick Thistle (A)
Quarter-Final 1-0 win v Raith Rovers (H)
Semi-Final 3-2 win v Celtic (N) * After Extra Time
LAST 10 SCOTTISH CUP FINALS:
2014 St Johnstone 2-0 Dundee United
2013 Celtic 3-0 Hibernian
2012 Hearts 5-1 Hibernian
2011 Celtic 3-0 Motherwell
2010 Dundee United 3-0 Ross County
2009 Rangers 1-0 Falkirk
2008 Queen of the South 2-3 Rangers
2007 Celtic 1-0 Dunfermline
2006 Hearts 1-1 Gretna AET (Hearts won 4-2 on penalties)
2005 Celtic 1-0 Dundee United
Inverness boss Hughes made six changes to the starting line-up that ended their league campaign with a 5-0 hammering at champions Celtic last Sunday – which halted their three-game winning run – to rest several key first-team players at home.
Lewis Horner and Tarmo Kink were given their first starts while Liam Polworth, Danny Devine, Nick Ross and Carl Tremarco also received rare outings.
Centre-back Gary Warren is banned after receiving his second booking in the Scottish Cup this season in the semi-final win over Celtic.
However, fellow defender Josh Meekings was cleared to play after the ramifications of the incident against the Hoops which should have seen him sent off for deliberate handball.
Midfielder Nick Ross will be desperate to be in the starting line-up for his hometown club and could make his final outing with his contract due to expire after this game.
Falkirk welcome back top scorer Rory Loy – who has not featured since March 6 because of an ankle injury – but the 27-year-old could have to be content with a place on the bench.
Fellow striker John Baird – who has scored seven goals since joining in February following his release by Queen of the South – and midfielder Mark Kerr are both cup-tied.
Houston, though, could name a similar side to the one which beat Hibernian in the semi-finals with defender Will Vaulks again occupying a defensive midfield position.
Referee: Willie Collum
Assistant Referees: Douglas Ross and Alastair Mather
Fourth Official: Crawford Allan
Additional Assistant Referees: Andrew Dallas and Don Robertson
It will be a second Scottish Cup Final in the middle for Religious Education teacher Collum after handling the 2013 showpiece between Hibernian and Celtic.
The 36-year-old Fifa whistler – who was appointed to a Champions League quarter-final in April – will be at the helm for his 48th match of the season in all competitions.
The Glasgow-born referee has been a Category One official since 2006 and also took charge of the 2012 Scottish League Cup Final when Celtic lost 1-0 to Kilmarnock.