The Journeyman visits… Fort William – The Times

Fort William’s ground is among the most picturesque in BritainGAVIN MACQUEEN FOR THE TIMES

Published 05/11/18, The Times

 

The snow-capped peak of Ben Nevis peers over the summit of Meall ant-Suidhe, rising behind the eastern goal of Claggan Park, where the sun hangs like a jewel in the sky. It is a sweeping, breathtaking vista and one day I would love to see it. On Saturday, however, dark, ominous skies, peaks shrouded in mist and sheets of rain swept in from the Atlantic and the picturesque home of Fort William FC looked more like a scene from the kingdom of Mordor.

After boarding planes, trains and automobiles, embarking on a 1,000-mile round trip, an overnight downpour — and the prospect of paying the travel expenses of Huntly, their Highland League opponents — kiboshed any chance of seeing some football. “That’s the rain on again,” I say as we settle down in the sanctuary of the social club beside the waterlogged pitch. “We don’t say, ‘That’s it on again’ here,” Russell MacMorran, the Fort William club secretary, says. “We only say, ‘That’s it stopped’.”

Quite. Still, it could be worse: the coffee is strong, the Scotch broth hearty and warm, and the welcome wholesome. When you are here to visit the side regularly labelled the “worst team in Britain”, in truth you are not expecting all that much from the football. “We’re making progress,” MacMorran says. “But we’re under no illusions as to what we are up against.”

Fort William have finished bottom of the Highland League, the fourth tier of Scottish football, in 14 of the past 20 seasons. Perhaps you see their name flicker across a TV screen beside an unflattering scoreline every now and then, with Forres Mechanics, Inverurie Loco Works, Clachnacuddin or one of the other gloriously idiosyncratic Highland League team names. Fort have finished outside the bottom three just six times since they joined the Highland League in 1985.

They have not won a game since April 2017. Last season they finished with five points — all from draws — and a minus 153 goal difference but this season, to add insult to injury, they were deducted nine points for fielding an ineligible player, Aiden Taylor, in three league games in which they lost 11-0, 10-1 and 8-2. Having won only one point from a 1-1 draw with Strathspey Thistle in August, after 16 games they are marooned on minus 8 points with a minus 105 goal difference.

This is what Fort are known for. One witty caller to BBC Radio Scotland’s Off The Ball on Saturday evening suggested that Fort should be awarded the team of the day as for once they did not get beaten.

In the summer, the club’s former committee of local businessmen floated the prospect of Fort dropping out of the Highland League into an amateur division. But there is resilience and spirit in this corner of the West Highlands.

“I grew up on the council estate behind here where I could see the pitch from my flat,” Mikey Mackinnon, one of Fort’s new committee members, says. “As kids we used to jump the fence at the back and I wanted to be here every Saturday, to be the little boy chasing the wayward shots and getting the ball back. That’s why, when it was do or die, to let something like this go, which is the only step in this area to a decent level of football, it was too good to let it go, because we would never get it back.”

At a local meeting, a smattering of arms of those willing to step into the breach were raised and, with just five players on their books and no manager, fielding a team on the opening day was a victory in itself. Kris Anderson, who spent more than a decade in the Royal Artillery, stepped up from Clachnacuddin’s youth team to end an understandably exhaustive search.

The challenges for Fort never change. As the most isolated member of the Highland League, the travel commitments for the semi-professionals who are paid £15 a week are huge. It costs about £70,000 a year to fund the club but gates rarely pass the 100-mark. Inverness Clachnacuddin are their nearest opponents, 65 miles and an hour and a half of winding roads away along the banks of Loch Ness. Wick Academy, on the northern tip of the Highlands, and Cove Rangers, in Aberdeen, are the farthest, both about 165 miles and an eight-hour round-trip away.

Every year winter comes and goes with only a handful of games taking place and then Fort must traverse those roads three times a week to fulfil their fixtures. Players have to be sourced from Inverness or from as far afield as the Isle of Skye.

Fort William’s football in recent seasons has been no thing of beauty as they continue to prop up the Highland League
Fort William’s football in recent seasons has been no thing of beauty as they continue to prop up the Highland LeagueFORT WILLIAM FC/TWITTER

 

Take a stroll down Fort William’s high street and you will find rows of shops selling attire to equip outdoors adventures, gift shops selling Highland souvenirs and bijou cafés and delicatessens selling artisan Scottish fare. At the southern end stands the “sore feet statue”, a walker resting on a bench overlooking Loch Linnhe, which marks the end of the West Highland Way, the 96-mile walking route from Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William.

The great outdoors dominates this town of 10,000, and then there are the numerous shinty teams in the area. Any mention of the Fort is either met with a vacant stare or a cackle of laughter. With no other local football to speak of, dropping in to the amateur ranks would pose the same geographical tests. Funding from the Scottish FA would cease and grants for youth teams would no longer be available.

“We lost by five to Forres [Mechanics] the other night,” Peter Murphy, the chairman, says, “but at the start of the season that would have been double figures and then some, probably. So we are seeing progress. There’s a lot of young lads in the team, and it’s hard getting a battering week after week, and wondering, ‘Do I really want to be part of this?’”

Scott Hunter, 30, has played for the club on and off since the age of 11. “Since I was a wee boy all I wanted to do was play football, professionally too, but unfortunately that didn’t happen,” he says. “But I just love it. You go out on a football pitch and it’s just an escape from everything else. There are boys who have come and played for a couple of games then thought, ‘Na, I can’t do this’. But I’d rather get beat 20-0 playing at the highest level I can than win 5-0 at a lower level that’s like a pub league, where sometimes they don’t have a linesman. If you’re not testing yourself in football then you’re cheating yourself, in my opinion.

“I don’t think kids growing up would stick at playing football either, playing in that kind of league, when playing in the Highland League you might get spotted and go and make something of yourself. There’s a stepping-stone. And this town has produced good footballers.”

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