Highland League basement battlers an inspiration to all

Highland League basement battlers an inspiration to all

A remarkable event occurred last Saturday.

No, a Cowden fan didn’t have a shower, that would just be ludicrous. Almost as ridiculous was the fact that Fort William FC actually won a game.

Not only did The Fort get their first three point haul of the season, they also did it away from home, beating the unfortunate Rothes 2-1 at Mackessack Park. That’s a stat that the Speysiders don’t want to have on their record books this season.

The win took Fort William’s points tally to the season up to four, after eleven games. Only 28 points behind league leaders Forres Mechanics now!

As terrible as they are, they weren’t even bottom of the Highland League before this win!

It’s been a long few years if you’re a Fort William fan.

I’ve always kept my eye on them since they joined the Highland League for the 1985/86 season. I still have a lot of their programmes from their debut season. I even got to see East Fife play a pre-season friendly up at Claggan Park in 2000, and they made us very welcome.

They’ve never done great, and have never finished in the top half of the table. Their best season came in their second season, when they finished 11th.

In the last fifteen seasons, they’ve finished bottom on a staggering eleven occasions and, on occasion, by some margin.

The 2008-09 season, in particular, was an all-time low for the Club. Their 28 game record read Won 0, Drawn 1, Lost 27, for a grand total of one point, the lowest points total ever recorded in the Highland League and I would think in any other mid-level league as well.

We’ve featured Fort William in AFTN before, when an American project to take ownership and have fans around the world fund and run the Club was proposed, billing the Club as “America’s Team”.

Sadly, like most of Fort William’s seasons, it’s come to nothing and the project seems as dead as The Fort’s Highland League Championship hopes.

I don’t really know what it is about the Club that has made them so bad. Maybe their distance from the core of the other Highland League sides, and the closer proximity of top Junior teams, makes it harder to attract the quality players.

For most recent seasons, the Club have had no real peers in the League.

That changed in 2009, when new kids on the block, Strathspey Thistle, joined the Highland League.

Since then, the last three seasons have seen the two sides battle it out for the morale boosting second bottom spot, with both keen to avoid the “Worst Football Club In The Country” tag.

Strathspey had that dubious distinction in their Highland League debut season of 2009/10, when they finished seven points adrift at the bottom.

Last season, Thistle took the avoiding the tag honours, finishing 17th with a total of ten points, one ahead of the hapless Fort William. Both sides recorded just two wins the whole season, with Strathspey finishing with a goal difference of a whopping minus 94 and Fort William with one of a staggering minus 112.

This season has just been a disaster for both teams so far, culminating in their meeting on November 5th at Claggan Park.

Going in to that game both sides had no wins, no draws and no points from their combined total of 21 Highland League matches played.

Something had to give. Someone had to have at least a point by the end of the afternoon.

It was perhaps fitting then that the game ended as a 2-2 draw, with both sides getting their first points of the season and the game garnering much interest the length and breadth of the UK.

The only thing better for both Clubs would be getting their first actual wins of the season and Fort William did just that at Rothes last Saturday.

Danny Mackintosh gave The Fort a 1-0 lead in the 40th minute with, literally, a toe poke. The visitors then doubled their lead with a minute of the half remaining through a fantastic 25 yard free kick into the postage stamp corner from Sean Ellis.

When Rothes pulled a goal back through Stuart Massie with seven minutes remaining, it was real backs to the wall stuff for Fort William, as they hardly had a possession stat to their name in those closing moments.

They held on though and secured a famous victory, to leave Strathspey Thistle as the only winless team in the country, going down 3-1 at home to Fraserburgh the same afternoon.

Fort William manager Danny Conlon was pleased with the progress his team are making:

”We were a wee bit nervous as we are not used to being in the lead.

Defensively we have only lost eight goals in our last five games, Mike has been working really hard on the training ground on the shape and positional sense of the back four and midfield four and we can see the rewards of that.

Before the last two games I felt that if we got 4 points I would be happy so I am delighted with that. It is a long road, I think we are going in the right direction but it all takes time for it to fit into place.

We are working hard, every game I ask for a bit of progress and look for the boys to push on from previous games. Other than in the first half v Strathspey we have done that.”

The current table in the battle not to be the worst of the worst, now sees Fort William with four points and a goal difference of minus 31, to sit in 17th place. Strathspey just have that one solitary point and a goal difference of minus 33.

Both sides can take a bit of hope from looking at Brora Rangers, who are sitting third bottom with ten points, having played more games than both sides below them and having the worst goal difference in the Highland League, at minus 36.

AFTN is full of admiration for both of these sides struggles. It can’t be easy for everyone at the club to turn out and play, manage or support these sides week in, week out.

These are true football people. No glory hunters in sight.

You should remember this the next time you moan about your own club’s plight. Better still, if you find yourself in or near Fort William or Grantown-On-Spey, get along to Claggan Park or Seafield Park and lend your support to these perennial strugglers.

This is real football.

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Authored by: GoF

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