Life in the Highland League could hardly be described as glamorous. The majority of the better known names are now playing in the Scottish Football League and, while there are still agitants requesting automatic promotion and relegation between the lower leagues and the Scottish League, the door remains firmly shut for the time being, unless (as happened at the end of last season with Gretna) someone drops out. Even within this earthy environment, some of the fish are bigger than others, and they don’t come much smaller than Fort William FC.
The name Fort William may conjur up certain mental images, and it’s true to say that they lead a rustic existence, but the reality of life at the foot of the Highland League is a rough one. The club plays its home matches at Claggan Park, at the foot of Ben Nevis. They were founded in 1984, and joined the Highland League two years later. Since then, however, they have never finished in the top half of the table, and last season they contrived to lose twenty-seven of their twenty-eight league matches and finished the season with a goal difference of minus one hundred and forty-two. Highlights included a 13-0 home defeat at the hands of Inverurie Loco Works and an 11-0 loss at Deveronvale. Their only win of the season came against Rothes, who beat them 7-0 in the return fixture. Last Saturday, they lost 10-0 to Aberdeen club Banks O’Dee in the Scottish FA Cup, against a team making their debut in the competition.
The root of Fort William’s problems is the local popularity of shinty, a nominally more violent version of field hockey that is popular in the north of Scotland. Fort William is home to the sports current league champions, and the football club struggles to attract enough people to even form a team. Against this background, they could be forgiven a degree of desperation, and desperate times have called for desperate measures. The club has teamed up with an American media company called PMAC Tonight for a television programme called “America’s First Team”. Yes indeed. It’s My Football Club time again, except this time it’s wearing a kilt and it’s not particularly good at football. The subtle twist for the viewer will be that the team will now be filled with American college players, with the intention of winning the Highland League, if possible.
The concept appears to be attempting to be sold as the concept for a television show, but it hasn’t yet been picked up by any networks in the USA yet. As things stand, the last media stories on the subject appear to confirm only that a £3,500 sponsorship deal has been signed with “America’s First Team”, and this cost is being presumably offset by the £44.00 that it costs for a year’s registration. This time, the club will not be under mutual ownership, with the current directors of the club staying in charge, meaning that, in effect, the sponsors will be paying the club to pick the team. The usual questions rear their heads: what happens if or when the interest in this latest gimmick starts to wane? Why should a football club, albeit an unsuccessful one, be used as an experiment for a television show?
In addition to this, there are plenty of other questions specific to this particular experiment that should be answered. Has a television deal been signed? In which particular parallel universe will an American television audience have any interest in the goings-on at an inept, lower division Scottish football club? Are decent American college players really going to be tempted to give up on the hope of a career in MLS to go and play at the foot of Ben Nevis, even if (and it’s a very big if) they get exposure for their talents on the television? Ultimately, this is football asset-stripping of the worst sort. A club that struggles to maintain its very existence is being hawked around as little more than a freak show.