Fort William FC: A Long Way To Winning, Indeed
The notion of what constitutes a “crisis” within a football club is, of course, relative. For the megaclubs, secure in the knowledge that the money will always flow and trophies will always return, to lose more than one match in a row will provoke howling on social media and a million op-eds in the national press. As we move down the food chain, though, the attention starts to dry up but the crises become increasingly severe, sometimes even threatening the existence of the clubs concerned. And tucked away in the very north of Scotland, the most remote football club in the United Kingdom might like a word with the likes of Real Madrid. “That isn’t a crisis”, they might well say. “This is a crisis. If anything, we live in a perpetual state of crisis.”
Fort William is a small town in the Western Scottish Highlands of 10,000 people on the shores of Loch Linnhe, in the shadows of the Grampian Mountains, and in particular Ben Nevis, the highest mountain on the British Isles. Fort William Football Club was founded in 1974, playing in regional leagues for the next decade before winning their only league title, the North Caledonia league, at the end of the 1984/85 season. The following season saw the club admitted into the Highland League, where they have remained ever since. Over those thirty-three years, however, the club has not exactly been blessed with success. After a first season which saw a record of attendance of 1,500 saw them earn a goalless draw with Stirling Albion in the second round of the Scottish Cup – they lost the replay by six goals to nil – but those early seasons in the Highland League turned out to be as good as things got for the club.
After a couple of seasons in the lower mid-table of the Highland League, Fort William finished at the bottom of the table for the first time at the end of the 1988/89 season. It was the beginning of what has become one of Scottish football’s more enduring trends. The club has finished at the bottom of the Highland League for fourteen of the last twenty seasons, and it’s not difficult to see why the club’s existence is a struggle. On the one hand, their Claggan Park ground, which sits in the shadow of the Meall an t-Suidhe hill, with the peak of Ben Nevis just visible in the corner of a stunning vista, is probably one of the most picturesque settings for a football ground in the whole of Europe.
This location is beautiful, but it comes at a considerable cost to the club. For one thing, Fort William is remote. The nearest that the club has to a “local” derby is its matches with Clachnacuddin, whose home is sixty-five miles away in Inverness. Considering how far this is and the fact that wages at any Highland League club will be meagre to say the least, attracting players is a challenge to the extent that the club has to hold two training sessions per week, one for their local players and another later in the week to which their players who are based in Inverness also travel. The Inverness-based players train with another Highland League club, Buckie Thistle, on the night that Fort William’s locally based players are meeting up.
The second significant problem that the club’s location has is the weather. This is a very, very wet part of the world, and a combination of the precipitation and the club’s limited means causes a considerable amount of cancellations throughoutthe course of an average season. Postponements are always expensive, but when your players might have to make a two hour journey to get home games in the first place – there are, some might say thankfully, no motorways between Fort William and Inverness – they can start to look ruinous. And in addition to all of this, the Highland game of shinty – imagine a more aggressive version of field hockey played with sticks more like ice hockey sticks and you’re part of the way there (its origins lie in the Irish sport of hurling) – still rules the roost in this part of the world, which affects both attendances at the football club and further impacts upon any throughflow of local players.
None of this is to say that the club isn’t capable of unearthing diamonds in the rough. The Inverness-born John McGinlay joined Fort William’s youth team at the age of fourteen in 1978, and made his debut for the first team two years later. He scored sixty-one goals in ninety-two games for the club before transferring to Nairn County and then moving south to join Yeovil Town. He bounced around the lower divisions before joining Bolton Wanderers in 1992, where he enjoyed a highly successful five years, scoring one and making one as Bolton – then in the third tier – knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup at Anfield, getting promoted to the Premier League twice (in 1995 and 1997) and even scoring the last goals at Bolton’s Burnden Park before transferring to Bradford City, whereupon injury curtailed his career.
McGinlay’s Premier League exploits are a long way from the desperate state in which his first club has found itself of late, though. With attendances for home matches of less than 100 and running costs coming to around £70,000 per year (travel costs are enormous, with every away match involving round trips that clubs of a similar size in other parts of the UK would baulk at), closure has long been a threat to the club. This seemed to reach a head in January, when all six of the club’s directors, who had been underwriting the club’s losses, confirmed that they would be resigning their positions at the end of last season. As the only semi-professional football club in the Western Highlands, the loss of Fort William would have been a considerable loss to the entire area, but after considering turning amateur the club decided to soldier on into the new season, despite having not won a league game throughout the whole of last season.
The club’s position wasn’t much helped at the very start of this season by a nine point deduction and a £150 fine handed down by the Highland League over an issue relating to the club fielding an ineligible player for three matches. There were complaints that the club, whose financial travails are, of course, common knowledge in that part of the world, were being treated harshly, but the league’s secretary stated that, “It is fair to say that the League Management Committee was very aware of Fort William’s current difficulties, and had no appetite for the application of the penalty element, but was obliged by the mandatory nature of the rules to impose the penalty it did.” Rules are rules, then, with very little room for discretion. It’s a sentiment that those amongst us who have had dealings with football league committees will be fully familiar with.
Still, though, the club manages to soldier on, and this week Fort William – currently bottom of the Highland League on minus eight points, having picked up one draw from their fourteen games so far this season; they’ve also conceded one hundred and four goals in the process already – released a short promotional video about their club and why it matters alongside a JustGiving page that has launched which aims to raise £10,000 towards the cost of equipment and maintenance at Claggan Park in order to limit the amount of flooding that it experiences in the future. It’s raised just over £1,200 of that total in just a couple of days, and we are, of course, more than happy to plug it here.
Fort William is the only semi-professional football club covering a vast area of Western Scotland, and whilst it would be easy to laugh and snark at the football club that doesn’t win any matches, it feels as though there is something greater at stake, here. Winning isn’t everything, and the perseverance of those who are trying to keep this football club alive deserves whatever support it can get from the broader football community. With financial inequality within the game being what it is, there will always be football clubs living a hand to mouth existence or struggling to make ends meet. That Fort William continues to exist is little short of a miracle in itself, regardless of their league position at the end of each season.