In the north west of Scotland, some 110 miles from Celtic Park, in the breathtakingly picturesque surroundings of the Highlands and nestled in the shadow of Ben Nevis, eleven footballers clad in gold and black are being willed on by a loyal crowd of supporters at their home ground. Despite encouragement from the sidelines, the team are unable to stop their opponents clinching the win in stoppage time. The club officials transmit the result via social media to the fans unable to attend: Fort William 0-10 Turriff United.
Though formed as recently as 1974, Fort William have managed to pack a fair bit in during their 44 years as a football club. After a decade of competing in local cup competitions, The Fort finally joined the North Caledonian League in 1983, winning the title in their second and final year before becoming the first and only team from the western highlands to join the Highland League. After a perfect start with a win against local rivals Clachnacuddin, Fort William finished their debut season in 12th – a position they’d only better once in the next 35 years. The 85/86 season would also see the club set their all-time attendance record for a cup match against Stirling Albion, with 1,500 fans descending on Claggan Park to watch The Fort hold their Football League opponents to a goalless draw. Those halcyon days, though, are long gone.
If you thought West Ham, QPR, or Cheltenham Town had suffered a difficult start to the season, then spare a thought for the followers of ‘The Fort’. After five games of the 2018/19 season they sat bottom of the table on zero points, with a goal difference of minus 46. Being dead last isn’t an unfamiliar feeling for these fans and players – last season’s meagre total of just five points – all from draws – saw them finish bottom of the Breedon Highland League for the sixteenth time in their short history. They kicked off this season with back-to-back 11-1 defeats, away at Rothes FC and at home to Buckie Thistle, before a battling display at Huntly saw Kris Anderson’s side narrowly beaten 6-0. The two 10-0 defeats that followed at least suggest consistency, but it looks as though a hard slog of a season lies ahead in the club’s bid to avoid another 18th place finish, particularly given the news this week that, having been found guilty of fielding an ineligible player three times this season, Fort William now face £150 fine and a nine point deduction, leaving the club on…-9 points. Not so much a case of being kicked when you’re down, more hung, drawn and quartered.
If that all sounds pretty grim, then its worth noting that the club feel fortunate to still be in the Highland League at all. At the end of last season, all six directors on the club’s board stepped down, citing the financial needs and time consuming nature of the day-to-day running of the club a major factor in their decision. The directors had agreed that the “next generation” would be required to step in to continue their work, but from the moment the announcement was made in January, fears over the viability of the club remaining in the Highland League rose to the surface. Without financial backing hosting games at Claggan Park, already heavily reliant on the kindness of volunteers, wouldn’t be possible, and without a ground that meets the standards of the league, Fort William would be forced to drop into the non-leagues. Thankfully, after several meetings between players, directors, committee members and volunteers, the Lochaber club elected to remain in the Highland League for the 2018/19 campaign. Three new directors were announced shortly after that decision and, in the short-term at least, the future looks secure.
Things might have been different had a reality TV proposition back in 2008 ever come to fruition. Paul MacDonald, American media executive and alledged Fort William fan, approched the club with an idea for a documentary to be aired on his internet channel PMAC Tonight. The pitch included an interactive element to the show, which gave viewers the opportunity to ‘decide the fate’ of the club, with the squad replaced by an entirely American team. Imagine a co-op game of Football Manager, but someone’s been dicking about in the game editor beforehand and also Sports Interactive has been taken over by a man that is obviously clinically insane. Shockingly this idea never came to fruition, and MacDonald had to make do with sponsoring the club’s shirts for a season.
There are plenty of explanations for Fort William’s dismal performances in the past thirty years, though perhaps the main one is that football isn’t the primary sport in the town. Shinty, in layman’s terms a roughhouse version of field hockey, has enjoyed enduring popularity for the last couple of centuries, ever since the game was adopted from Irish hurling. For many of the budding sportsman in Fort William, picking up a caman is preferable to slipping on a pair of football boots. With the club run on a modest budget, the outreach for talent spotting stretches to the Moray Firth at best, and even then there are rival clubs ready to snaffle up any promising players. On the rare occasion the Fort have unearthed a diamond, it hasn’t taken long for more established teams to swoop in and spirit them away. The most notable graduate of Claggan Park remains John McGinlay, who made his debut aged just 14 and, after 61 goals in 92 appearances, was snapped up by Nairn County at 18. He would go on to represent Scotland 13 times, scoring the goal that earned their place at the 1998 World Cup, and lead the line for Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League. McGinlay can even claim a part in affecting the modern history of Arsenal as, when his former boss Bruce Rioch took over at Highbury and advised Ian Wright to study the Scotsman’s forward play, a player revolt saw Rioch ousted at the end of the season, ultimately replaced by Arsene Wenger.
But if life is so dismal at the foot of the Highland League, why would a player want to play for the so-called ‘Worst Team in the World’? We spoke to a member of the Fort’s record breaking team from last season and they admitted that, whilst 5pm on a Saturday would become the most difficult time of the week, the Fort’s fanbase stayed loyal. “The mood in the dressing room after games was low, as you can imagine. We tried to help each other out and keep each other going on and off the pitch, but it was hard. We used to get a lot of fans coming to games at Claggan Park, and they were very supportive when we were having a tough time. They’d always stay right to the end and clap us off the pitch whatever the result.”
The Highland Football League itself is a huge champion of youth development, launching a dedicated initiative in 2000 to stage matched for Under 14s and 16s, and a competitive league for under 18s. At Fort William, it’s this championing of youth football that keeps the club alive, with most of the first team squad yet to reach their twenties.
Fort William are no different, with the youth programme at Claggan Park was a demonstration of the way the club interacted with and embraced the local community. “Fort have youth teams all the way from under 11s, and they try to get as many youngsters to training as possible – that’s how they keep the teams running”.
Along with its group of loyal matchday volunteers, Fort William remains, like all good football clubs, the heartbeat of the town. For as long as their players continue to turn up on a Saturday afternoon ready to fight for a result, Fort William’s fans will continue to cheer them on, as they have for the past four decades. Sometimes trophies, medals, and even three points are a secondary factor when it comes to a football club. But reaching a double figures points tally would be nice, and that just got a whole lot more difficult…