Labelled as ‘Britain’s most northerly senior football championship’, the Highland League is one of the greatest footballing institutions in Scotland.
There is very little to loathe about a league that gives us club names such as Forres Mechanics and Inverurie Loco Works, and allows fans to watch a match either on the northern tip of the British Isles or under the shadow of Ben Nevis. What’s more impressive is that all of this is accessible for at least half the price of any match in higher-ranked divisions.
However, there is something fundamentally amiss with the Highland League – it is not all that Highland.
One glance at a map of the clubs in the league will give the average Scotsman a strong sense that there is very little Highland about the clubs participating in the Highland League. Using a generous estimation of the geographical Highland line, there are, at most, six Highland clubs – Fort William, Strathspey Thistle, Clachnacuddin, Nairn County, Brora Rangers and Wick Academy. The rest of the clubs that currently comprise the league can largely be described as Aberdeenshire, with a few from Moray.
This all may seem fairly trivial – after all, what’s in a name? – but here lies an important point about the health of the league. The genuine Highland teams are immediately placed at a disadvantage, for they are the outliers of the league.
It is not unusual for outlying league teams to face long treks away from home. However, nothing compares to the gruelling travel schedule that faces the Highland teams every season. For Wick Academy to play away to Cove Rangers (basically Aberdeen itself) the team will have a total travel time of 9 hours to make the 416-mile round-trip. For Fort William to play up in Fraserburgh, the 312-mile round-trip will take about 8 hours all in.
Even for local derbies the distances are enormous. Wick’s closest rival, Brora Rangers, are still 46 miles away while Fort William’s nearest club, Clachnacuddin (Inverness), lies 65 miles up the A82. That means that these Highland teams will have to travel hundreds of miles every other week to compete in their ‘Highland’ league. With work and family commitments to consider, the 34-match season, which often includes mid-week away games, takes a heavy toll on the semi-professional squads and coaching staff.
Not only does the cost and length of the travelling batter clubs both financially and competitively, they are hindered when attempting to attract adequate funding and sponsors, especially compared to their Aberdeenshire rivals. Due to huge investment and funding from the main industries in the Aberdeen vicinity, the Highland league has become a vastly unequal league in terms of finance. The oil and gas industry is mostly culpable for this occurrence.
Cove Rangers, currently topping the league, are chaired by the Chief Executive of a leading offshore and sub-sea equipment company, and the club are set to move into their new £3million stadium at Calder Park.
Deveronvale’s chairman doubles up as a director for Dana Petroleum in Aberdeen. Buckie Thistle, during the 2010/2011 season, were heavily funded by the owner of a tooling company in Aberdeen, who helped spend over £236,000 on players’ wages and travel expenses alone. Alas, it only a few years ago that Formartine United were benefiting from some Abu Dhabi oil money.
Big money deals and investment have found clubs out with the Aberdeen area. Brora Rangers’ Chairman (also the Managing Director of offshore technology firm CRC Evans) has pumped money into the club. Considering the team hails from the third smallest town in the Highland League, chairman MacKay has had a rich return from his financial contributions – the Cattachs have won two championships and a league cup in the last three years. The might of MacKay’s money surpasses anything seen in the Highland League to date and shows that big Aberdeen-made money can travel in the league. However, Brora’s fortunes are not an accurate reflection on the health of the other Highland teams in the league.
Nairn County’s abrupt curtailment of cash flow, due to the sudden exit of the MacKintosh family from the board earlier this year, follows in a long line of struggles for the Highland clubs. Long-suffering Fort William seem consigned to on-field mediocrity and financial in-security whilst Clachnacuddin are still recovering from financial difficulties caused by rent arrears and debts incurred 6 years ago. Relative newcomers, Strathspey Thistle, have also struggled to distance themselves from the bottom of the table since joining the league in 2009. The reality for the majority of Highland clubs is far detached from Brora’s dreamland.
For the most part, the rise of the Highland League has by-passed its Highland clubs, both on and off the pitch. So, what should be done? Or more accurately, what can be done? Is it possible for the league to become more equal, more fair and, essentially, more Highland?
Maintaining the status and structure of the current Highland League does not only lend itself to wild inaccuracies but it is potentially damaging in the long term
To constitute and operate a wholly Highland league would be near impossible. The population and geography of the Highlands just wouldn’t sustain its own semi-professional(-ish) football league. Even with teams from the more populated areas of the Highlands – such as Lochalsh, Ullapool, Badenoch and the Western Isles – a league would hardly be viable, let alone competitive. In sum, forming a truly Highland ‘Highland League’ would be a perilous gamble. Yet, maintaining the status and structure of the current Highland League does not only lend itself to wild inaccuracies but it is potentially damaging in the long term.
There has been talk of splitting the Highland League into a two-tier system. In reality, this would probably play into the hands of the big boys. Not having to make those famed away trips would make the rich teams richer and would possibly leave the lesser teams with a future of obscurity and neglect – creating even more disparity in an already top-heavy division. Further still, having 9 or 10 teams in each league would likely deter fans due to poor competition and the boredom of facing the same few teams each week.
Common sense dictates that, at the very least, a name change is in order. More accurate names for the league could be, owing to its Aberdeen oil money backbone, the “Petroleum Division”, the “Eredi-freeze-ie” or even the “Dinnae Ken-desliga”. Obviously, a far more sensible option would be something like ‘The Northern League’ or ‘The North Division’, as boring and unimaginative as that sounds.
But that still doesn’t solve the problems facing the Highland clubs and it certainly doesn’t negate the inequalities in the league as a whole. However, these difficulties would be that bit more palatable if they were labelled as ‘Northern’ rather than ‘Highland’. One thing is for sure though, if change ever dawns on the Highland League, then whatever form it may take – whether a highly unlikely re-structuring process or a more plausible re-naming of the league – it must stay true to the real nature of the division.