Originally written for the Red Final circa December 2017 (edited to suit)
As I walked out of Dudgeon Park a real sense of disappointment hit me hard. A feeling I hadn’t felt since John Robertson bagged that late winner at Hampden in 1996. The reason, I had completed my Highland League mission. Eleven months over season 2015/16 and 2016/17, 2054 miles and 136 quid in entry fees later I had done it. The “Heelan Hike” was over
It all started on December 5th 2015 myself and a few others decided to make a day of Keith V Brora R*****s at Kynoch Park. A great day it turned out to be. Starting in daft circumstances with one guy missing the train and appearing at kick off and ending trying to stash a carryout in a bush, it was a cracker. There was free booze in the Ugie House Hotel, warm welcomes from the locals in the boozers visited pre and post-match, a soaking in the Moray drizzle, eight goals (2 v 6), no prima donnas to be seen. Then came the inevitable comatose train journey home, this meaning I got off in Aberdeen instead of Inverurie leading to a forty five quid taxi home instead of a free lift. To top it off, having to retrieve my phone from the train station lost property on the Sunday was a pain in the ass. From that day I was hooked.
Bang went the previously arranged plan of doing a couple of grounds a season as “lads” days out. My plan was to go to every ground as soon as possible by train, plane(doable between Aberdeen and Wick) or taxi. I was going to visit them all. Unbeknown at the time this quest was the catalyst and first of many fitba challenges I was to create and take on.
The HFL is nothing new to me as when I was a nipper I used to watch matches when the Dons were on the road. Fraserburgh, Cove, Huntly, Elgin and Peterhead and latterly Inverurie Locos were visited before on numerous occasions. I even remember the delight of catching a fiver blowing along the terrace at Cove R*****s v Wick Academy at Allan Park. (Big money when you were a pre-teen) But it now took on a whole new meaning twenty odd years later. Access being a whole lot easier and, where there’s fitba a lot of the time there’s drink. But more importantly I had a feeling that the HFL was about to offer me what made me love football in the first place and with none of the modern-day bullshit that has created a rapid decline in my interest in todays game. I would be lying if I said it was totally exempt, as coloured boots and silly hair are found in abundance.
Sixteen grounds stood in my way between Keith and my goal (the odd number caused by Cove R*****s living a gypsy like existence) The mission started at Keith (5/12/15)and culminated at Brora R*****s (9/11/16) with a total of 2054 miles covered by car, taxi, train and bus and one hundred and thirty six pounds in entrance fees. Every mile and every penny was worth it. It became like an obsession. Midweek trips to Clachnacuddin, Forres Mechanics and even Fort William showed my dedication to the cause. I travelled to ten of the matches on my own including Wick and Brora which equates to just over 650 miles driving between them with only Tam Cowan,Stuart Cosgrove and the open all mics squad for company.
Why the addiction I hear you ask, for starters, goals. Football is about goals and the Highland League is full of them. Lets take HFL the 2015/16 season since it was the season my quest commenced, in total there were 1238 goals in 612 games which averages at pretty much two goals a game. Let’s compare that to “the greatest league in the world” the English Mercenary Jamboree (which is a bigger league meaning more games). 1015 goals in 760 games during the same period which averages out at 1.3 goals per game. The circus at the other side of Hadrians wall also had 32 nil-nils. Doesn’t sound like a lot in the grand scheme of 760 matches played but that equals 4.2%, the Highland league produced 1% of matches ending 0-0 (Unlucky if you are a Deveronvale fan as three of the seven were participated in by them). To add more meat to the bones ill use last seasons tables which has seen a slight rise in the scoring but slight is the key word. The HFL again the smaller league saw 1260 goals while the Mercenary Premier saw 1032 leaving the GPG averages at 2.1 and 1.4 respectively. Fifty plus quid a ticket for less goals and more wankery does not compute in my mind. The HFL is a better, more entertaining league and criminally under-rated, no arguments. What else is there on offer. The price, It’s not an expensive day out . The standard entrance price was eight quid across the board barring Claggan Park in Fort William which was seven and Brora who are robbing bastards at nine(I jest though, whats a pound really). Three Highland League games for around the price of one in the South Stand at Pittodrie and if I’m being totally honest it’s also three times the enjoyment. On top of that if you are hitting the snack bar, a coffee and a twix won’t cost you more than £2.00 and if you are on the pie and coffee it won’t break the £3.00 mark. Drinking in these towns won’t cost you and arm and a leg either. There are no £5+ Aberdeen priced pints due to the teuchterness of the locations. There are also social clubs and supporters bars which also keep the cost down. The best example being Bar 59 at Rothes, half time drinks for ten of us came to the measly total of 11 quid.
Back to the football, and to use a Derek McInness-ism, “there’s a lot to like” , as I mentioned there are the goals, there is also the lack of “game management” also appeals to me, teams don’t stop when they get comfortable at say 3-0, teams go for the jugular. Buckie and Brora were great exponents of this during the quest. I also admire the other side of the coin where the teams who are getting pumped have a never say die attitude. I also had to applaud the “struggling” teams at the time such as Rothes, Strathspey and The Fort. These guys turn up usually in the know that they are to get a do-in every game yet they are there to take the beatings. Just look at the Fort in 2018/19. Or Rothes the season before I started my Higland fling.Did not scratch one game despite hiding after hiding. The style of football is hard and fast, there’s no shirking tackles in the highlands there’s is also no Ronaldo-esque rolling about in the hope of getting fellow players into trouble. Get up and get on with it seems to be the attitude and I have to say that’s refreshing to see. A rarity in pro football these days is the deployment of “4-4-2” formations, not in the Highland League its everywhere and lets be honest this is the best way to line up your team. Some of the players on show at time were great to watch, Chris Angus up at Buckie (Now of Inverurie Locos), Dale Gillespie at Brora (still there) and Andrew Greig at Brora (Now of Formartine) being top of the pops. With Broras wee winger Greig being the best player in the league at the time in my opinion. It would be interesting to see how these boys would fair if they stepped up a level. Just good honest fitba.
What about the stadia, some of the grounds are fantastic and have a great old school vibe to them, the aforementioned Kynoch Park, Bellslea at the Broch and Nairns Station Park being the three best examples. Then in a different way Fort William’s Claggan Park is the one of the best grounds in the world. But for the aesthetic value rather than structural. The place is beautiful with the views of the foothills of Ben Nevis. When you walk through the entrance it is as if you have entered a portal into another world. Stunning and a must for all fitba fans. But like every league you have the not so good, Strathspey Thistles Seafield Park and fellow non-established HFL outfit Formartines North Lodges are examples of hastily put together middens to meet the standard to gain entrance to the league. On the subject of entrance to the league I have the utmost respect for Forres Mechanics and Clachnacuddin as they are the only two remaining founders in the league, joining on day one in 1893 with the five other clubs, Inverness Thistle, Caledonian, Inverness Union, Inverness Citadel and Cameron Highlanders.(Ross County did join but relinquished their membership before a ball was kicked). Clach are also the most successful team left in existence on eighteen titles, joint with the now merged Caledonian, they won’t be caught any time soon either as the closest to them is Buckie Thistle on eleven titles. Elgin don’t count as they pissed off in 2000, but are on fourteen , then again the Pyramid system may see them back where they came from one day.
What were the highlights from this pilgrimage, the best game by far was up at Harmsworth Park in Wick. Derby day between ‘e Scories and the Cattachs, the latter having to win to keep in the title race, anything else would effectively hand Cove R*****s the league. 2-0 up and cruising at half time Brora looked to have it in the bag. Wick were even reduced to 10 men making anything other than a Brora win look unlikely. But as the football cliché goes that galvanised Wick who came storming back equalising in the last minute ending their closest geographical rivals title push in the process. A whopping 1166 other lucky souls witnessed this along with myself. The guts of ten hours driving was worth it, along with the chipper at Fochabers putting the icing on a great day
Another high point and one I’d never tire of seeing, watching Formartine exit the title race at Buckie. Formartine United are the closest team to me geographically(joint with the Locos) but they are also my most disliked. This being a long standing personal grudge from my junior playing days when I have never witnessed such an ungracious bunch of pricks in defeat. Due to my malevolent feelings towards them I always want to see them fail and to see them virtually crash out of the title race at Victoria Park so early in the season put a Cheshire cat like grin on my face. Get it right round you I think is how the saying goes. They have not done much since either
Being accosted by old men in the Market Arms in Banff prior to Deveronvale v Rothes was a cracking day out. As the Vales Princess Royal is an hour away on the old Stagecoach I thought id add a few pints into the equation instead of driving . On arrival in Banff I didn’t have a clue where I was heading for a beer. The first place I walked into I was met with a new fancy up market looking too posh for a beer swilling fitba geek like me establishment. Maybe it would float some peoples boat but not for me. I immediately walked out. I did notice the Market Arms before departing the bus, so I made my way round to check it out. Turned out it was the kind of place I do enjoy a few pre fitba amber delights. Armed with my paper and a beer I sat barflying minding my own in the corner. However, I couldn’t help noticing three vintage gentlemen intermittently staring at me. I put this down to the small-town mentality which is rife when visiting such places. Eventually when I was away to get pint of Red Stripe number three, one of the guys asked the all familiar question. “Havent seen you in here before”. My retort immediately made me friends. “Im here for the Vale game”. To which I was asked “must be hard being a Rothes fan?”. After explaining my quest my pint was bought for me and the other two joined in the conversation. A cracking two hours were to ensue. Pints flowed, many a laugh was had and the company was warm and welcoming. These guys were genuinely pleased to have me in their company. To be fair I was having a great time despite the combined age of them tipping the one hundred and eighty mark(I am guessing), which you would never have known was the case. Very young at heart. As I was away to leave for the game, I was told that I should take it in with them and also to have a nip before I made my way. Who was I to argue? The game was the least fun part of the day with The Vale romping to 3-0 victory over the worst team in the league. It should have been a lot more too. I was enjoying the day as a whole and my love for the HFL had definitely grown. The day was inclusive of a first for me when George (the instigator of the chat in the Market Arms) phoned the pub with an order for us around for half time. Which meant we left Princess Royal on the whistle to go back to the Market Arms where the beers were lined up waiting for us. A quick sup up and a return for the second half duly followed. After the game I was planning on the six o’clock bus back to the Garioch. That ended up turning into half eight as I was coerced (It didn’t take much) into jumping on with George (who was from Macduff which is on my route) and after he alighted my only company was a couple of Red Stripes and the Aberdeenshire darkness. The extra couple of hours in Banff obviously meaning a few more hours and a lot more pints in the Market Arms. It honestly felt like I had known these guys for years.The days fun didn’t stop there though. Due to a combination of the Red Stripes, the hours journey and the toilet on the bus being out of service I had to jump off the bus as I was on the verge of a piss related embarrassment. The problem being I was around a mile and a half away from my house meaning my day was completed with a walk through the long grass at the side of the A947. It put a dampener (the walking in the high grass, not the piss) on my shoes but not on my day. By far the best laugh on the quest.
Corporate at Rothes was a hoot too and a bargain at fifty quid. A three course meal, free booze in the board room before and after complete with a delicious spread of food, and entry. It was also apparent that the club were extremely grateful for our custom and were delighted we chose them to pump 500 notes into. That’s a lot of money to a club like Rothes who were actually served a winding up order the season prior to our visit. On top of that the weather was magic, and we were served up a very entertaining two all draw with Clachnaccudin.
The finale up at Brora was also a day to remember, not only because it was a thrilling 3-3 draw but as I was travelling up I received an email regarding an invite into the board room at half time. I was to meet he chairman William Powrie who had heard that my quest was to come to an end at Dudgeon Park. A very interesting fifteen minutes talking all things Scottish football with insights into the plans he has for the club, this followed by having my photo taken with William which he assured me it would feature in the up and coming programme for their match v Cove R*****s in December. To this day im not sure if it did or not.
It has to be said though, the biggest highlight of all was coming up and executing this idea. It started as mates on a day out, then it changed to a personal challenge wanting to go around every ground in a calendar year (complete with picture outside the gates). At that point I didn’t want to repeat a ground but that soon changed as I found myself enjoying the football more and more so Victoria Park, North Lodge, Harlaw Park and the Haughs were visited on multiple occasions and I still head to games to this day. As I wrote this it has dawned on me that it may have been eleven months between Keith and Brora but when you consider the season closes between the end of April and end of July, I was offshore for four months it actually only took four months to do. On top of that Aberdeen at home had priority over the HFL. (Maybe not so much now) Quite the effort for a neutral. But an effort I will not forget in a hurry. Do I recommend it, absolutely, to anyone and everyone that will listen to me raving on the matter. Whether it’s a game here and there or a half day round trip to Wick it’s a great day out. Go on, do it, you won’t be disappointed, you have my word. (Just don’t cheer on Formartine United)
Fast Forward to pre season 2018/19.As I said, Cove R*****s were roaming wandering nomadic vagabonds while I was completing the hike. Now they have moved to their shitely located dust bowl I got it ticked off as quick as I could. I had been waiting since I walked out of Dudgeon Park. This was achieved by attending the grand opening v Aberdeen in July 2018. It was a milestone for Wee Man as it was his first Aberdeen game. Cove still fell under the Highland League banner at the time meaning it was also his first HFL ground. After the Dons leading 2-1, complete with a Chris Forrester goal, aye he did pull on the red shirt at one point, the game turned into a milestone for both of us. This because of a ridiculously mistimed, clumsy and dangerous assault on ex Don Jordan Brown by Don Andrew Considine the game was abandoned due to suspected neck and back injuries to the motionless Brown. A first in all my days of watching. An abandonment at senior level. A good story for Wee Man to tell in future, his first Aberdeen game was abandoned. But more importantly I was still up to date with all the HFL grounds. Speaking of which what is the script with the Locos new one? Surely it will be next to tick off.
So to put it in a nutshell, the Highland League is fucking ace . That is not even open to debate