THE PAUL CHALK COLUMN
IN my role of sports show producer and presenter of Alive and Kicking each Friday night on community station North Highland Radio, it’s a pleasure to preview and showcase the Highland League. And on my latest show not only did I report on managerial stories at two HFL clubs, but I got the rare chance to do a swift book preview.
It was from Southampton based author Mat Guy and the new book is brilliantly called Barcelona to Buckie Thistle – Exploring Football’s Roads Less Travelled, published by Luath Press in Edinburgh.
Mat has written about his experiences of leagues of interest in Europe’s smaller, or ‘minnow’ nations, and he explains how the Highland League won him over.
He colourfully paints pictures with words about what he discovered when visiting grounds in the Highland League.
Of Fort William, he said: “This awe-inspiring view must have drawn an error or two from a visiting keeper, though not through intimidation like its constructed brethren of Birmingham, Liverpool or Newcastle, but through a simple distraction and wonder as clouds ripple and dapple, changing complexion and contour like a geological chameleon.”
Of Forres Mechanics, he said: “Like the pitch itself, the immaculate finish of pre-season had succumbed to the rigours of winter, patches of wear appearing that not even the enthusiasm of those that tended them could prevent.”
These snippets, of course, don’t do it justice.
As sports editor of Inverness newspapers for almost 20 years, I did my fair share of travelling around grounds in Scotland covering Caley Thistle and Ross County all the way to the Premiership, and cup semi-finals, and finals too.
The downside of covering these two senior sides was that I couldn’t sample HFL football on Saturdays.
However, there were international breaks which opened doors for such opportunities and the regular midweek cards now needed in order to get the season finished by April, certainly in time for the pyramid promotion play-off, which was won by champions Cove Rangers last season, who are now in great shape to challenge for the League Two title in around four months.
Mat’s book got me thinking which Highland League grounds appealed most to me. I completely get where he comes from when he talks of Ben Nevis looming large and amazingly over Claggan Park in Fort William.
The serial losers, more often than not propping up the division, might not be winners often on the pitch, but the setting is stunning, constructed naturally.
One of the stories on Friday’s Alive and Kicking was about Russell McMorran resigning as Fort William boss, with his intention to step down in the New Year.
The former club secretary tried all he could and did get a tune from his players and wins over Nairn County and Clach in cup and league respectively shows signs of progress, even if their usual 17th league position suggests otherwise.
The other HFL story on my show was better news at another club as Nairn manager Ronnie Sharp, assistant Michael Rae and first-team coach Mark Greig all penned two-year rolling extensions. Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat by rapidly rising title challengers Rothes was a setback in an otherwise positive campaign for Nairn, who are only five points off fifth spot.
Station Park is another charming venue and was firmly within my papers’ circulation area, so I got along as often as circumstances allowed to cover Nairn. I’ve always had strong working relationships with all at Nairn and that continues today.
Highland League clubs in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire are less well known to me, although I have been to them all, apart from the Balmoral Stadium, home of Cove Rangers and Formartine United’s North Lodge Park.
So, perhaps in part because of it being the HFL venue I have covered most matches at, my personal vote for my favourite ground goes to Grant Street, the home of Clach.
Hospitality is a watchword that all 17 clubs will have a claim on in their own special way. There is no chairman that I have found to be too grand to welcome anyone and the officials do all they can – most of the time – to make the experience of being a visitor a welcome one.
I’ve obviously been along to Clach Park in Merkinch as a general punter, but most often I’ve been representing my newspaper employers.
The latter gives me a very fortunate insight, an extra foot in the door, though I never once took that for granted. The boardroom and half-time coffee and home-baking, especially in spine-chilling winters, will forever be fondly remembered by me.
When I was at the Highland News, helped largely by Lilywhites legends in different ways, Peter and Billy Corbett, we ran a campaign to help raise awareness and financial backing to fund a replacement for the covered terracing behind the far end goal, formerly the noisy Wine Shed.
In a deserved nod to its history, it is known today as the Clean Sweep Enclosure, named as such for the men who made history at this famous old ground, winning everything up for winning in 1947-48 – the Highland League, the Highland League Cup, the North of Scotland Cup and the Scottish Qualifying Cup. Driven by Peter Corbett, vice-chairman at the time of that 2013 successful venture with our newspaper, which loved being able to help in any way.
Two wee Grant Street anecdotes to round off.
I had only just moved from Glasgow to Inverness in January 1999 as a trainee news reporter when I thought I’d get a feel for football here. Not even two weeks or two unpacked boxes in my bedsit later, I enjoyed a cracking Scottish Cup replay between Clach and visitors Queen’s Park from my home city of Glasgow. Clach had held the then amateurs from Hampden to a 1-1 draw to earn a second shot at them in Inverness.
Weather-wise, it was a vile day to be out, never mind enduring football from what I recall, but it was a superb contes1t. David Graham’s goal after half an hour put the Spiders ahead but Graeme Bennett and Colin Sinclair strikes put Clach in the chair for a potential upset.
However, late gutsy goals from Jim Brown and Kevin Finlayson put grateful Queens over the finish line and a red card for David Brennan at the death was salt in the wounds.
It was just what you want from a tie of that kind. A real rollercoaster, with late drama to boot.
Another aspect of the game was the musical skills from the visiting fans cut no ice with the hardy Clachers who sang “stick your trombone up your a..e”. Great, good-natured banter.
Another notable moment for me was when amid really choppy financial waters with the club’s existence under threat, Celtic brought a side north for a fundraising friendly.
The Hoops won handsomely, but cash raised was the name of the game. Effectively Celtic reserves that Tuesday night were managed by Neil Lennon, who soon became their boss, first time around. He’s not doing badly now in his second spell in charge too.
Along with Iain Auld, who was at MFR at the time, we waited afterwards for Neil Lennon to speak to us and were being soaked by the incessant downpours.
He took ages to appear but the reason was he was inside signing as many things as he could to help further raise money for the club, who recovered thanks to efforts such as this.
The team bus was full of players and its doors were open for their manager but when we asked if he would mind taking a moment to extend his night further for local Inverness media, he put down his bag, unruffled by the rain and supplied the quotes I needed for the next morning’s press day at the Highland News. A professional in every sense.
Rangers have been at Grant Street in recent years too, most recently with their legends such as Andy Goram, Colin Hendry and Jorg Albertz appearing for ex-Clach captain Gordy Morrison’s testimonial three years ago.
Amid the laughter that Sunday afternoon, there was sadness too as the now sadly missed Fernando Ricksen, who bravely battled Motor Neurone Disease, was smiling from his wheelchair as fans from all four sides raised the roof.
Grant Street was a reporting haven for me and that’s most likely why it’s my too HFL venue. I’m happy to hear yours too. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
May I wish you a Merry Christmas and hopefully you’ll enjoy the festive sporting feasts in the days ahead.
Join me again next week for my closing column of 2019.