by Colin Campbell
ONE of the people who helps run Fort William football club texted me at the weekend to say the Press and Journal must have been struggling for a main story on Saturday, when it devoted the front page to a report on the club banning their “ultras”.
Maybe, but the story had a certain novelty value, with the most surprising thing being that a club like Fort William have any ultras – the term commonly used to describe fanatical young fans – to ban. They are a feature of bigger clubs, making an incessant noise grouped together in their own part of the stadium. But ultras – in Fort William?
But then quite a lot about Fort William FC is novel.
They get beat 16-0 (last season) and they soldier on. They get beat 13-0 and 12-0 and 10-0 in the same season and they soldier on. A player leaves his overnight shift on Saturday morning at a petrol station to get a lift to a game on the distant east coast, where the team is thrashed, and then gets back in time to start his Sunday night shift, which will take him through another sleepless night until the next morning.
When they lose 16-0 the scoreline becomes a talking point on national sports shows. When they notch up their first win for a very long time, as they did this season, it receives similarly widespread attention. Their pitch is regularly a waterlogged victim of the town’s notoriously heavy rainfall, so they have to move the goalposts and play at a right angle to the way they normally play. And, of course, they get visitors from across Europe, roving football supporters who consider their picturesque Claggan Park in the shadow of Ben Nevis a “must visit” destination as one of the ultimate footballing outposts.
And then there are the “ultras”.
I’m familiar with the news of this select band of teenagers because the same person who texted me is also a regular at Inverness Leisure – he works in Inverness – and has been banging on about them in exasperation all season.
Comprising about 30 lads aged around 14-16, they wanted to step up the volume of noise they make from one of the club’s two tiny grandstands, so they launched a crowdfunding appeal for a trumpet and drum. It was partly successful – the drum duly appeared, and has had the living daylights beaten out of it ever since.
Reports on the ban imposed on these kids tended to be sympathetic towards them, and generated several hundred messages on social media, with the vast majority saying the club had gone over the score, and calling for a rethink. The tendency nowadays in this youth-oriented era is to take that line, with adults bending over backwards to see errant youngsters as sometimes misguided, often misunderstood, but rarely needing to be firmly sanctioned.
Unfortunately, the ultras of Fort William deserved their punishment, and it is probably overdue.
Partly comical as the scenario may seem with bellowing, or squeaky voices and a big thumping drum, the youngsters beneath Ben Nevis have too often caused the club problems and embarrassment with foolish and thoughtless behaviour.
Objects have been thrown around during matches – not enough to damage anyone, but it shouldn’t happen, and certainly not at a senior football club ground. Visiting managers and coaches sitting yards away have been abused in a way seemingly designed to get a furious reaction, which it often did. Without other crowd noise to mask it, that’s akin to being roundly abused from across the street. A Fort William lad playing for another team was on the receiving end of such abuse that his mother, who was at the game, was in tears. And it seems the final straw was last Wednesday, when there was a stramash when an official from visitors Strathspey Thistle furiously said he’d been spat at while leaving the pitch.
Far from being heavy-handed, as has been claimed, the people who keep Fort William FC in existence have been wondering what to do about the ultras all season. The teenagers have been spoken to, but have paid little or no attention. There was a proposal to ban the “ringleaders”, but that didn’t happen. All in all Fort Willam officials – just ordinary folk who to their credit have stepped up – believe they have enough to do without taking on the role of social workers pondering the best options for “reaching out” to troublesome teenagers. So ban the lot of them was the final decision – and it’s not diffucult to see why.
The kids can still attend matches – provided they are accompanied by a parent. So their enthusiasm for football, if that’s what motivates them, can be kept alive. But the “ultras” group of Claggan Park is no more. And that well-battered drum will at least get a rest.