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Balloan head coach hails ‘fantastic achievement’ of youth squads in Highland League competitions

By Niall Harkiss

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Balloan FC's under-18 side, who secured the north division title with a 4-0 win over Forres Mechanics. Picture: Martin Fitzgerald/Balloan FC
Balloan FC's under-18 side, who secured the north division title with a 4-0 win over Forres Mechanics. Picture: Martin Fitzgerald/Balloan FC

The head coach of Balloan under-18s has hailed his side’s overall campaign as a “fantastic achievement” after they finished as runners-up in Sunday’s Highland League championship playoff.

The Inverness youngsters qualified for the playoff after being crowned winners of the Highland League under-18 north division in April, just a point ahead of nearest rivals Lossiemouth.


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Their opponents, Inverurie Loco Works, won the east division with three points to spare, finishing clear of runners-up, Dyce.

A close, yet high-scoring affair at the Gleaner Arena in Elgin saw Balloan hold a 4-3 advantage at half-time.

But a second half fightback from Locos swung the balance in their favour, claiming victory with six goals to Balloan’s five.

Head coach Martin Fitzgerald said: “I’m sure for the neutral the game was entertaining with 11 goals, but we can’t have any complaints. Both team went at it for 90 minutes, and we’re so proud of our boys.

“They have achieved so much at such a young age, and at the first time of asking. Every boy has played their part in getting the team to the championship playoff.

“Inverurie are a great side, proving so over the last couple of years by retaining the league and cup, but I still believe with the resources of Balloan, like Alness last year, as a community club it is a fantastic achievement to compete at this level.

“We have a fantastic youth system at the club and we are improving it all the time. We have to look at this success and build from it.

“It puts every player in our team in the spotlight, for senior clubs to come asking. We would like to keep all the boys as they still got another year in the age group, but we wouldn’t hold them back if they wanted to try at a higher level.”

Balloan raced into a two goal lead after just 13 minutes with Alfie Forsyth netting after an early Sam Adams penalty.

Locos drew level within ten minutes with goals from Jamie Thomson and Stewart Gray, but Balloan immediately restored their lead with a second goal from Forsyth.

Kacper Bednarowski equalised for Locos on 38 minutes but an Adams goal three minutes before the interval restored the Inverness side’s lead.

Balloan held their lead until the 57th minute when a Morgan Conway penalty brought the Aberdeenshire side level. Things went from bad to worse for Balloan as Thomson then made it 5-4.

The next goal would make all the difference and it did just that as Gray netted for Inverurie with nine minutes to go.

Pulling one back with a minute of normal time remaining, Balloan’s Adams notched his hat-trick, but it was a case of too little, too late for the Inverness starlets.

Balloan – Fitzgerald, Black, Robertson, Gibb, Bradley, Dowling, L Mackay, Forsyth, Munro, Holmes, Adams. Subs - C Thomson, Barnie, Macleod, S Mackay

Locos – McCafferty, Halliday, Brock, Conway, Clark, Butchart, E Smith, Zimmerman, Bednarowski, Gray, Thomson. Subs - Stark, B Smith, Christie, Ruddiman, Harper

Balloan’s emergence as north under-18 champions came in their first season competing in the Highland League.

The long-established youth football club, which currently runs 15 teams for school years S1 to S6, was represented at under-18 level by its 2007/2008s age group — its first senior crop to progress through the ranks.

The Inverness hot-shots graduated to the under-18 ranks of the Highland League last summer.

Coming in as an unknown quantity, Balloan surprised everyone, establishing themselves as league leaders from day one — and they held on to top spot throughout the season — but their campaign was not without some adversity.

Fitzgerald said: “The boys were caught cold in the new year when they had been without games for a while, and we dropped our first points with a draw and a defeat. This was the first real challenge for the boys, could they bounce back or had the winning wave they were on, crashed?

“Adding to this, Alness and Lossiemouth were both enjoying very strong runs, beating the teams in front of them and closing the gap on us. This theme continued throughout winter and early spring with the league becoming a three-way race.

“But the boys stuck together, and they were able to grind out results in the tough fixtures and in some tough conditions.”

Fitzgerald credits their penultimate game of the season as the catalyst for their eventual success, when they secured a draw at Lossiemouth to keep their title hopes alive.

He said: “The game summed up the boys. Their tough, resilient, never give up attitude, losing 2-1 and with only minutes to play they scored with a thunderbolt from 25 yards.

“The togetherness the boys showed during and after this game spoke volumes. They had found a way to draw a game meaning the league outcome was in their hands away to Forres.

“The boys then did what they have always done and delivered a comprehensive 4-0 win to become league champions at first time of asking. They are a credit to themselves and the definition of a team, one we are all extremely proud of.”

Representing the under-18s in 2023-24 were: Harvey Fitzgerald, Owen Fraser, Aiden Gibb, Adam Harrison, Bailey Black, Caleb Dowling, Aaron Holmes, Ryan Rutherford, John Munro, Frazer Barnie, Sam Adams, Lewis Gibson, Alfie Forsyth, Rhys Crampsey, Bodhan Campbell, Scott Mackay, Cameron Macintosh, Roy Thomson, Chevy Thompson and Alex Robertson.

Balloan’s under-18s team are likely to be a force for years to come, if the success of its under-16 side is anything to go by.

The young teenage group, known as “Balloan City”, secured the Highland League under-16 championship with a 4-1 win over Elgin City in April, after qualifying for the playoff with a 100 per cent record.

They cantered to the Highland title, winning all 16 games in their division, netting 112 with just nine conceded in reply.

Five players reached double figures with striker Alfie Forsyth finishing as the league’s top scorer with 26 goals.

Coaches Gary Addison and Grant Henderson said: "This is the culmination of the best part of five years of the boys working hard together. To a person that have worked hard, showed high levels of skill and fitness and ultimately deserve all the accolades they get.

“Not only did we have the best defence and attack in the league but every outfield player scored over the season showing the strength in depth of the squad. Every single member of the squad should be proud of their contribution to the teams success."

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