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Highland League title race is a sprint not a marathon

By Will Clark

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Highland News and Media sports editor Will Clark says due to the shortened season, there is little margin for error for any team who has ambitions of becoming champions in the 2020/21 campaign

Highland League champions Brora Rangers also won the North of Scotland Cup last season.Picture: Callum Mackay
Highland League champions Brora Rangers also won the North of Scotland Cup last season.Picture: Callum Mackay

TO win the Highland League this season, no team can afford to get their campaign off to a false start with just 15 games to play.

The finishing line has been brought forward closer than first hoped as only 16 teams are set to kick off this weekend in a shortened 2020/21 campaign.

Forres Mechanics have decided to sit this one out.

The Can Cans have cited health concerns over the impact of coronavirus restrictions to access changing facilities as well as potential transmission of the virus.

No club or individual can be blamed for having worries of playing while a virus, that has the potential to kill people, remains present in the region.

Clubs in other divisions across Scotland, including the North Caledonian League and the West of Scotland League have also opted to pull out of playing this season.

But all other clubs in the Highland League have decided the show must go on and they can’t be blamed for wanting that either.

At the time of going to press, 10 teams in the Highland and Moray regions will be allowed to welcome back fans to stadiums due to being in level one, which will be a positive financial boost to what has been a challenging time.

However, teams in Aberdeenshire still remain in a level two region preventing them inviting fans back through the gates.

To their credit they want to carry on and get players back on the pitch, even if it comes at a financial cost.

Highland League champions Brora Rangers will fancy their chances of retaining their title and hope they receive the opportunity to win promotion to League Two.

The Cattachs, along with Lowland League champions Kelty Hearts, were aggrieved they were denied the chance to go up after the campaign was brought to an abrupt halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The SPFL voted to scrap the play-offs last season and also deny both teams promotion in a proposed enlarged national league system.

Their form in the Betfred League Cup group stages, recording draws against League One outfits Cove Rangers and Forfar Athletic after 90 minutes, proved they have what it takes to compete at a higher level and will be favourites to win the championship.

But anyone who thinks they will dominate like last season, received a reality check when they were beaten at home by Buckie Thistle in the Highland League Cup semi final in October.

Buckie showed they can take on the best teams in the division and will not let any club have their own way in pursuit of the title.

However, could Rothes be the surprise package this season after they beat Buckie in the Highland League Cup final in a bid to win the SHFL for the first time since 1959?

The turnaround at the Speysiders has been incredible, from being whipping boys four years ago, finishing rock bottom with a goal difference of -149, manager Ross Jack has turned the team into a major force, finishing third last season.

With only 15 league games and their success in knockout football, Rothes have what it takes to be real contenders.

Rothes manager Ross Jack holding the Highland League Cup.
Rothes manager Ross Jack holding the Highland League Cup.

Last season’s runners-up Fraserburgh always threatened to challenge Brora.But they were blighted by a backlog of games before a 2–1 defeat to the Sutherlanders at Bellslea killed things off.

Broch still have quality in their squad and will be among the frontrunners.

Formartine United and Inverurie Locos are always branded contenders to win the league. But in the last 15 years, they have both been guilty of throwing title chances away.

Flattering to deceive for a long time, can either of these clubs realise the potential they possess and win the league for the first time?

Nairn County had their best season in years defeating top teams such as Brora and Inverurie as well as holding Fraserburgh at home.

If they can make Station Park a fortress, like most of last season, they could be one to watch.

Wick Academy have appointed club legend Gary Manson manager to guide the Scorries back to success.

But following the loss of some players from the golden generation of Caithness football which made them such a force in the middle part of the last decade will be a tough task.

Deveronvale, Keith, Huntly and Strathspey Thistle will all have ambitions on finishing within the top half of the table.

Clachnacuddin will also look to make it back to the top half for the first time since 2013 with Turriff United aiming to recover from one of their worst ever campaigns.

Fort William finished above Lossiemouth last season to avoid the wooden spoon. But this time they will have to compete without the assistance of nine players loaned from Caley Thistle in an attempt to improve from last season.

It is hard to see anyone than these two will finish bottom and results between the two could be the difference who ends up at the foot of the table.

Fort William beat Clachnacuddin twice last season. Picture: James MacKenzie.
Fort William beat Clachnacuddin twice last season. Picture: James MacKenzie.

The Highland League Cup is also set to have a different look to give teams more games this season.

The competition is set to start after the new year and will comprise two groups of five clubs and one group of six, split up into three geographical zones which has yet to be decided.

However it is expected clubs will be split into north and west, Moray and Aberdeenshire with the venue of derby matches to be different to those which takes place in the Highland League to help boost revenue for clubs in the event of fans returning.

There is also hope that the North of Scotland Cup will be able to take place this season.

The North of Scotland Football Association say discussions will take place about holding the tournament after the Highland League and League Two play-offs have been completed.

A final decision is expected to be made later in the year, meanwhile the Aberdeenshire Cup kicked off earlier this month.

However, we have to accept everything could be subject to change.

There is no certainty things can go as planned and if substitutions will be made to schedules.

But with news of a vaccine that is 90 per cent effective on the way, we should have hope.

The world might have changed, but we’re determined it hasn’t changed forever.

The Highland League is a prime example of how football is important to communities.

When the turnstiles reopen, fans will showwhy it is such a fantastic league that we have all missed so much.

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