Every time I see the words “The North”, it brings back memories of a great Argentine friend of mine who had flown into Britain for the first time, lured here by Monty Python’s re-union at the 02 in London! Post the “bleedin’ demise” of that entertaining gig, the next day we set off on the drive to Scotland and as we hit the M1 just outside the capital, one the first signs he clapped his eyes on said “The North”, and every time subsequently he saw these words, he’d repeat them in a Pythonesque fashion and laugh!!
I am sure the controversial columnist Julie Burchill always thought The North started just beyond Watford, but for southern English football fans, depending on how far south your club is, this will essentially determine where your perception of “north” starts! I tip my hat at all fans in lengthy lands where your club is at the extremity. I was at a Carlisle v Plymouth game a few seasons ago, the sort of game that shows the metal of a true fan. Up here in Scotland the century plus “closed shop” nature of the game meant that Aberdeen was the only real lengthy trek of the season. The expansion to include Inverness and Dingwall did bring a decade or so of top flight fans bleating that these away games were too far away! Elgin though is the furthest north venue in the Scottish league at this point!
The North East tag conjures thoughts of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, or in Scotland the aforementioned Aberdeen, Peterhead and maybe Cove Rangers now, but the real North East might as well be the Ross Ice Shelf on Antarctica, only the brave and the adventurous get to know the true North East football of Scotland! Strap yourself in, here we go!!
Beyond the Black Isle, a peninsula over the Kessock Bridge at Inverness, football is alive and kicking. The idea for this article developed the day England were playing Sweden at the World Cup! I was heading for Orkney but before taking the ferry, Wick Academy were playing Orkney for the magnificently named Ken Green Challenge Cup, and even more to my surprise, Orkney were defending the trophy! The game had a similar kick off to the WC action in Samara, but on a rare, gloriously sunny Caithness day, you can’t beat real action away from the TV! I have seen Wick a number of times in central/southern areas in Scottish Cup action, including treks to Girvan, Dalbeattie and Berwick Upon Tweed, but this was my first ever game at Harmsworth Park, and with my family island “homeland” of Orkney in town, it was the perfect opportunity.
Harmsworth Park (capacity 2,412) is just inside the Town limit as you come in by car from the south. First you’ll see a cemetery on your right, and then the stadium next door where a distinctly sloped pitch awaits, but it is a very tidy Highland League home for Scotland’s most northerly SFA member. The main entrance is on main road, but up the back of the ground a gate will allow you to enter either by foot, or bring your car, where you can choose sit in it and have a perfect view of the game, as the car park terrace sits high above the pitch! This way of watching has tradition in the older stadiums on the Faroe Islands, as well as nearer at hand in Shetland and Orkney. When Wick scored in this match, a few horns would peep! I can imagine of a winter’s day, with the wind howling this is an all ticket area!! When the Highland League lost three of its incumbents during the summer of ’94, with Caledonian and Thistle merging in Inverness and Dingwall’s Ross County all joining the Scottish league, Wick were finally accepted into what is now the fifth tier of the Scottish game. They had been playing in the North Caledonian League, a small league which has no promotion to the Highland League as yet, but given the revolution in the Lowland area with the 6th tier East of Scotland league going from 13 members to 39 over the summer, times are changing. Wick, unlike Fort William and Strathspey Thistle have been a fine addition to the Highland League, and while it took them a few seasons to really get to grips with the more demanding fixtures and travel schedule (Wick to Cove and many of the Aberdeenshire sides can be a 5 hour trip!), they have become a top half team, and on occasion they’ve finished in the top six. The fact that the Highland League winner can now potentially get promoted to the Scottish League has seen more ambitious clubs, especially in the Aberdeenshire area dominate, but the North does have it’s own team that can joust with the best of them in Brora Rangers, as well as Wick on their day!
Orkney have in recent years entered a team into the North Caledonian League, and it is perhaps beginning to pay dividends, winning the title last season for the first time, a new feather for the island footballers. While Orkney has its own summer league, including Rendall FC (Rendall is not only a district of the mainland but a popular Orcadian surname!) some of the lads that play for their respective “local” team, also play for the Orkney FC league side. Those who do play for both are effectively playing all year round as the Orkney league is a summer league, and the North Caledonian League runs from autumn to spring. When you factor in the travelling off the island to away fixtures as far south as Inverness, it takes a lot of dedication. Perhaps given some of Orkney’s players had been playing all summer they looked sharper straight from the kick off versus Wick and the raced into the lead. I was astonished just how useful, and fit they looked. The Scorries, Wick’s nickname (a North name for seagulls) also lost a player with a bad injury, and an ambulance was needed, but in a tremendous opening 45 minutes, Academy not only found the equaliser but went in 2-1 up after an absolute cracking drive. The second half was slower, more fractious by virtue of an astonishing number of Orkney substitutions! Wick scored a third but it should have been 3-2 right at the end when what seemed like a perfectly good goal, but it was belatedly chalked off for the visitors.
Upon my arrival on Orkney, the idea for this article started growing arms and legs! Suddenly the plethora of substitutions at Wick was beginning to make sense when I learned that the 100th Milne Cup match was just around the corner, Orkney v Shetland, the old “north isle” rivalry was hitting its century of games. It started out in 1908 as Kirkwall v Lerwick, the two Capitals of the respective islands, with the Shetlanders winning 5-1. It wasn’t until 1919 that the game changed name to Orkney v Shetland, an excuse for another Centenary event next year in Lerwick of the island named fixture perhaps?! The game alternates between the islands year on year, and Shetland being that bit larger have tended to have the upper hand since the mid ’70’s at which point Orkney led the series 32-20, but going into the 100th match Shetland had turned that statistic around to lead 55-39, with five drawn games. Orkney’s only away win in that period coming in 1981 with a 1-0 success. Shetland have hosted and won the Island Games football competition, something Orkney will have the honour of hosting in 2023. Indeed before the Faroes joined FIFA, all three groups of islands would play for the North Atlantic Cup!
A crowd of around 700 turned out on a dreich late July Saturday afternoon at the Pickaquoy stadium, Kirkwall (known locally as Picky) to witness this historic 100th encounter, some way short of the 6,000 record crowd in 1935, but times are a changed, and the local Kirkwall Open Golf tournament is badly timed for the same day. It was a game that will live long in the memory of Orcadian football fans, as that inaugural 5-1 loss in Lerwick 110 years on was replicated and reversed with a magnificent 5-1 Orkney win! Isn’t it strange how football scores and statistics have a habit of cropping up again, and again?! The boys in red and white raced into a 3-0 half time lead, aided by a brace from Man of the Match young Liam Delday. Shetland must have received a real tongue lashing at half time and emerged with more fighting spirit putting Orkney under relentless pressure. It took them until 15 minutes from the end to find the net though, and as they endeavoured to reduce the deficit yet further, a fit and youthfully athletic Orkney side countered at blistering pace, scoring a fourth soon after, and putting the icing on the Milne Cup cake with that all important fifth goal in added on time just after Shetland had struck the Orkney crossbar with a header. It was the biggest margin of victory in 46 years, a result built on fine fitness and great team unity, something that Orkney FC might have brought to the County team. The next stage of the evolving Orkney side is to try and win on Shetland for the first time in 38 years next July, and if they continue to do well in the North Caledonian League, and compete well with the likes of Wick Academy, that elusive away win is not an unrealistic prospect. The future of Orkney football looks bright, and if the Caledonian League becomes a Highland League feeder, might we see Wick v Orkney as a league fixture? It would be great!
Back on the mainland, as you head south down the stunning, if twisty A9 road that hugs the coastline from Wick, the next major footballing “hub” you’ll drive into is Brora. Of all the teams in this region, Brora Rangers are maybe the one most people will know. In recent years they have changed from a Highland League also-ran to back to back league winners, and despite the two most recent seasons being without title success, they are still a force to be reckoned with and they are running Cove close this term. Brora were the first Non League side to be involved in the promotion play off final versus League Two’s bottom club, Montrose in 2015. I was at both these ties, and while rumours abound about a lack of desire to step up, the “Cattachs” as Brora are known, held Montrose 1-1 at their own Dudgeon Park, a 4,000 capacity ground on the southern edge of town, and they led at half time in the return leg 1-0 at Links Park. Hilariously the Brora fans were going round asking for money that they could leave with Montrose to buy a road map of the Highland League area where Montrose would have ended up had they lost! However, a harsh red card and a strong wind behind the home side in the second half both contrived to assist Montrose to a win and league safety, but it was a fine effort by the Sutherland side. Last season Brora had a poor league campaign by their own high standards, but they did go on a Scottish Cup run that will live long in the memory, that saw them reach the last sixteen of the competition beating Edinburgh’s CSS (Civil Service Strollers), Stranraer (quite a trip!), East Fife and then putting up stiff resistance at Rugby Park versus Kilmarnock. Incredibly every game was away from home! I saw them dig out a 1-0 win at East Fife, but the most amazing goal I have ever seen was scored by Brora, a late equaliser at Edinburgh University in the cup a few years ago when a shot from just inside the halfway line hit the top corner of the net at some rate, what a screamer!
The final part of this Northern tale seemed to beautifully fit into place soon after my trip to Orkney when the Scottish Cup draw was made! The final may be in late May next year at Hampden, but it all started on 11th August, and as luck would have it, the last “big” north team for my story had been drawn at home, Golspie Sutherland v Burntisland Shipyard. These two were “non non” league anomalies of the Scottish Cup, but Burntisland have upped their game, turning semi-professional less than a year ago in a bid to stay more competitive in the burgeoning East of Scotland set up. They won the Fife Cup at the end of last season for the first ever time, and are slowly losing the “joke” tag that horrendous cup thumpings of old bestowed on them. So, all in the name of journalism for a good piece for Football Weekends, I drove by my own teams stadium in Inverness on a day newly promoted Ayr were bringing their five wins on the trot start to the season to town, and out over the aforementioned Kessock Bridge headed to Sutherland once more.
Golspie Sutherland are still an anomaly, playing in the North Caledonian League (they have won the title 9 times), with no promotion prospects, but they are a fully affiliated SFA member allowing them to participate in the Scottish as well as the North of Scotland Cup! This was my first ever game at the romantically named King George V ground (capacity 1,000), but I have driven by on numerous occasions, and even done that classic football fan thing, stopped and had a peek over the wall! The ground is visible from the A9 but you have to know where to look especially coming into town from south, but where the round dips down to the right, beyond a play park, the wall is visible but they have no floodlights. I had seen Golspie in Scottish Cup action before, an away tie versus Gala Fairydean before they added Rovers, but upon arriving in Galashiels I discovered the game was being played in Hawick further south as the pitch was being taken up to be replaced by an artificial surface. Golspie put up a brave fight, but lost 4.1. The repetition of scores rears its head again, with Golspie going down 4-1 to Burntisland in this Scottish Cup tie, the first time in four games I have seen The Shipyard win. A red card for the home side at 0-1 aided the “Shippy” as Burntisland are known, and they scored two more before the break. However, I cannot fault the conviction and effort of Golspie, and despite losing a fourth in the earlier part of the second half, they finished the stronger, and while they only managed one consolation goal, they could easily had one or two more. So having seen off one “anomaly” of the Scottish Cup participants, Burntisland head across to Ayrshire to play another in the shape of Girvan Amateurs, the only “Junior” side that get a shot at the Scottish Cup no matter their league position as they have retained their membership! For Golspie, they’ll have the competition of Orkney in the North Caledonian League this autumn, and judging on the matches I saw for this article, Orkney could very well retain the title, but then again I might just be bias!