2012 has proved to be a good year for football teams in the very far north of Scotland. Former semi-professional Highland league teams Inverness Caledonian Thistle (ICT) and Ross County are doing well in the Scottish Premier League. ICT are currently second in the SPL while Scottish cup finalists in 2010, Ross County, are holding their own in the top flight and are looking good to avoid relegation. The Highland derbies are producing some highly entertaining games, and may be considered to be the New Firm of Scottish football.
In the UK’s more northerly semi professional league, the Highland League, the most northerly club Wick Academy are currently in second place and have a good chance of winning their first ever Highland league title this season. Not only are they enjoying their best form ever since joining the Highland league in 1994 (after ICT and Ross County left to join the SFL) but they are playing entertaining and attractive football that is played on the ground at pace. View highlights of their recent win over local rivals Brora Rangers by clicking here.
Even the most northerly junior club on the British mainland had its most successful season ever this past year. John O Groats under 15’s squad (pictured, above right), who are part of the Caithness Boys Football Association, won three county tournaments and finished joint top of the county league. As Thurso Swifts, who were also joint top, were unable to raise a team for a decisive play-off match, it was decided that the 2012 league title would be shared. You can view highlights of their season by clicking here.
As a small village team in the county of Caithness, John O Groats junior football club has struggled over the years to compete with the bigger town teams in Wick and Thurso simply due to having fewer players to chose from in the local area. They often struggled to field a full team, whereas some of the town teams had enough players to field two teams. John O Groats juniors won their first tournament trophy only two years ago when the current team played in the under 13 league.
The majority of the under 15 squad have been with John O Groats junior FC for many years and have continually developed as individual players and as a team. Although the players struggled to win many games in their younger years, this season has been a fitting reward for all the hard work put in by the players and coaches over the years.
John O Groats u15’s did look into the possibility of arranging an end of season challenge match against a similar aged team from Lands End, but were unable to make contact with any teams in the area. With a distance of 874 miles by road between the two extremities of mainland UK, it would have made for a unique and epic match. Getting games arranged for junior football teams often is challenging and is especially so when you live in the remote far north of Scotland.
Most of the current John O Groats players have also played for the county select team Caithness United at under 13 and under 15 age groups where they regularly had to travel hundreds of miles all over the Highlands and Islands by bus and ferry to places such as Buckie, Fort William, Inverness, the Orkney islands and the Western Isles. Playing these away games involves longer travelling times than most UK professional players have to when playing in the Champions league!
The north has benefited from ICT and Ross County progressing to the SFL and SPL in many ways. There is more chance now of young players from the far north being to progress to higher levels than previously. In the past the distance to central belt clubs in the south was often a barrier to young gifted footballers being able to progress to a professional level. Two current young Caithness players that play for SPL clubs are Gary Mackay-Steven (pictured, left) at Dundee Utd and Shane Sutherland at ICT. Many of Wick Academy’s talented players have benefited from coaching at Ross County and playing for them at youth levels.
The SFA’s Football Development Officer, Peter Budge, based at the Highland Football Academy next to Ross County’s stadium in Dingwall has played a big part in coaching coaches all over the Highlands and Islands. Coaches now receive top class SFA coaching courses run periodically which has helped improve standards at every level in the Highlands and this can be seen in players being given more chance to develop than ever before.