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There is an interesting story coming out of the Highlands of Scotland right now, and that is the current plight of Highland League club Fort William FC. With one game remaining of their current league campaign the team find themselves on -7 points. That’s right minus 7! You did not misread and I did not mistype, even if they win their final league match they will still end the season on -4 points.
Situated on the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe and close to the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis, is the delightful town of Fort William. The earliest recorded settlement in the area is a Cromwellian wooden fort built-in 1654 and from those humble beginnings, Fort William developed into a town of just over 10,000 inhabitants, which is popular with tourists and boasts a football team rather famous for losing. On the outskirts of the town just off the main A82 road with the hills of Ben Nevis towering over it is Claggan Park the home ground of Fort William Football Club and because of its mountainside backdrop, it is possibly one of the most picturesque grounds in Britain.
Now Fort William aren’t exactly world beaters, last season they failed to win a single game and finished the season with only 5 points, whilst things did not start any better for the club this current campaign when the part-timers who usually play in front crowds of comfortably less than 100 lost their opening 5 games conceding 48 goals in the process. After such a dreadful start Fort William, no doubt thought things could not get any worse, but sadly for them oh yes they could! The Fort as they are nicknamed suddenly found themselves deducted 9 points and fined £150 when the league discovered they fielded an ineligible player on three separate occasions. Five games in and they were on minus 9 points. Since then, it’s been a nothing but a disastrous season for Fort William, yet for them, this torturous season is nothing new, this is just one of many.
Luckily for Fort William due to the way the Scottish league system is structured, there isn’t any relegation from the Highland League, otherwise, the club would have departed the division through the trap door a long time ago. Having been formed in 1974 they weren’t accepted into the Highland League until 1985 having just won the North Caledonian League the previous season. In their first season, they finished a respectable 13th and although yes there has also been finishes as high as 11th on occasion, the club has finished bottom of the league in 14 of the last 20 seasons, losing games with scorelines such as 13-0, 12-0, and 11-1. Some call them Britain’s worst team and to be fair you can see why.
The Highland League is a league of the haves and the have-nots, and Fort William are without a doubt currently the worst of the have-nots. As I write, without a win to their name they have only two draws on the board for the season, something that takes them to -7 points. They have actually scored 20 goals, as many as Huddersfield Town in the English Premier League, but Huddersfield have only conceded 69 whereas Fort William have let 240 slip through, and having played 33 games that’s 7.27 goals on average conceded per game. As it stands the Fort have lost every one of their last 16 games, all by at least a four-goal margin, with the opposition five times reaching double figures. A 3-3 draw at home to Clachnacuddin in November was followed by a 13-0 defeat at Fraserburgh whilst in their first game of 2019 was a 14-1 defeat at Fortmartine United, and whilst most of their heaviest defeats have come away from home, in February Brora Rangers went to Claggan Park and scored 11 against them without reply. In February and March, there was also a 12-1 hammering at Turriff United and an 11-0 thrashing away at Keith, whilst earlier in the season, there were also defeats of 11-1 (twice), 11-0, and two 10-0 scorelines. It really has been a difficult time for Fort William.
Last season, however, was slightly more successful, the club only conceded 184 goals and scored as many as 31, as mentioned earlier finishing the season on 5 points, all earned from draws. Only managing draws, however, means the club have not won a match in over two years. It has not been all horrendous in recent times mind. Go back another season further and the club actually scraped into double figures points-wise (11) whilst their most memorable season since the turn of the century came in the 2014-15 campaign when they finished as high as 13th with an impressive 27 points. They even managed to win four in a row at one point, and whereas The Fort are used to heavy defeats themselves, that season they actually managed to inflict some pain on others with three of their 8 wins coming by a 4-0 scoreline.
For sure in some seasons they may occasionally win a few games, but more often than not its lose, lose, lose, meaning a hard life for The Fort who at the end of last season were considering their future. There was talk of dropping out of the Highland League and turning amateur, but for now, they are still playing in the division. The town itself is rather remote with a small population and isolated from the rest of the league the club are the only Highland League side based in the west of the country meaning sometimes they have to travel for as many as five hours just to get to an away game. It’s not just away games that involve long journeys either, with members of their squad based far and wide across the region some players have to actually travel long distance to get to home games too. Another large problem is the local game of Shinty. Shinty is a sport unique to Scotland and is rather popular in the area with three major clubs snapping up lots of young sporting talent that might have otherwise ended up at their local football club. Besides, on the rare occasions that Fort William does produce any young talent of note, they are usually lured to larger clubs elsewhere.
Whilst Fort William’s squad has usually consisted of substandard, second-rate, but nonetheless eager and committed part-timers, there is one player of note who used to turn out for The Fort. Centre Forward John McGinlay went on to have a successful career in England where among other clubs he made 192 appearances for Bolton Wanderers including a stint in the Premier League, scoring 101 goals in the process. But the Scotsman from Inverness actually started his career at Fort William. As a 16-year McGinlay made a substitute appearance for the club in a match against Elgin City before going on to score 61 goals in 92 games for Fort William before ending up at Bolton via a stint in New Zealand amongst other places. No doubt The Fort would love another player like McGinlay on their books but McGinlay it seems was a one-off and the team has since struggled on with its imperfect gang.
Another more pleasant topic when it comes to Fort William is the Scottish Cup or at least one match in particular. Back in January 1986 when the club were Highland League new boys they were given a plum home tie with Scottish Football League side Stirling Albion in the second round. Over 1500 spectators crammed into Claggan Park to witness a heroic performance from the home side in a match that ended with a 0-0 draw. Sadly a week later the replay was not so pleasant and they lost 6-0 away at Stirling’s old Annfield Stadium. Nevermind.
As their plight in recent time suggests, such highlights and brief glimpses of promise as those listed above are an absolute rarity and with the club far more renowned for their consistent failures. Having said that, this is something that sometimes gives them welcome exposure. Their points deductions and those two years and counting wait for a win have given them press coverage they would not have otherwise gotten, whilst Sky Sports recently did a feature on the club for their Soccer Saturday programme. Fort William have also recently themselves produced their own short documentary for social media highlighting their plight.
No doubt some people will laugh at Fort William Football Club and the abject failure that is regularly seen on the pitch, but hopefully, like me most will be impressed by their dogged determination and the fact that they never give up. Defeat after defeat yet they still carry on, all for the love of the beautiful game, and the love of Fort William. Despite the despair this is in many ways a heartwarming story, and win, lose, or draw, long may it continue.
PS: One final point of interest, Fort William are not the only team to have finished a season on minus points. Maccabi Umm al-Fahm finished bottom of Israel’s second-tier Liga Leumit in the 2013-14 season with -4 points to their name. Having been deducted 5 points for entering administration they managed to lose all of their matches during that campaign bar one solitary draw. If there are further examples of teams finishing a season with minus points I have been unable to find them.