Before today, I’d never been anywhere near Inverness. The furthest north I’d ever stretched to was Aberdeen; Pittodrie being the venue for a couple of Hibs away days. The north of Scotland has been consistently romanticised for its beauty and legendary myths. The chance to travel up had always evaded me, but thanks to a rare opportunity to volunteer my services to drive my partner’s dance group to a performance in Eden Court Theatre it suddenly became possible. On a sunny Saturday in the middle of October, I set off in a seventeen-seater mini-bus destined for ‘The Capital of the Highlands.’
Inverness has a lot to offer. The city holds a grand detail of importance, both of traditional Scottish culture and historical influence. It is an area where ancient Norwegian invaders were fought, Jacobite armies were defeated and Highland-clearances took place. It stands as a symbol of positivity in a truly mesmeric landscape. I was interested to read that it was voted the happiest place in Scotland in 2015, which may or may not be saying much considering the stereotypically pessimistic undertones we exude as a nation.
In a sporting context, Inverness have produced some belters. World champion runner Laura Muir hails from the city, as does Jenny Graham, who set the world record for the fastest time to cycle around the world. Quads of steel indeed. Cleveland Browns punter Jamie Gillan also has links to Inverness, making him one of the very few Scots to immerse themselves in the NFL.
Inverness is also famously the birthplace of Charlie and Ryan Christie. The father and son duo have followed similar footballing paths; both representing Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Celtic respectively. Ryan in particular has had a wealth of success come his way. He won the 2015 Scottish Cup with ICT before winning an incredible six trophies in succession with The Bhoys. Two League Titles, two League Cups and another two Scottish Cup medals line Ryan’s personal accolade cabinet. Currently turning out in the English Premier League with AFC Bournemouth, Christie will go down in history with the Scotland National Team, scoring that goal in Serbia to send us on our way to Euro 2020.
The Christies played for ICT, the only professional outfit remaining in the city. There is however, a much older, far more established and trophy-laden club in the form of Clachnacuddin Football Club. Formed in 1885, they are an age-old presence in Inverness. Clach are historically successful, having won a record-tying eighteen Highland League titles. A ridiculous amount of North of Scotland Cups, Highland League Cups and Inverness Cups also shine brightly within Grant Street Park. This is even more impressive considering the club almost went bust in 1990. With Clach hours away from disappearing from the footballing world, a generous group of seven stepped in to save them. Their contribution prevented the worst and without them, Clach would be resigned to the history books.
However, since then, silverware has been hard to come by. Their last league title came in 2004 and the latest Highland Cup win came exactly a decade later. The increasingly improving Brora Rangers, Buckie Thistle and Fraserburgh look to have the next few league titles wrapped up between them; hoping to follow trend-setters Cove Rangers into the SPFL.
Currently, The Lilywhites sit third bottom in the standings, with only six points from eleven games. As far as I’m concerned, Clach are a dormant giant desperately needing to be woken up. My involvement begins with this home tie against Lossiemouth. Sitting mid-table, they travel to Inverness in confident mood. It’s up to Clachnacuddin to regain some of their own.
Grant Street Park is located a mere 20-minute walk from the city centre. As I took in the incredibly picturesque architecture around the River Ness and inched closer the ground, you realise just how imbedded GSP is in the community. It is easily missable, plonked right inside an old wee housing estate. I followed the music and a group of Clach supporters and entered the arena with anticipation.
GSP is incredibly tight. Battered white walls run the perimeter of a well-looked after pitch with supporters hanging over each side. It almost feels you can reach out and grab the players if you somehow decided that was a good idea. A grandstand emerges in all its glory on the left, supplied with a four-tiered seating arrangement that gives a wonderful view wherever you’re sat. On the far side sits the ‘The 1947/48 Clean Sweep Enclosure’, a simple standing area commemorating the famous Lilywhites side who won every competition available to them that season. Their memory marches on.
It is clear that GSP has been here for a long time. The fact that you can get a pretty detailed view into the gardens of local residents tells a peculiar story, but I’m not sure many would change that. It gives a very grassroots community feel where everyone surrounding club has a role to play. I can picture club directors having to knock on their neighbour’s door to ask for their ball back.
Busy queues for the snack shed were consistent, decent toilet facilities and purposeful structures make GSP a superb wee place to watch football. You feel that you can hear every shout, every contact with the ball and that you are almost part of the action with how close you are. The fact that it is imbedded in the local community is also a big plus for me. It easily deserves a higher score of 4/5.
The Highland League is full of older clubs with large and loyal fanbases. I saw this in full clarity as the periphery lined up with supporters from both sides. Lossiemouth to Inverness is around an hour’s drive, with a relatively noisy away crowd pouring into GSP. The crowd provided plenty of laughs with sarcastic shouts directed to the referee and opposing players. It was an atmosphere with a largely positive and friendly feel to it, with both sides conversing before kick-off and during the half-time break.
I wasn’t sure what to expect crowd number wise, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how many came in to give their support to their local club. Granted it went quiet at times, but I feel that it to be expected at most levels of the game. The fact that people consistently travel acres of land every week will never cease to amaze me. 2.5/5.
Quality of the Match
After a slow opening fifteen minutes, the game burst into life. Building from the back looks good when it works, but there is always a risk of looking the fool when it doesn’t. Nightmare became reality when Lossiemouth’s Ross Morrison stole the ball from Clach midfielder Martin Callum on the edge of the box. With nobody but the goalkeeper to beat, Morrison slotted the ball home to put the visitors a goal up. I’m not even sure Clach goalkeeper Martin Mackinnon had touched the ball with his hands before picking it out the net.
The home side responded well. A floated corner from Robbie Thomson found the head of centre-back Gary Warren. He rose highest but his header landed just over. Their pressure kept coming, but Lossiemouth thwarted much of their attacks.
Lossie perhaps should have extended their lead halfway through the half. After an in swinging free kick was cleared and subsequently rebounded, the ball fell to Adam Macleod. In on goal, his left-footed strike was blazed over with the help of a deflection.
Clach’s sustained control paid off. A superb cross-field pass was taken down expertly by Lewis Mackenzie, who sent a wicked pass into the heart of the Lossie six-yard box. A horrible deflection off defender James Leslie found its way past ‘keeper Logan Ross. The goal looks to have officially been given to Clach striker James Anderson, but I’m not sure he’ll care too much, so long as the scores were level.
The home side were really beginning to screw the nut and were looking good for a lead. A quick throw-in saw Paul Brindle beat his man and cut the ball back. Anderson looked destined to hit the net only for a superb last-ditch interception to send the ball behind. The intentions were clear to see.
Clach did have the ball in the net just before half-time. From the resulting corner, a nodded effort at the back post was sent in only for the flag to be raised. I’m not entirely sure if there was a foul, an offside or the ball had gone out of play. Whatever the reason, it sent both teams into the changing rooms on level terms.
Half Time: Inverness Clachnacuddin 1-1 Lossiemouth
Lossie started the better in the second period. An excellent run down the left by McLeod saw him in on goal. His low driven strike was saved and held well by Martin Mackinnon; forcing his first real test of the match.
His second test was much more impressive. A ball over the top saw Adam Mcleod involved once more. He controlled the ball superbly and looped an accurate cross to the back post to colleague Ross Archibald. The attacker’s diving header looked destined to nestle into the net, only for Mackinnon to scamper across goal and block the effort wonderfully. A really important save.
Clach mustered their first chance of the half when the ever-present Donald Morrison cut inside and fired over. His performance throughout the match was something to be admired.
Another decent chance fell for the visitors, who looked in danger of rueing their chances. A ball in was only half-cleared and fell to Archibald once more. He was thwarted again by Mackinnon who looked to be playing his role perfectly.
With the game petering out, a highly dramatic last five minutes unfolded. Having not created many clear-cut opportunities, it would be Clach who struck next. An accurate corner into the back post was volleyed goalward by Paul Brindle. With the aid of a deflection or six, the ball rolled into the net much to the delight of the rapturous home supporters. Their season suddenly looked to have kickstarted.
Drama in football is never finished until the final whistle. There was still time for Lossie to push for an equaliser. A long ball fell to the edge of the box, where a Lossie player fired a low strike goalward. The shot was blocked, with every single Lossie player flailing their arms upward with shouts of handball. I honestly couldn’t see whether it was or not, but even the reaction of the Clach players suggest today’s referee got it wrong.
Clach had escaped, and the three points were theirs.
Full Time: Inverness Clachnacuddin 2-1 Lossiemouth
I’ve read many great things about the Highland League. I’ve been told that the standard is good, the support is strong, and the competitiveness is very much real. This was as clear as day to me. I witnessed a dramatic encounter where the match could have swayed either way in the blink of an eye.
I certainly cannot complain in seeing a basketball-like game where chances came in droves and the game did not slow down until the final whistle. Last minute winners are always fantastic to see as a neutral. I feel a score of 3.5/5 is fair.
For a tier five encounter, entry cost me a mere tenner, with a requirement to fork out an extra quid for entry into the stand. I am always complementary to clubs in the central belt for fair and inclusive pricing and it is wonderful to see clubs in the Highlands share these values. I did not partake in any food or drink for today’s encounter but a wee peer into the snack shack had me hoping for my appetite to get its arse into gear. 5/5.
My first foray into the Highland League was certainly a positive one. Inverness Clachnacuddin finish the weekend with a score of 15/20 and fire themselves into the upper echelons of the TSFA League Table. I certainly hope to get the chance to head up north again this season. It appears I’m missing out on an awful lot.