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Dingwall Academy made Highland football history at Hampden 30 years ago

It's the 30th anniversary of the Highland school's unprecedented victory in the Scottish Shield and a reunion is being planned.

Dingwall Academy's under-18s surged to victory over Cardinal Newman High in 1994.
Dingwall Academy's under-18s surged to victory over Cardinal Newman High in 1994.

It was one of the most momentous occasions in the annals of Highland schools football – but it only happened after a battle to persuade a national organisation to change the timing of the pupils’ Higher exams.

Three decades might have passed since Dingwall Academy’s under-18s, accompanied by their teachers and myriad parents, travelled to Glasgow to tackle Cardinal Newman High in the final of the Scottish Schools Shield at Hampden Park in May 1994.

Yet, those who were involved in the team’s 1-0 victory over their fancied opponents will never forget the scenes of elation and exhilaration at the home of the national game.

Much of the plaudits went to coach, Jack Sutherland, and his assistants, including Don Esson and Don Cowie, snr. But the latter family were instrumental in the achievement and continue to stamp a significant imprint on their beloved sport.

Don, jnr, is now the interim coach at Ross County, while his older brother, Paul, is the director of Dundee United’s football academy and Graham Cowie also played his part in what was the first time a north school had won the coveted prize.

And the memories came flooding back when some of them recalled the historic match.

Dingwall Academy relished their maiden appearance at Hampden in 1994.

There was a real sense of excitement

Mr Sutherland told the Press & Journal: “We had to get special permission from the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) for many of the boys who were sitting Higher exams in the afternoon on the day of the final to allow them to sit these in the morning to allow for the team bus leaving at 2pm.

“This was no easy task, I can tell you! But there were three 60-seater buses for the team and supporters and they were absolutely packed. Many other parents and friends travelled by car, so we must have had approximately 250-300 supporters at Hampden.”

Mr Esson added: “In the lead-up to the final, there was a lot of excitement and also pride in such an achievement. Support and best wishes were received from schools and colleagues from across the length and breadth of the Highlands.

“I remember being one of the teachers in charge of one of the coaches and as we stepped onto the coach the pupils and myself had similar feelings of excitement, anticipation and also a degree of trepidation.

History teacher Don Esson was among the coaches who helped Dingwall Academy triumph at Hampden.

‘We were a very bonded group’

“Cardinal Newman High School were an unknown quantity. There was no social media or YouTube footage in those days, but we knew they must be a very good team to have reached the final. Yet there was a genuine feeling among supporters that we could do it.

“They recognised that we had a strong, experienced and successful team who had proven themselves at Highland and North of Scotland level and who had successfully progressed through the qualifying rounds.”

“But could we really dare to believe that a school based in a small Highland market town could actually win at Hampden?”

The team line-ups for the Scottish Schools Shield final at Hampden in 1994.

Graham Cowie certainly had no anxiety about the scale of the challenge. After all, this group of teenagers had formed a special connection as they rose through the ranks.

He said: “We were a very bonded group of boys with the majority of us having grown up as friends, neighbours and playing together for the Dingwall Vics boys club and then the Ross County Boys Club.

‘We were a formidable group’

“I think this sense of team unity came through as we didn’t have any superstars or prima donnas, just a group of lads who trusted each other, worked hard for each other and had a genuine respect for one another. As individuals, we were all competent footballers, but as a team, we were a formidable force.

“Furthermore, we had an excellent coach in Mr Sutherland. At times, we could be a difficult bunch, but he had a belief in us and entered us into the 93-94 Scottish Shield, having not done so the previous season with the u-18 team. He knew we were ready to compete at that level, and that gave us great confidence.”

The Cowies, Ryan, Graham, Don Snr, Paul and Don Jnr, were pivotal to Dingwall Academy’s success.

‘Winners never quit and quitters never win’

The head coach was no slouch in the motivational stakes. Even as the kick-off approached, on a Thursday night in Mount Florida, he delivered his pep talk.

He told me: “I can recall my final instructions to the players before they left the dressing room were: ‘You might as well get beaten in the first round of the competition as get beaten in the final. I believe in your ability, believe in yourselves and remember that winners never quit and quitters never win.’

“I remember one of my strongest midfield players, Willie Watt, had to be substituted early in the first half because of a bad injury after a very heavy tackle from one of the opposition. We had to roll our sleeves up, but despite this setback, we continued to play well and scored [after 30 minutes] when Neal Sinclair found the back of the net, and held our lead until half time.”

Hampden was a field of dreams for Dingwall Academy’s youngsters in 1994.

At the interval, the Dingwall squad appreciated they could expect a strong response from their adversaries when the action resumed. But these redoubtable characters realised that they held the initiative and were determined to make it count.

Graham Cowie said: “The main message we received from Mr Sutherland at half time was: ‘Boys, if you don’t concede in the second half, you will be Scottish champions”.

“While we didn’t sit back and defend, we certainly came under severe pressure. We demonstrated a unity and desire and our energy levels remained high. We were not going to be denied and, as the referee blew the full-time whistle, euphoria ensued.

It was an unforgettable occasion

“My initial reaction was to console the opposition as I knew they would have had a feeling of what might have been. But we then went to our supporters and took the applause and were able to see family and friends in the stands of Hampden Park.

“Then, when our captain, Greig Mackenzie, lifted the Shield – which is the largest you can possibly imagine – the reality of what we had achieved had began to sink in. We were Scottish champions – and we had gone from underdogs to top dogs!

“I remember, after the game, the whole team was in the large bath at Hampden singing ‘championees.’ We had written a new chapter in the history books as a bunch of boys to upset the odds and, even now, we are the only team from the Highlands to win it.”

Dingwall Academy made history when they won the Scottish Schools Shierld in 1994.

Understandably, the trip home was packed with celebrations and congratulations. A young Don Cowie was on one of the buses and revelled in what his big brothers had achieved. And there was plenty of recognition of it in the weeks that followed.

As Mr Sutherland said: “To show what the win meant to everyone who lived in Dingwall, the squad were invited to display the trophy and do a lap of honour round Victoria Park at the next Ross County home fixture.

“They also had a special dinner arranged for them by the Ross & Cromarty District Council to commemorate their success and every member of the squad played a huge part in this success. The whole thing offered so many unforgettable memories.”

The Dingwall Academy youngsters had plenty of happy memories of their trip to Hampden.

Plans for a reunion

Those involved in the academy’s success are now planning a 30th anniversary reunion, probably at the beginning of the new season. It promises to be a merry occasion.

Mr Esson said: “The coverage from the Press and Journal and the Ross-shire Journal was heartfelt and complimentary and the team’s win was noted in the national press.

“I particularly liked the mention in the Times Educational Supplement, which said: ‘Dingwall Academy have shocked the world of Scottish Schools football by winning the Scottish under-18 shield at Hampden.

“It struck a blow for football in Highland Region at a time when Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle have been admitted to the Scottish League.”

Bigger Cup triumphs lay in store. But this was where it all began.