North Caledonian League champions Golspie Sutherland look like being the only club ready to contest the pyramid play-offs for the Highland League if they retain their crown next year.
However, several others have ambitions to target the step up in the medium to longer term, with a universal thumbs up given to the green light for potential promotion being voted through at HFL level last month.
From next season, the team finishing bottom of the Highland League could find themselves in a play-off against the champions of either the North Super League, the East Super League or the North Caledonian League.
However, of those in the reintroduced 12-club NCL division next term, it is only Golspie who have the full license of the Scottish FA and therefore in a position to contest the play-offs, while Banks o’Dee, of the North Super League, are understood to be the sole side ready from that set-up.
In our two-part feature, all 12 clubs have their say on the new play-offs.
Today, we look at those sides who feel a crack at the play-offs is a realistic goal within the next five years.
Sam Mackay, manager of Golspie, recently told the Press and Journal: “The club has ambitions to get there, but it can’t happen this year. Who is to say we’ll win the league next year?
“I think it would be good for the Highland League to have what we would certainly class as another north derby, aside from Wick and Brora. I think it would work.”
Invergordon were the runners-up to Golspie last season and won the title last in 2017.
Their manager Gary Campbell admits, while it’s not going to happen at his club any time soon, having a shot at a play-off spot is a goal.
He said: “We don’t have the facilities to go for it at the moment, but this is good for the league that everyone has got the ability to get promoted if they feel they want to.
“It adds a wee bit of competition. As well as being champions, the play-off would be there for teams.
“I would think this is something that we would be looking at further down the line.
“There would be a fair bit of infrastructure required to get there and that won’t happen overnight, but that’s something Invergordon should be looking at if we want to progress.”
St Duthus was third-place finishers last term and Stuart Ross, who manages the side with brother Andrew, is all for the play-offs and confirmed his club have a goal to target it within five years.
— St. Duthus Football Club (@StDuthusFC) June 27, 2021
He explained: “It’s great news and it is something we have been striving for and working towards. It’s a great pathway for ambitious North Caley clubs like ourselves.
“We have got the foundations laid at Grant Park in Tain being a really good set-up. We’re still a good bit off yet, but it is certainly an aspiration to move up a level.
“The door is open now and it’s fantastic. It gives us a goal to aim for. We are doing loads of work behind the scenes in terms of quality marks and our coaching staff are all going through their badges.
“We’re at the foundation level in terms of pricing things right now, such as surrounding walls. We’re looking at funding opportunities for floodlights and everyone at St Duthus is excited about the opportunity.
“We have a great committee with a lot of local guys in Tain. My brother and I are from Tain but live in Inverness now. But we have great roots still within Tain and we have a really good, pro-active, team behind us.
“I think a timescale of around five years for this to become an opportunity for us is quite realistic. Golspie have set the standards for teams like us to follow.”
Orkney target HFL shot in line with 2025 Islands Games
Orkney, who were the 2018 North Caledonian League champions, have ambitions to move up from their current set-up when they are capable of doing so and the right infrastructure is in place.
The Orkney Islands Games has been pushed back from 2023 to 2025 and that sort of timescale could fall in line with Orkney’s hopes of kicking on.
‘We want to play at as high a level as we can’
Manager Charlie Alway said: “It’s the first time a men’s football team from Orkney has ever been in the pyramid and I’m excited by the prospect.
“Our club is 10 years old and our aim was to be competitive at the top of the (North Caledonian) League and generally we have been in the top three or four.
The aspiration for the next 10 years in to tick the right infrastructure box, which will be a big hurdle. We want to play at as high a level as we can.
“Orkney women’s team play at Highland League level now and there is an aspiration to bring those together so that they dovetail. A men’s team in the winter and a women’s team in the summer.
“When we joined the North Caledonian League 10 years ago, we were the sixth team to join.
“We could never have imagined we’d have won a league title and five or six cups and we are on the train for when it leaves for the pyramid.”
Travelling from Orkney to compete is commonplace
Alway explained that aiming for the facilities to be ready for Highland League level in line with the Island Games in four years’ time would be “achievable”.
He did stress, however, that the travel and accommodation costs of competing within the HFL would spiral from £20,000 annually to potentially £100,000.
He admits there are “obstacles” and “discussions to be had” in the community and said if sports people want to compete at a higher level, travelling is essential.
Alness United, who won League Two last month after one year out, have high hopes to competing for the title in reintroduced 12-side division.
He explained: “We are getting new facilities next season. We are getting a brand-new pitch that we have waited on for two years because of Covid.
“Alness United had a lease on the school playing fields and the new school has been built on the playing fields, so Highland Council are building us a new all-singing, all-dancing astroturf with floodlights and fencing. That should be ready for the end of the year.
“The only thing that spoils it, and I say that in the loosest terms, is that the changing rooms are actually inside the school.
“If the changing rooms were right next to the pitches, then we’d possibly be in a good place to go for SFA licensing.
“The changing rooms are about 100 metres from the pitch, so it’s an awkward on. If we were to go for this in the future, we’d have to place those next to the pitch.
“Easter Ross is big enough to support a Highland League club, be it Alness, Invergordon or Tain. A number of years ago, we did a feasibility study and it would have cost £1 million to build from scratch.
“I’d like to think that possibly in around five years when I’ll no longer be in charge and the club will be in new hands, that would be their ambition.”
Highland League 2 might be worth considering
Regan feels a league reshuffle might be needed as a stepping stone before aiming to reach the HFL.
He added: “My only concern is that a lot of the clubs might never get the chance to achieve this. Clubs need to more or less build a wee stadium and I can’t see that happening.
“Maybe further down the line we might see a Highland League 2 for those teams with their plans in plan to achieve that.”
Alness United last won the main league in 2005 and will be seen by many as rivals next season.
* Tomorrow, we look at the other seven North Caledonian clubs.