Choosing potential Highland League champions is never an easy task.
I have struck gold just once in the last decade – when Gregg Carrol’s Buckie Thistle side retained their title in 2010-2011. But with Cove Rangers now in League 2 the perennial puzzle is slightly easier this time around.
Cove have had a stranglehold on the title in recent years, lifting the silverware in three of the last four seasons. Graeme Stewart’s Buckie Thistle, in season 2016-2017, were the only ones to break that domination.
The race for this year’s title should prove slightly easier with Cove’s omission but will nonetheless have to be earned.
Brora Rangers were Cove’s nearest challengers last term. Had it not been for the Sutherland side the league race would have been all but over weeks before. Under the management of Steven Mackay, Brora have an ethos which includes winning, doing it in some style and conceding as few goals as possible. Simple but extremely effective.
As a result, with no great confidence it has to be said, this season I am going for Brora Rangers to secure their first league championship since back-to-back triumphs from 2013-2015.
The race for runner-up place will, I think, be between Formartine United, who finished fourth last season and Fraserburgh, who were a place above them in third spot.
The Broch have lost the services of three key players since the end of the season – Marc Dickson, Michael Rae and Graham Johnston – but the Bellslea conveyor-belt will, I’m sure, bring in more than able replacements. However, with youth comes inconsistency, and as a result I will opt for Formartine to edge out Fraserburgh for the runner-up spot.
The arrival of former Cove skipper Eric Watson at Inverurie Locos is a major coup. The uncompromising centre-half, who dominates opposing forwards, has been the first name on my team of the season over the last decade. I expect him to tighten up the Locos defence and as a result I would place them fourth.
I believe Forres Mechanics and Buckie Thistle, buoyed by the return of long-term injury victims Kevin Fraser and Sam Urquhart, to battle it out for a top-six finish.
We then come to a host of clubs aiming for mid-table respectability, Wick Academy, Huntly, Nairn County, Deveronvale, Rothes and Clach.
I believe that with the arrival of talented keeper Ewen Macdonald on-loan for a season from Formartine United to Mackessack Park, Rothes can top that particular group, with the others in hot pursuit. The remaining five clubs will then fight it out in the lower reaches.
I expect Keith and Turriff United will emerge as the best of that group, although Strathspey Thistle, who in my book, punched above their weight last season, may well prove me wrong. I also hope that Lossiemouth and Fort William enjoy better fortune than they had last season this time around.
Their irrepressible managers Joe Russell and Russell MacMorran, deserve their share of success with the Lochaber club.
Dave Edwards’ predictions: