The step up from amateur football to Highland League is not one Fort William boss Ashley Hollyer expected to make.
But for the Lochaber club’s new manager, taking the reins at one of the division’s most unique clubs was an opportunity he could not say no to.
He had been manager of the successful Inverness amateur side NMM Sam’s since 2015, prior to his arrival at the West Highland club in October, bringing his backroom team of Paul Coutts and Scott Gardiner with him.
Fort William have struggled for many years with their geography – being situated in Ben Nevis’ foothills mean flooding at Claggan Park is a regular issue and attracting players in a shinty-dominated area has been difficult.
Hollyer, who runs a window-cleaning business in Inverness, has set up a base in the Highland capital. Players will train separately on Monday nights – one set in Inverness, the other in Fort William – before the team come together for a joint session on Thursday.
It has enabled Hollyer to tap into a pool of players which the club has dipped into in the past, with current Nairn players Kenny McKenzie and Callum Maclean two examples.
The chance to try his hand at Highland League football and forge a competitive outfit in Lochaber proved to be the decisive factor in making the move up to semi-professional level.
“I was away visiting my family, as I’d not seen them for a few months, and I got a few calls from a number I didn’t recognise. It turned out to be Woody (vice-chairman Colin Wood) to see if I was interested in taking the job over there. After a few days of thinking about and speaking to my backroom team, it went from there.
“It wasn’t something I was expecting but it was something I felt I couldn’t turn down. It’s a massive step up but a chance to show what we’re about and a chance to turn the fortunes of the club around.
“They’ve not had the greatest of results, so it’s something we want to put foundations in place to try and take the club forward.
“There was a lot of rebuilding to be done but we’re getting there bit by bit. It’s been 24/7. We’ve got a squad together but I’m by no means under the illusion that’s us sorted.”
Hollyer has got a number of the club’s under-17 players involved in training and hopes to provide a pathway for them to the first-team, along the lines of an under-20s side to prevent them losing interest in football and taking up other sports in the local area.
Fort finished second-bottom when the 2019-20 campaign was decided on a points-per-game basis but their struggles have been well-documented.
They were rooted to the foot of the table on minus-seven points the season previous, unable to win a game and having points deducted for fielding ineligible players.
Hollyer is the fourth manager at Claggan in that two-year timeframe, with Kris Anderson, Russell MacMorran and Calum MacLean (for a third time) all having their turn at the helm.
“The main thing for us before we took over was that we needed to have some sort of Inverness base. We knew it’d be a Fort William team but if you look around, there’s very few Highland League teams that just select players from one area.
“So far, so good. Everything is going smoothly so far. We’ve had a few weeks together so far and everyone seems to be gelling.”
Their first game of the season against Strathspey Thistle was called off last weekend, less than 15 minutes before kick-off, due to a waterlogged pitch. Hollyer’s managerial debut comes in unenviable circumstances this weekend instead, with an away trip to Fraserburgh.
“We really want to make ourselves a hard team to break down and if teams are going to beat us, they’re going to have to earn it. Things won’t happen overnight; we’re not going to be challenging for the league but we’ll give it our best and hopefully that can bring us some form of result.
📝 New Signing – The club are delighted to announce the signing of local 16 year old Jamie McConnell pictured here with manager Ashley Hollyer and coach Scott Gardiner
Jamie spent his youth career at Inverness CT but has now decided to sign for
— Fort William FC (@FortWilliamFC) November 24, 2020
“It’s been such a long time without football, particularly for the boys who were there before we arrived. But you’ve just got to make do with what you can; we’ve got ourselves in the best shape possible in a short space of time.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next at the moment. It could be all of a sudden that you’re not allowed to play football. We have to keep going and hopefully see out a whole season of Highland League football with as few problems as possible.”