After a year of hardship across the world Rod Houston, believes everyone connected with the Highland League should be proud that its member clubs are still around and ready to carry on.
For almost 12 months Britain has been in grip of Covid-19.
The pandemic has presented everyone with unprecedented challenges and the Highland League has been no different.
The league – which was founded in 1893 – and its 17 member clubs have had to overcome a multitude of hurdles, with ensuring survival perhaps the biggest of the lot.
Reflecting on the last year the division’s secretary Houston said: “When we sat down in March last year we decided that the sustainability and resilience of clubs was the top priority.
“As we sat down to look at this unfolding crisis we had 17 member clubs. We wanted above all else to ensure as far as humanly possible that when we resumed in what will be a new normal life after this pandemic that we still had those 17 clubs.
“And almost 12 months on I’m pretty confident we will still have those 17 clubs when we resume in the new normal.
“I think that is a formidable achievement for the league but also for all the people who run all the clubs.”
The 2020-21 Highland League season did not begin until November 28 in the hope all clubs would be able to welcome some fans into grounds to generate some income.
As it was only the 10 competing clubs in Moray and the Highlands could admit upto 300 supporters when they kicked off and this was prohibited following the reintroduction of lockdown from Boxing Day.
Football below the Championship was then halted in January, but with clubs having received grants as part of the Scottish Government’s support for football package in December Houston believes they are in a position to play behind closed doors again.
He added: “We decided not to start the league championship without crowds because there was a revenue concern, because the bottom line is crowds bring a certain degree of revenue.
“The six Aberdeenshire clubs who agreed to start even though they couldn’t have crowds deserve great credit for making that decision because it could have caused a degree of risk for them.
“We could now complete the season without crowds because of the grants clubs received from the Scottish Government via the Scottish FA.
“That award has been critical to the resilience of the league to get through this period.”
When football was first suspended last March the Highland League clubs acted quickly to declare Brora Rangers champions and end the 2019-20 league campaign.
Last summer as the Covid-19 situation improved the scope to restart appeared and the league and clubs set to work on protocols for returning to training, holding matches behind closed doors and holding games with fans in attendance.
Brora were the first side to return to action in early October in the Betfred Cup before they joined Buckie Thistle, Formartine United and Rothes later that month in completing the 2019-20 Highland League Cup.
Rothes won the tournament for the first time in their history and Houston believes playing those games was very significant.
He said: “Being able to complete last season’s League Cup was brilliant for a number of reasons.
“First of all it allowed us to test our procedures and protocols in a serious operational sense which was matches without spectators.
“The protocols proved to be very robust. Secondly it showed us we could still provide good football, despite the short preparation time clubs had.
“The two pay-per-view semi-finals were highly successful ventures and we had very good audience feedback.
“The other thing that was great about it – and I say this meaning no disrespect to Buckie Thistle – was for Rothes to win the final every other club in the league can say ‘wait a minute if Rothes can do that so can we.’
“It gives every a club a sense of hope which is what you need in sport.
“If you take a look at the Rothes story over the last five or six years they have been to hell and back and the story of their recovery is wonderful and that was the icing on the cake for them.
“I remember after the presentation of the trophy going over to where the Rothes committee were gathered and there were grown men with tears in their eyes – that’s how much it meant to them.”
Other big decisions taken by the Highland League over the last 12 months include cutting the 2020-21 championship to a single round of fixtures, instead of the usual two, and delaying the start of the new season until November 28.
Houston said: “I actually think the decision to wait until late November was a very prudent decision.
“It meant some clubs were then able to get crowds in, we were able to test our protocols and be confident they worked.
“I ended up going to the Wick Academy v Buckie Thistle game on the first Saturday. There was a crowd of around 200 in so they were well within the limit but there was enough people coming to see how the arrangements would go.
“It was an excellent game which Buckie won 3-2 and at the end I positioned myself beside the main gate at the west end of Harmsworth Park.
“The number of people that stopped and said ‘great to be back, super game, we’re disappointed Academy lost, but that was brilliant and we feel a whole lot better.’
“I think we forget how important getting to a game on a Saturday is to people.”
Following the latest suspension of the Highland League in January, even with a reduced fixture calendar, this season not being completed remains a very real possibility.
Whatever happens Houston believes the Highland League has come out stronger as a result of the challenges it has faced in the last year.
“A lot of time is spent on ‘what ifs?’ and if the season is null and void – which isn’t something that’s on the agenda at this moment – I’ve wondered how I would feel about it,” he said.
“People will ask me if it was a waste of time? But my answer would be no because I think the Highland League has come out of it stronger.
“We’ve found organisational processes that we will keep, we had a very successful Highland League Cup which showed us a lot of things.
“Clubs have gone through a very demanding process and I think are strong organisations for it with the whole set of protocols that have been put in place.
“I think the projection of the Highland League right back to the decision-making in March has been very important.
“And I do think we’ve managed to take it on and deal with the challenges in a manner which gives the Highland League the best chance of stepping on when the new normal arrives.”