The door to promotion to the Highland League from the North Caledonian League has been opened with the introduction of tier six play-offs next season.
Yesterday we featured those clubs, including champions Golspie Sutherland, who are targeting a shot at promotion via this route within the next five years.
Golspie are the only NCL side currently with the correct eligibility to compete with winners of either the North Super League, the East Super League for the play-offs, which would see the bottom HFL club fight for the right to remain at that level.
Golspie, Invergordon, St Duthus, Orkney and Alness United are serious about competing in the play-offs in the near future.
Other clubs largely back the pyramid route opening up, but they are not ready or in a position to compete just yet.
Nairn County, with a senior club in the Highland League, would not be able to target promotion, with their young side settling in nicely to the NCL set-up.
— Nairn County FC (@NairnCounty) June 14, 2021
For one year, due to Covid, the leagues were split in half and Nairn finished as runners-up to League Two champions Alness United.
Those sides not shooting for promotion any time soon remain fully committed to developing within the North Caledonian League, which returns to a one-division set-up this year after a two-level make-up last term due to the pandemic.
Massive cash injection would be needed at Thurso
Four-times champions Thurso, who finished fourth in League One last season, concede they are a long way from being in a position to target the Highland League and have underlined their support for the NCL.
A spokesman said: “Whilst is a move forward in the right direction for tier six teams and the progression, Thurso are not in a position to meet the required standards on matchday facilities in order to gain promotion.
“It would take a massive injection of finances in order to install floodlights, plastic dugouts, standing and seating areas. At the moment, we lease the pitch from High Life Highland.
“It would also need another huge chunk of investment for transport costs, which at the moment is Thurso FC’s major output financially.
“Thurso is a self-sufficient club with no rich owner, so the money we bring in is the money that goes out.”
He added: “There have been major drainage issues at Sir Georges Park in the last two years, so we have to play at a 3G pitch.
“We have had in effect no home games, therefore no income in that period, just the money from our sponsors, which has been invaluable. As a club, we are fully committed to the NCFA.”
Young side and congested area rule Halkirk out right now
Halkirk United, who finished bottom of League One this year, have been big hitters, winning the title four times over the past decade, with their last success being in 2016.
The Anglers, who joined the NCL in 1993, are not considering a crack at the new play-offs.
Secretary Billy Manson explained: “We have a young squad right now, most of them are 22 and under, so I don’t think we’re ready for the Highland League.
“It’s not something we are considering in this moment in time. There are a lot of clubs up here and Brora and Wick already in the Highland League.”
Highland League not yet on Athletic’s radar
Inverness Athletic, who were formed in 2016, play their games at Inverness Royal Academy.
Chairman Sandy Stephen would love to shoot for the Highland League one day, but it’s far too early for Athletic to aim for more than improvement within their current division.
He said: “For us, the Highland League is not in our thoughts, given we’re only five-years-old.
“We want to continue to grow as a football club and continue to move the club forward.
“The Highland League is not on our radar right now.
“It is a dream for the club to be licensed, but that is as far as we have thought about it. It takes a lot of time and money to get to that stage.
“Our focus right now is to get Inverness Athletic competing year in, year out in the North Caledonian League.”
Loch Ness only joined the NCL last season and have enjoyed their debut campaign overall, despite the two-division set-up and the challenges set by Covid.
Manager Shane Carling believes the battle to get a base to play on in the Highland capital makes the hopes of ever reaching the HFL a mere pipe dream. Right now, they are using the Canal Park facilities in Inverness.
He explained: “The pyramid play-off gives clubs at this level something to build towards. I think it’s a great plan.
“Unfortunately, from our point of view, we don’t have the right criteria and it would take a long while for us to be at that stage.
“To get your own ground in Inverness is hard. You look for help from Highland Council and High Life Highland and it’s not easy. You look at the facilities shinty and cricket have got in comparison, it’s a shame.
“They basically tell us if we want our own ground with a stand we need to find someone with money.
“It could take two years or 20 years. We are in the same situation as Inverness in that we’re looking for somewhere to play. If you look at Golspie or Thurso, for example, they get facilities provided for them. That’s not the case in Inverness.”
Long-term goal for clubs like Bonar Bridge
Bonar Bridge, who had nine years out of the North Caledonian League, returned to the fold in 2019 and finished second bottom of League Two last season.
Gavin Ryder, treasurer of Bonar Bridge, hopes that the club can make strides on and off the pitch to one day be in a position to target such lofty promotion play-offs.
He explained: “As a fledgling recently reformed North Caley participant club, we feel its fantastic for the grassroots clubs such as ours to have the HFL as a potential future destination.
“However, the requirements in terms of facilities and infrastructure to participate in the HFL are out of our clubs reach at this moment in time.
“As a club we we are striving for constant improvement nevertheless – and who knows – some of our junior players (pictured) who recently competed in a Golspie-hosted tournament may one day grace the Highland league in our clubs colours.”
Newcomers Scourie have long-term ambitions
Scourie were only established last year and swiftly accepted into the NCL.
They became the first team from North West Sutherland to join the association and had a tough opening term, failing to collect a point.
Understandably, Highland League dreams are a million miles away right now, but manager and secretary Tony Reynoldson said: “We’ve a fair bit of work to get to that stage, but for the league I think it’s a great thing.
“As we move forward as a club, it is something to aim for. We are looking to do various work on our ground to bring it more up to date. Our aspirations are high and hopefully over the years we can hope to be in that position.
“Our first year was difficult. We started a bit short and lockdown caused us problems and we never managed to play our last two games, with people at work and having a few injuries.
“We are strengthening for next season with another seven or eight players coming on board.”