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Season of struggle ends with play-off withdrawal for Fort William

Fort William's 37 year stay in the Breedon Highland League is over
Fort William's 37 year stay in the Breedon Highland League is over

Fort William’s 37 years in the Breedon Highland League came to an end after a wrangle about player eligibility caused them to withdraw from the pyramid play-off against Banks o’ Dee.

The Lochaber side had been due to face the North Region Junior champions at Spain Park today in the first leg of the inaugural play-off at the bottom of the Highland League.

But they withdrew after requests to field goalkeeper Callum Ligertwood and Inverness Caley Thistle loanees Ethan Cairns and Aly Riddle – who were all signed after the play-off eligibility deadline of January 31 – were denied.

The withdrawal means Fort have been relegated, with the North Caledonian League their most likely destination for next season.

A statement from the Highland League read: “The Highland League is extremely disappointed to have been informed by Fort William FC that the club is to withdraw from the Highland Football Pyramid play-off matches versus Banks o’ Dee FC.

“The league has been engaged in discussions with Fort William FC during the course of this week and these discussions have centred on two issues.

“The first, and most significant, relates to player eligibility to take part in the play-offs.

“Competition rules were published in July 2021 and state clearly that, to be eligible to take part in the play-offs, a player must be registered by the club by 31st January.

“In the case of Fort William FC, three of the twelve players who took part in the Breedon Highland League match at Rothes on Tuesday 19th April 2022 were therefore ineligible for the play-offs.

“Central to this is the fact that the club’s first choice goalkeeper (Mateusz Kulbacki) had returned home to Poland and his replacement (Ligertwood) was registered on 31st March 2022.

“This meant that the club felt it did not have enough goalkeepers for the play-offs as well as having few outfield players.

‘It appears that this person was unknown to club management’

“So, on Wednesday 20th April 2022, it requested dispensation to play all three players in the play-offs.

“Research by the league’s secretariat uncovered the fact that Fort William FC had at that date five players registered who were described as goalkeepers.

“Consequently, the league’s office bearers declined dispensation for all three players and the club was informed accordingly.

“During the course of Thursday and Friday, discussions continued and the club then submitted a second request for dispensation with regard to the goalkeeper signed on 31st March 2022.

Callum Ligertwood, centre, was one of the Fort William players ineligible for the play-offs

“Research by the league’s secretariat indicated that one of the goalkeepers had been deregistered but four remained on the books so the request for dispensation was denied.

“Subsequent discussions with the manager led to the conclusion that club personnel were unaware of the existence of one of the two remaining goalkeepers.

“The secretary suggested that this needed checking out. The league was then informed that it appears that this person was unknown to club management and is a member of the armed forces currently away on duty.

“This had not been included in the second request for dispensation.”

Pitch problems

There was also an issue with Claggan Park – where Fort William had hoped to play the second leg of the play-off.

After the pitch was found to be in no fit state to host matches at the start of the season Fort played all their games away from this season.

The Highland League statement continued: “It had been decided that, given the events of the season, a pitch and ground inspection should take place to confirm it as a venue for the second leg of the play-offs.

“That inspection was carried out by a representative of the league, who is also a retired referee, on the morning of Friday 22nd April and raised some concerns.

Fort William’s Claggan Park at the start of the season

“The club was informed of these concerns and advised of a way ahead. It was recommended that the club roll the pitch, cut the grass and line it as if for a match, and a further inspection would be undertaken on Tuesday 26th April and all concerned were optimistic about a positive outcome.

“In discussions, it was apparent that the club was reluctant to accept that advice.

“Discussions continued throughout Friday and were effectively closed by Fort William FC when it decided to withdraw from the play-offs.”

Season of struggle

Fort William joined the Highland League in 1985 and achieved their highest finish of 11th two years later.

At the start of this season a member of the public informed the Highland League Claggan Park was not in a fit state to host matches.

Following an investigation and discussions between Fort William and the league the club agreed to play all their fixtures away from home after turning down the chance to take a sabbatical.

The other 17 clubs in the division also paid for their travelling expenses for the fixtures that would have been at Claggan Park.

Fort finished bottom of the table, despite manager Shadab Iftikhar revamping the squad in January.

However, in a statement released last night Fort William said: “We are very disappointed that the Highland league has released a statement ahead of a proposed meeting.

“The released statement has many untruths in it, which will become clear over time.

“Because of this statement we will refrain from updates until the SFA and other relevant people have been consulted.

“The club is financially stable and ready for next season. Shadab and the squad are bitterly disappointed not to be playing.”

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