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Buckie Thistle’s Max Barry savours Highland League title triumph after being so close to glory in recent years

The Jags won the title after beating Keith in their last game.

Buckie Thistle captain Sam Pugh lifts the Highland League championship trophy alongside his team-mates. Pictures by Jasperimage.
Buckie Thistle captain Sam Pugh lifts the Highland League championship trophy alongside his team-mates. Pictures by Jasperimage.

Max Barry was Buckie Thistle’s hero as they won the Breedon Highland League – and was thrilled to get his hands on the trophy after their near misses in recent years.

Barry scored the only goal as the Jags beat Keith 1-0 at Victoria Park, in what was a nervy encounter at times.

Buckie pipped second-placed Brechin City by two goals on goal difference and finished three points ahead of Fraserburgh in third at the end of a dramatic three-way title race.

It is the 12th time Thistle have won the Highland League, but their first silverware since claiming the championship in 2017.

Last year Buckie lost a title-decider against Brechin on the final day of the campaign. In 2022 they finished second behind Fraserburgh after a battle between the clubs that went to the last day.

Jags have hunger for trophies

After succeeding this time Barry already has his sights set on more glory.

On Tuesday the Jags face Inverurie Locos at Keith’s Kynoch Park in the Evening Express Aberdeenshire Cup final.

On Saturday they tackle Lowland League champions East Kilbride at K-Park in the first leg of the pyramid play-offs. The winner of the two-legged tie will take on League Two’s bottom side for a place in the SPFL next term.

Midfielder Barry, 22, said: “I think you can see with how the fans reacted (invading the pitch at full-time) what it means to everyone.

Max Barry, right, celebrates his goal for Buckie against Keith.

“It’s a dream come true for them after the last two years. We’ve been so close and been unlucky so I’m delighted for all the boys to get over the line.

“At times we’ve maybe been running out of legs, but the boys have dug in and shown the grit and determination to win games.

“We lost by three points two years ago, last year it was two points and losing it at home as we did was an atrocious feeling.

The Buckie players and management with the Highland League trophy at Victoria Park.

“Now that we’ve won a trophy I don’t think there’s anything to stop us winning more and more.

“We’ve got the cup final on Tuesday and when that comes around we’ll have our heads screwed on and be ready for that.

“We’ve got the play-offs as well and I think we’ve got a great chance of getting promoted, we just have to believe.”

Early goal does the trick

Barry settled the nerves of the large Buckie support inside Victoria Park with his eighth minute opener.

Jack MacIver’s cutback from the right flank picked out Barry and he curled an excellent left-footed shot in off the left post from 15 yards.

Lyall Keir, MacIver and Josh Peters all tried to add to the lead before the interval, but didn’t test Keith’s trialist goalkeeper Darren McConnachie.

Early in the second half McConnachie did well to turn away Jack Murray’s strike from 20 yards at full stretch and also held a Barry effort from similar range.

Keith’s Lewis Coull, right wins a header against Buckie’s Max Barry.

Keith performed with credit and were always in the contest, although they didn’t create many chances.

The closest the Maroons came was a 62nd minute cross-cum-shot from Michael Taylor which drifted narrowly wide with Gavin Elphinstone unable to get the touch to send the ball into the net.

As time ticked down Buckie knew if they held out for victory they would be champions and they managed to see it through.

Title number four for Stewart

Buckie manager Graeme Stewart is the longest-serving in the Highland League after being appointed in February 2015.

It’s his second title success as a manager, adding to two as a player with the Jags.

Thistle played – and won – their final six league games in a 13-day period following a fixture backlog.

Stewart hailed the character of his players for coping with that schedule and for bouncing back from losing last season’s final day decider against Brechin.

Buckie manager Graeme Stewart, third from right.

Stewart said: “I’m delighted we got there in the end, it was a bit stressful.

“It’s been a phenomenal effort, it’s the biggest achievement I’ve had in football.

“I was fortunate enough to win it twice as a player and this is the second time as a manager, but this is the best one.

“I wouldn’t have said this if we hadn’t won the league, but we haven’t been able to train properly for four months because of the schedule.

“The pitch was an issue and we’ve played home games away from home so my players have been outstanding.

Buckie celebrate in their dressing room after winning the league.

“I’ve given them a bit of stick a few times and maybe it worked. But I could never question their commitment or effort.

“If we’d lost it this season it would have taken me a few weeks to get over.

“Last season wasn’t a nice moment, but it shows the character of this team.

“They lost it in the last five minutes of last season and they’ve come back and won it this season, that’s tremendous character.

“It’s a great group and I’m delighted to be their manager.”

Credit to challengers

Stewart also paid tribute to the sides that have pushed Buckie all the way.

He added: “Fraserburgh put in a great effort. I know Mark Cowie (manager) really well and they put in a great push at the end after looking like they were out of it.

“I like Gavin Price (manager) at Brechin and I feel for him because it’s not a nice feeling.”

Maroons’ effort praised

Keith manager Craig Ewen was proud of their performance. He said: “It wasn’t part of our gameplan to lose an early goal, but from then on I thought the boys were excellent.

“They worked really hard and made it difficult for Buckie at every turn.

“Second half we were a bit better than we were in the first. We got forward a bit more, but we couldn’t find that bit of quality to score a goal.

“I’m delighted with our efforts, but I would have loved to take something from the game.

“I think the best team always wins the league and Buckie have come out on top. Congratulations to them and all the best in the play-offs.”