The Famous Five. The Magnificent Seven. The Caley Thistle Nine?
The announcement on Thursday evening that Championship side Caley Thistle were sending nine players on loan to Fort William, a Highland League club, inevitably caught the eye.
As part of a new link-up between the two sides, the nine players will spend the season on loan with the Lochaber club in a bid to gain experience in senior men’s football. Martin Mackinnon, Gabriel Hastings, Ryan Fyffe, Donald Morrison, Harry Nicolson, Ross Gunn, Jack Brown, Kieran Chalmers and Roddy Kennedy are the players in question.
First, a bit of context. Caley Thistle scrapped their under-20s team in 2017 after they were relegating, citing prohibitive costs ferrying players around the country. Instead, players too old to play in the under-18 age group would be loaned out to Highland League clubs, with teams such as Clach, Nairn County, Forres Mechanics, Keith and Huntly benefitting.
Their emerging under-18 group was generating a lot of excitement from within the club. It swept all before them in its Club Academy Scotland league, winning the tier 2 title comfortably. Numerous players, such as Daniel MacKay, Cameron Harper and Roddy MacGregor, have subsequently been included in the first-team squad.
Ten of the players signed professional terms last year but once they reached the upper end of the age bracket in the under-18s, they had nowhere to go to continue their development. With the under-20s done away with, they were not part of the Reserve League when it was reintroduced.
From the club’s perspective, they had a highly-talented group of 18-year-olds, rare in Scotland but gold-dust to a geographically-challenged side like Inverness, who would be left without competitive football.
They put forward a proposal this summer to enter a colts team into the Highland League, looking to take advantage of the spot vacated by Cove Rangers’ promotion to League 2. They would field a maximum of three over-age players and not take promotion if achieved. However, at the league’s AGM at the end of May, member clubs voted in favour of proceeding with 17 teams.
Enter Fort William. Based at one of the most scenic grounds in Scotland – Claggan Park lies in the foothills of Ben Nevis – Fort have traditionally struggled to attract players in an area where shinty takes prominence.
Their most competitive season in recent history was the 2014-15 season, in which they finished 13th under Ally Ewen. However, three key players – Kenny McKenzie, Andrew Hardwick and Callum Maclean – left for Nairn and the basement battle resumed.
John McLeod, part of that same side, left for Brora Rangers before becoming part of the goal-plundering Buckie Thistle that won the Highland League in 2017. Scott Davidson, who scored 30 times in the 2016-17 campaign earned a trial at Inverness after their relegation, before ending up at Rothes and then Brora.
Last season was one of infamy, finishing bottom of the pile with minus-seven points and a goal difference of minus-224. Their unique ‘feat’ attracted plenty of attention, with a BBC documentary to be aired next week and even a Football Manager series which generated some much needed funds for the club.
This initiative, as the clubs are calling it, has a hint of Football Manager about it. In the game, players can ask their board to find a suitable lower-league club to link up with, enabling them to loan players out. “Affiliate” or “feeder” club is the more common, in-game parlance and it appears this is a similar scenario.
Inverness and Fort William will see it as mutually beneficial. Promising young players get to enhance their development playing senior football in a competitive league, rather than at age-group level which has had its competitiveness questioned in the past.
For the Fort, they get nine hungry players that should help improve their prospects on the park and avoid a repeat of seasons like the last one.
Detractors will point to this effectively being a way for the Caley Jags to get a colts team into the Highland League through the back door and that it may deprive local players of the chance to feature.
There is no indication that Fort are under obligation to play the loan players and there are no rules stipulating the number of loan players allowed at one club in the Highland League.
Reaction has been mixed but there have been some positive responses. Fort player Scott Hunter cut through some of the initial hysteria; accusations the club had “sold its soul” were put to bed by Hunter, who referred to a 16-0 hammering they took from the Caley Thistle first-team in a bounce game.
Some guy on the fort Facebook page says we’ve sold our soul. ?
I lost my soul last year when we played Caley 1st team players and got beat 16-0
— Scott Hunter (@OooAhhHuntelaar) July 25, 2019
It does put a new angle on the debate about colts teams and youth development. Expansion of the lower leagues in the SPFL, facilitating the introduction of colts teams into the pyramid, has long been mooted but has not generated traction. Rangers and Celtic are said to be keen to enter colts teams into the lower leagues but there has not been a great clamour from other SPFL sides to push ahead with it.
What the tie-up between Caley Thistle and Fort William does offer is a quicker route for clubs, who are keen on fielding colts teams, to get their players into senior football without having to wait for league reconstruction and time-consuming votes.
Whether other Highland or Lowland League clubs will be on board with such a move is another matter. But what the news from the Caledonian Stadium does is add another view-point to a hot-button topic that will be watched keenly from afar.