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Boss Alan Gray urges Fort William to rise to challenge of finishing third in the North Caledonian League

Victory against St Duthus on the last day of the season would take the Lochaber team above their Tain rivals.

Fort William manager Alan Gray.
Fort William manager Alan Gray. Image: Iain Ferguson, The Write Image

Fort William aim to finish with a flourish by beating St Duthus to overtake their visitors to secure third place in the North Caledonian League.

Saints are two points ahead of the Lochaber team, who have had a torrid time in recent weeks as injuries and work commitments have limited the options available to manager Alan Gray.

Last season’s demoted club from the Highland League have seen major reshuffles during the campaign. The season began with Chris Baffour in charge, who had taken over from Shadab Iftikhar after Fort finished last in the HFL last term.

Squad numbers down

Experienced coach Gray took over from Baffour last October and has put in a lot of work to restore the club’s local identity while being competitive for much of the term.

In recent weeks, with squad numbers down, a 4-0 win at Bonar Bridge was followed with a 5-0 defeat against first-time league winners Loch Ness and a 6-1 loss at runners-up – and last year’s NCL champions – Invergordon.

With a victory against St Duthus offering Fort the opportunity to conclude their rollercoaster 2022-23 campaign in third position, Gray hopes his team can take it.

He said: “This is a chance to come third despite a few really difficult weeks. We’ve lost a few players and our injury-list has been never-ending, while work commitments have also meant we’ve been taking six or seven guys from the Grantown and Aviemore area.

“Brian Ritchie, the former Strathspey Thistle manager, had some guys in his community side who came to help us, which we appreciate.

“We’ve been toiling to get a squad together, which has been disappointing.

“It’s amazing that we’re still in the hunt for third place.

“We had nine or 10 trialists playing against Bonar Bridge and we had eight against Loch Ness, and guys came in to help us last week to – again, eight or nine changes. We didn’t have enough players.”

Fort moving in the right direction

Gray thinks finishing behind Loch Ness and Invergordon would spell a positive season for Fort, with the disruption they have faced in comparison to their rivals.

He said: “In terms of the season as a whole, ideally everyone might expect last year’s Highland League team to come first.

“But Loch Ness have been picking up players from the Highland League, while Invergordon are a really well-established team, with a squad which has been together for many years – the set-up they have got there is fantastic.

“The table doesn’t lie… Loch Ness and Invergordon have been the best two teams in the league this season.

“We obviously had a big turnover of players at Christmas. (Defender) Niels Lellouch has gone and signed a full-time contract with Michigan Stars, which is fantastic.

“We knew this would be a transitional period of the club. Getting local players back in this year has been big and we’ve been successful in building the community work. For example, our Easter camp had 60 kids each day.

“Getting back into the community and getting the community back on board has been huge. We can be proud of how far we’ve come.”

Close encounter expected at Claggan

Gray says he has a few of his “big-hitters” back this weekend, and he’s got plenty of respect for St Duthus ahead of Saturday’s 2pm kick-off.

He added: “It’s in our hands to finish third, but we need to win. We’re hoping for a positive result.

“When we played them up there (in a 3-0 defeat in November), we just didn’t play well and St Duthus showed they are a strong, well-organised, team.

“Like ourselves, they have been a bit up and down this season in terms of consistency. It should be an even, well-balanced, match. It’s great to have this on the last day of the season with something still to play for.

“St Duthus are a lovely side (to watch). I have known (Saints manager) Alan Geegan for a long time as a coach and a manager and he’s as good as they come.

“Even if the result doesn’t go our way, we can still look back over the season with a lot of pride, but we want to take this chance of finishing third.”

Plenty on the line in Orkney fixture

In Saturday’s only other game to conclude the league season, Orkney are home to Invergordon, with a 12.45pm start.

A draw between St Duthus and Fort William, allied with an Orkney victory, would lead to the islanders finishing third ahead of Saints on goal difference.

A Fort defeat or draw, combined with an Orkney win, would take Charlie Alway’s hosts fourth.

However, Invergordon will be aiming to impress their manager Gary Campbell, with their North Caledonian Cup final next weekend against Golspie Sutherland.