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Loch Ness eye key win against North Caledonian League rivals Fort William

Defending champions and league leaders can sink Fort's title hopes in crunch Claggan showdown dubbed "the Monster derby".

Loch Ness manager Shane Carling.
Loch Ness manager Shane Carling. Image: David Jefferson/Loch Ness FC

Loch Ness manager Shane Carling insists victory at Fort William on Saturday will all but end their opponents’ North Caledonian League title hopes.

The league leaders and defending champions head to Lochaber this weekend top of the table, four points ahead of Fort and with a game in hand.

Carling’s in-form men are three points in front of Invergordon, albeit having played two more games.

When Loch Ness won their first NCL championship last season, they lost only two fixtures. Fort William have lost four of their opening 12 this term.

Pressure is on Fort to bank victories

Carling is sure the message will be from their manager Alan Gray is that this is a must-win match dubbed by clubs from either side of Loch Ness as the “monster derby”.

He said: “Away to Fort William is never going to be easy. They will have a full squad out.

“If we want to win the league, we have to beat Fort William on Saturday. Don’t get me wrong, you still must beat the teams lower down the division, but you have to beat the top teams to win this league.

“Fort William have a good squad and a really good manager (Alan Gray). I’m sure he will have told them already they have to win on Saturday.

“If they lost a fifth game by this point in the season, they’d be struggling to win the league. They would need big favours from the other teams.

“I think if Fort William don’t win against us on Saturday then it will come down to Invergordon, ourselves and Halkirk for the league title.

“Saturday’s 0-0 draw between Invergordon and Halkirk was a great result for us. We had to beat Clach (which they did in a 7-1 win) and hope it was a draw in the other game. They both dropped points, so it was like two gained for us. It was great for us.”

Saturday’s match at Claggan is subject to a pitch inspection on Friday.

Loch Ness fired-up by punishment

Loch Ness have extra motivation for retaining the NCL crown in 2024.

Carling is adamant they have been unfairly punished for fielding a player the Scottish FA say was not eligible to feature in two Football Times Cup ties and a league match.

The club said “no red flags” showed up about the unnamed player, who had featured as a trialist for a number of clubs in Scotland, when they checked the SFA player registration database, or extranet, in regards to international clearance.

However, the league chiefs said the player was ineligible. It meant the Fortrose club were booted out of the Football Times Cup and a 5-0 win against Clach reserves in the league on August 19 was wiped out and Clach took those points instead.

Shane Carling.
Loch Ness manager Shane Carling.

Time will tell whether the punishment will cost Loch Ness success come the end of the season, but Carling explained his players are fired up by what they say is an injustice.

He said: “Rules are rules, but they were not there in black and white. We were not the only club that played him. He had a Scottish ID number and it said he was not contracted to anyone.

“We played him as a trialist. We tried to sign him and it got rejected. We asked the question ‘why does it not tell you he needs international clearance?’

“If you go to sign a trialist, you don’t go to check if he’s available to play, you put in his name and date of birth and it tells you whether he’s signed with someone and the club he’s with.

“It said nothing. We didn’t go to the next step because we didn’t know if we wanted to sign him.

“The extranet is not great – but the SFA are not going to say we’re right. They just say rules are rules. Unfortunately, by being honest, we’ve paid the price.

“No one at the club, or any of the players, are pointing the finger at me. They understand there is nothing we could have done about it.

“But they have got a bit more fire in the belly to go on and win this league again.

“Listen, it will be really tough. The league is even stronger this season.”

Carling reckons Invergordon and Halkirk are almost certain to be in the title shake-up next year.

He said of the recent Football Times Cup winners: “No matter who plays for Invergordon, they know how to win. They always have and that’s why they are always up there. That’s why they have won the league so many times in recent years.”

And he believes Halkirk are also the real deal, adding: “Halkirk are best footballing team we’ve played this season. We said when we played them (in a 1-0 win in September), they are 100% going out to try and win the league this season.”

Invergordon set for Saints showdown

Second-placed Invergordon make the trip to Tain on Saturday to tackle fifth-placed St Duthus, with the chance to draw level on points with Loch Ness should they win and the leaders lose.

Halkirk United, in third spot, can also make in-roads should they defeat third-bottom visitors Alness United.

Elsewhere, Clachnacuddin reserves face Inverness Athletic in Evanton, Golspie Sutherland travel to Orkney, and Thurso host Bonar Bridge in a basement battle.