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North Caledonian League president thrilled by new-look division for 2024-25 campaign

Returning Bunillidh Thistle replace Loch Ness as 12 teams prepare for kick off, with North of Scotland Cup entry also open to more clubs.

Invergordon, with the 2023/24 North Caledonian League trophy. Image: Courtesy of Shaun Kerr
Invergordon, with the 2023/24 North Caledonian League trophy. Image: Courtesy of Shaun Kerr

North Caledonian League president Niall Harkiss reckons the division is as strong as it has been for 25 years as it gears up for next season.

Champions Invergordon will kick off as the team to beat, with a pack of rivals out to challenge for the crown when the action starts on August 17.

Their main rivals, league winners from two years ago, Loch Ness, have withdrawn from set-up, four years after joining the association.

Originally based in Inverness, they shifted their games to George V Park in Fortrose.

Helmsdale club Bunillidh return after a four-year absence to ensure the league remains at 12.

Invergordon, Halkirk United, St Duthus and Inverness Athletic have accepted guest invitations to compete in the North of Scotland Cup along with North of Scotland FA members Golspie Sutherland and Fort William.

Niall Harkiss, the North Caledonian League president.

Real competition from top to bottom

Harkiss, who was elected president at the association’s annual general meeting, believes the NCL is in fine shape going into the new campaign.

He said: “The geographical spread is probably as wide as it has ever been. Nairn would have taken it slightly further east (when their reserves competed a few years ago).

“We have Fort William competing and Orkney at the other side of that is great. The advent of the pyramid has clarified for a lot of people the importance of the North Caley and its role in senior football.

“It’s important the North Caley remains strong and is there to be custodians of senior football in this area.

“To have 12 teams again going into next season is amazing for the league and we’re arguably going through the strongest period for participation we’ve had in the past 20 to 25 years, which is good to see.

“From the top to bottom places, there is real competition, no matter who has finished where.

“There is a real reward for clubs being involved in the North Caley. If you win the league, you’re in the Scottish Cup the year after irrespective of the licence you hold.

“If you are licenced, you have the possibility of a play-off (into the Highland League), so there is more to play for than there ever has been. That creates a sense of competition within clubs.”

Fort William’s Ayman Bouzerai and Invergordon’s Bradi Hulme give chase last season. Image: Iain Ferguson

Division kicked on after pandemic

Harkiss hailed the clubs and association overall from regrouping and learning annually, especially after the Covid pandemic halted play in 2020.

He said: “There has been a continued growth in the way the North Caley has moved in the past seven or eight years in terms of the amount of teams involved.

“That is evidenced by the teams who seek entry each year and we have Bunillidh coming back this year and in recent years Clach reserves and Bonar Bridge have joined.

“The positivity within the association is very good. A lot of steps have been taken over a number of years to raise the profile of the league.

“Some of the greatest milestones have happened since Covid. We steered through that period and emerged with Scottish Cup qualification in place for the league winners.

“This year, the top four non-licenced teams gain entry into the North of Scotland Cup.

“Overall, we are taking strides towards reinforcing the league’s status as the senior association for this part of the world, where we represent in the north Highlands.”

Loch Ness celebrate winning the North Caledonian League in 2023. Image: Loch Ness FC

Raising standards on and off pitch

Harkiss is just as enthusiastic about what is happening away from the chase for points as clubs throughout the area put their best feet forward behind the scenes.

He added: “Part of the legacy of what Sandy Stephen did as secretary has been really working towards club structure.

“It’s about creating a mindset where clubs get everything in order behind the scenes and to have structure in place that supports the clubs whether that comes under compliance, first aid, or even a structure which supports due diligence.

“One of Sandy’s last proposals as secretary was to have clubs working towards the SFA Quality Mark in 2025.

“The idea behind that is it is a recognised quality standard, which a lot of clubs already have, but it allows clubs to work towards that and the North Caley League can then say ‘we know our clubs are being run within that standard’.

“Clubs aspiring to join the league would then have to meet that as well. It would show we have that (SFA) stamp, which demonstrated what being in the North Caley in all about.

“If you win the league, that’s a fantastic achievement but it goes back to zero again next season, whereas the quality mark and club structures are a continuous process. All clubs share the mindset to move on to another level. It’s an exciting time.

Iain Whitehead, secretary of the North Caledonian League.

Key office bearers in place for 24/25

Harkiss praised the efforts not only of Sandy Stephen for his work as secretary over the past four years and who will remain as assistant secretary to returning official (and former president) Iain Whitehead.

Stephen also holds the position of vice-president, with Euain Penny continuing as treasurer.

Harkiss said: “It’s a good time for clubs to have Iain in that (secretary) role. To have Sandy as assistant is also very good for the league.

“Including me, we all came in around 2020 at a time when we were all new to our roles and we now have four years of experience under our belts.

“It’s a really good place for the league to be in. We move from strength to strength in that regard.”