Football in Fort William arrived late as the Western Highlands region is much more interested in shinty, a traditional Scottish Gaelic game played with wooden sticks. Comann Camanachd A’ Ghearasdain (Fort William Shinty Club) date from 1893 and Kilmallie Shinty Club from 1929 so their long standing foothold in the town meant that the town did not have a football club until 1974.The club has always played at Claggan Park, an enclosed pasture in the foothills of the Ben Nevis mountain range. The stunning backdrop is rightly lauded as one of the best in Europe but the peak is not actually Ben Nevis itself, but a hill called Meall an t-Suidhe. The venue itself has a decrepit covered stand on one side of the pitch but this is now fenced off and condemned. There are now two identical modular Arena Seating units with around 70 seats each on the opposite side. The pitch is close to the River Nevis and is prone to waterlogging. In an attempt to help the pitch recover from the shocking winter the club turned the pitch ninety degrees in December which has left the playing surface decidedly narrow and the stands now behind either goal. Fort William FC initially contested friendlies and entered cup competitions such as the Scottish Qualifying Cup, the Inverness Cup and the North of Scotland Club. The clubs’ remote location meant there was no obvious league competition for the fledgling club to join. The club eventually joined the North Caledonian League for the 1983/84 season and finished runners-up to Muir of Ord before winning the title the following season. The club were in the ascendancy and joined the Highland League for 1985/86. It’s been another tough season on the field for The Fort, with five games left they have already conceded 156 goals including a 2-12 loss at home to Cove Rangers, a 0-10 at home to Fraserburgh. However, the nadir came when they visited reigning champions, Brora Rangers, at Dudgeon Park. The 16-0 thumping was just one goal away from Fort’s record defeat of 17-0 against Peterhead in 1998.Assuming Fort do finish bottom of the table this season it will mean they have been wooden spoonists 16 times in the 33 seasons they have been in the Highland League. This includes a run of four seasons finishing in last place, the fourth of which, 2008/09, saw them secure just one point all season in a 1-1 draw with Wick Academy. The size of their problem can be measured by looking between 1996/97 and 2013/14 when in those 18 seasons the club were bottom of the table 14 times.Their on field struggles have been well documented, but its immediate future lies off the field as all six board members announced in January that they will be stepping down at the end of the current campaign. This includes primary benefactors Stewart Maclean and Gerald McIntyre whose cash injections have kept the club afloat and funded the tortuous road trips needed in the Highland League. Despite a thriving academy set up the Forts have always struggled to attract players of sufficient quality often resorting to shipping in players from Glasgow and Inverness. Their traditional dragnet for local talent is from the surrounding areas of Lochaber, Oban and Speyside as well as the Isle of Skye. However, this flow of talent has dwindled since the closure of the Lochaber Welfare League, a summer competition, in 2016. Fort William has produced players of a very decent standing, Bolton Wanderers legend, John McGinlay, started his career at Claggan Park, while ex Chelsea and Swindon forward Duncan Shearer was also born in the town.The club have notified the Highland League that they are likely to resign from the competition at the end of the current campaign. The club have an EGM this week to decide whether the club will join either the Scottish Amateur set up or rejoin the North Caledonian League. Another option, should there be no offers of new blood and financing, would be to fold the club altogether.If the club rejoin the North Caledonian League for the new season their nearest opposition would be Inverness Athletic who are located in Muir of Ord. The away trip to Thurso would take over four hours each way on the 173 mile journey.It would be a real tragedy if this doughty but luckless club call it a day. Claggan Park is an iconic British football ground but undoubtedly these are troubled times at this remote outpost of the beautiful game.Saturday April 14th 2018 – Highland LeagueFort William (0) 0Formartine United (3) 6 (Barbour 22,35,51, Rodger 38, Gethins pen 59, Crawford 65)Attendance: 94 Admission £7, free teamsheetGallery
I am not sure why it has taken me so long to visit the Isle of Man (or Ellan Vannin in the historical Manx language). A crown dependency in the middle of the Irish Sea it’s easy enough to get to, ferry from Heysham or a short flight from Birmingham. The latter sets you down at the Ronaldsway airport in good time for a scoot around the island to check out some of the island’s football grounds with the plan being a 2pm kick off at Castletown Metropolitan followed by the under 18 representative match at The Bowl in Douglas.
With the weather less than obliging it was prudent to check out Castletown ahead of their top of the table clash with rivals Pulrose United. Chairman Patty Quinney was at the Malew Road ground and confirmed the pitch would be no problem despite the weather. A nice little ground, dating from the 1950’s, boasting a small stand and a bit of cover the encounter with Pulrose had a bit of needle as both clubs are striving for promotion. The Isle of Man has a First and Second Division and then two Combination Leagues for second teams.
Castletown Metropolitan AFC – Malew Street
Our scoot around the island started at Peel’s superb Douglas Road ground which has recently benefited from a new pitch (after sand containing glass was accidentally spread on the pitch last season!) and a make over of the stand with new plastic seats and a liberal lick of red paint around the place. The ground also boasts an indoor 3G surface.
A very pleasant drive up the west coast road found us in Ramsey, their own game had been called off earlier in the week as several of their players were selected for the representative game against Norfolk. What a fantastic ground Ballacloan Stadium is, named after the large house behind the far goal this end of the ground has quite scarily vertiginous stone terracing which sadly has out of bounds signs on it these days. A great shame must have been incredible to stand on these steep but shallow steps. There is also a decent stand with substantial terracing either side. The stadium sits in between a boating lake on North Shore Road and Mooragh Park and is particularly scenic.
Ramsey AFC – Ballacloan Stadium
Laxey AFC were formed in 1910 and play at the Henry Bloom Moore Recreation Ground on Glen Road near the picturesque harbour. A substantial stretch of terracing is set off by a footpath that disappears up the cliff to higher ground.
Laxey AFC – Henry Bloom Moore Recreation Ground
Next was the Isle of Man’s equivalent to Cowdenbeath’s Central Park in as much that Onchan Raceway is primarily a motor sport venue with a football pitch in the middle. Home to Onchan AFC it was securely locked on this visit which was a shame as it looked to have a couple of stylish concrete stands.
Onchan AFC – Onchan Raceway
By now Patty from Castletown had contacted us to say that their game had sadly bitten the dust, not due to a waterlogged pitch but for the fact that the pitch markings had completely washed away despite his best attempts to renew them! A quick decision was made to return to Peel and watch their Combination side take on their counterparts from Colby. A tight first half was succeeded by an avalanche of Peel goals in the second half. The game finished 8-1 with the impressive Shaun Kelly netting a double hat-trick. A very friendly club in a truly wonderful setting.
Peel AFC – Douglas Road Ground
A quick dash to the island’s capital Douglas saw us in the Isle of Man FA Ground at The Bowl in good time for the 5pm kick off. This was a quarter-final in the FA County Youth Cup and a decent crowd of 279 turned out on a very soggy evening. The stadium was substantially renovated in 2011, and has an artificial surface. There is seating for 3,000 with one side covered with a tented style roof. A well contested game saw the visitors from Norfolk win 2-1 in extra time.
The Bowl Stadium
Heading back to the airport on the Sunday morning afforded the opportunity to visit one final ground right on the southern tip of the island in Port Erin. Croit Lowey is the home of Rushen United and has a clubhouse on an elevated platform above the pitch and this has a substantial section of cover running the length of the building.
Rushen United – Croit Lowey
Despite the poor weather it was a memorable trip to this scandalously overlooked island. One can’t help thinking how ideal Isle of Man football would be for an organised groundhop. Decent facilities, friendly folk and a real tradition in football and nowhere particularly far from anywhere else it is tailor made for a groundhopping extravaganza.
Royal Antwerp were formed as Antwerp Athletic Club in 1880 by English students living in the city. It is generally accepted that the club is the oldest in Belgium so when the Royal Belgian FA introduced its matricule system, the revered inventory of registration and hierarchy, Antwerp were awarded the coveted matricule No.1.
The club has won the Belgian Championship on four occasions but since their last relegation from the top flight in 2004 the club has experienced some particularly lean years. One of the last highlights for the Reds came in 1992/3 when they defeated Glenavon, Admira Wacker, Steaua Bucharest and Spartak Moscow on their way to the European Cup Winners Cup Final. They were defeated 3-1 in the final at Wembley by Parma but had the tournaments top scorer with 7 goals by Belgian International Alex Czerniatynski.
Those somewhat distant glory games were of course played in front of packed houses at the mythical Bosuilstadion, home to the club since 1923. Prior to this the Reds played at another substantial ground called the Stadion Broodstraat which had been opened in 1908 and was used as a primary football venue for the 1920 Summer Olympics held in the city.
The Bosuilstadion has held many famous matches including the 1964 Cup Winners Cup final between Sporting Club Portugal and MTK Budapest as well as numerous international matches for the Belgian national team. Markedly there has been no Belgian internationals played at the venue since 1988. The stadium is something of an oddity, the two ends are relatively modern with one being a glazed VIP stand, opened in 1991, for those with enough money to want to watch live football minus any semblance of the atmosphere. The structure has been branded “the fishbowl” for obvious reasons. The atmosphere at the Bosuilstadion is so legendary that it became widely known as the “Hell of Derne” such was the intimidating environment for visiting teams. At its peak the Bosuil (Dutch for “Tawny Owl”) could accommodate some 60,000 spectators.
The two sides of the stadium have ancient edifices, both in some considerable need of renovation. The poor state of repair meant that the stadium was not considered as a host venue for Euro 2000 although the new stand behind the goal is testament to failed plans for a total renovation in readiness for an application. In more recent years the two ancient stands have deteriorated further, signs have been put up that read “do not jump, danger of collapse”. It took an injury to a supporter in the vintage 1923 main stand to provoke some work to the interior of this old leviathan. This is now the most expensive area of the stadium in which to sit, VIP area excluded. The central seats for this game were €60 while modern plastic seats to either side can be yours for €25 a piece. Had I remained in my allocated seat both goals would have been totally obscured by a rail barrier from the old configuration of the stand. A small and unused terraced paddock area has been created underneath the seating but looks awkward and incongruous with the rest of the stand. Typically the renovations look like they have been done cheaply rather than investing properly for the future. The stand is still hampered by a leaking roof, temporary toilet facilities and a lack of lighting on the way out.
The majority of “the Great Old’s” season ticket holders are housed in the magnificent curved Tribune 2 opposite the main stand, replete with original bench seating. It too is in a pretty poor shape the top right hand corner is fenced off due to safety concerns. The noise from this tribune, however, is immense and a veritable sonic boom erupts when the players enter the field or Antwerp find the net.
They do that only once tonight against plucky visitors from West Flanders, KSV Roeselare. The goal came from the most impressive player on the pitch, the tricky little winger, Stallone Limbombe and it was enough to secure a first win of the new season for The Great Old.
So what to make of the Bosuilstadion? Old school stands, massive floodlights (albeit only 3 of them since one blew down in a storm), and terrific support tick many people’s boxes. However, expensive tickets, quite frankly dangerous infrastructure and a lack of direction of the future of the stadium must be a concern. The previous board of the club seemed content to plod knowing they could rely on the unswerving support of the fans yet offering them little in the way of creature comforts. Maybe it was the old board espousing the long held opinion that Antwerp natives are “superior” and often arrogant in demeanour, several locals at the game wore tee shirts with the phrase “Arrogantwerp” emblazoned on them. Clever use of language but the arrogance and presumptuousness of the old Antwerp board could have resulted in a serious stadium incident. Hopefully the more progressive board now in power will provide the magnificent fans of this club with the kind of future they absolutely deserve.
Proximus League – 13/08/2016
Royal Antwerp 1 (Limbombe 59) SV Roeselare 0
Att: 11,118 (at Bosuilstadion)
Admission €25 Programme €2