Why Scotland’s “worst football team” are so much more than a punchline
Pictured (above): Fort William FC // Image Credit: Iain Ferguson
When a football team gets branded the “worst team in Britain” you start to imagine a club that loses by copious amounts of goals on a weekly basis.
Three years ago this was the reality for Fort William FC, a football club based in the Scottish Highlands. The club ended their 2018-2019 season on -7 points, following a deduction for fielding ineligible players. They ended up with a goal difference of -224.
“Ben Nevis stands at 1,345m high, and overlooks the home ground of The Fort”
Despite this, the team didn’t lose hope and continued to play the fearless Fort William way. This saw them rewarded on the 31st of July 2019, when the team won their first competitive match in 707 days; a victory over Nairn County, who they beat 5-2 in a thrilling cup tie.
Hope was starting to grow at this Highland League side. Last season they battled it out, finishing second to last on a total of 10 points – a vast improvement on seasons gone by. No, you won’t find tiki-taka football at Claggan Park, but you will find the highest mountain in the UK. Ben Nevis stands at 1,345m high, and overlooks the home ground of The Fort.
Fort William may not focus on adventurous football when it comes to their tactics. But what they lack in exciting formations, they very much make up for in landforms; making it surely one of the most scenic places to play football anywhere in the world. As backdrops go, it’s certainly a view few teams in the British Isles can compete with.
Sure, Old Trafford may look appealing to certain partisan eyes but buried underneath all that corrugated steel is a hollow emptiness that’s been created by the money and greed of the modern game. The exact same thing can be a said about a number of other Premier League teams, of course, but a club like Fort William need not worry.
“This is a football club with a community at the heart of it”
This is a football club with a community at the heart of it. The Fort will never ever make a headline-stealing signing like the big clubs but, that’s alright, because how many other clubs in the UK can say they play in the shadow of a mountain?
Unlike the typical modern football stadium, which can hold tens of thousands of people (in non-pandemic times) and are laid out like shopping centres, Fort William’s modest home ground of Claggan Park has a capacity of just 1,800 people. There’s no Golden Arches in sight, or Wembley arches for that matter. Instead, the biggest distraction for players, fans, and opposition alike is the stunning wilderness that surrounds the pitch.
Win, loss, or draw, Ben Nevis is a reassuring presence for the team and the ultimate 12th man in many ways. Fort William FC could get beat 11-1 every week, but the mountain will still be there, watching on, week after week. A silent observer.
If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us one thing over the last year though, it’s the importance of people to football. It’s become a cliche to say it but those 22 players who grace the pitch will never be the most important people there. This is a title that belongs to the fans and the local heroes who give up their time so that communities can have a football club in the first place.
One of those people for Fort William is Olly Stephen, the club’s under 13’s coach. This man of the mountains, and proper club legend, ran the equivalent of more than 400 Ben Nevis ascents as part of a fundraising mission. He fought against the Scottish elements so that local kids could continue to play the beautiful game.
“In the beginning, I told the other coaches and the backroom guys that I was thinking about doing it. I wanted to raise some money for the kids [Fort William Under 13s], and then as I got into the first 3 or 4 weeks, I said to myself I’m definitely going to commit to it. In my mind, I’ve told people I’m doing it, so I know I had a commitment there.”
Olly raised over £2,400 after making the pledge to run 5k every single day throughout 2020. These vital funds went towards helping his Fort William under 13s, a team he coaches and a team he is clearly willing to go the extra mile for.
“The juniors have to apply for funding every year from the Scottish football association, and if we tick all the boxes, we get a grant from them for 8-10k. This covers bus hires, coaches, clothing, kit, and training apparatus. Because it’s Fort William, it rains pretty much every day. Having the tallest mountain in the country next to one of the deepest lochs play its part in being one of the wettest places in Britain.
“Knowing the financial pressures that are on the club, I just knew anything I could make would make a massive difference to the team”
“We can’t play on grass all year round, so we use the local high school astro turf, and it costs in the region of 4-5k just to hire that for matches and training. So if you look at the grant we get, it goes to those sort of key areas and then any extras that come along we have to fundraise for. We do bag packing and race nights, or the odd business might sponsor us. Fundamentally the club doesn’t have a lot of money. Knowing the financial pressures that are on the club, I just knew anything I could make would make a massive difference to the team.”
This money became even more important to the club when funding was held by the Scottish FA due to the ongoing pandemic; something that continues to affect lower league football across the entire country. Fort William teams, both senior and junior, haven’t played much football this year due to the Highland League being suspended on the 11th of January 2021 until further notice.
This will have no doubt come as an annoyance to The Fort, and their fans, who enjoyed a promising end to last season with the club recording their first league win in 882 days – a 1-0 victory over Clachnacuddin.
Olly knows only too well how important football is to his Fort William teenagers.
“We have 110 boys that play for us aged from around 9 years old to 17. The whole COVID thing has just evidenced how important getting kids out to do sports is for their health and well-being. At the end of the day, sports are great. Whether you’re winning or losing, you build bonds with people that are there for life,” he tells me.
The 35-year-old ended up covering over 1,654 miles (2662km) in 2020, but what got him through all of this? How was he able to successfully run 5k every day for an entire year? The answer is two words: “Fort William.”
“Whether you’re winning or losing, you build bonds with people that are there for life”
“Sometimes I’d just try and run somewhere where I’d never been before and pick somewhere different. The scenery here is unbelievable, you can walk out your door, and in 15 minutes, you are somewhere totally different. I live down by Loch Linnhe, and within a kilometre, you have a canal that leads to Neptune’s Staircase, which was designed to take boats from the west coast to the east coast before the war. It’s unbelievable, it’s like one of the seven wonders of the world.
“You’ve then got Glen Nevis, which is where they filmed Braveheart, and these whole vistas of heaven, mountains, and forest are almost on your doorstep. 15 minutes into a run, you can be in a completely different world from where you started off.”
With all this natural beauty surrounding the area, you’d think Fort William would have no trouble attracting players to the club. But they’ve got one big problem, shinty is the main sport around here.
“Fort William is a small community, and sport in the local area is pretty much all shinty. It’s basically hockey without rules. We have five main shinty teams in this area and only one football team. Shinty is one of those things in which people are heavily involved. It has that community with a family involvement around it,” he tells me.
The sport of shinty saturates the area, with established clubs having no trouble rounding up players and getting the support they need. Fort William has struggled to attract players over the years due to shinty’s ironclad grip on the Highlands. The Fort is still very reliant on players travelling from Inverness, which involves a 130-mile trip for some players.
“He would end up travelling six hours just to play his football at Fort William”
Olly goes on to say, “Football is definitely not the main sport in this area, but the club itself has some committed coaches and people that give up their time for the club for absolutely nothing, and that’s amazing.”
This really isn’t a lie. The club once had a player from the Edinburgh area who played for the club. He would travel to away games and come to training once a week (a three-hour one-way trip). He would end up travelling six hours just to play his football at Fort William. Over the last few years, the media has recognised this club more and given them a platform to appeal to a whole new fan base, where they can tell their underdog story to the world.
Part football team, part fearless band of mountain men, Fort William can take a 10-0 thrashing and never let it get them down. Their story is an oddly inspiring one.
When I speak to him, Olly already has one eye on the next challenge he can take on to support his beloved Fort William.
“We have something called the Ben Nevis mountain race, which is run every year in September. Last year was the first time it wasn’t held for thirty years or something because of covid. We have a local doctor who is in his thirties, and he has won it for the last nine years in a row.
“It’s open to people elsewhere as well, but you have certain qualifying stages you have to get to in order to be able to do it. So you have to run a certain amount of hill races over a calendar year to be able to take part. It has around 300 people who do it every year – the average person walking it does it in like six hours, and this doctor is doing it in an hour and a half.
“Fort William can take a 10-0 thrashing and never let it get them down”
“I’ve thought about it in the past, but it’s a mammoth one. That’s something I’d have to have a moment of madness to sign myself up for, and then I’d have to really train for it. Running up any mountain is hard but running up the biggest mountain in the UK is a lot harder.”
As for Fort William, their biggest challenge now is figuring out how to make The Fort a fortress. They’ve got a plan, and it’s a plan as bold as that Auld Alliance made in 1295. Apart from this time, it won’t be the French helping out the Scottish. It will be the Hungarians and the Latvians.
Before touching on the future of Fort William though, let’s run you through the present squad and some of the key standout players. The best place to start is with the team’s current captain, John Treasurer, who at the age of 24 must face the brunt every week as he looks to motivate his fellow players following yet another defeat.
Next up is the reliable Scott Hunter – an architect in real life and one on the pitch as well as he looks to be a creative force in the Fort William midfield. Trying his best to break into the team is talented 16-year-old Robbie Rydings. The forward is hoping to become a mainstay in the Fort William attack when the Highland League starts back up again.
That’s where they’re at in the present, but what about the future? Well, Olly has thought about potentially scouting European workers in the area. With three big companies on the club’s doorstep, and with each of them having an affiliation with countries in Europe, it feels like there’s an opportunity, however unlikely it might seem, to be seized
“The Hungarians that work for me are all fantastic footballers but don’t play for a team”
BSW Timber, where Olly Stephen works, employs up to 200 people. However, the network reaches over 600 when you take into consideration partners. You’ve then got the Alvance aluminium smelter, which offers employment to more than up to 150 people. The third company comes in the form of Mowi Scotland, a sustainable salmon farming business that has a processing plant in Fort William.
Olly tells me, “I have a few Latvian and Hungarians at the mill. The Hungarians that work for me are all fantastic footballers but don’t play for a team. We had a football event at the sawmill about two and a half years ago. The Hungarians really stood out because they all played together, it was a father and his two sons, and the dad who’s in his late 50s was unbelievable, he played semi-professional in Hungary and his kids are great footballers as well. I was thinking when the tournament was going on that we have 8-10 players who with a bit of exercise and fitness could get into the Fort William team.”
Imagine the scenes. Fort William climbing the league pyramid with their very own band of Hungarian superstars. It sounds like something you’d only see happen while playing the eternally popular computer game Football Manager. However, if the last year has shown us anything it’s that we should always expect the unexpected
For now, Fort William is focused on breaking the stigma and continuing to perform their best on the pitch no matter what. FWFC, it’s clear, are champions of the idea that the worst teams aren’t defined by how many games they win, lose, or draw – they’re defined by their ethos. It’s clear to see, following my chat with Olly, that the coaches, players, and fans at The Fort have a good one.
While it isn’t exactly a trophy, Fort William have recently added an impressive accolade to the club’s honours board with the introduction of their own official club tartan. The ‘Mon the Fort’ features the club’s colours, with black and yellow running through the pattern design. It is finished off with a green that represents Claggan Park, and a white that signifies the snow of Ben Nevis.
Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got to take Fort William from the doldrums to Dundee United away. Well, it’s something to do in lockdown isn’t it?
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