Monster away trip for Saints

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Oban Saints make the scenic journey up the A82 this Saturday, along the shores of Loch Ness for some monster spotting, then on to the capital of the Highlands.

There they will face Inverness Athletic of the North Caledonian League in a preseason friendly at Inverness Royal Academy, with a 1pm kick-off.

Established in 2016 as the brainchild of now club chairman Sandy Stephen, Inverness Athletic were quickly accepted as members of the North Caledonian Football Association and admitted to the North Caledonian Football League for the start of the 2016-17 season.

The newly-formed club played their first competitive match on September 3 2016 in a logistically challenging trip to Orkney which ended in a 2 – 0 victory for the home side.

Initially setting up home at Inverarnie Park in Inverness, Athletic slipped to defeats against Invergordon and Tain based St Duthus before recording their first win in a 10 – 0 rout of Alness United.

Just three months into their debut season, Athletic were forced to find a new home when use of Inverarnie Park was suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn. The search took them west of the Beauly Firth to Pavilion Park, Muir of Ord, where they would remain until the end of the 2018-19 season.

The change of location did nothing to improve the fortunes of the fledgling club which ended its first season second bottom of the eight team league ahead of wooden spoon winners Alness United on goal difference only.

With manager Tommy Wilson, who had replaced Chris Darch midway through the previous campaign, still at the helm, Athletic continued to struggle to adapt to the high standard of football in the North Caledonian League and once again finished in seventh place, albeit with an improved points tally.

The high point of the season for Athletic came in the Jock Mackay Cup where a resounding semi-final win over St Duthus set up a first cup final appearance for the Inverness men. There was to be no silverware for recently installed caretaker manager Shane Carling though who saw his temporary charges go down fighting in a 3 – 1 final defeat to Invergordon. The Cromarty Firth men were themselves denied a league and cup double and back to back league titles by Orkney who topped the league table by a single point to take the title across the water for the first time.

Carling’s reward for guiding Athletic to their first cup final was to be handed the manager’s job on a permanent basis and he continued the club’s improvement with a fifth-placed finish in their third season. Eight wins and one draw earned Athletic 25 points, four more than the previous two seasons added together, which the Inverness men will hope to surpass in the 2019-20 season.

Athletic kicked off their preseason fixtures last Thursday night at Bught Park against Nairn County’s under 20s.

In an open game, Ryan Ingram opened the scoring for Athletic before a brace from Tyler Edie edged the Nairn youngsters ahead. Michal Zaleski levelled from the penalty spot before Ryan Ingram headed home a Ross Harrison cross to restore the Athletic lead.

County failed to take advantage of the game’s second penalty kick and were further punished when an Athletic trialist extended the lead further.
Glen Main pulled another goal back for County in the dying minutes but Athletic held on to get their pre-season off to a good start.

This will be Saints’ first ‘proper’ pre-season friendly as two earlier fixtures against Port Glasgow United and Shortlees had to be called off when the two clubs couldn’t raise squads to travel to Oban.

Although Saints have a number of first team players unavailable, they are still taking a strong squad to Inverness for what should be a tough work out for the West of Scotland Cup finalists and new members of the Central Scottish AFL.

The team will be staying overnight in the Highland capital before travelling back home on Sunday.

Saturday’s match will provide a good test for both sides as the build-up to the new season continues. Athletic have one further friendly arranged against Inverness Clachnacuddin under 20’s but will be looking for several more before they kick off their North Caledonian League campaign with a home match against Bunillidh Thistle on Saturday September 7.

Saints will begin their new adventure in the Central Scottish Amateur Football League on Saturday August 10 with an away game against Craigneuk.

This is followed by two home games against Lesmahagow and Clydebank.