Locals dig deep to save League and cup games at Claggan Park

Some of the team which is working to restore Claggan Park, at the ground on Monday night - front from left are Mark Rydings and David MacDonald. Back row from left are Peter Murphy, Olly Stephen, Mark Gillespie and Iain MacKay. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F32 Save Claggan Park 02
Some of the team which is working to restore Claggan Park, at the ground on Monday night - front from left are Mark Rydings and David MacDonald. Back row from left are Peter Murphy, Olly Stephen, Mark Gillespie and Iain MacKay. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F32 Save Claggan Park 02

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In just a matter of hours on Sunday enough cash was pledged to bring the Claggan Park football pitch in Fort William up to a standard that should satisfy Highland League bosses and allow the town’s football club to play its league and cup home games actually at home.

There was shock last week when the League ordered Fort William FC to play all its league and cup games away from home after the condition of the pitch was highlighted by a member of the public.

Fort William FC's Claggan Park ground. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos IF F16 Fort FC 01
Fort William FC’s Claggan Park ground. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos

Coverage of the bombshell decision in the Lochaber Times on Thursday was followed by more calls to help the club on social media, resulting in a meeting held at the ground on Sunday morning.

Among those involved was former club youth coach Mark Rydings, who this week spoke to the Lochaber Times about the incredible turn around in the Claggan Park pitch saga.

‘We spoke to Michael Clark who is the greenkeeper at Kingussie and Gavin Irons whose business is sports pitches,’ Mr Rydings told us.

Mr Clark agreed to come down and take a look at the Fort pitch, as did Mr Irons, with the latter expressing the opinion that the ground conditions were not as bad as some people were saying.

‘That was really great news and gave everyone a bit of a lift,’ explained Mr Rydings. ‘They suggested that something like £17,000 to £20,000  would be enough to bring the pitch up to the level needed.

‘The problem was the club had no money in the bank for this sort of work. We had put together a little WhatsApp group and together with some phone calls it meant that between the Sunday morning meeting at the ground at 10.30am and 8pm that same day we had about £24,000 donated or pledged – it was so heartening to see such generosity and community spirit. Absolutely fantastic.’

As well as local businesses stepping forward, the offers of money also came from individuals. Mr Rydings continued: ‘Local businesses really stepped up to the plate on this. We even had one retired person put his hand in his pocket to the tune of £2,000. It’s all been so positive.’

The plan is now for improvement works to start as soon as next week and hopefully a playable surface can be ready in around four to six weeks.

‘That timescale would mean the club would only miss three of its main home games – so it is do-able,’ added Mr Rydings.

Fellow group member David MacDonald added that the club now expected league secretary Rod Houston to visit Claggan Park sometime within the next few weeks to see for himself how the works are progressing.

‘It’s absolutely fantastic how quickly all this has come together,’ said Mr MacDonald. ‘But we don’t want to stop now – we want to get a proper programme of maintenance together.’

And now that the group has the bit between its teeth, those involved want to keep raising money – there is also an existing crowdfunder effort launched recently by club vice-chairman Colin Wood – to improve other elements of Claggan Park.

Local MP Ian Blackford has now also written to the league, asking the football authority to allow the club to continue playing their home games at Claggan Park once repair work on the playing surface has been completed.

MP for Skye Ian Blackford. NO F15 Ian Blackford leaning
MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber Ian Blackford.

‘The current decision to forbid the team from playing a home match for the entirety of the season would have a devastating impact, not only on the club, but with its links to the local community as well,’ added Mr Blackford.

Giving his reaction, Mr Wood said: ‘It has been humbling to see the amount of support the club had from the local community over the past few weeks, with a lot of local tradesmen and businesses giving up time and money to ensure that Highland League football has a future in Fort William.’