Fort William FC faces relegation from Highland League after player eligibility wrangle

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Almost 40 years of Highland League football for Fort William’s local town club may well have come to a chaotic conclusion this weekend after a dispute over player eligibility and the condition of the club’s Claggan Park ground.

In a statement yesterday (Friday), the  League said it was ‘ extremely disappointed’ to have been informed by Fort that the club was withdrawing from both today’s (Saturday) first leg of the pyramid play-off matches against Banks o’Dee FC at Spain Park and next weekend’s return encounter.

If things stand as they are, then Fort will be relegated from the Highland League, with Dee being promoted, and Fort most likely to end up playing their football next season in the North Caledonian League.

The League said it has been engaged in discussions with Fort during the course of this week and these centred on two issues, with the most significant being the one concerning player eligibility to take part in the play-offs.

Fort chairman John Trew was unable to reveal much today about the club’s plans but did tell the Lochaber Times: ‘The stuff about us being unable to field a team is incorrect and that is about as much as we can say at the moment.

Fort William FC chairman John Trew who said the club has contacted the SFA over the matter.

‘We’ve spoken to the SFA [Scottish Football Association] who are hoping we can resolve it ourselves with the League, otherwise they are willing to mediate.

‘We were already to go for today’s match with pennants made for our first encounter with Banks o’Dee and everything.’

The Highland League’s statement in full reads as follows:

‘Competition rules were published in July 2021 and state clearly that, to be eligible to take part in the playoffs, a player must be registered by the club by 31st January.

‘In the case of Fort William FC, three of the 12 players who took part in the Breedon Highland League match at Rothes on Tuesday 19th April 2022 were therefore ineligible for the playoffs.

‘Central to this is the fact that the club’s first choice goalkeeper had returned home to Poland and his replacement was registered on 31st March 2022. This meant that the club felt it did not have enough goalkeepers for the playoffs as well as having few outfield players. So, on Wednesday 20th April 2022, it requested dispensation to play all three players in the playoffs.

‘Research by the League’s secretariat uncovered the fact that Fort William FC had at that date five players registered who were described as goalkeepers. Consequently, the League’s office bearers declined dispensation for all three players and the club was informed accordingly.

‘During the course of Thursday and Friday, discussions continued and the club then submitted a second request for dispensation with regard to the goalkeeper signed on 31st March 2022.

‘Research by the League’s secretariat indicated that one of the goalkeepers had been deregistered but four remained on the books so the request for dispensation was denied.

‘Subsequent discussions with the manager led to the conclusion that club personnel were unaware of the existence of one of the two remaining goalkeepers. The secretary suggested that this needed checking out.

‘The League was then informed that it appears that this person was unknown to club management and is a member of the armed forces currently away on duty. This had not been included in the second request for dispensation.

‘The second issue relates to the condition of Claggan Park. It had been decided that, given the events of the season, a pitch and ground inspection should take place to confirm it as a venue for the second leg of the playoffs.

‘That inspection was carried out by a representative of the League who is also a retired referee on the morning of Friday 22nd April and raised some concerns. The club was informed of these concerns and advised of a way ahead.

‘It was recommended that the club roll the pitch, cut the grass and line it as if for a match, and a further inspection would be undertaken on Tuesday 26th April and all concerned were optimistic about a positive outcome.

‘In discussions, it was apparent that the club was reluctant to accept that advice. Discussions continued throughout Friday and were effectively closed by Fort William FC when it decided to withdraw from the playoffs.’

Apart from Mr Trew’s comments to the Lochaber Times today, the Claggan Park club is remaining tight-lipped over the affair but did issue a brief comment last night (Friday) expressing its disappointment that the Highland League had released a statement ahead of a proposed meeting.

The club claimed many parts of the league’s statement were incorrect and that this would ‘become clear over time’.

The club added: ‘Because of this statement we will refrain from updates until the SFA and other relevant people have been consulted.

Fort William FC Manager Shadab Iftikhar, who joined the club at the end of last year. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, The Write Image.

‘The club is financially stable and ready for next season. Shadab [current manager Shadab Iftikhar] and the squad are bitterly disappointed not to be playing tomorrow.’