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.”