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Decision to scrap Highland League season is 'common sense' says Wick Academy manager

By Alan Hendry

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One of Wick Academy's two league fixtures in 2020/21 was away to Brora Rangers, who have now been declared as champions again. Picture: Mel Roger
One of Wick Academy's two league fixtures in 2020/21 was away to Brora Rangers, who have now been declared as champions again. Picture: Mel Roger

The decision to scrap the 2020/21 Highland League season came as no surprise to Wick Academy manager Gary Manson, who described it as a "common sense" move.

The league management committee announced today that it had called a halt to the campaign as it could not see a viable way of finishing it within a reasonable timescale amid the disruption caused by Covid-19.

“I've been anticipating this for probably the last month or so," Manson said.

Brora Rangers – the title holders and league leaders after their opening three fixtures – were declared as champions for 2020/21 and will be put forward as the league's nominated club for the end-of-season Scottish Professional Football League play-offs, having missed out on the opportunity last term.

The shortened Highland League season kicked off at the end of November with a 15-game fixture list. However, Wick are among nine teams who have played only two fixtures, while one club – Strathspey Thistle – have yet to play at all.

Manson said it had been obvious for a while that time was running out to accommodate the required number of matches.

“The longer it has dragged on, it was more and more difficult to see how they could squeeze in any kind of season before the play-offs," he said.

“From the players' point of view it's not ideal having to travel off in midweek in normal circumstances, but during these times it would be even more of an ask to travel on a Saturday, then travel on a Wednesday, and go to your work next day.

“It's just common sense that they've got to the right conclusion eventually.

“I'm not sure exactly when the play-offs are going to be, but obviously our league would have had to be finished before the play-offs. It would have been far too tight – we would have been playing at least three games a week.

“Strathspey Thistle haven't played any games yet, so they would have 15 to play. There would be no way – you'd be playing until the end of May.”

The Wick players have been keeping fit on their own but Manson will now be advising them to take a few weeks off.

“We've been trying to keep them ticking over while this uncertainty was going on,” Manson said. “What I'll be recommending to the players is to take a few weeks off and don't go out two or three times a week running – just save that until the middle of May.

“We'll hopefully then get to kick on in pre-season in the middle of June and then have a normal season, hopefully.”

Earlier this month Manson had reiterated his view that a Covid-19 testing regime for Highland League clubs would be "a non-starter" due to the costs involved and he conceded that it was looking less and less likely that the 2020/21 campaign would be able to reach a conclusion.

In a statement, the league management committee said: "In view of the circumstances the meeting decided to call a halt to season 2020/21 because it could not see a viable means to finish it in reasonable time that would allow appropriate preparations for season 2021/22. The clear hope is that the new season will provide circumstances that enable a return to more normal activity.

"The LMC also decided to honour its obligation to the Scottish football pyramid by declaring Brora Rangers the champion club for 2020/21.

"The 2020/21 season has been shortened severely by pandemic circumstances. The league took great care to hold off beginning the championship until it could start at a stage at which it was as safe as possible to do so in the communities in which the league is based. This was also for the sake of people involved in the league’s activities – its sense of responsibility to that context is important – and it has been unfortunate that another suspension of play occurred, thereby further truncating the season.

"The Scottish Government has allowed the restart of Scottish Leagues One and Two, subject to weekly testing of all involved for the remainder of the season. The cost of PCR testing – at an estimated £1500 per club per week – is beyond the sustainable resources of Highland League clubs for the length of even a shortened league campaign. It should be noted that, from the outset, the league’s top priority has been to seek to ensure that all clubs survived beyond the pandemic."

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