It's all worth the pain: Sinclair still going strong in bid for fifth Highland Amateur Cup win with Wick Groats
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Alan Sinclair was in his early twenties when he was told his football career was effectively over after he developed a form of arthritis. The news was, he says, "pretty devastating".
Yet at 42 he remains a rock-solid presence at the heart of Wick Groats' defence – aided by a combination medication and injections and his own indomitable spirit. He has helped the club win multiple trophies in Caithness summer football over the years and on Saturday will be aiming to lift the Highland Amateur Cup for a fifth time.
Sinclair – known as Baba since childhood – was doing well at Wick Academy when he received his diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis. Alistair Budge, manager of the Highland League club at the time, was a tower of strength.
"He is a big part of what I've done in football," Sinclair said. "He used to drive me up and down the road for appointments when my arthritis kicked in.
"I remember coming out from one of them and they basically told me I'd never kick a ball again, when they diagnosed the type of arthritis I had. I remember just sitting with him in his car thinking that was my football done.
"He has always been on the end of the phone. He has been a huge part of the player that I am and how I've kept going for so many years.
"I've got the stubbornness of a Sinclair, my mum says, but the winning mentality has been ploughed in by Alistair Budge."
The arthritis "has never gone away", said Sinclair, who works in the machine shop at Wick company Imenco. "Basically all the joints in my hips and my back are trying to fuse together so you'll not have any movement. It basically welds itself together and limits your movement in your spine. It causes a lot of pain.
"When I'm playing football you're working all the joints so it's not allowing it to happen so quickly. I've been on medication for years, since my early twenties. I took three years out from playing football and then gradually started feeling better and worked my way back.
"I started with Wick Rovers in summer football, then I played with Halkirk United in the North Caledonian League, another step up, just to see how the body would cope through the winter as well.
"Once I did that I thought, 'I want to give the Highland League one more try, just to see how far I can go again,' and I managed a season with Wick Academy. I'm very grateful to them for allowing me back to play.
"It was hard, because you're sitting on a bus so much – I was pretty stiff and sore by the time we arrived. It was just a bit too much so I dropped back and played in the North Caley with the shorter travelling times and maybe not as demanding on the body.
"I want to play as long as I can, to make up for the years that I missed. That's in the back of my head, why I keep going, if the body will allow me.
"My specialist in Raigmore, and the physio, they say if you can carry on playing at whatever level then keep doing it because it's good for your body. I had a flare-up in the winter but I'm on injections now.
"I was always quite positive and upbeat about it. In 20 years' time they might find a cure – you just don't know what's in the future.
"This is the Sinclair thrawnness again that keeps going. Everything that I take medication-wise and I'm doing is to slow down the inevitable of the arthritis taking a grip of my body.
"When I'm older, probably people will look at me and say, 'There's no way he played football – look at the state of him.'"
In the meantime he is as focused and as motivated as ever.
"I love playing in a team," Sinclair said. "I like seeing the younger guys coming through. You're just trying to pass on as much knowledge to them as you can to them. A lot of guys did the same for me.
"I could have a lot of other things wrong with me that could be a lot worse. As far as I'm concerned, if I can get up and walk about and if I'm able to play my football and work and enjoy life, I've just got to keep going.
"I've got my family around me who have been very supportive and I'm lucky to have good pals that I met through football. It's all worth the pain."
Wick Groats have won the Highland Amateur Cup four times since 2013 – with Sinclair captaining the team on each occasion.
Now he and his team-mates are targeting a fifth success when they take on Avoch in the 2023 final at Harmsworth Park. It will be the fourth time the clubs have met in the final, with the Black Isle outfit having won in 2012 before Groats came out on top in 2015 and 2019.
"Avoch are one of the top teams in it and have been for years," Sinclair said. "They are second to Pentland United in how many they've won. They've got huge pedigree.
"We're there trying to chase down those teams with Highland Amateur Cup wins and it's good that we're continuing to do so.
"We've had a few changes over the last year, a lot of new faces, young guys, and it's good that the winning mentality is getting drip-fed down through all those guys as well. It's a big ask but we'll give it a bash.
"We've played each other three times in finals and we're 2-1 up. It's like any final. It's who wants it most on the day, it's a one-off game, you've got to go for it, leave everything out there – all the old clichés, but they're true."
The 42-year-old is very much in the veteran category as a player. "The brain says yes, you can still do it, and next day the body says what a fool you are," he said. "There are two sides to it."
At the same time, he is doing his bit to help manager Kevin Anderson and his coaching team of Stewart, Craig and Kyle Ross.
"It is a team game," Sinclair said. "The team is doing well, so it's not down to any individuals. Collectively we've got a good group of guys.
"Kevin knows what he wants from his team, he knows what kind of players he wants, what will fit in to his team. It's not just a good player – he wants someone that will fit in with the group.
"We're all there to help him. Ultimately Kevin has the final say but we all bring something different to it. It's very rarely that we disagree. It works well for us.
"But it's a lot of commitment, the summer football. You need a lot of people around you, people you trust, people who can help out.
"We need a big squad at Groats. Everybody is needed during the season if you want to compete as we do in all competitions and go as far as you can.
"You've got holidays to cover, injuries, suspensions... so having even a 20-man squad sometimes isn't enough. Sometimes it's about rotating your players.
"We all enjoy spending time together, Highland Amateur Cup days out and things like that. A lot of the amateur teams up here love the Highland Amateur and the trips away, if you can get them.
"Other than playing for Academy it's the next biggest thing you can do as a footballer in Caithness – perform well in the Highland Amateur Cup, and if you're lucky enough to win it then it's something that every Caithness club would love to do, and sets out to do.
"The first round of the Highland Amateur Cup is always a good bonding day if you've got new guys in your team.
"It's a fun thing to do, but the serious side is that the guys all want to win. It all goes hand in hand."
The Highland Amateur Cup is the biggest prize for amateur clubs across the Highlands and Islands. But some things are more important than winning or losing a football match.
"It's more than just the game on the park," according to Sinclair, who has captained Wick Groats to four triumphs in the tournament and is aiming for a fifth this weekend.
Two men who are no longer here feature heavily in Sinclair's memories of past finals.
In July 2012, soon after he had led Groats to that year’s final, manager George Groat was diagnosed with cancer. He died in March 2013, aged 50.
Groats lost 4-0 to Avoch in that 2012 final at Caledonian Stadium but made amends with a 1-0 win against Kirkwall Thorfinn the following year at the same Inverness ground.
Sinclair dedicated the trophy to the late manager. The cup was handed over to George’s wife Alison and daughters Linsay and Jacquelyn by Derek Shearer, who had taken over as boss, assisted by Kevin Anderson.
"Alison, Linsay and Jacquelyn were following us through that journey that season," Sinclair recalled. "We really had the bit between our teeth as a group.
"We were pretty disappointed that we couldn't have won it the season before, but we just didn't perform that day – Avoch were far better than us and worthy winners. But we were really pushing the following year to try and do it in memory of Geordie."
Sinclair added: "I remember saying to Geordie that I wouldn't have another drink until we won the Highland Amateur and I would toast the success for him. I kept my word.
"My father passed away just a few months after Geordie and at the funeral everyone was asking, 'Will you not have a drink for your father?' I said, 'No, I made a promise to a man.' My family knew what I was on about.
"Steven, Geordie's son-in-law, came and gave me a bottle in the Caledonian Stadium [after the 2013 final] and said, 'That's for Geordie – get it in you. You kept your promise so here you go.'"
There was another poignant moment at the 2016 final in Brora, when Groats beat Kirkwall Thorfinn on penalties after a 0-0 draw.
The Orkney club's captain Steven Miller (34) had died suddenly in June that year.
Sinclair recalled: "At the end, when we scored the winning penalty, all our guys ran off to celebrate but deep down I knew how they'd be feeling. I got on really well with Geordie and I knew how gutted they must have been. They gave everything that day.
"I made a speech after it about how tight it was, but I said there was a bigger thing today. A lot of people came from Orkney that day and I said there's one guy I know that they would all wish to be here – Steven.
"I said we understood that ourselves, after what we went through previously with Geordie. I asked the Kirkwall skipper to come up and we raised the trophy in memory of Steven. Rather than it being Wick Groats' trophy, it was kind of Steven's day.
"I think his partner was there and she sent a lovely message to the club saying it meant a lot to her and the family.
"Because we'd been through a similar situation, it was in my head. When the rest of our team were off celebrating, my thoughts were with them. I just wanted to do something that would be a bit memorable."