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Wick manager Manson calls for Highland League season to be paused

By Alan Hendry

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Wick Academy manager Gary Manson (right) and first-team coach Gordon McDonald. Picture: Mel Roger
Wick Academy manager Gary Manson (right) and first-team coach Gordon McDonald. Picture: Mel Roger

Wick Academy manager Gary Manson is calling for Highland League football to be suspended while mainland Scotland is in lockdown and coronavirus cases continue to rise.

He said today that he understands talks are in progress and an announcement about pausing the campaign could be made within the coming week, following a meeting of the league management committee.

Fixtures planned for this Saturday are due to go ahead, although Academy's home game against Huntly is postponed as the Christie Park side are involved in round two of the Scottish Cup.

“I'm hopeful that they'll see sense and put a pause in place for the lockdown period," Manson said.

“As things stand, games are scheduled to go ahead this weekend but obviously our game is off now because Huntly won in the cup.

“There will be meetings and hopefully sense will prevail and there will be an announcement next week. That's me just hoping – I don't know that will happen.

“I know other clubs feel the same way as we do. We as a club are all in agreement that there shouldn't be any games played in lockdown.

“Hopefully the league can come together and come to a sensible decision and put a pause in place, but we just don't know yet.”

The North Caledonian League has already agreed to pause its season for the duration of January.

Manson pointed out that even if football carried on there would be a serious impact on player availability.

“There is no doubt it is frustrating from a football point of view, but if we were to play on we wouldn't have a full squad and it wouldn't feel like proper football anyway," he said.

“We'd probably be missing out on a minimum of six or seven players, so it wouldn't feel like a Wick Academy team. It would be a makeshift team at best.”

At the same time, Academy and other clubs would be denied access to training facilities that have been shut because of lockdown.

“We're not the only team in that position," Manson said. "There are other teams in and around Inverness and in Aberdeenshire who use council facilities that are closed.

“Wick are definitely not the only club who feel like this.

“Hopefully next week we'll be a bit clearer about what's happening. I'm guessing they are just waiting on some guidance from the SFA.

“If it was me it would be paused already, but hopefully they'll come to the correct decision in time.”

Goalkeeper Graeme Williamson punches clear during Wick Academy's last league game, away to Brora at the start of December. Picture: Mel Roger
Goalkeeper Graeme Williamson punches clear during Wick Academy's last league game, away to Brora at the start of December. Picture: Mel Roger

Speaking earlier in the week, Manson said he found it illogical that clubs at Highland League level were expected to continue playing.

“Essentially we have nowhere to train unless we train at Harmsworth Park, and the way Harmsworth Park is just now it’s not fit for two training sessions a week and a match," he said.

“We’ve not trained this week so far but that’s not only due to lack of facilities. That's also down to the lockdown we’re in. It doesn’t seem right that boys can’t go to their work yet I'm asking them along to football training.

"How can a country be in a national lockdown yet we’re being asked to play football? It just doesn’t seem right whatsoever, and I think that would be the view of any right-minded person.

“I can understand the top-level teams, the elite players – they’re getting tested twice a week, say, and being told to stay in their own bubble. But we don’t have that. We’ve never been tested, we don’t have bubbles.

“There has been no testing whatsoever from Highland League clubs other than temperature checking, track and trace, sanitise your hands and wear masks.

“All the protocols were in place for the tier system that we were in. I could live with that. We were in a relatively low tier and life was getting back to normal when the cases were coming down and down and down.

“But now the cases are near enough at an all-time high, we’ve gone into a national lockdown and we’re being told to carry on as normal. It’s just not logical.

“We were meant to be going down to Keith on January 2. It got called off because of the weather. We entered a national lockdown, yet we were still going to be travelling to Keith. It just doesn’t make sense.

"While we're in a national lockdown and there's a travel ban then I would have a pause on the league. Whether that's until February or it goes on, I would suspend all non-professional football until the national lockdown is over and then we reassess it from there."

Huntly manager Allan Hale has echoed the view of his Wick Academy counterpart Gary Manson by questioning the logic of continuing to play Highland League football amid the new lockdown restrictions.

The Christie Park side were due to travel to Wick on Saturday for a league fixture but will instead be away to League One club Dumbarton in the Scottish Cup.

Hale’s men reached round two after defeating Cumbernauld Colts 3-1 at Cove Rangers’ Balmoral Stadium on Wednesday night. The tie went ahead at the fifth time of asking.

He has questioned the wisdom of continuing the shortened Highland League season under the new measures when many clubs won’t even be able to train.

“I don’t know if the Highland League is that important that we need to keep playing when we are back in a lockdown for a month,” Hale said.

“They might look at how feasible it would be just to suspend it until the end of January. But again you are thinking, how do you condition your players over that period, with the fact that you can’t train anywhere?

“And how can we rearrange the fixtures so we can complete the season, because we have only played three league games? How do you move into completing the season by the end of April so you can get the play-offs?

“There is plenty for the league management committee to consider.

“But I just think if people are being told that they can’t go into work or they can’t travel anywhere, but you can play football... I’m not quite sure that makes sense to me.”

Huntly's win made them the sixth Highland League club to reach the second round of the Scottish Cup, joining Buckie Thistle, Fraserburgh, Nairn County, Keith and Formartine United.

Brora Rangers could yet become the seventh side to make it through, but their tie at Camelon Juniors was postponed for a fourth time on Wednesday. The teams will try again to play the match on Saturday, with the winners at home to Hearts.

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