Strathspey Thistle: Highland League side who achieved highest finish without playing

By Nick McPheatBBC Scotland
Strathspey Thistle scoreboard
Highland League side Strathspey Thistle achieved their highest league finish in 2020-21 without playing a game

Last season's Scottish football campaign may be remembered for Steven Gerrard's 'invincible' Rangers side or St Johnstone's double-cup winning exploits, but let's introduce you to Strathspey Thistle's class of 2020-21.

The Highland League outfit achieved their highest-ever league placing without losing a single game last term. The only caveat to that is - they didn't actually play one.

Nevertheless, after a record-high finish and an undefeated league campaign in Scotland's fifth tier, there has still got to be reason to be cheerful, right?

"What an absolute disaster of a season," club captain James McShane tells BBC Scotland.

"There were a few jokes going around the group chat about being 'the invincibles' and going unbeaten, but the season was an absolute travesty."

'There are no guarantees again'

Unprecedented - a word we have become accustomed over the last year and a bit - is thrown around a bit loosely these days, but it applies to Strathspey's campaign more than most.

The unpredictable nature of the coronavirus pandemic meant the Highland League was halted in January with league leaders Brora Rangers having played just three games.

But, rather than ruling the season null and void, it was decided that Brora would be named champions to give them a chance of achieving promotion to the SPFL - something their league-winning campaign the season prior failed to merit.

That resulted in Strathspey finishing in 11th place - a club record - despite not playing a game because five sides had played and lost.

Highland League table
Strathspey finished a record-high 11th out of 16 teams in the Highland League

However, the nature of Strathspey's "achievement" has McShane's grandad, chairman Donly McLeod, echoing his "disaster" statement.

McLeod, who has been involved with the club for more than quarter of a century, highlights the campaign's "stop-start nature" as the biggest distraction and fears the upcoming season may suffer from the same issue.

"It was really difficult," he tells BBC Scotland. "The boys didn't know if they were coming or going for quite a while. But people's lives were at stake, so the right decision was made.

"Looking forward, there are no guarantees again. That's my biggest worry. How do you catch up on the games?"

'Is it really worth it?'

Strathspey have also had playing staff worries to contend with - and that is not just down to the financial impact of the pandemic.

Players represent the club on a part-time basis, with a number of them deciding to take a year out to prioritise their primary source of income.

"They decided they'd had enough," McLeod says. "They were under contract, but we told them it wasn't a problem.

"These lads have got jobs and their employers were telling them they were going to be risking it. One or two of their families had problems as well and were at risk with Covid, so they decided not to start pre-season."

Club captain McShane, who works with his dad as an electrician, returned for his eighth campaign at the Highland League side.

However, the 26-year-old admits he questioned whether it was worth continuing his football career.

"At the end of the day, it's still hobby football," McShane says. "It's part of your life and you look forward to it.

"But it does come into your mind - is this really worth it for the next year? Is it worth taking a season off and coming back?"

'Everyone is tightening their purse'

Even with restrictions gradually edging towards normality, challenges lie ahead for every side across the country - never mind clubs the size of Strathspey.

McLeod admits the toughest spell may be on the horizon for sides in the lower echelons of the game, with many unanswered questions out of the club's hands.

"God knows where we would be if we didn't get financial help from the government and Scottish FA," McLeod says. "We've got through it, but business is struggling. Everyone is tightening their purse.

"People aren't going to happily pay for advertising. Diehard fans will always come back, but are others going to pay £10 while money is tight? You can't legislate for it."

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