NEW Nairn County Chaplain Rab Cleland has declared that his door is always open for anyone at the football club wishing to share a problem or worry, writes Graeme Macleod.
The Church of Scotland Minister for Ardersier and Petty was a rugged centre half with the club during the mid 1980s but returned to Station Park in a vastly different role in October.
He took over the position of club chaplain following the summer departure of the Rev. Steven Manders, who spent two years in the position carrying out sterling and mostly unheralded work behind the scenes at the club.
Cleland is wary of the stresses of being a part time footballer from first-hand experience with the increase in popularity of social media over the last decade now providing an uncensored and unlimited platform to abuse players and staff at football clubs without considering the consequences. Nairn County have not been exempt but the Rev. Cleland wants to be a listening ear for anyone who may be unduly affected by such negativity, be it verbally or online.
He said: "Players and managers have lives outside of football and it is very difficult being involved with a club. They suffer abuse and it is a lot harder nowadays than when I was playing because people go out there and say things about you on the internet that they would not say in person."
"I want to get to know the boys, the staff around the club and the fans and my role is provide an ear to anyone, be it the players or fans. It is a varied role - sometimes I will be a go-between but I also want to build up people's trust over time. As a Minister, I hold confidences, I do not take sides and I am there to be totally independent of everybody. I try to stand on the side of what is right and I will be a sounding board or a shoulder to lean on when needed. I get into the games for nothing now as well, so that is a bonus!"
Cleland knows too well the feeling of being on the receiving end of stick from the fans, although freely admits it is far worse now than during his playing days in the 1980s.
He revealed: "I remember in one game, we were playing Elgin City at home and because I had scored a few goals, they decided to give me a wee shot in midfield. Elgin had a player who just marked me and no matter where I ran, he ran as well and I do not think he or I touched the ball the whole game - we just chased each other all over the park!"
"At the end of the game, I was shattered and I was sitting in the middle of the park taking my boots off. An older guy came out of the old shed and was walking across the pitch. As he passed me, he said - you are far better in the defence, Rab', or in other words, you were rubbish!"
"I could take that though and I was not a prima donna - I just felt blessed that I could play but some boys can take it really hard if their life is football, so I am there to listen and help in any way I can."
He added: "I know how football works and how passionate people get about their football club. They have every right to voice their opinions, as long as it is done decently. Sometimes, our passion can flow over and I am there to help people pick up with the pieces."
Cleland signed for the club as a player 30 years ago, prior to the 1985/86 season.
He said: "Pre-season training was completed by the time Mansel (Craib, manager) came to me and asked if I would like to play for the club."
"I had been playing with St Ninian before but I had given up on it, so I was chuffed when Mansel asked and I was very happy to go along and play for the club."
"My first game was against Rothes in the old Qualifying Cup and we won 1-0. It took me a wee while to settle but I absolutely loved it. There were a lot of good players there like Davie Penman, Derek Main and big Stevie Mackay, who was one of the best players I ever played with. There were no stars really - we were just a tight-knit group and it was great fun being around these guys and playing alongside them. There was a great atmosphere at the club because they were all great guys and we were all pals."
During Cleland's first season at Station Park, the club lost the Inverness Cup final to Forres Mechanics in a penalty shoot-out and reached the third round of the Scottish Cup, going down 7-0 to Premier Division Dundee at home.
Cleland said: "If you ask any of the players, that was a game of mixed emotions. It was a great occasion but it was deadened somewhat by the fact that underfoot conditions were horrendous. The match should really not have been played. We did not have the equipment because in those days, Highland League players had a pair of rubbers and a pair of screw-in studs whereas Dundee came fully equipped."
"We felt that in better conditions, we would have given them a better game and defended better. It still lies in my heart as a bitter sweet experience but once you have 3500 people in your gate, it is hard to cancel a game."
He added: "At the end of that season, I was asked to go to Keith - who were a big side in those days - but I said "no" because I was happy at Nairn. I liked all of the people who were involved in the club and the fans. I knew a lot of the fans from Welfare Football and playing with St Ninian, so a lot of them were footballers themselves who knew what they were talking about."
Cleland has been a Minister for 18 years and spent five years at Douglas Valley in South Lanarkshire prior to returning to Ardersier.
He said: "When I first came to this area and played football with St Ninian and Nairn County, I was not religious in any way. During that time, I started going to church and got what you would call "converted" and became a Christian. Guys knew me before and after and just accepted me."
"I first came here with the Army in 1976 and by the will of God, returned to the parish of Ardersier and Petty in July last year."