THE club’s under-20s team made a barnstorming start to their North of Scotland League campaign with an impressive 5-2 win over Alness United. And coach Ally Munro’s squad is loaded with young, local talent all eager to burst into the first team and make a name for themselves in the Highland League, writes Graeme Macleod.
A number of the team came through the club’s youth development programme and attended Nairn Academy. They have also been involved in the first team squad over the last few seasons gaining invaluable experience to stand them in good stead when they are called upon by manager Les Fridge.
The team put in a high tempo performance with verve and vigour against Alness and the display was all the more impressive given it was the players’ first competitive match together at that age level.
Matty Macleod was promoted to the first team squad in the summer and made an instant impression by scoring on his first appearance for the club – the 6-2 win over Spey Valley in pre-season. That saw the striker rewarded with a run out against Ross County in the next pre-season match at Station Park.
He was also quick to make his mark in the under-20s North of Scotland League, bagging a hat trick in the win over Alness and has already been named on the bench a handful of times despite only linking up with the first team squad at the start of pre-season.
Reece Barton first appeared for the first team during the summer of 2014 when he came off the bench to play in the 2-2 draw at Elgin City. The full back or midfielder has been named on the bench on numerous occasions for the match day squad and is awaiting his first competitive appearance. He featured at left back in the under-20s win over Alness on the opening night.
Attacker Jack Maclean made his competitive debut for the club on February 14th in the 4-0 win over Fort William at Station Park when he came on as a substitute for the last few minutes. He can play in an attacking midfield role or up front and has also been named among the substitutes on a number of occasions for the club over the last few seasons. He played in centre midfield in that opening night success for the under-20s over Alness.
Goalkeeper Sam Maclean has featured on several occasions for the top team in friendlies and non-competitive fixtures, including wins over Spey Valley and Nairn St Ninian in pre-season. He also played at the Showfield in the Nairn derby the summer before and debuted against Inverness City. As well as this, he has been the club’s number 2 goalkeeper and sat on the bench as understudy to the number 1 over the last few seasons but university commitments in Stirling means he misses under-20s Monday night fixtures.
Craig Munro was involved in the first team squad while still young enough to feature for the club’s under-17s team. He was officially promoted to the top team in the summer and has been named in the match day squad for Highland League fixtures as well as playing alongside the likes of Michael Morrison, Paul Macleod and Sean Webb in the under-20s team. He played at centre half beside Webb in the 5-2 win over Alness.
Chris MacKinnon first appeared on the bench for the first team way back in March 2013 in an away match at Turriff United. He has recovered from a dislocated knee injury which curtailed the midfielder for most of last season just after he had been officially promoted into the first team squad and he will be looking to kick on again now that he is fully fit.
Fellow midfielder Craig Alexander was also promoted to the first team squad last summer and has been involved on a match day on a handful of occasions since as he looks to establish himself along with his peers in Les Fridge’s plans over the coming months and years by putting impressive performances for the under-20s.
Fridge said: “These players have all been involved with the first team squad for a wee while now and they will have learned lots training alongside the experienced guys we have in the camp – that will have been invaluable to them.
“It is important that any player coming through can see the first team and knows the standards that are expected of them if they are to make it into the team. These young boys have been in and around the squad on match days over the last couple of years, so will be familiar with the build up to a game and what to expect if they are called upon, as opposed to being thrown in cold which would have a negative impact on their performance.
“It is great for them that they can play regularly for the under-20s team as well and I will have no qualms about using anyone from that squad in the first team if they prove that they are good enough. As long as these players keep working hard and learning then they will give themselves every opportunity of establishing themselves in the Highland League.”
The manager is also looking forward to taking in as many of the under-20s games as possible and believes it will not just be the young players coming through the ranks who stand to benefit from the club’s inclusion in a league at that level.
He explained: “With us now playing in the North of Scotland Under-20s League, the young boys all have the chance to get plenty of game time for us. That whole thing benefits me as the first team manager because it means I can go along to see how they are getting on, whereas, if they were out loan, they would be playing on Saturdays and I would not have that opportunity.
“The rules also allow three overage, first team players to play in each game, which means that we can include players who might need game time or those who are coming back from injury or suspension. We have never had that opportunity before in my time at the club and the inclusion of the first team players will also benefit the young boys as they will learn from playing alongside experienced players.”
The under-20s play their home matches at the Academy Playing Fields. A fixtures list can be found on the Youth section of the website by clicking here.