Oliver’s Army

A largely-forgotten Highland football club can trace its heritage – slightly tenuously – all the way back to Oliver Cromwell.

By Rab MacWilliam

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

It’s a fairly safe bet that few people today are aware of any connection between Oliver Cromwell and a small, mostly forgotten Highland football club. However, such an unlikely, albeit tenuous, association did once exist.

The ‘relationship’ began in 1658, close to Inverness harbour where the River Ness merges with the Beauly Firth. In that year, Cromwell’s men completed the building of an imposingly substantial pentagonal structure: a ‘Citadel’, which had the capacity to hold 1,000 troops. This was one of several failed attempts throughout Scottish history to ‘tame’ and bring under central state control the unruly, troublesome Highlanders.

Unfortunately for this doubtless well-intentioned vision of the Lord Protector, the Restoration of 1660, and the consequent re-enthronement of the Stuart dynasty, led to the Citadel’s demolition within  four years of its establishment, much of the debris ending up as a stone bridge across the river.

Just over 220 years later, a football club was founded on Shore Street, across the Ness from the town’s shipbuilding Merkinch area and just behind the site of what had been Cromwell’s massive fortification. And the name this club adopted? It had to be Inverness Citadel.

Association football was then a relatively new though increasingly popular sport, and the Scottish Football Association had been formed only 10  years earlier. So in 1883 Citadel became Inverness’  first football club, followed shortly thereafter by Clach (Inverness Clachnacuddin, the word meaning ‘stone of the tubs’ in Gaelic), Caley (Inverness Caledonian) and Inverness Thistle.

At the Citadel ground’s northern end, in the shadow of the Black Isle, there was a stand for 400 spectators, while close to the eastern touchline stood a slaughterhouse. The proximity of this building, combined with the sheep grazing contentedly on the pitch (experienced groundsmen being something of a rarity in the Highlands at that time), gave rise to Citadel’s nickname: ‘The Sheep’s Bags’. 

Citadel, splendidly attired in their maroon shirts and shorts and white socks, were one of the seven original clubs to join the Highland League when the league  kicked off its first season in 1893/94. Only two of these clubs – Clach and Forres Mechanics – remain in today’s league.

Citadel ended their first season in second-bottom place in the new league, and they generally hovered around mid-table until, in 1909, they won their first and only league title in an annual competition which was then dominated by Clach and Caley. Relations between the Inverness clubs were clearly often less than amicable. Citadel played in ‘the shortest league match in Highland history’ when in 1895 they walked off the pitch in a game against Inverness Thistle as a protest against the Jags scoring in the first two minutes.

Citadel fared better, however, in knock-out competitions. During the 50 or so years of their existence  they won the North of Scotland Cup on seven occasions. But this club’s greatest achievement was to become the first winners of the prestigious North of Scotland Qualifying Cup, and they did so with determination, panache and in a style to gladden the hearts of all football romantics.

Citadel were the unfancied upstarts, with six members of the team living in the convenient but unfashionable Shore Street. However, in 1931/32 they reached the final of the tournament. They were up against Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Amateurs, and the two clubs drew 3-3 and 2-2 at Aberdeen’s Pittodrie Stadium in front of a total of 8,000 spectators. Then, despite having to travel overnight on the Friday from Inverness to Edinburgh, the following day they hammered Murrayfield 4-1  at Easter Road (which was almost a home fixture for the Amateurs), with ‘Poacher’ Henderson claiming two goals.

On their return on Sunday to the Highland Capital they were greeted by more than 1,000 Citadel supporters at Inverness railway station. With captain Bobby Logie holding the trophy, and raised shoulder-high by fans, the team and support marched behind a pipe band down to the harbour. The likely destination was the now-disappeared grand old Citadel Bar, in what was the proudest moment in the club’s history.

Unfortunately, this was to be their last celebration. By 1934/35  Citadel were facing serious financial problems. New housing developments around their rivals’ grounds were enticing football enthusiasts away from Shore Street, and gates were dwindling. The biting cold winds off the North Sea did little to attract neutral support. The Sheep’s Bags were slowly deflating.

Citadel left the league at the end of that season and played at junior level for a while, but the club closed in 1937. In the words of a club director, this was “owing to the poor financial support received during the past two seasons and no prospect of the situation improving”. In recent years there have been attempts to revive the old Citadel name at sub-league level, but these praiseworthy attempts have met with little success.

The once illustrious name of Inverness Citadel is today a melancholic memory, along with such clubs as Third Lanark, Lochgelly United and Glenbuck Cherrypickers: fine teams all, but just some of the many who have been unfortunate victims of the crumbling corner flag of time.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

Issue 13
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