Highland League football returns - the north season begins today with 18 clubs including relegated Brechin City looking to kick off in style
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SATURDAY sees the new Highland League season get under way with some fascinating first matches.
There's a new addition to the league, with Brechin City dropping out of League Two last term following their play-off defeat against Lowland League champs Kelty Hearts.
Brechin's first-ever match at this level is at home to Turriff United, while there's a Moray coastal derby to start things off.
Buckie Thistle should be at full strength for their home clash with Lossiemouth, who Jags boss Graeme Stewart knows have been in confident mood in pre-season.
"I’ve noticed in their last few games they have been getting some decent results," said Stewart.
"They beat a young Caley Thistle team and they beat Huntly so it looks like it’s going to be a very tough game.
"It’s a derby as well and there’s an an affiliation with players and committee members who have been at both clubs.
"It’s going to be a very hard game but we just need to get off to a good start.
"We need to win the game, that’s the bottom line. If we are going to have any aspirations of doing something in the league this season it’s a game we have to win."
Opening day Highland League fixtures:
Brechin City v Turriff United
Buckie Thistle v Lossiemouth
Deveronvale v Brora Rangers
Forres Mechanics v Wick Academy
Fraserburgh v Formartine United
Huntly v Strathspey Thistle
Inverurie Locos v Clachnacuddin
Keith v Nairn County
Rothes v Fort William
Lossie manager Joe Russell said: "Buckie will definitely be up there or thereabouts this season with the squad they’ve assembled.
"It’s about us competing and making life as difficult as we can. It would be great if we could nick something from the game, we’ve done it before."
The Coasters are missing injured defender Ally Bellingham but are trying to tie up a loan deal with Ross County for goalkeeper Logan Ross, who was farmed out to Lossie for a spell last term.
Forres Mechanics had a year out during the pandemic but return with new signings Ruari Fraser, Paul Brindle and Gordon McNab for the visit of Wick Academy on day one.
Nairn County make the trip to Keith, whose camp has been rocked by a series of positive Covid tests.
The Maroons returned to action on Sunday with a 4-1 home defeat to Fraserburgh in the semi-finals of last season's Aberdeenshire Cup.
Missing co-manager Andy Roddie, one of the positive Covid tests, Keith took the lead through new striker Przemyslaw Nawrocki, who will make his league debut against the Wee County.
Captain James Brownie and striker Scott Gray are out injured but new stopper Jordan Robertson - son of former Rangers, Aberdeen and Scotland star Davie - could recover from a calf problem to make his first competitive appearance for the club.
Deveronvale will have new recruits from Deveronside, Rory Davidson and Innes McKay, in their squad as they face the daunting task of hosting champions Brora Rangers.
Vale have also signed keeper Sean McIntosh and attacker Mikey Watson from Dufftown and brought in Elgin City youngsters Jamie Tinnock, Matty Jamieson and Charlie Hay on loan.
Rothes will face up to a new-look Fort William side at MacKessack Park, with manager Ross Jack showing the perennial strugglers full respect.
"Fort William have taken in players from down south and we don’t know what calibre they are," he said.
"The last thing we want is to get off to a bad start, but we will be ready and prepared and everyone is champing at the bit to get started."
Jack hopes to bring in a second goalkeeper in time for the match, to serve as back-up to Sean McCarthy.
He will hand Rothes league debuts to Greg Morrison, Wayne MacKintosh and Michael Finnis, all recruited from Highland League rivals over the past month.
Striker Shane Harkness, who was on loan with the Speysiders from Caley Thistle for a spell last term, has joined them on a permanent basis.
Huntly manager Allan Hale has been in charge for over a year but only bossed his team for six competitive matches.
He leads his team into an opener at home to Strathspey Thistle, whose new boss is ex-Forres Mechanics striker and coach Charlie Brown.
"Strathspey are at a similar level ourselves, a young team with a new manager in Charlie Brown looking to make their mark on the season," said Hale.
"There won’t be any easy games this season, I don’t think. We're just looking forward to getting going."
Fraserburgh host Formartine United, who they also meet in next week's final of the Aberdeenshire Cup.
And an Inverurie Locos side strongly fancied to make a challenge this term begin at home to Clachnacuddin.