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Helmsdale at the heart of football club's ambitious rise from the ashes

By Niall Harkiss

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The manager of a football club in Helmsdale has announced plans to put his team back on the pitch after three years on the sidelines.

Bunillidh Thistle manager Dean Cowie says the renewed facilities at Couper Park will make for the perfect setting for a return.
Bunillidh Thistle manager Dean Cowie says the renewed facilities at Couper Park will make for the perfect setting for a return.

Bunillidh Thistle Football Club withdrew from the North Caledonian League in 2021 after flooding caused damage to their social club, temporarily leaving them without a home.

Now, with refurbishments complete, they are set to make an impassioned return next year – and player/manager, Dean Cowie, says that the Sutherland village is at the heart of the club's plans.

He said: "Helmsdale has always been passionate about its football and we have had some great players over the years, and that hasn't changed. It’s something that has been missing ever since we pulled out of the North Caley.

"We have a lot of young hungry players and I’m looking to make the most of that. The facilities need used too. The social club is ideal and is wasted if it doesn’t have sports being played regularly."

Bunillidh Social Club, situated next to the picturesque Couper Park just off the A9, has been the home of Bunillidh Thistle since their formation in the early 1970s.

Having first fallen into abeyance in 2009, the club was revived in 2017 but a flood put plans on hold when a burst pipe resulted in significant damage to areas inside their social club.

Following an extensive fundraising campaign, the interior of the building was refitted and in 2022, it was reopened.

Cowie said: "It was possibly a blessing in disguise. The club has been completely revamped since then, and also re-shaped. It’s a far more practical facility now and has been modernised and is constantly upgrading. With no disrespect to other teams, it’s possibly the best facility in the league."

The ambitious 29-year-old now hopes to set the wheels in motion for a return to the senior ranks of the North Caledonian League with the formation of a new group of people behind the club.

He added: "I have the backing off the social club committee on the conditions that I can get a sub-committee arranged, and I can raise money to cover our expenses.

"Our sub committee is mainly made up of ex-players and people who are keen to see Bunillidh back, and are keen to muck in to get the behind the scenes work done. Among them are my father Billy Cowie, Angus Flett, Graham Grant and Andrew Cairns, just to name a few.

"With a group willing to help me and a strong social club committee who support local teams like Helmsdale United and Sutherland ladies team, it helps no end having a backing like this.

"We’re always looking for more help though, whether that’s from sponsors or behind the scenes. It’s a long season and the more the better to help us succeed and cement our future in the league."

Bunillidh last competed in the North Caledonian League in early 2020, before restrictions imposed during the pandemic put all football on hold. The club finished second bottom with six points from their first eleven games.

Their final game was a North Caledonian Cup quarter final tie away to Thurso, losing 4–0.

Heading into 2024, Cowie has tempered his own expectations for Bunillidh's return, and plans to convey the message to his players to "be competitive – but enjoy it".

Cowie said: "My first season taking Bunillidh was a poor year but the next season the players seemed to understand and enjoy playing with each other more. Having seen the change in attitude of players playing summer football and winter football, I think part of the problem was players putting too much pressure on themselves.

"I said to all the players when we left the league that I’d be in touch in the future as I’d make a point of taking the team back into the league.

"I’ve got a a good bunch of lads from Helmsdale and further afield who I can count on to take the team if I’m not there, but I’ll be aiming to make most things.

"Our initial aim will be the same as last time. We can’t be taking anything easy, as it’s always been a competitive and difficult league – even moreso now with the amount of teams in it. If we can aim to be competitive in every game and finish mid-table it would be a successful season."

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