Nairn County's first full foray into the league ranks of the North Caledonian League ended with an 8th placed finish last season.
Their 'A' side, or reserves, have spent much of the past six years getting to grips with North Caledonian League competition by playing cup matches, before making the decision in 2020 to become a full member of the association. With the bulk of the squad made up of their senior youth or "Under 20" candidates, they have development at the heart of what they plan to do.
Success stories John and Nathan Grant, Kieran Duffty, Scott Mutch and Sam Gordon have all made the step up to Highland League action after representing the County second string, and the coaches in charge believe that the set up can continue to be of benefit.
Reserve team manager Stuart Finnie said: "The team has given the players a platform to develop themselves in an adult league week in week out. When or if they make the step up the gap isn't as large as it would be from youth football."
"Playing in the NCL, competing against better and stronger teams is enabling the players to bridge that gap and give themselves a chance of stepping up to the first team. We've managed to move 4 or 5 boys up to the first team permanently plus 4 or 5 others being involved and playing some minutes, so the benefit of what we are doing is there for all to see and hopefully the NCL see us a benefit to the league also.'
Last term the side picked up 18 points, which included a points award due to Thurso fielding an ineligible player. Perhaps their best achievement last season though, was reaching the semi-final stage of the North Caledonian Cup, losing in a narrow 2-1 defeat to St Duthus in March.
Finnie continued: "The season started off pretty well for us but then we went on a really bad run where we couldn't get going with players being needed to manage the first team injury crisis, injuries and general loss of form but we recovered towards the end and put in some good performances."
"This season we are looking to consolidate and push up the league. It would be good to get some more consistency, but ultimately the main goal is to keep producing players for the first team."
"Our pre-season has gone pretty well so far. The boys have worked extremely hard and we've played four tough friendly matches to get ourselves ready for the season opener. They are a good honest bunch of boys who want to learn and are willing to do the hard work so it makes my job easier. Every player hates pre-season but thankfully our boys just get on with it."
Having started out at the public Riverside Park in Nairn, the club later moved to the Academy, where they play on the school's 3G artificial surface. They will begin the season with a home game this weekend, against experienced campaigners Thurso.
The manager added: "We have been quite lucky to get a home game to start off. Going up against Thurso, it will be tough as I expect them to be better than where they finished last season but we will keep working hard over pre season to build confidence and hopefully we can put in a good performance and take the 3 points, albeit a tough ask."