Heriot-Watt Under-20 sides league victory last season was an achievement of Leicester City proportions, reckons head coach Banji Koya.
The Watt held off a late Cumbernauld Colts challenge to win the Lowland and East of Scotland Development League for the first time back in May, an accomplishment Koya regards as remarkable considering the restrictions his team must work within.
He said: “It was a David and Goliath achievement.
“The league starts in August, but we don’t have our first trials until the third week of September [when the University term starts] so most teams have played four games before we even have a squad.
“And we can only use what comes into the Uni. Teams like Spartans can go and handpick players from the best teams, whereas we can only work with what we’ve got.”
But building a squad isn’t the only challenge Koya and his Heriot-Watt team face season after season; the realities of a University schedule means relying on a settled team is nigh on impossible:
“I’ve never had the same starting eleven at any point all season,” said Koya. “Because we are a University team a lot of the boys live away from Edinburgh and sometimes they go home for a week or so.
“Also, during Easter the University closes for a whole month and most of our players go home, so we just have to work with who’s here. It’s the same in December.
“In a nine-month season we only see the players for five months.”
It hasn’t been easy. In the three seasons Heriot-Watt had competed in the league prior to their title winning campaign they’d never finished higher than fourth – and finished rock bottom in their inaugural season.
Since that difficult first campaign, Koya and the coaching staff have developed ways to maximise their limited time on the training ground. It’s certainly working; even before becoming champions they’d steadily improved year on year – although Koya is quick to downplay the role of the coaches in the Watt’s upturn, instead praising the players for their efforts and commitment.
He said: “Our training methods are based around just playing football.
“We try and get the fitness together and work on communication, that way things that take six weeks might take us three because we’re getting them used to playing with each other.
“It does help a little bit but it’s still really difficult and I can only commend our players.”
So, how did they make the step up from a competitive side to a title winning team?
“We have a partnership with Currie Star and when their 19s folded five of them came into our 20s,” explains Koya. “Because they were all local they had the opportunity to do a pre-season, meaning at the trials we were able to fill the positions around them. I wouldn’t say it was a head start – but it was better than nothing.
“Also, the intake of players we had last year was good, as was our team spirit and our character - that was one of the key things for us.”
They got off to a great start; they won five of their first six league games – which included a 9-1 victory over Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale and a 9-2 defeat of Burntisland Shipyard in the season opener.
But, even as they started climbing the table, Koya admits that – clichéd as it is – the team were taking things one game at a time:
“We didn’t think we could win the league,” he said. “My role in the 20s is to develop the players. When we’re working in training we’re all focussed on the process, whether that be counter attacks, transitions or whatever.
“If we do all those things well, then we know there’s a good chance we can win but our feet were always on the ground.”
It wasn’t until a dramatic match away to title rivals Cumbernauld Colts in late January that that started to change. A depleted Watt side withstood a late onslaught from the ten-man Colts to win 2-1 - a result Koya feels gave his team the belief that they may actually be able to upset the odds:
“I think there was a moment in the game with ten minutes to go that we had a left-back as a striker, a centre-half as a right winger and a guy who had not played for the 20s before playing centre midfield,” he said. “We dug out a 2-1 win and I think that gave us the confidence.
“I think from that day on we just kept pushing and pushing.”
And push they did. A difficult run of games towards the end of the season saw the Watt face the rest of the top five teams in the league during April – at a time when many of their players had returned home for the summer – but they battled through, meaning by the time they travelled to Bonnyton Thistle in the penultimate game of the season, they knew three points would be enough to seal the title.
They didn’t have it all their own way; trailing 1-0 midway through the second half it looked as if the title could be slipping through their fingers.
Or so it seemed until three goals in the last 20 minutes – including an incredible Mark McGovern free kick in the dying minutes – turned the game on its head and ensured the title would be heading to Heriot-Watt for the first time ever.
Koya described how he felt at the final whistle:
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “Personally, I was happy for the club to achieve something of such high prestige but for me the players we had were excellent people and to see all their efforts over the season come to fruition was the highlight for me.”
With the new season looming, attention has now been turned to the forthcoming campaign – and the challenge is only going to get tougher. The influx of Junior teams means that there will now be two conferences in the Development League (Heriot-Watt are in Conference A) so the standard of opposition looks set to increase. And - as ever - players move on and the cycle resets for the Watt, meaning once again they have to build a new team from the ground up.
Koya is well aware of the challenges the new season will bring, and is once again setting very modest ambitions. He said: “Winning the league won’t be our main target.
“It will be a rebuilding process. Our aim will be to compete in every game and then come the end of May we’ll just see where we are.”