NORTH Lodge Park is very, well, north. It sits on the edge of Pitmedden, a tiny village six miles west of Ellon, surrounded by nothing but the Aberdeenshire countryside. The venue has a capacity of just 2500.
This is the northern outpost where Joe Hamill is continuing his football career, and in prosperous fashion too. North Lodge Park is home to Formartine United of the Highland League, whom Hamill helped win their first trophy last October in the Aberdeenshire Cup final.
Weekly journeys from his home in Loanhead don’t faze a player who has represented Hearts, Leicester City, Livingston, Queen of the South, Raith Rovers and the Swedish club Ostersunds. Neither does part-time football. He is now 29, an age when footballers are generally supposed to be in their prime. That would not usually equate with playing in Pitmedden.
However, Hamill’s enthusiasm for Highland football and Formartine in particular is boundless. He is well looked after at United, with all expenses paid, pick-ups from the train station and even the offer of a spare room from club staff if he needs a pillow for the night.
“I either drive up or get the train,” explained Hamill, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “The chairman, Atholl Cadger, and his partners have been very good with me. One of them went out of his way to pick me up from the train station last week when he didn’t have to. He also dropped me back off. That’s the type of people they are.
“When you go up to the wee ground, everybody there is really friendly. From the players right through to the tea lady, they’d do anything for you. The lady who deals with the expenses has offered me a bed in her spare room if I need to travel up the night before for a game.”
Hamill might need that fairly soon. Formartine are due to travel even further north to play Wick Academy away next month. “Aye, I’ve got that coming up,” he laughed. “I can either go up on the Friday night and stay over and then travel back down after the game, or I can drive up. I’m told it can be done in four-and-a-half hours. The train is ridiculous because it stops at every station.”
Having played in Scotland and England at various levels, plus in Sweden, Hamill saw the chance to head north as a new adventure last summer. He openly admits he isn’t going to earn stacks of cash from football. For him, it’s about the experiences. Formartine is indeed a far cry from playing against Tottenham Hotspur for Leicester in the FA Cup, but Hamill hasn’t given his decision a second thought.
“I was training with Stirling Albion last summer and I had a few offers, but Stuart Anderson, who I played with at Raith, spoke highly of the Highland League. He stays up there and knows a bit about it. He said to ‘Go for it if you can get up there’. As soon as Steve Paterson phoned me, I took the offer straight away.”
Paterson is the former Aberdeen manager now in charge at Formartine. He oversaw the club’s first trophy success with a 3-2 win over Inverurie Locos in the Aberdeenshire Cup final in October.
“It’s the second oldest trophy in Scotland behind the Scottish Cup,” said Hamill. “That was the first bit of silverware the club has won, so it was massive. This is my first season up here so I was delighted to win a cup.
“I’ve always said I’d try anywhere. I’d love to try abroad again after playing in Sweden. That was one of the best experiences I’ve had.
“I can understand why some people might be dismissive of Highland football. Half of the teams would do well in the Championship, and I’m not just saying that. There are some really good players you’ll never have heard of playing in this league. Guys who are maybe just comfortable up here, but who could definitely do a job at a higher level. That’s not just in my team, but right through the league.
“We had a good run in the Ramsdens Cup, so that might help people take notice of the Highland League. The plans for a pyramid can only help as well because I think you will see quite a few Highland League teams filtering through into the SPFL. They will definitely hold their own. Teams like Brora, Wick, Nairn, ourselves and Cove Rangers, who are all decent sides.”
When he isn’t on the rails heading north, Hamill is behind the wheel earning a living as a doctors’ chauffeur.
“I work for the NHS, driving doctors around out of hours,” he explained. “That’s part-time as well. I’d always said I’d try my hand at anything.
“I realised a few years ago I wasn’t going to make millions from football, so I’ll try my best at anything and this set-up suits me.
“The Highland League has been a really rewarding experience. I only signed for Formartine for a year because I didn’t know you could sign for any longer at this level.
“If they want me to stay at the end of the season, I’ll maybe try to stay longer.
“Recent results haven’t been great, so we need to start getting our finger out and getting points on the board.”