From Kashmir to Kelty: Kallum Higginbotham gave up dodging rebel insurgents to join Kelty Hearts' SPFL charge

You could envisage it becoming the title of a film documentary with David Robertson as the lead. ‘From Kashmir to Kelty: An expletive-laden journey back to civilisation.’

Kallum Higginbotham wants to help Kelty Hearts into the SPFL.

The contrast between the two most recent points on his football career map is not lost on Kallum Higginbotham He gives a wry chortle comparing them. Swapping Robertson’s Real Kashmir for Barry Ferguson’s Kelty Hearts last summer was both sensible and necessary.

He has gone from fighting to Fife, from crazy insurgents to the cusp of history. There are potential programme names all over the place and Higginbotham might feel he is living in a fly-on-the-wall show. Kelty’s surge towards the Scottish Professional Football League would certainly do any TV director justice.

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They meet Brechin City this Tuesday in the first leg of a long-awaited play-off for the right to a place in next season’s SPFL. The Lowland League winners have been on a constant upward trajectory for the last 30 months. Higginbotham arrived last July to join the upsurge having had enough of the uprising in India.

Real Kashmir were profiled in recent BBC Scotland documentaries which became as watchable for manager Robertson’s colourful language and broad Scottish brogue as the area’s civil tensions.

The fight for control of the region – officially known as the Princely State of Kashmir and Jammu – intensified the day Salford-born Higginbotham arrived two years ago as the first Englishman ever to join Real.

Article 370 was revoked by India the same afternoon, removing Kashmir’s special political status. The battle between India and Pakistan continues to rage and Higginbotham is well out of it. Kelty is something of a tranquil paradise by comparison.

Armed guards

The forward is revelling in a push for the senior leagues, where he previously played with Dunfermline, Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle and Falkirk. His everyday life is also back to normal. He now works full-time as a tiler, plays part-time with Kelty, plus gets quality time with with wife Nicola and young children Mia and Alfie.

No longer need he contend with riots and armed guards. Well, not unless the next derby with Hill o’ Beath gets out of hand.

“I knew I'd never earn enough money in football to sit back on my sun lounger. I wanted a career behind me,” he explains. “It was the best decision I've made coming home because I'm still playing at a good level with an ambitious club.

“Kashmir was an amazing experience and I did enjoy it. If I hadn't gone, I probably would have kicked myself for the rest of my life. I can say I've been and experienced it but there's no place like home. I love football but family means a lot more to me than chasing the money.

“There was a documentary on Kashmir but that didn't even scratch the surface. You have no idea what went on over there. It's an amazing club with an amazing owner. The management team there were magnificent. If people knew what the management had to contend with just to get games on and training sessions, it would shock them.

“We were in lockdown for ten weeks. I was stuck in the hotel for those ten weeks so I had a lot of time to think. That's when I decided I had to start thinking about life after football. I'm 31 years of age now. If I get a trade, I can always make money and provide for my family.

“Sampling a different lifestyle and way of football was good. Every away game with Kashmir was a plane journey, something I wasn't used to. Then when you're in Kashmir you see all the army personnel. It took quite a few weeks to get used to.

“Some mornings we'd have to train at 5.30am or 6am because there had been trouble the night before. There was so much to contend with. I knew all of that before I went out there because I'd watched documentaries about the place, but I don't think you can really prepare yourself for what actually went on.

“I really missed my family and my two kids. I'm at my best mentally and physically when I'm at home with my family around me.”

Kashmir is no place to risk taking your wife and young children so Higginbotham was alone in India. Cinemas and shopping malls are a no-no unless you travel to larger cities like Mumbai. It was in every way a solitary existence.

Armed guards were at times stationed outside his hotel or at Real Kashmir’s matches to ensure public safety. Not exactly what he imagined when dreaming of a football career as a kid on the outskirts of Manchester. Yet the entire experience served a purpose, and not only from a professional perspective.

“We were never in danger. There was never any trouble towards us,” Higginbotham adds. “It was right on the border between Pakistan and India and there is a lot of conflict between them. There was always that danger of insurgents coming into the state and causing trouble, which happened quite regularly when I was there.

Internet and phone networks turned off

“Sometimes you would be warned that you couldn't leave the hotel because something had happened. The internet would be turned off quite often and you would lose your phone signal a lot. The Government would switch all that off so people couldn't organise large groups to cause trouble.

“That sort of stuff was tough. There were weeks where you wouldn't be able to Facetime home or see the kids. Mentally, it made me a lot stronger. It made me realise what I've got at home. When you think life is tough here, I can reflect back to how people get by over there. I'm very fortunate for the things I have in life today.”

Going from Kashmir to Kelty meant trading in one former Rangers stalwart for another as manager. Robertson and Ferguson both share some similar traits. Again, Higginbotham laughs when the comparison is put to him.

“They're both born winners. They just want the best for the players and that's the biggest similarity. They want to win every single game, whether they are playing or managing. Every single day in training that's what the gaffer demands from us. It's a great attribute to have.”

Kelty’s board will agree. They sit just two games from a historic passage to the SPFL after a 6-1 aggregate mauling of Brora Rangers in last week’s pyramid play-off. That teed up another two-legged meeting with Club 42, the bottom side in the last tier of the professional league system. Brechin have been dreading this tie for more than a year.

City managed to circumnavigate a relegation play-off after Scottish football’s Covid-enforced shutdown last year. Leagues were suspended, with titles and relegation matters eventually settled on a points-per-game basis. Except at the bottom of League Two.

Brechin stayed up because the SPFL’s proposal to end the season included an agreement that there would be no play-offs. Effectively, the pyramid was temporarily closed. Lowland League winners Kelty and Highland League champions Brora Rangers could only watch the outcome unfold in dismay.

The situation became all the more unpalatable with the Brechin chairman Ken Ferguson sitting on the SPFL board at the time. This year, the Angus club were still attempting to avoid any play-off despite finishing bottom once again.

They petitioned the SPFL pleading that it would be “fundamentally unfair” for them to play either the Highland League or Lowland League winners. The reason given was that Brora had completed only three league games and Kelty 13. Were they justifiably winners of their respective divisions?

It wasn’t quite a battle of Kashmir proportions but, after seeking legal advice, the SPFL confirmed play-offs would go ahead. The sense of satisfaction around the lower echelons of Scotland’s football pyramid was akin to a Cheshire cat.

Bring on Brechin

Kelty dispensed with Brora and are eagerly awaiting Brechin at New Central Park on Tuesday night. The decisive return leg takes place at Glebe Park next Sunday.

“The Brora game was billed as the biggest in the club's history so we knew the importance of it,” says Higginbotham. “Over the two legs, we thoroughly deserved to go through. Now it's Brechin, a showdown that probably should have happened last year. It's been a long time coming.

“I wasn't here last year but I read about what happened. For a long time there, I thought it was going to happen again. I wouldn't say we feel anger, it's just about getting the opportunity we deserved. Thankfully it's here now.

“Nothing against Brechin, I just think we were worthy winners of the league even if it was only 13 games. Over the last few seasons we've thoroughly deserved our opportunity in the play-offs. We were brilliant in two games against Brora. Bring on Brechin now.”

The sense of ambition is clear in his voice. It is detectable in team-mates and coaching staff alike. Kelty carry a sizeable support for a non-league club, some of whom brought cans and smoke bombs with them to watch the Brora home leg through New Central Park’s perimeter fencing. They crave that next step for their team.

“We're all winners. We don't just turn up and expect results. With the size of this club and the backing from the owners and management team, there is that expectation to perform every week,” says Higginbotham.

“I looked at the squad Kelty had before I signed and the management team speak for themselves. It was a joy when the gaffer rang me and asked me to come here.

“I made the decision in India that I wanted to go part-time and get a job outside football. This is one of the best part-time teams you will find. I want to be part of the experience of getting them into the SPFL.”

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