Victoria Highlanders cease operations

The news came as swiftly as a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick, and the result was as painful as taking the soccer superstar’s blast off your torso.

The Victoria Highlanders Football Club ceased operation on Saturday, the announcement coming via an emailed news release.

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Financial losses became such a strain that owner Alex Campbell chose to fold the club, which was formed in 2008 and began play in 2009.

It was just two seasons ago that the Highlanders’ men’s team advanced to the Final 4 of the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League.

“There had been a small group of investors that I had been talking to since March or April of last year, and when they pulled the plug, that was probably the last straw,” Campbell said by phone Saturday afternoon.

“Last year it looked, on paper, that it would be pretty good, but by the end, it was another very tough financial year. The first two or three years, the losses were massive. It slowed down, but not enough to drain you of your life. One year we had turned around financially, but it quickly went back the other direction,” he said.

“It was hard. We spent a lot of time and energy on the road. We had close relationships with the players, coaches, fans and sponsors, so it’s been pretty tough.”

The team’s fans — known as the Lake Side Buoys — who bellowed chants throughout home games at Royal Athletic Park have had their drums silenced, leaving a gaping hole in the soccer community.

Just last summer, the Highlanders brought in the Glasgow Rangers of the Scottish League for a friendly at Centennial Stadium.

The club’s women’s team, under head coach Dave Dew, also tasted success, capturing a PCSL title in 2014 with an undefeated season. The future of the club’s developmental program remains in question at this point.

“It’s disappointing,” said Highlanders general manager Mark de Frias, who joined the club full-time two seasons ago. “It’s sad to see something that was such a great part of our community leave us, so I’m sad.

“The organization had never had a profit since 2009. Alex has invested a lot of money into the organization. I never thought it would come to this,” said de Frias, who resigned on Saturday morning before word got out.

“It was an amazing run two seasons ago, a Western Conference championship, PDL Final 4. The organization won the progress award, and I was lucky enough to be honoured with executive of the year. That was special, and a lot of hard work from volunteers and staff to players to help make that happen,” de Frias said.

“Attendance had been increasing, and we saw the Glasgow Rangers come to town, which was exciting for the whole community. That brought so many people to Centennial Stadium; it was awesome for the city of Victoria, and I don’t recall seeing anything like that since the FIFA Under-20 World Cup back in 2007,” he said. “It’s just a sad day.”

In the news release, Campbell thanked the sponsors, coaches, players and volunteers, who “have put in countless hours and a genuine passion for the game.”

It was a passion de Frias shared.

“Alex, when he started this, had a vision that he wanted to see high-level soccer in our community, and from that point we’ve expanded, introduced the women’s program, youth reserve teams and an academy training environment for young kids in our community,” de Frias said.

“We were starting to see that labour of love that Alex had come to fruition. It took a lot of resources, for sure, to make it fully operational, and it’s going to be a huge loss to the community.

“That being said, I know we have great community clubs in the city and a really strong Lower Island Soccer Association that will come together and help fill any voids or gaps that the Highlanders leave behind.”

Campbell ended the emailed release by saying: “Along the way I made many mistakes and unfortunately cost me tremendous resources. I was hopeful over the past year that an investor consortium would pull through and build on the legacy of the Highlanders, but sadly that has not happened and I am forced to make this difficult decision.”

mannicchiarico@timescolonist.com

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