BY CRAIG STEPHEN
On March 25, St. Mirren and Dundee United will face off in the final of the Irn-Bru Cup at Motherwellâ€™s Fir Park. While these two Championship sides would have been tipped to do well, there were a number of new teams â€“ young and foreign â€“ that kicked off in the vastly revamped competition, leading to accusations and compliments in almost equal amounts.
The Challenge Cup, as it is commonly known regardless of the ever-changing sponsor, now resembles some form of Celtic Cup, with the inclusion of teams from Wales and Northern Ireland for the first time this season. And the introduction of all 12 Scottish Premier League colts sides seemed a desperate measure to insert the names Celtic, Rangers and perhaps Aberdeen into the mix.
The SPFL blazer brigade didnâ€™t stop there: they dramatically expanded the number of non-league teams that could take part, so in early August last year, 54 teams were entered (up from 32), with the four Welsh and Northern Irish sides not kicking a defenderâ€™s shins in anger until the fourth round.
Was this a betrayal of the origins of a tournament that was intended to give non-top flight clubs a chance of silverware? Did it create a dogâ€™s breakfast of an event in which every team and his one man and a dog support could participate? Or was it an innovative move to expand the doors of the competition, get a new sponsor and perhaps more television coverage?
SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster told all and sundry in pre-season that the new format would heighten excitement and interest levels.
He said then that the rejig would give young players a taste of competitive football at senior level, and an increase in Highland and Lowland League clubs would strengthen the pyramid system and their place within Scottish professional football.
This is true of the young sides in that they will gain experience of semi-professional sides, though it could be argued that, as those not deemed good enough for the first team will inevitably make their way to the lower leagues on loan deals, it hardly matters.
As for strengthening the pyramid system, that is what the Scottish Cup â€“ with the recent inclusion of more teams from the next level down â€“ is already doing.
Premier Sports and S4C covered a handful of games alongside regular broadcaster BBC Alba, the beebâ€™s Gaelic language channel. But note the word â€˜handfulâ€™.
This hasnâ€™t assuaged most critics. The inclusion of the Celtic sides at such a late stage was a clear advantage over domestic sides, they said, while one blogger bemoaned the lack of competition the weans would get against, say Annan Athletic, and questioned how it could possibly improve Scottish footballâ€™s youth set. A far better alternative would be to revamp the Development League, although how that could be done to unearth more talent and provide them with good experience is hard to fathom.Embed from Getty Images
I will put forth the notion that part of Doncaster and coâ€™s keenness to carry out such a radical reinvention was because the one team that could fill a stadium, Rangers, wouldnâ€™t be able to defend its Petrofac Training Cup, as it was called last season, due to being promoted to the top flight.
And it was also noted that the two Welsh and two Northern Irish sides not only had a ladder up, due to their seeding, but had bags of European experience to draw on. The New Saints had competed against Helsingborgs, Legia Warsaw and Slovan Bratislava in the past five years in the early rounds of the Champions League; Linfield have played in the European Cup/Champions league more times than Manchester United. Peterheadâ€™s continental experience wouldnâ€™t extend beyond the townâ€™s fishing industry.
In the end, Scotlandâ€™s lower ranks saw off the supposed invaders; The New Saints may have won two ties before falling to St. Mirren in the semi-finals, but Bala Town, Linfield and Crusaders all failed to progress beyond their opening stramash. Four-nil to Scotland some might say, but the motivation of those clubs might not be as strong as a club wanting to win one of its own countryâ€™s trophies.
Similarily, the youth sides made a modest impact on the competition. Seven of the dozen sides made their way out of the regionalised first round, but only one â€“ Celticâ€™s U-20s â€“ progressed beyond the second. The non-league sides also found the step up largely beyond their capabilities, with only Highland League outfit Turriff United making it to the third round.
Next season the Cup will be tweaked again, this time to include two Republic of Ireland sides, Sligo Rovers and Bray Wanderers, the two teams that just missed out on European participation. That could see Brora Rangers in the far northern Highlands making their way to the west of Ireland. Even the allowances given to trans-border ties might not make it worth it for the Sutherland club.
Where will it end? Could the Faroes Islands be invited? Could clubs from the north of England get involved? What about the Shetlands, Orkney, Isle of Man, etc, which have all competed in the Island Games? The SPFL seems intent on broadening its horizons, so letâ€™s not rule anything out.
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