BY MARK GODFREY
Back in the summer of 2013, after months of threat and counter-threat between the clubs and the associations, the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Football League merged to create the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL). The upheaval and subsequent restructuring of the divisions resulted in several changes, including the decision to allow a club from outside the current league system to attempt to gain promotion on merit from the end of the 2014/15 season onwards – a first in Scotland.
Previously, without the pyramid system in place, gaining admittance to the Scottish League was only earned by vote or invitation and barring the expansion program of the late 90s and early 2000s that saw the likes of Ross County, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and five more make their debuts, just two clubs were added to the Scottish League between 1951 and 1994 – Clydebank, whose assets and identity were acquired to become Airdrie United in 2002 and Meadowbank Thistle (originally Ferranti Thistle) who survived from 1975 to 1995 before relocating to, and rebranding as, Livingston.
This year’s inaugural promotion play-offs will see the winners of the traditionally strong Highland League and the more-recently created Lowland League meet; the victors will then have the opportunity to take on the bottom placed club from League 2 in order to replace them.
In the Highlands, reigning champions Brora Rangers have been shadowed closely by Turriff United but are currently on course to retain their title having remained unbeaten in the league all season. The Lowland League has been a bit more clear cut; Edinburgh City have, like Brora, yet to taste defeat so far this year and have a significant gap to their closest challengers, the reformed Gretna 2008.
Should Edinburgh City make it into League 2, it wouldn’t be the first time the amateurs have competed in the senior ranks. The original club to carry the name were formed in 1928 and entered the league in 1931 as the capital’s answer to Glasgow-based Queen’s Park. However, after season-upon-season of constant struggle they dropped down to the juniors in 1949 and out of existence entirely in 1955 when the local council refused to renew the lease on their City Park ground. They were reformed eleven years later.
For Brora Rangers, from a town situated almost halfway between Dingwall (home of Ross County, the most northerly-based club in all four divisions) and John O’Groats at the most northern tip of the British mainland, the opportunity to move up to the SPFL isn’t welcomed by everybody connected to the club. The board, playing staff and supporters are believed to be split as to whether promotion to a national, rather than regionalised, system will be sustainable due to increased costs and logistical difficulties. Should the part-timers be successful in the play-offs, next season they could – in theory – be forced to play away fixtures at Annan Athletic or Berwick Rangers; both of which would require round trips of over 10 hours and almost 600 miles and would be especially troublesome if scheduled in midweek or in the depths of the often-harsh Scottish winter.
The club’s main backer – local businessman Ben Mackay – has said that it will be the fans who will have the final say on whether to pursue promotion if they are successful in the play-offs. It would also mean that Brora’s Dudgeon Park would have to undergo some refurbishment before league football is permitted to take place there. Currently, only two Highland League clubs’ grounds meet the SPFL’s admission criteria – Clachnacuddin and Wick Academy.
There would be no such stadium quandary for Edinburgh City who play at Meadowbank Stadium – the former home of Meadowbank Thistle and venue for both the 1970 and 1986 Commonwealth Games. Indeed, in January of this year plans were announced for a £43million revamp of the whole complex which would include new or improved state-of-the-art facilities and a new stand. Edinburgh City FC and Edinburgh Rugby are central to the project although redevelopment of the site would benefit the wider community with the new facilities being available for use by the public. A significant portion of the funds needed by the council to complete the renovations are proposed to come from the selling of naming rights to the venue.
For either of these clubs to be playing in the SPFL next season still requires them not only to overcome the other in the elimination tie, but also the side that finishes last in League 2 in the play-off final. Currently that team looks likely to be Montrose, although Berwick and Elgin could easily be dragged into the mire before the end of the season.
The Gable Endies are managed by former Dundee United championship winning captain Paul Hegarty. He took over in February 2015 after the resignation of the previous incumbent George Shields and will have to reverse an alarming dip in form which has seen the Links Park club secure just three league wins from the last 22 games after they had initially made a promising start to the campaign.
As is demonstrated on a fairly regular basis in the early rounds of the Scottish Cup, the gap between the standard of the part-time teams from the lower echelons of the SPFL and those from the Highland and Lowland leagues is minimal – Montrose were actually dumped out of the Cup by Edinburgh City in 2012/13 and Spartans made it all the way to fifth round this year before succumbing to a narrow defeat by Berwick.
Interestingly, should Brora triumph in the play-offs and then turn down the chance to enter the SPFL, the SFA has already said the place will likely be offered to the next eligible team. Whether that would be the Lowland League champions or the vanquished league side has yet to be determined, and should the scenario arise, could yet instigate more bickering to add to the long list of Scottish football squabbles.