For years- both here and at Avoiding the Drop– I advocated, among other things, for the implementation of a true pyramid system for “league” football in Scottish football. At the end of the current season it is going to happen. “It” being a playoff between the last place team in Scottish League Two (Montrose F.C.) and the winner of a playoff series between the Highland League (Brora Rangers F.C.) and the Lowland League (Edinburgh City F.C.) champions. Despite what follows, I am still convinced- CONVINCED- that this is the way forward for Scottish football as a whole. Yes, there are probably going to be a few more unforeseen kinds to be worked out, but promotion and relegation based on merit- not influence and connections- and increased competition at all levels isn’t just a good thing, it’s a great thing, and its the right thing. It may, however, mean that some clubs are going to face difficult choices and one club already finding itself in this situation is Brora Rangers F.C.
Between 1879 and 2012 the Cattachs won virtually nothing. That all changed when Brora native and “local boy made good” Ben Mackay decided he was going to sponsor, i.e., bank roll, the club. Mackay, like Ross County chairman and sponsor Roy McGregor, has made his money in the “off shore” (oil and natural gas) industry. Mackay’s goal was to see the club win their first Highland League title since joining the league in 1962 and to go on to dominate the league after that. More than anything else, Mackay’s sponsorship has meant a group of better players to supplement those from in and around the village of 1,200 in Sutherland. Among these were Joe Malin (Ross County), Stuart Kettlewell (Queens Park and Ross County), Ross Tokely (Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County), Grant Munro (Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County), and a a few others. In addition to being paid as players most of these “imports” also hold coaching positions with the club or with other nearby clubs- Stuart Kettlewell, for example, plays for Brora but coaches the developmental squad at Ross County. The rest of Brora’s roster is filled with just what you’d expect, young men who hold normal full time jobs, who train a few times a week, and who play once or twice a week.
The result of Mackay’s sponsorship and the players it allowed the club to bring in was the Highland League title last year…and again this year (there are still a few matches left in the current season, but Brora are currently undefeated and have a goal differential of +111!). This year, however, winning that title brings raises some questions, the most important of which are, “Should Brora take part in the promotion playoff against Edinburgh City, and if they win that, against Montrose for a spot in the SPFL?” and, “What will that mean for the club?”
The club have already answered the first question- yes, they will play, and they will play to win, although they will do so with great reluctance…and because the Scottish Football Association hasn’t really given them a choice- they won the league and meet all of the other criteria. Club chairman John Young recently summed up the club’s view on the matter:
“We’ve looked at all options and there’s no way we can avoid competing.”
Probably not the response the S.F.A. and the Scottish Professional Football League had in mind when they agreed to move to a true pyramid system a couple of years ago and especially from the chairman of a club that voted for the new system! That being said, Young’s reticence is understandable:
“We meet SPFL criteria for entry level so we can’t opt out, we’ve got to go for it. There could be quite severe penalties [if we opt out] so we don’t want that. Our major concern is finance. We’re a small village of 1,200 people. It’s quite hard to sustain ourselves in the Highland League so to travel longer distances, get players off work etc is going to cost the club sustainably more money in our view anyway.”
Let’s stop and break that statement down a bit. Scotland isn’t a very big country but because of its geography it’s often hard to get from one place to another in an efficient manner. Here’s a look at the current Highland League clubs on a map.
Brora’s current away travel ranges between one hour (46 miles) to Wick Academy and three and a half hours (160 miles) to Cove Rangers (in Aberdeen), with the rest of the travel times falling in between these. In short, these are all manageable distances. Most can be made on the morning before an afternoon match, though some of the longer ones might require traveling the night before, or, to put it another way, none of these trips require any of the “regular” players at Brora to ask their bosses for additional time off. Now, let’s look at what will happen if Brora find themselves in League Two next season.
Suddenly, their shortest trip is two hours (93 miles) to Elgin City F.C.- twice as far as their current shortest trip, and their longest trip, to Annan Athletic, is five and a half hours (300 miles) away, almost twice as far as their current longest trip. As John Young said, that means more players needing more time off and the club needing to pay for travel and lodging. Young has also hinted that even if these obstacles could be overcome (and Ben Mackay has said he will continue to “support” the club if they move into League Two, meaning the financial aspect is probably taken care of as far as the club is concerned), there may still be some players who, for various reasons, aren’t interested in playing at a higher level:
“We have players that have come down from a higher level to come play with us because they didn’t want all the travelling etc. and even some of our younger players, who I thought would jump at the chance, are not that keen.”
Which brings us to the second question- what would promotion mean for the club?
Clearly, Brora Rangers would become a different kind of club and that difference would most likely manifest itself in the club having less of a “local” feel than it has had for the prior 136 years of its existence. Brora, who would now be a “league” club, could very easily be a club where players from outside of the Highlands- never mind Sutherland itself- go to try to get noticed by bigger clubs before moving on. It’s easy to see how supporters of the club might find it difficult to pin their hopes to a group of players to whom they have no real connection, and who might not spend very much time at the club.
It would also probably mean that Brora would become a younger club, with most players being in their late teens and early 20s who are taking their shot a dream before realizing that, in most cases, they need to find a real job. This is very different from a club made up of, if you’ll pardon the phrases, “real men” with “real jobs,” plumbers, policemen, teachers, truck drivers, etc. who know (in most cases, anyway) that the Highland League is probably as far as they are going, but who continue to play for the love of the game.
Clearly, something important could very well be lost if Brora move up to League Two, but something could also be gained. What, after all, gets a supporter’s juices flowing more than the possibility of promotion, or if you’re of a more pessimistic inclination, than the fear of relegation? Or, to put it another way, what makes a supporter feel better than a feeling of relevance? The feeling that on a larger scale, their club and its fortunes- on and off the pitch, matter?
I know that Brora’s situation is a more extreme one in that the town is even smaller and more remote than Dingwall, but I can’t help but think of Ross County’s recent history and hold it out to the club and its supporters as an example of what could happen. Ross County spent most of it’s history in the same Highland League which Brora currently dominate without a thought of playing- never mind succeeding- on a larger scale. But then, twenty years ago there was an opening in the league, and Ross County took a chance and were accepted. Since then they’ve steadily marched up the leagues, making it to a Scottish Cup final, gaining promotion to the Premiership, and becoming a model club in Scotland and beyond.
This will not happen to Brora Rangers. But, that being said, if they get into League Two, who says they can’t win it at some point and try their luck for a few seasons in League One? Who says they can’t make a run in the League Cup or the Challenge Cup? Yes, they’ll probably drop back into League Two after a few seasons, and they might even fall back into the Highland League for a few seasons before making another run at league football, but even if that happens, think of the memories supporters will have, think of the players who will become heroes, think of the dreams the club can inspire…