Finally, after Scottish football’s traumatic summer, the chance to get back to some actual football. Starting with the now-traditional curtain-raiser of the Challenge Cup (currently the Ramsdens Cup, if you prefer). It’s for the lower league teams only – which means most media attention has been focused on Rangers’ debut in the cup, at Brechin on the Sunday. But actually, it was Raith Rovers who got the plum tie of the round – away at Wick Academy, also making their debut in the competition.
Up until last season, the first round of this cup had featured two byes (there being thirty SFL teams). Then, someone hit upon the rather excellent idea of inviting a couple of Highland League sides to make up the draw. Last season the top two sides were invited (Buckie Thistle and Deveronvale); this season, however, the places have gone to the top two sides with an SFA Club Licence – those being Inverurie Locos (fourth place) and Wick (eighth).
Well-intentioned though the club licencing scheme is, in its efforts to improve standards and facilities, I admit to being a bit sceptical about using it that way. But that’s not intended as any slight on Wick, who were excellent hosts for the day and showed us once again that the Highland League has a lot to offer.
Tucked in amongst the league reconstruction proposals that the SPL and SFA offered over the summer, in their efforts to have Rangers voted into the second tier, was the proposal to implement the long-desired pyramid, which would allow automatic promotion to the SFL from the Highland League and a newly-created ‘Lowland League’. It’s been a dream of many fans for a long time, casting envious eyes to how well the structure works down in England, and it’s far from obvious why such a proposal needed to be tied to the fate of Rangers. It’s to be hoped that such plans are still very much on the agenda.
Still, while this weekend’s game showed many positives about the Highland League, it also highlighted one of the major drawbacks – Wick, with the best will in the world, is a long way from anywhere. Just a few miles south of John O’Groats, it’s a long trip up even for the rest of the Highland League sides. For Raith, in what was supposedly a regionalised draw, it represented the furthest they’ve ever had to travel for a competitive game (apart from one UEFA Cup run in 1995 that no Raith fan ever mentions).
As a one-off, it was a great thing, at least for those fans who took the opportunity to make a weekend of it. But if Wick were ever to be promoted into the same league as, say, Stranraer, then for part-time clubs the travel costs – and time – involved might start to become prohibitive.
Still, that can be worried about some other day. This game generated a fair bit of excitement in its own right, being the highest level of team that Academy have ever played in a competitive match. And just to add a bit of extra interest, their manager Davie Kirkwood is a former Raith player, from their relative glory days in the mid 90s. Indeed, he was very much a part of that UEFA Cup run that no Raith fan ever mentions.
The match itself was a bit slow to spring to life. Academy caused a few nervous moments in the first half, but without creating much in the way of clear chances. Raith looked a bit sharper up front, and Brian Graham in particular had already hit the post and squandered two or three other chances to take the lead before finally putting the visitors ahead a few minutes before half-time, scuffing in a rather untidy goal at the second attempt.
In the second half, played mostly in torrential rain, things got rather more interesting. Graham again had the next chance, pulling a decent save from Michael Gray with the rebound just not quite falling for the incoming Grant Anderson, but they were made to regret those missed chances when a moment of defensive inattentiveness allowed Lukas Geruzel to tuck a smartly-taken equaliser under David McGurn.
Rovers took the lead again through Dougie Hill’s close-range header, but when they gifted a second equaliser – Davie Allan again finishing coolly after latching onto a short backpass – there was a definite sense of an upset in the air. The couple of hundred or so away fans who had made the trip north were starting to feel distinctly nervous, while the home fans taunted them with “Are you Brora in disguise?”. On the pitch, Academy had their best spell of the game around this time, and it took a good saving tackle from Jason Thomson to deny Allan another clear run on goal.
But after an edgy ten or fifteen minutes, it was Rovers who got the next goal, Anderson hitting a sweet strike from the edge of the area after a half-cleared corner. Although there were still twenty minutes left, this time there was to be no slip-up, and Pat Clarke killed the game a few minutes from time with a back-post finish from Anderson’s cross.
Although Raith created more and were deserved winners in the end, the scoreline shouldn’t obscure the fact that the result was very much in the balance for half an hour in the second half. They certainly had to battle hard for the win, playing up the Harmsworth Park slope in the rain. At the risk of being patronising, Academy can probably at least be satisfied that they gave a good account of themselves. Bearing in mind this was not just an SFL side, but a first division one, you’d struggle to say there was any great gulf in class.
While the Highland League encompasses quite a wide variation in standard, there’s no doubt that their better sides are perfectly capable of playing at SFL level. How long it’ll be before they start getting the chance to prove that on a regular basis will depend on how much will exists to get that pyramid up and running. There are problems that need to be resolved, but I live in hope that it will happen, and that there’ll be plenty more trips up north to be had in the years to come.
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