Fitba Week: Eyes Down For The Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Cup
It’s international break weekend, and at this time of the season it’s not difficult to see why supporters with no particular dog in the international fight would be a little peeved at all of this. The new league season is barely a few weeks old, but with divisions various just starting to find their rhythm everything has to come to a grinding halt so that England can play Bulgaria, Scotland can play Russia and Wales can play Azerbaijan. There are plenty of people who are extremely hostile to international football, but even for those of us who love it, scheduling like this can feel a little difficult to defend, even if the first Saturday in September is now routinely set aside for this purpose.
So, Scotland played Russia at Hampden Park last night, and this means that the Scottish league programme is taking a break for the weekend. None of this, however, means that there is no other football being played this weekend. Just as in England (which also, let us not forget, starts its Women’s Super League this weekend – it’s a skilful piece of marketing to kick that off this weekend), non-league football continues as per normal, but the Scottish schedule planners have another trick up their sleeves, the Scottish Football League Challenge Cup, which is currently known by its none-more-Scottish sponsors’ name of the Tunnocks Caramel Wafers Challenge Cup. First played in 1990 to mark the centenary of the Scottish Football League, this competition was originally intended as a one-off tournament, but such was its popularity that, almost three decades on, it’s still going.
Originally played between the clubs below the Scottish Premier League, the competition has grown in size and scope over the years, adding four clubs from each of the Highland and Lowland Leagues, and then the under-21 teams from Premier League clubs, as well as two guest teams each from the Northern Ireland Football League, the Welsh Premier League, the League of Ireland and England’s National League. These changes haven’t been universally popular, but they have created a unique competition within the landscape of the football of the British Isles, giving the opportunity of an approximation of European football to smaller clubs who wouldn’t otherwise have such an opportunity. The English clubs invited to enter for the first time last season were Boreham Wood and Sutton United (there’s a highly entertaining report of some Sutton United supporters’ trip to Glasgow here), whilst this season’s representatives – the places are given to the two highest placed clubs from the previous season that weren’t promoted – are Solihull Moors and Wrexham.
As regular readers (or in particular Twitter followers) will already be aware, I’ve been on something of a tour of Scotland over this last couple of weeks, and on the face of it an international break weekend is pretty bad timing for this sort of thing. My face fell when I saw Scotland’s lack of fixture list on the BBC website because they didn’t have this particular competition listed. Some deeper digging showed that there were matches being played in the Highland and Lowland Leagues, but with one of my weekends being knocked out by being on the Isle of Skye – I briefly considered a trip to Fort William, but even the distance to make this, about eighty miles, was rendered an irrelevance when their home match was called off on account of a waterlogged pitch – only the weekend of the international break remained.
With sixteen ties to be played, then, there was plenty of choice, even if most of them were unattainable for reasons of distance. Four of them aren’t being played in Scotland at all – Waterford, Ballymena, Wrexham and Connahs Quay all host matches between last night and next Wednesday night – whilst a further five were ruled out on the grounds of distance from our base near the Firth of Forth. On top of this, I didn’t much fancy St Mirren under-21s at home, whilst the initially appealing idea of going to see “The Bully Wee” of Clyde at home against Queen of the South was tempered somewhat by the likelihood of a small crowd (likely no more than a few hundred) in the 8,000 capacity Broadwood Stadium.
Today is our penultimate day in Scotland, and we’re starting it in Edinburgh and ending it in Glasgow, so a game in or near the Central Belt, the area around and between Glasgow and Edinburgh that is home to more than two-thirds of the population of the entire country, felt appropriate. One fixture stood out. Raith Rovers vs Falkirk. The most Scottish-sounding fixture on the menu. I’ve been hankering after a trip to Starks Park for almost a quarter of a century, since reading Harry Ritchie’s outstanding chapter in the (long overdue a follow-up) When Saturday Comes book My Favourite Year. Raith, of course, isn’t a place, and the “they’ll be dancing in the streets of Raith tonight” (frequently misattributed to David Coleman when it was actually said by Sam Leitch) has long since passed into legend.
Raith’s most successful period came in the middle of the 1990s. Following promotion to the Scottish Premier League for the first time in 1993, the club won the League Cup in 1994 and played Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup. This level, however, couldn’t be maintained and by the middle of the first decade of this century the club was in danger of going out of business. Traditionally, the club has tended to bounce between the second and third tiers of the Scottish league system, and at the time of writing they are top of the Scottish League One (albeit after only five games of the season) with nine points from five games, whilst tomorrow’s opponents Falkirk are sitting in third place in the table, just a point behind them. With just two points separating Raith at the top down to Airdrieonians in seventh place in the table – and all of this, let’s not forget, in a ten team division – though, it feels a little early in the season to be reading too much into league positions.
There’s a hint of derby about it, but it isn’t the most important game that either team will likely play this season. And perhaps this is the perfect way to end two weeks away. An idiosyncratic football ground a long way from home, a pint of beer or two, and a game of football to while away a Saturday afternoon. Perhaps even a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer, should I be feeling particularly rakish. Life is short, and afternoons like this should be savoured. And whether you’re dancing in the streets of Raith, Kelty (whose apparently money Hearts have the former Rangers player Barry Ferguson as their manager), at former UEFA Cup finalists and European Cup semi-finalists Dundee United, former FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup quarter-finalists Wrexham, Dunfermline, Inverness, or whoever, have a wonderful afternoon. Football doesn’t always have to be a matter of life and death. Sometimes it can just be an enjoyable afternoon watching a game. I can’t wait.