Central Park, Cowdenbeath, is one of those old grounds with a bit of what they like to call “character”. Terracing surrounds the ground on three sides, set well back and a little above the pitch, while the fourth side houses the two-part main stand, half of it the old shed and half a newer stand where the older one was fire-damaged sometime in the 90s. A row of floodlight pylons sits in front of the stand to obscure the view. It’s not the most modern of stadia, but at least it’s not one of your modern boxes.
It’s also the only ground I know of to retain its perimeter fencing – not, of course, to prevent the few hundred hardy supporters from encroaching onto the pitch, but for protecting the next batch of spectators from the stock cars that ply their trade on the track that separates the pitch from the terrace, later on in the Saturday evening. The stock cars have long been a bigger money-spinner than the football club and for many years, under the mostly successful chairmanship of Gordon McDougall, everyone seemed happy to allow the one to subsidise the other
Recent developments, however, have brought the football club’s unsustainability to a head. McDougall left in 2008, subsequently sueing the club for unpaid consultancy fees; his son-in-law Brian Welsh also won a costly unfair dismissal case after being sacked as manager that summer. The new owners, the Brewster family, made no bones about their intentions – the plan was to cash in on the land and build Cowden a new stadium somewhere out of town. Which would have suited all parties had it come to pass, but sadly the latest plans to find an alternate site seem to have fallen through. Furthermore, the shortcomings of Central Park have been accentuated by its failure to pass the conditions required by the SFA’s new licensing scheme. Opinions vary on whether the SFA themselves or, indirectly, UEFA are responsible for this system, or whether the terms of it are too harsh, but it seems that besides some issues with the floodlighting, the field of play which has passed muster for some hundred years at Central Park is now considered too narrow. (Brechin have similar problems, which may see them having to uproot their famous hedge at Glebe Park.) The licensing system isn’t mandatory at present, but those clubs failing to meet the criteria are being fined – £7,500 according to most reports, not a huge sum but harsh enough for a club of this size, and escalating with each season that passes.
Combined with operational losses and a feeling that the new regime had overcommitted the wage budget, the club’s future was already looking a little uncertain when rumours started circulating earlier this week that the Brewsters had approached Spartans with a view to selling their shareholding and allowing Spartans, effectively, to take Cowden’s place in the league.
Spartans, based in Edinburgh and recent occupiers of a small but tidy new community stadium at Ainslie Park, were one of the teams who lost out (to Annan) in the vote for the vacant league place created by Gretna’s demise in 2008, and have made no secret of their ongoing desire to join the League. Rightly or wrongly, they made a few enemies earlier in the decade when they were perceived as lobbying a little too aggressively for the league spot that it looked might become available during East Stirlingshire’s troubles, and accordingly they have sought to downplay the rumours in the last couple of days, making it clear that they had been approached rather than vice versa and refusing to confirm the terms of any discussions. The Brewsters for their part have claimed that the discussions were only about a groundshare, and indicated that other Fife clubs such as Raith and Dunfermline had also been approached.
None of these groundshare ideas look too promising as long, or even medium term solutions go – Dunfermline is nearest and perhaps the best option if it comes to that, although their stadium is rather bigger than required – but the Spartans option makes the least sense. It’s hard to believe anyone thinking that enough fans would travel across to Edinburgh to make the club viable, which makes the suggestion that closer ties than groundsharing were mooted somewhat easy to believe. It also appears that other board members were unaware of these discussions until this week, raising suspicions further.
All of this brings the dreaded talk of franchise football back into the open. Such things have of course happened before, Meadowbank moving and becoming Livingston and Clydebank being bought out by Airdrie United, and while this of course is anathema to most of us, it should be said that analogies with (in particular) the Milton Keynes debacle down south don’t really work. England, even before automatic promotion to the league was introduced in the 80s, has long had a roughly identifiable pyramid structure, where Scotland has a jumble of senior non-leagues (The South of Scotland, East of Scotland and Highland Leagues) running alongside “junior” leagues (this having nothing to do with the age of the players) which involve a roughly comparable standard of football but which aren’t even answerable directly to the SFA but to the SJFA. So separate are these set-ups that only in the last couple of years have a handful of teams from the junior leagues been admitted to the Scottish Cup. It’s impossible to identify any levels within this, or to identify from where the most likely legitimate qualifiers for a league place would come.
The SFL would, I think, be delighted to have a pyramid system underneath it, but to turn the current mishmash into one would require a radical overhaul, much treading on toes and wrestling with vested interests, and at present it seems there is insuffcient will to make this happen. Spartans may have ambitions to be a league club but it’s far from clear that many of their cohorts share such ideas, or that many junior sides have any desire to involve themselves with senior football at all. The Highland League is also believed to be deeply divided on the issue.
In the meantime, an ambitious club such as Spartans has no way of getting into the league except by waiting for someone else to go bust and apply for the vacancy. (Or wait for someone to be voted out, which is technically possible if a club becomes bad enough for long enough but is in practice an even more distant prospect – it’s never happened.) This isn’t very satisfactory for anyone, and if it’s true that Spartans have indeed been approached with – effectively – an offer of a league place by the backdoor then it’s difficult to be too critical of them for at least cautiously considering it.
There are many obstacles in the way of such a move, however, and in the meantime nobody in Scottish football wants to lose Cowdenbeath. The ‘Blue Brazil’ are one of the traditional mainstays of the Scottish lower leagues, founded in the 1880s and league members since 1905. The last team to lose its identity in such fashion – Clydebank – were, by 2002, in administration, had been groundless for six years, and had caused the SFL such headaches that – at least according to some allegations – Airdrie United’s bid was not only backed but positively encouraged by the SFL’s management committee. The current scenario is nothing like that: for all the difficulties outlined above, this suggestion has come out of the blue, and it’s to be hoped that any such proposal will be resisted much more strongly.
But for this goodwill to mean anything, Cowdenbeath have find a way forward. Through all this, the team is having a good season on the pitch, with a fighting chance of promotion to the first division for the first time since the switch to four smaller leagues. It’s time for the fans and the community to rally round, to act and show that they want and deserve a football club, and help the club find a way to make it work. There is already an active Trust who have been quick off the mark in forming an action group – they can be contacted through their website on http://www.cowdentrust.com . Further information on the current situation will hopefully appear there once the site is updated this weekend. There is much work to be done but hope are high that Cowdenbeath can be saved.