Groundhop 2018- East of Scotland League

 

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This article was written in March 2018 for Football Weekends with some of the pontification surrounding mere rumours because of the fluid nature East of Scotland league at the time. However, while bits are out of date,  I hope it is still an entertaining read. The final paragraph is added and sets the agenda for 2019 groundhop, and if you are entertained or intrigued, it’s not to late to get yourself organised to get involved. An article on the new edition will follow in April, stay tuned!

The face of Scottish football has been subtly changed in the lower echelons of the Professional Football League (SPFL) structure in the last few years. It is a change that has undoubtedly added results, fixtures and tables from the Highland League and the Lowland League to your mobile phone via whatever provider you use! The Highland League is a long established league, and while it was affiliated to the SFA, there was no direct route into the National league structure. The setting up of the newish Lowland League nearly five years ago now signalled a change to proceedings. Clubs were invited to join the Lowland League from two “lesser” known leagues, The East of Scotland and the South of Scotland leagues. Both were full of romantic names that only ever seemed to cross the conscience of the wider public when the Scottish Cup early rounds got trotted out! The majority of the Lowland sides came from the East of Scotland league (The Spartans, Edinburgh City (the one successful promotee thus far), Gretna and Whitehill Welfare just four of the “bigger” initial members from the East, a couple from the South (Dalbeattie Star and Threave Rovers), as well as the addition of some “west” clubs (East Kilbride, Cumbernauld Colts and more recently BSC Glasgow) who were smart enough to get in on the act at the outset. It was thought that with so many members abandoning the East of Scotland League it’s future was in doubt. Despite only having 13 member clubs this season, the league is alive and well, and set to prosper by virtue of it now being (along with the South of Scotland League) the sixth tier of the newly formed Scottish pyramid, with Junior sides rumoured to be ready to change code. A Groundhopper weekend was arranged for the middle of March, essentially a celebration of these two leagues, and while the weather did it’s best to wreck the entire card, four games out of six survived, and I went along to the Saturday matches for Football Weekends, and my own curiosity! The weekend had kick off in Lockerbie at Mid-Annandale’s ground acting the host from the South of Scotland league amid snow flurries.

The day had four staggered kick offs scheduled, but before a ball was kicked the evening match at Saughton Enclosure in Edinburgh between the lengthily named Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale and groundsharers Tynecastle had already been called off due to a waterlogged pitch. So I wouldn’t break my record of three games in a day from  Montevideo, but given how bitingly cold it was, perhaps three games was going to be enough! These hardy souls, the proper Groundhoppers, some of whom have been at five games in a day!

Scottish football does have some fabulously named clubs, Forres Mechanics, Wick Academy, Hamilton Academical, Queen of the South, as well as one or two I have already mentioned above, but the best for me is Burntisland Shipyard! This mythically named team have just been one of those names that popped up in the Scottish Cup on occasion. I had seen them twice before, both away, and with a 0-21 tally from these two games, you can see life wasn’t always easy for the Shipyard! When I first cast eye on them in 1996 at Huntly their was serious doubt as to whether the game would be played the next day, but it went ahead and the chat on the terracing after an extraordinary number of volunteers turned up to sweep the pitch clear of the snow, suggested the Burntisland players had been “enjoying” the hostelries of Huntly a little too late into the night! They certainly didn’t perform, and Huntly easily won 7-0! So if the Shipyard lost 7-0 in my first of my two games, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce the scoreline was doubled when they played at Bonnyrigg Rose (another cracking name!) in 2016. No excuses of booze this time they just came up against one of the really impressive “Junior” football teams of Scotland. Junior football is perhaps a bizarre concept to the uninitiated, an entire football organisation of well run, and well attended league matches with regional leagues and one National Cup away from the auspices of the Celtic and Rangers world!

It was an 11 am kick off at Recreation Park, Burntisland for the groundhop opener and we were greeted with snow in the wind, complete with  a bitterly cold wind too! However, most importantly the game was on, and the little stadium the Shipyard call home is a lovely tree lined affair, and very well maintained. Preston Athletic were in town, the first club to be relegated back into the East of Scotland League from the Lowland (Threave were the first go down, but they are back in the South league). At one time Preston had put together a bid to join the Scottish League and bring League football to the magnificently named Pennypit in Prestonpans. That didn’t happen, and given the “ambition” of certain clubs in the East league as we will discover, Preston might well be back in this tier of football for a number of years yet! A crowd of 166 were huddled in corners avoiding the wind, including using the trees as shelter, and they witnessed a thoroughly engaging and competitive match. Shippy as Burntisland are known took a major step forward in November last year when they abandoned the clubs “amateur” status and joined the ranks of the Semi Professional clubs. It was perhaps a way of acknowledging the new challenges in this league, and might allow them to attract more players. Seeing the Shipyard at home in the Scottish Cup had long been on my “bucket list”, but that rarely happens so I was happy to finally get a game here, and I was also hoping they would at least score! And score they did, levelling the game just before the break. Playing against the ferocious wind, they equalised with a shot that would have taken the net away had it not been securely battened down! It was one of those days where playing with the wind wasn’t easy. In the second half Preston sat in and counter attacked, regaining the lead when the home goalie showed hesitation, staying on his line when a quick burst out of the box might have snuffed out the attack. He quickly learned and he was an auxiliary sweeper thereafter. Burntisland were awarded a late penalty, a chance to draw level despite being a man down. The Preston keeper was the hero saving the effort, but the taker might have tapped in the rebound had he not taken to self pity at the miss! An away win was maybe just about right, but well played all 22 players in such difficult conditions. It was near the end that it struck me the lack of involvement from the majority of the visitors, and only a handful of us were applauding as the teams left the field, the majority were scurrying off to their buses. Okay we only had 50 minutes until the next game, but it was less than 10 miles away. As I journeyed across Fife I was contemplating what constituted the enthusiasm of a groundhopper?! I guess each has their own reason, notepads, folders and cameras were to the fore, programmes, badges and hats seemed to have been top sellers! All good income for the home sides in these games, but ambivalent, even snooty comparisons of elsewhere could be caught in the mutterings!

The drive from Burntisland to Kelty takes you up and over the hills and through the old mining town of Cowdenbeath. You can’t easily see Central Park as you drive through the High Street, but it is the most central ground you will find anywhere, thus it is well named! They were hosting Elgin that afternoon, and having not won since August Blue Brazil were rooted to the bottom of League 2 almost certainly bracing themselves for a second season of Play Off action, having survived on the last day of last season by virtue of a 5-4 penalty shoot out success versus East Kilbride amid biblical rain! A crowd of nearly 2,000 that day shows the people of Cowdenbeath still care about the club. Kelty is just a few miles up the road, and seems to be a small place that is entirely built on the downward slope of a hill, with flat land at a premium! Indeed Kelty Hearts as the local side are known have undergone some significant alterations to their stadium in recent years. The sloping pitch has been levelled, it is a first class artificial 3G surface now, and with three sizeable covered areas, plus a new stand now. Rumours are that another stand will be built behind the goal at the main entrance with a cafe in its underbelly that will be open every day, thereby gaining additional revenue and further community buy-in. This is a club on the up, you can smell ambition the moment you step into New Central Park. Kelty are the pioneers of seeing a Junior club switch codes. Having won the East Region Junior league last season they surprised everyone by joining the 6th tier of the National set up! It is suggested other “bigger” East Juniors clubs may follow suit (they did and some!). Will Linlithgow and Bonnyrigg switched the battle of the Roses from the Juniors? Could Linlithgow v Bo’ness United be a Scottish League derby one day? Kelty’s progress is undoubtedly being watched closely.

Kelty Hearts have been romping their way through the East fixture card, and ahead of kick off they’d won 17 out of 17 and scored more than 100 goals! In their previous home match they’d knocked 12 by Peebles Rovers for the loss of 1, who were mid table. Groundhopper Saturday had brought Berwick Upon Tweed’s second side Tweedmouth Rangers, who left the Northumberland league to join the East of Scotland league set up last season, to Kelty. They managed three wins and three draws in that inaugural season, but the side that play at Old Shielfield, right behind the shed at Berwick Rangers ground, had like Kelty a 100% record this term, the flip side, with not a single point to their name! I was thinking my 14-0 record score was in danger, but it took Kelty a while to get their sights right, and when Tweedmouth equalised on 30 minutes or so, a shock wasn’t on the cards, but it was a moment the away side enjoyed, and rightly so! It merely poked the bear, woke it from it’s lethargy and by half time it was 4-1. Seven unanswered second half goals saw an 11-1 whacking, some of the goals of exquisite quality, as Kelty put on a bit of show for their guests! You would think that Kelty are guaranteed to be in the play off with the South winner and stepping into the Lowland League, but let me put some unexpected meat on the bones so to speak! Another club have a 100% record in the league too, Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale, albeit they have played six games less, but when the two clubs meet on 21st and 28th April, it could be the first time ever so late in a season that two clubs go into such fixtures without having dropped a point! Kelty will be fearful too, as the two clubs have met in two cup competitions and LTHV beat them 1-0 on both occasions, one away! LTHV will have a busy schedule of matches prior to playing the double header, but the irony is, should they win the title, Kelty will still be playing them and potentially a shed load of Junior giants next season as LTHV don’t have a license to go any higher as their ground doesn’t meet the standards for the Lowland League! Despite being hugely successful I know Kelty’s home crowds have dropped as the loss of the local rivalries in the Junior leagues with Thornton Hibs, Hill of Beith Hawthorn and Crossgates Primrose amongst others detracting from the enthusiasm of the fans. It is a step back to move forward, and should they go up, coupled with the possibility of Cowdenbeath coming down, they will have the mother of all derbies, albeit one that has never happened in competitive football before!

A 5pm kick off on the edge of Edinburgh at Heriot Watt University meant a leisurely 90 minutes to get back across the River Forth and round the Edinburgh bypass a little for the days concluding game. I was going to watch my first ever “indoor” football match at the Oriam within the University campus at Riccarton. I know that Hearts train here, Hibs U20’s have been known to use the facility, as well Scotland who were training here ahead of the recent Costa Rica game. You would think that Heriot Watt Uni’s side could use it whenever they wanted given it is on their ground, but no! It costs £500 to hire for however wants it, and HWU don’t have the fan base to justify that level of outlay. It was the first time they’d played a game indoors there, and despite only 207 people being present, the delight at a record crowd was visible. Not only that, but they gave away a third of the takings to a local community centre to help with roof repairs. It struck me what a wonderful world the lower end of football is, the greed doesn’t exist. Football can learn from such humble ways, it should never lose sight of its grass roots. Now obviously grass was lacking at this fixture as well at Kelty, but I believe some of the “groundhoppers” were unhappy that matches were taking place on artificial surfaces on their tour, and heaven forbid, one was inside! One thing is for sure, if it hadn’t been indoors, it would have been off! Allegedly some had gone off to watch games on grass rather than go to Kelty, with Cowdenbeath/Elgin and Civil Service Strollers/East Kilbride muted as destinations. CSS were party to the groundhoppers, but inadvertently two years ago, as the Preston Athletic game was called off late and so CSS were tipped off the “hoppers” were on the way! Allegedly someone sped off to the local supermarket to buy up as many pies as they could get their hands on ahead of the swollen crowd!!

Heriot Watt’s opponents that evening were Leith Athletic, another famous old name from Scottish football, back with us in the sixth tier, and champions two years ago, but like LTHV they have no license to get promotion, and with the loss of Meadowbank stadium in Edinburgh they could be on the road for some years! In there day Leith had a stadium at Powderhall in Edinburgh, where in 1896 it hosted the only ever Scottish Cup Final to have been played outside Glasgow! An all Edinburgh affair, with Hearts coming out on top 3-1 versus Hibs in a stadium long gone now. Back at the Oriam, HWU were quicker out of the traps and they looked the more accomplished side taking a 2-0 led. At one point in proceedings, despite a very high roof, the ball hit it, but they just played on! Leith who had the only away support of the day were clawing their way back, and just when it looked as though 2-2 was going to be the final score, they conjured up a winner not just fit to be the best of the 20 we had seen, but perhaps the best goal I have seen this season, an absolute belter! It kept Leith second, but they have lost to both the 100% ers and third will be where they finish this term.

Twenty goals in three games, all for a total £16 entry fee, cracking entertainment whatever way you look, but I am not entirely sure the Groundhoppers from south were all that enthused! Sadly the Sunday fixture between Peebles Rovers and Ormiston fell foul of the overnight snow, and given they would have bought extra food and printed a special programme, such loss of revenue at the smaller clubs makes all the difference. I hope Peebles gets included in next seasons route, and they have been!

The 2019 diet of six ties in the hop starts on Friday 29 March in Denny, where local side Dunipace will undoubtedly be put through their paces by the aforementioned crack ex-Junior side Bonnyrigg Rose, on a night when they might well clinch the title of their Conference (so many East Juniors came across, they have for one season only been split into three Conferences of 13 teams, with the winners playing a round robin for the overall winner to step up directly as no South of Scotland licensed team will win that league this season!). On the Saturday I might finally get a four game day, starting at Camelon at 11am, where Edinburgh United are in town. Then it’s an early afternoon kick off at Inverkeithing where Hillfield Swifts will look to take points off one of the East of Scotland stalwarts Heriot Watt University. A trek along the M8 to Blackburn will be a third new ground of the day, and a fourth of the weekend, as Preston are in town for a tea time kick off. Blackburn v Preston, the English groundhoppers are going to love that one! The action then transfers to Linlithgow for a night game against Perth side Jeanfield Swifts. I have never seen a side called Swifts, and like buses, two will come along in the same day! The hop concludes rightly in Peebles where the game was off last season, and whereas Rovers would have beaten Ormiston last term, they’ll struggle against Newtongrange Star, the 8th ex-Junior to be showcased in the 12 teams over the weekend. A 2019 groundhop tale to follow, as I promised FW editor that I would look after the fort while he was hosting a first ever Football Weekends readers gig across in Dortmund! Denny, Camelon and Blackburn or Dortmund? You go figure who the lucky one is, I just hope the delayed start by a fortnight this year will allow all games to take place. Had they repeated the same dates as last year, given last weekends weather the whole gig would have been washed out !!     

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