This article has been penned with a view to appearing in the Football Weekends magazine in August or September, hence the reference to last season when the dust has yet to settle on the present one!
History was made at the end of the last Scottish season with a Highland League club stepping into the league for the very first time through league effort, and as the 19/20 campaign gets underway Aberdeen will join the rest of Scotland’s big cities with two clubs. Cove Bay is a small coastal satellite town (population, 7,000) but the clubs new Balmoral stadium is actually on the outskirts of Aberdeen itself, a mile or so away from Cove.
This was the second time since the inception of the Scottish pyramid system a non-league side has replaced one of the stalwarts of the previously closed shop structure. It was a case of third time lucky for Cove Rangers in the Play Offs. Getting into the Scottish League is an ambition they have openly embraced for more than a decade, having been pipped by Annan Athletic to replace the demised Gretna well before the relatively new pyramid play off route was opened merely five years ago now. Cove failed in the semi-finals in 2016 losing 4-1 on aggregate to Edinburgh City, who went on to be the pioneers of this promotion seeing off East Stirlingshire. Cove finally made the final in April 2018 but were left feeling rightly aggrieved by some “odd” officiating in a 3-2 loss to Cowdenbeath that culminated in their manager John Sheran having an astonishingly withering attack on the standard of refereeing! Back they went to the Highland League, licked their wounds, dusted themselves down and got ready for another crack at promotion at their new stadium, albeit initially with the boss taking a touchline ban for his outburst! John sadly had a heart attack in the lead up to the last few weeks of last season, but pleasingly he recovered sufficiently to be on the touchline for the celebrations down in Berwick Upon Tweed.
Brora pushed them hard last season but Cove always looked to have something in reserve, aided by 49 goals from Mitch Megginson. Having cliched a third title in four seasons they came through two semi-final jousts with an equally ambitious club in East Kilbride, even if allowing a club with a 500 capacity ground into the league wouldn’t be a healthy option. That particular argument is for another day and never arose as relevant with Cove imperiously sweeping the Lowland League winners aside 5-1 on aggregate, winning both legs. They progressed to the final where it seemed for 90% of the season they would be playing Albion Rovers, but the Coatbridge side were gifted three points for Clyde fielding an ineligible player and that seemed to act as the catalyst to claw back the gap on second bottom Berwick Rangers, culminating in guaranteeing themselves safety and condemning Berwick to the play off matches with a win on the penultimate round of games south of the border.
It was a real fall from grace for Berwick Rangers, they have rarely struggled as badly as this term, and I am unsure when they last finished bottom of the Scottish leagues. In the inaugural play off season, Montrose found themselves on the brink, they were 45 minutes from going down at home to Brora. A collection was being made at half-time by the Brora fans to buy a road map of the Highlands for Montrose! A controversial red card, and a howling gale aided the Gable Endies recovery, and a few seasons on, they went down to Dumfries at the end of last term 90 minutes away from the final to gain access to the second tier, leading 2-1 from the first leg. They were duly humbled 5-0 by half time by a Queen of the South side who had endured a Berwick-esque slump in form late in the season, but I am sure as the Montrose fans drove home they’d reflect on how wonderfully the club has turned around since that awful play off day. Cowdenbeath are the only league club to have played in two of these end of season plank walks, and they survived them both, just on both occasions. East Kilbride had got by Buckie Thistle and then took Cowdenbeath to penalty kicks amid monsoon rain at Central Park. One missed EK penalty was enough for Cowden to retain their status, 5-4 in the spot kicks. They didn’t improve and scraped by Cove 3-2 last season in a real nasty spat of a second half, that kicked off as soon as the Cove keeper was tripped up as he tried to get back in his goal allowing a goal to be scored into an unguarded net! It messed with the Cove heads, and they never recovered the necessary composure.
Berwick were England’s Scottish League side, but in last season’s play off final they were never at the races. With a winning mentality against a crestfallen losing one, it’s not easy to change the mindset, despite Berwick’s desperate attempt to change fortunes by sacking the manager and bringing in an old ex-boss days before the games, but it didn’t work. Somewhat predictably Cove powered their way into the league, winning 4-0 at home, making the second leg a mere formality. However, they maintained a professional attitude, adding another three goals to the aggregate score at a muted Shielfield, save the partying visiting fan base, whose “Highland dynamite” song rang out regularly as well as hero worship of oddly not 49 goal Mitch, but substitute Eric Watson, “Balon D’Or elect” goes the song!! At 7-0 up on aggregate, the management who had been giggling at the songs, finally relented and on trotted Eric to the loudest cheer of the day! The idea the crowd was 1314 was just someone trying to reinvent a famous battle with a morsel of humour!
The win is a signalling of intent for the forthcoming inaugural league campaign. I think I can quite easily predict that Cove will not struggle, and they won’t be hanging around the bottom league for any longer than merely bedding in! It is all far removed from the club that merely dotted around the Aberdeen Amateur circuit from foundation in 1922 until 1984, when they briefly flirted with the North Junior scene, before joining the SFA affiliated Highland League the very next year! It soon became apparent that Cove were not merely making up the numbers, and even having to become nomadic for three seasons until last July, it makes their continual high performance standard even more admirable, including an unbeaten Highland League title in 2017. Those left behind in the Highland League will wish Cove well, but delight in a more level playing field until the next “ambitious” club, more than likely another from the Aberdeenshire clubs who will endeavour to get the better of Brora, with Formartine, Inverurie or Fraserburgh lining up to be the likely challengers.
Cove’s grandly named Balmoral Stadium with a capacity of 2,602 was nearly stretched to that number when Berwick came to town, with a new record high of 1,955, higher than the ground opening friendly with Aberdeen that sadly had to be abandoned due to a terrible injury to a Cove player, and bigger than when Hearts were the first competitive opponent in the League Cup last July! It is a very well appointed stadium, if in a hidden away location. It ticks all the boxes for lower league football with a small stand, three relatively small, terraced sheds (a very Highland League thing!) and plenty of perimeter fence to lean on thus providing a good view. Alas, as at the Berwick game, if you are standing behind the fence hoggers, make sure they are suitably smaller than you as the lack of any terracing aside from these wee sheds means everywhere is flat.
As I discovered the Balmoral isn’t the easiest place to find, and you can’t for now necessarily rely on Sat-Nav as the new Aberdeen bypass seems to have sent that particular tool into meltdown! Upon switching to Google maps on my phone, it will guide you to where you can see the stadium, but on the wrong side of the Retail/Business development where the stadium is squirrelled away, and their is no access from where Google takes you! If you are heading up the A90 take the Aberdeen Harbour turn off as you would for Pittodrie, then turn right at the lights at the top of the new exit slip road. You are now headed towards Aberdeen, and indeed, ignore the sign pointing off to Cove to the right a little further along. At the first major roundabout you want to take the first turning left, taking you between a petrol station and a burger selling pavilion with Retail outlets in front of you. Follow the road round to the right and keep going as far as the road allows, and after about half a mile the stadium presents itself tucked in behind an enormous Royal Mail depot. Now that Cove might be attracting larger crowds on a regular basis, the Retail car parks might try and stop you parking nearby, but for now you are ok! Aside from Burger King, or the shop at the filling station, nearby amenities are at a premium. There is a bar/restaurant about half a mile further down the dual carriageway if you are looking for proper bib and tucker pre or post match!
So Aberdeen, joins Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow on the two teams or more roster, and being bigger than Dundee it has capacity to take a new league team under its wing. Just how far, or how high Cove’s seemingly limitless ambition goes, well who knows! Cove Bay is after all bigger than Dingwall, and look where Ross County are now! As for Berwick, they will slip into the Lowland League and doubtlessly need time to steady the ship before trying to get their league place back. Treks north of Edinburgh will be limited to Kelty in Fife, with new “local” Borders rivalries available with Vale of Leithen and Gala Fairydean Rovers as well as bringing the first ever “old” league fixture to be played in the non league environment with East Stirlingshire. They may or may not be spared the Lowland league inclusion of another ambitious club in Bonnyrigg Rose, who won the East of Scotland title in sensational fashion at Broxburn only for the rug to be pulled from under their title success days later by being denied promotion due to the requirement for floodlights being added to the list of requirements after they were invited to put in their affiliation application, and despite the club guaranteeing they would be in place before a ball of 19/20 season was kicked! This particular issue rumbles on, and legal teams might be called upon! The members of the Lowland and East of Leagues play joint cup competitions, and Berwick could play Tweedmouth, who use the ground behind Shielfield’s shed, in what would be an historic all English tie in a Scottish competition! Oddly both are called Rangers!
Let’s hope Berwick Rangers can get themselves sorted, and that they’ll enjoy the Lowland League, it’s becoming a hotbed of well run, ambitious clubs. Good luck to Cove another Rangers as they step into a new brave world of league football, but as the fans were singing “we’re on our way, on our way”.