Edinburgh derby awaits
17 February ~ Scottish Lowland League club Spartans head to Berwick tonight for a Scottish Cup fifth-round replay against Berwick Rangers. A win will make them the first non-League club in 55 years to qualify for the quarter-finals, when they will travel a few miles east to play Hibs, live on Sky Sports.
This season’s cup run is the latest step forward for the popular and ambitious Edinburgh club, in a journey that looks likely to, sooner or later, take them into the Scottish Professional Football League. This season’s cup run started against Lowland League rivals East Kilbride. The first tie was a 3-3 draw, and Spartans won the replay 5-1. In the next round, at home, Spartans beat Clyde, from League Two, 2-0, in front of 600 fans, twice the attendance for the home tie against East Kilbride. Their next achievement was significantly more impressive. They came from behind to beat Morton 2-1, in front of 1200 fans at home. Morton are one of the few full-time clubs in League One, and knocked Celtic out of the League Cup last season.
Spartans considered seeking permission to move their last-16 tie to a Sunday to avoid clashing with the big Edinburgh clubs Hibs and Hearts. But although all three clubs played on the Saturday, 2,500 turned up to watch Spartans – more than for Hamilton against Kilmarnock in the Premiership on the same day. Berwick scored in the fourth minute but PE teacher Ally MacKinnon equalised for Spartans in injury time. They are expecting to have about 500 fans travelling to Berwick tonight, roughly the average full attendance in League Two.
It’s not hard to see why Spartans have become popular, including with some fans of bigger clubs. Season tickets have been £50 for the last ten seasons, and are even cheaper if you also have a season ticket for another club. They are free for under-15s. Coach travel for the 120-mile round trip to Berwick tonight costs £2. The club engage enthusiastically with fans and the local community, including on Twitter where they have 5,500 followers, and they have a range of youth and women’s teams. Spartans are a fresh prospect in a country where the football headlines have been dominated in recent years by the financial mismanagement of some of the biggest clubs.
Spartans have previously applied for – and missed out on – vacancies in the SPFL, but now promotion is available to League Two through play-offs at the end of this season. Spartans were the Lowland League’s inaugural champions last season, but this year Edinburgh City are dominating the league and aiming for promotion. Right now, Spartans are concentrating on the cup. In previous seasons, they’ve knocked League sides Alloa, Arbroath, Queens Park, Elgin – and Berwick – out of the cup. They’re not favourites tonight, but the prospect of a quarter-final tie against Hibs will give them extra motivation. And if they do get through, they can count on support from thousands of Hearts fans. Mark Poole