Brora Rangers prove tat not every Highland League club wants to be promoted
7 April ~ The first ever play-offs with “Club 42” of the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) begin later this month. But Highland League (SFHL) champions Brora Rangers don’t want to go up, making Lowland League (SLFL) champions Edinburgh City favourites to take on the bottom SPFL side. That’s currently Montrose, who would drop into the Highland League irrespective of who they lost the final to.
It was believed Scottish football’s new pyramid system would filter out perennial strugglers from the lower divisions and replace them with ambitious non-League powerhouses. In actuality it’s illustrating Scottish football’s need for increased regionalisation and the fact that many clubs fear national leagues.
Ben Mackay, managing director of oil and gas industry giants Stanley CRC Evans Offshore, has said he’ll continue to sponsor his local team next season: “We will abide by the laws of the play-off system and Brora Rangers will never go on to a football park not trying to win the game.” This is hardly a war cry. Yet Mackay is derided by Highland League rivals for buying Brora’s unprecedented success. They haven’t lost in the league since December 2013 and striker Steven Mackay scored his 54th goal of the season when they retained the title at Turriff United in the last weekend of March.
Two successive Highland League titles in the early 1990s convinced the Scottish Football League, as was, that Ross County were worth admission. Brora’s first two have convinced them the Highlands is as far as they want to go, literally. Next season in SPFL League Two would include two ties each at Annan and Berwick, both around 300 miles and six hours away. Crowds in the hundreds can’t sustain that kind of expense, while local players can’t face the travelling.
Having applied for full League status twice already this century, play-off semi-final opponents Edinburgh City are as enthusiastic about the SPFL as Brora are indifferent. However, there was a portent in receiving the trophy after a recent draw with Gretna 2008, the phoenix club necessitated by Gretna FC’s financially catastrophic rise from non-League to top-flight football in the first decade of the millennium.
Glasgow Rangers’ journey through the bottom two tiers between 2012 and 2014 provided big crowds and cash injections but the live cameras never returned. Instead of consolidating the four-tier structure Rangers’ participation re-emphasised the colossal disparity between city clubs and part-time provincials. Scotland’s topography, population size and transport infrastructure makes truly national leagues affordable to barely 20 current clubs. Inverness had to merge two to provide the only real “Highland” contender. Two national divisions is more than enough. Depending on arbitrary election processes was unfair on proactive non-League clubs but the drive for the pyramid system wrongly, and negligently, defines ambition as an upward trajectory through every glass ceiling.
Former Highland League clubs Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County, elected to Scottish Football League in 1994, both reached their first national cup finals this decade. This must, however, be balanced with the comparative stasis of Elgin City and Peterhead: elected six years later, they’ve consistently languished in the bottom divisions.
The pyramid stipulates that, because their ground is “north of Latitude 56,4513N”, Montrose would be Highlanders if relegated. But they’re alien to the SFHL’s archaic rivalries, which can only dilute the product. Brora represent the old county of Sutherland; Wick Academy champion Caithness; Deveronvale strain against Aberdeenshire’s absorption of Banffshire and one remnant of Nairn County is the team of the same name. That’s enough internecine bitterness to keep the SFHL, founded in 1893, as healthy as Rangers and Celtic kept Scotland’s top division for the same length of time.
The Lowland League was set up specifically to enable the pyramid. Unlike SPFL One and Two, however, the Highland League isn’t just another tier – it’s an end in itself. After recent financial traumas at Rangers, Hearts and Dundee – three of Scotland’s biggest clubs – balanced accounts are now as precious as trophies. Being best in a small playground always beats being bullied into oblivion. Making as many of your fans, players and backers as happy and involved as possible is a truly worthwhile ambition. Winning the 2013-14 Highland League was the high point in Brora’s 135-year history. Retaining it should not create their nadir. Alex Anderson