Scottish Challenge Cup losing fizz as Irn-Bru’s cross-border demands take toll

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The shake-up of the competition in 2016 attracted high-profile sponsorship, but congested calendars and insufficient travel subsidies are reducing the attraction for foreign clubs

20 March ~ Hundreds of East Fife fans travelled to Dublin on February 2 for their rearranged Scottish Challenge Cup match against Bohemians, only to find that it was cancelled just seven minutes before kick-off due to a frozen pitch. It looked like yet another example of the bungling which has bedevilled almost every aspect of authority in Scottish football recently.

Frozen pitches may be unavoidable in winter, but this quarter-final match at Dalymount Park had already been held over from November as the League of Ireland had started its mid-winter break, when all players are released from their contracts. As Bohemians and fellow Irish side Sligo Rovers entered the competition in the second round, it seemed extraordinary that no preparation had been made for one of these sides making it past two rounds. The clumsy solution was for East Fife to be given a bye into the semi-final, where they lost to Ross County in mid February, as there was no space in the calendar to rearrange the match again.

Such chaos was alien to Scotland’s third senior knockout competition in the first quarter century of its existence, when it was only open to lower-league clubs. However when Irn-Bru became sponsors in 2016, the cup was shaken up. Uniquely, one national association’s competition is now open to semi-professional clubs from four different ones: England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic. The introduction of foreign teams makes marketing sense to the new sponsors, if little footballing sense to the clubs. With invitations to select Highland and Lowland League clubs plus the under-20s sides from the Scottish Premiership, the Scottish Challenge Cup has almost doubled to 58 clubs from the original 30 entrants. This makes it 14 teams larger than the League Cup, and obviously greatly reduces the chances of a lower-league club winning the one piece of silverware designed for them. To add insult to injury, clubs outside Scotland are given byes into the second round.

A bigger draw for the foreign clubs than a shorter path to the final are the financial inducements on offer. As well as prize money for progressing through rounds, teams travelling in either direction across the Irish sea are paid £10,000 in expenses while those crossing the land border between Scotland and the rest of the UK receive £3,500. Yet the money going out of the Scottish game to attract foreign opposition hasn’t created greater interest in the tournament. A crowd of 268 turned out to the Balmoral Stadium in Aberdeen to watch Bohemians play Highland League side Cove Rangers in last season’s round of 16; the Irish team’s travel subsidy amounted to £37 per supporter. Meanwhile the incoming sides have realised that these seemingly generous handouts won’t actually meet their costs, with Sutton United manager Paul Doswell regretting his side’s entry in this year’s competition.

But one would have to assume that these invitations were the condition for Scotland’s most instantly recognisable brand name to follow a chain of high street pawnbrokers and an offshore oil and gas training provider in sponsoring the Challenge Cup. Scotland is the only country in the world where Coca-Cola doesn’t own the most popular soft drink and this sponsorship pushes Irn-Bru’s brand awareness across borders.

Despite the Scottish Professional Football League chief executive Neil Doncaster talking up the innovative nature of cross-border competitions which he believes could be expanded further, the history of these small scale tournaments is not illustrious. The Scandinavian Royal League, the Setanta Cup and the Texaco Cup have all previously attempted cross-national competitions but failed due to lack of fan interest. And the Scottish version shares that indifference; only 624 went to see this season’s finalists Connah’s Quay Nomads play Coleraine in an earlier round in October. After beating Edinburgh City in the other semi, Connah’s Quay will now play Ross County in the final on March 23 in Inverness.

In the event of both finalists not being Scottish in the future, the final will be played outside Scotland. This historic event would be ideal for Irn-Bru. Their name will be permanently attached to the bizarre occasion when one nation’s final was competed by two foreign teams, abroad. Gordon Cairns

This article first appeared in WSC 385, April 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here