Cup runneth over

Spartans FC have overcome two Scottish second division clubs and have garnered much media coverage since the draw sent Livingston to City Park, but  Spartan's Cup campaign has also highlighted Scotland's chaotic non-league situation, as Neil Forsyth writes

Unless their Scottish Cup fourth round tie against SPL outfit Livingston is postponed, Spartans Football Club are unlikely to be in the competition as you read this. If the lopsided clash ends with victory for Goliath, it will have done little to demean the most celebrated Scottish Cup story of recent years.

The Edinburgh non-Leaguers’ charge has seen them overcome two Scottish Second Division clubs, Alloa and Arbroath, and they are the current top scorers in the tournament. The media have given them maximum attention since the draw sent Livingston to City Park.

The name is misleading, with little urban sophistication in evidence at the decrepit ground for, unlike most East of Scotland League teams, Spartans do not own their council-maintained home. Neither do they pay their players and their annual running cost of £35,000 will be comfortable met by the proceeds of the Livi game alone. Around 80 well-wish­ers usually watch their home matches, with no admission charge, yet an all-ticket attendance of 3,000 will pack the grass banks. It is, after all, only the second time in a decade that a non-League club has reached the fourth round.

But Spartan’s Cup campaign has also highlighted Scotland’s chaotic non-League situation and the wisdom of the current inaccessibility of the professional leagues. The East of Scotland League is one of the geographically based divisions that operate on the periphery of the professional game. The others, the Highland League and the South of Scotland League, have a higher and lower stand­ing respectively in the eyes of neutral ob­servers. The densely populated west has a less established set-up due to the proliferation of “Junior” football: clubs outside the Scottish Football Association’s umbrella, with their own JFA and a large membership throughout the country, especially in the west. Many represent con­siderable communities and gates of several thousand allow them to offer higher wages than some lower league professional clubs.

This structure frustrates those who want an open system instead of admission being gran­ted occasionally due to isolated factors. In 1993, 1999 and 2002, the SFL invited applications. On the first two occasions, Highland clubs effectively benefited from top-flight reorganisation. Season 1994-95 saw the arrival of Inverness side Caledonian Thistle (now Inverness Caledonian Thistle) and Ross County, while six years later Peterhead and Elgin City brought more League football into that region.

Applicants in 1993 and 1999 included Gala Fairydean and Gretna. Gala were arguably the best equipped East of Scotland club, while Gretna offered a unique case. The club had left Scottish football in 1947 to compete in the English system and to make the occasional foray into the FA Cup. When the League found themselves a club short after the demise of Airdrie in 2002, Gretna won admission.

Other than these occasions, the professional game in Scotland remains a closed shop. For a pyramid structure to be introduced, the non-League game would require harmonisation. An assimilation of Junior football and a nationally co-ordinated system would be needed for member clubs to accept change in the knowledge that an exit from the Third Division would leave them in a professionally maintained set-up to act as an effective springboard back.

Among fans, pundits and even the higher echelons of the SFA, support for a pyramid system is undoubtedly growing. The final argument against one is that there is an overly significant drop in class outside the pro ranks. Spartans’ cup adventure may come to an end against Livi, but their achievements have arguably ended that debate. The effects of this cup run may last long into the future.

From WSC 205 March 2004. What was happening this month