ONE of the great anomalies of Scottish football is that every year in the early rounds of the major cup competition, a team of amateurs, usually playing in the bottom division in front of a few hundred fans, are considered to be a “plum draw”.
Long before the Old Firm enter the fray (though Rangers are involved sooner than they’re used to these days), it is another Glasgow club the non-league dreamers yearn to be paired with away from home in the Scottish Cup draw. This year it is Preston Athletic who have been awarded their very own “cup final” with all the trappings – a trip to the National Stadium to face Queen’s Park today.
And they’ve certainly earned it, after producing arguably the performance of the first round when they fought back from 2-0 down at half-time away to Huntly and emerged 4-3 winners. With Hampden out of action for the semi-finals and final due to the 2014 Commonwealth Games, if the Prestonpans outfit do pull off an upset this afternoon, they will go down as the only team to win at Hampden in this season’s Scottish Cup.
“Well that’s even more of an incentive, a bit of history to aim for,” laughs Preston manager David Bingham, a two-time cup semi-finalist himself during his playing career. “But win, lose or draw it’s going to be a great experience, something the boys will take with them for the rest of their lives. It’s a huge task, but they have earned it after the great comeback at Huntly.”
Queen’s Park may currently sit at the foot of the Scottish League with a solitary point to their name, but at the William Hill branch in Musselburgh where Bingham and his players promoted today’s clash with the Scottish Cup on show, Gardner Speirs’ home side were firm odds-on favourites with the tournament sponsors.
Preston have had a mixed start to the inaugural Lowland League and sit in seventh spot, but Bingham is approaching the match with a positive mindset. “I just hope they do themselves justice as it’s definitely a game they’ve got a chance in,” said the former striker, “but we’ll have to play really well. Forget about the league position of Queen’s Park, they are still a level or two above us, but if the boys play to the best of their ability and work hard then who knows.
“I’ve had them watched. They lost 5-2 last weekend, but you have to put that in perspective. It was against a very good Annan side at that level. We go in off the back of a great win against one of the best teams in our league [2-1 at home to Spartans]. Queen’s will be used to be playing at a higher tempo, but my lads have been looking forward to this from the moment the draw was made and now they’ve got to go out there and believe they can do a job. Most importantly, I want them to savour the whole day.”
Bingham, now 43, played for eight clubs in a long career and was twice a Scottish Cup semi-finalist, the first coming in 2001 with Livingston. “John O’Neil killed that game in the first couple of minutes,” he recalls of the 3-0 defeat to Hibernian. “I got another chance in the twilight of my career with Inverness in 2004 when we went to a replay with Dunfermline – we probably should have won the first game at Hampden – then lost 3-2 at Pittodrie, so it wasn’t to be.”
If that was the “twilight” of Bingham’s career, there was to be a post-twilight phase as he left Inverness at the age of 34 to join the wild ride of the late Brooks Mileson’s ill-fated Gretna project. Bingham was a regular scorer as the Raydale Park side blasted their way up the divisions, but he missed out on the zenith of the Dumfriesshire minnows’ brief moment in the sun – the 2006 Scottish Cup final against Hearts. Bingham scored in the earlier rounds, including a 6-2 win at the team he now manages, but he was struck down by an illness that kept him out for a year and denied him a cup final appearance.
“I knew long in advance that I wouldn’t be playing in the semi-final or the final, so I had time to get used to the idea,” said Bingham, whose time at Gretna would come to a sour end with administration, liquidation and the bad taste of significant unpaid wages. A spell as player-manager at Tynecastle in the East of Scotland League and, since 2011, as manager at the Pennypit Stadium, has revitalised his love for the game, with today’s trip to Hampden the highlight since he hung up his boots.
The new Lowland League has provided another fresh challenge and one Bingham is relishing. “It’s mainly similar clubs, with a few new ones, but I think it’s great. This season there is not too much pressure [next season will see the winners play off with the Highland League winners for a place in the SPFL]. We’re viewing this as a development season, but it’s a fabulous incentive for the players.
“Instead of waiting around for reconstruction or a club going bust, there is now a route there to push for a place in the league. A pyramid system is long overdue and it would be great for the Edinburgh area if a Spartans, a Whitehill or ourselves could get into the league.”
Amongst his Lowland League rivals is a familiar club – that is to say familiar in name only – in the reformed Gretna 2008. “I’ve been down a few times with Tynecastle and with Preston,” said Bingham. “It’s the same park and a few familiar faces, but it’s totally different now. It’s great that they’ve got the club going again and we actually play down there next weekend. But that’s the future, Hampden is all I and the players are thinking about.”