ROSS Jack has mixed feelings about the punishment his club were handed after last week’s ticketing fiasco. Relieved that they were not docked points, which would have been unfair on his players, the Elgin City manager was still frustrated by the size of the £25,000 fine imposed by the Scottish Football League.
One thing Jack is clear about, after all the controversy, is the need to move on. Since it emerged that the Highland club had sold too many tickets for their league match against Rangers at Borough Briggs last Sunday, a mistake that led to the game’s postponement for safety reasons, Jack has had the devil’s own task to keep his players focused on the football.
And focused they must be if they are to have any chance in this afternoon’s Scottish Cup fourth-round tie against – you guessed it – Rangers. If a win, or even a draw, at Ibrox is too much to ask of Jack’s part-time players, a good, honest display would go some way to repairing the club’s battered image.
“Because of the magnitude of this game, nobody can afford to take their eye off the football for one second,” says Jack.
“All the negative and adverse publicity that’s out there, we need to turn that into positive publicity with our performance on the pitch. I’ve said to the players all week, ‘let’s make sure they’re talking in glowing terms about the playing side, about what we’ve done and how we’ve approached it’.”
If that happens, it will come as a relief to the club’s beleaguered board. One director was heard to describe last week’s debacle as the worst experience of his life. The overwhelming feeling in the town, and among supporters, is said to be one of embarrassment. And, as Robert Weir, the respected club historian and lifelong fan, points out, it is far from the first time that Elgin City have upset a governing body. “You name the football authority, and we have had a run-in with it,” he says.
This time, it was the SFL. In 2008, it was the SFA, who ordered Elgin to replay their Scottish Cup third-round tie against Spartans after it emerged that they had fielded an ineligible player. Having won the first game 2-1, Elgin lost the second and with it a chance to play Airdrie United in the next round.
In 1993 it was the Highland League who stripped Elgin of what they thought was their second championship in three years. Their crime was to bring forward their final match – in which they beat Forres Mechanics 6-0 – by 24 hours, a ploy that enabled them to field player-manager John Teasdale and John MacDonald, both of whom would have been suspended the following day.
It was a needless risk to take – Elgin could have put their ballboys out and still won – but the club remain sore about the punishment that followed. “They hadn’t broken any hard and fast written rules,” says Weir. “But some top brass in the Highland League reckoned they’d had the wool pulled over their eyes. One or two officials really stuck the knife in and the people of Elgin have never forgiven them for it.”
Weir says it cost Elgin dear. Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County were admitted to the SFL in 1994 but his club had to wait until 2000. While their Highland neighbours have since scaled the league ladder, five different managers have failed to find the consistency needed to lift Elgin from the Third Division. Only now, under Jack, pictured, are they making proper progress, rising to second in the table at a time when the division is attracting unprecedented publicity.
All of which makes last week’s embarrassment more galling for fans. Just as the club were preparing for the visit of Rangers, the biggest competitive match at Borough Briggs in several decades, they had to go and blow it. Again.
“The thing that’s most annoying the fans is we don’t really have a definitive answer as to what actually happened,” says Weir. “We know that an extra 1,500 tickets were printed and sold, but why? I’ve seen ups and downs with City, usually on a local scale, but for that to happen against one of the biggest clubs in the country. . . I was absolutely furious.”
It isn’t all bad, however. The match’s postponement spared Elgin the potential catastrophe of watching nearly 6,000 people head for the ground’s modest enclosure on what turned out to be a rainy afternoon. And now, against the same opponents, they have the chance to set about repairing the damage, morally and financially.
If Elgin make a decent fist of it this afternoon, it will maintain their proud tradition in the Scottish Cup. In 1968, they became – and still remain – the only Highland League club to have reached the quarter-finals. In 1960, they came within a whisker of eliminating Celtic, whose two late goals overturned Willie Grant’s opener. Those were the glory days at Borough Briggs, where crowds of up to 12,000 watched in wonder.
Anyone who knows his Grants from his Gilberts – and, indeed, the story of RC Hamilton, Scotland’s greatest striker prior to the First World War – will tell you that Jack’s players are not the most distinguished Elgin have ever had.
But they are higher on paper than their predecessors.
Without the resources available to some of their Highland rivals, Elgin have clawed their way up the division with a combination of passion and sheer hard work.
Despite the flak they have taken these last few days, they have given Jack nearly four years to turn the club around, and they have mucked in to help him at every opportunity.
“A lot of people have put in an almighty effort to help this club survive,” he says. “They’re not afraid to get the dungarees on and cut the grass. Those same people will be out there on a Saturday, welcoming teams with a collar and a blazer. They’ve just been outstanding.”
Players, too, have bought into the project. Craig Gunn, the freescoring striker from Wick, makes a 280-mile round trip to play for Elgin. John Gibson, a goalkeeper on loan from Dundee, is among those who see the Third Division as a platform, especially since Rangers’ arrival in the summer.
Jack, who was born and brought up on the Black Isle, is just proud that local lads now have an opportunity on their own doorstep to make a nationwide name for themselves. Today could be a chastening experience, like their 5-1 defeat at Ibrox in the league, but you never know.
“As a player, I was involved in Scottish Cup upsets, both for and against,” says Jack. “It does happen. Our hope is that we can get as close to them as possible and just hang in there. We’ll give it our best shot anyway.”