Cowdenbeath back in the last-chance saloon - how Maurice Ross plans to escape the SPFL trap door

When Cowdenbeath hosted Rangers in the Scottish Cup in January 2019, Steven Gerrard, the then Ibrox manager, noted with some amusement that he had heard more about Central Park in the run up to the fixture than when he played for Liverpool in the Nou Camp for the first time.

It underlined the place in Scottish football culture occupied by Cowdenbeath’s slightly ramshackle but much-loved ground. It also helps explain why so many are interested in the Blue Brazil’s enduring struggle to preserve their league status.

Maurice Ross contemplates this as he tackles a prawn and avocado salad in a restaurant in Glasgow’s west end. He is as lean as when he played but the trim figure is more to do with 6kms a day on the running machine and watching what he eats rather than anxiety. Despite the imminent two-legged play-off against Lowland League champions Bonnyrigg Rose, where his club’s Scottish league status is again under threat, the Cowdenbeath manager is remaining remarkably calm.

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He is not trying to play down the significance of the tie. Nor is he underestimating the challenge ahead. He has been to see the opposition four times ahead of tomorrow’s first leg at New Dundas Park, which will almost certainly be sold out. Cowdenbeath are in a(nother) fight for survival. Tradition only gets you so far. Ross knows what’s at stake.

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It’s already been established that there is life in the SPFL beyond a hedge. Likewise, there will be life beyond the monster truck tyres that form a barrier between the pitch at Central Park and the stock car racing track.

“The game is quick at forgetting you,” says Ross. “I would still deem Brechin City to be a very traditional club, but you are not hearing anyone talking about Brechin City at the minute. It would be arrogant for us to suggest the Scottish game needs Cowdenbeath. It is nice to have these traditional clubs that have been a part of the Scottish senior set up for over 100 years, but it does not mean anything.”

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He doesn’t quite say it but then he doesn’t have to. You know what he means. You must earn the right.

Ross grew up in the Ardler housing estate in Dundee. He has a keen sense of the importance of community and knows the part Cowdenbeath play in their own local area. Critics might contend that they already operate in a twilight zone and if they slipped into the Lowland League then it would be no great loss.

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Central Park, home of Cowdenbeath, where monster truck tyres separate the football pitch from the stock car racing track.

They played in the Championship as recently as 2015 though that high point tends to be remembered for the 10-0 loss suffered against Hearts at Tynecastle.

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Things have been on the slide pretty much ever since. This will be their third visit to the last-chance saloon. They beat East Kilbride on penalties in 2017 and then won against Cove Rangers the following year amid explosive scenes at Central Park when the visitors finished with eight men. Some relief was sourced in the shape of Brechin City last year, whose toils meant Cowdenbeath - who finished 11 points above the Angus side in second bottom place - were spared what had started to become an annual test of nerve.

Ross has chosen to meet near where the recently rechristened Open Goal Broomhill FC originated. Scottish football is still digesting the news Simon Ferry has been appointed manager of the Lowland League club as part of a commercial deal between the club and the podcast founded by the enterprising midfielder. “For Si, I think it is good for him to go and cut his teeth at a lower level,” says Ross with reference to his fellow Dundonian. “He is passionate about football. It’s his life. It puts Broomhill on the map. But it’s what he does from here that counts. I wish him all the best. I have a lot of time for Si.”

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He doesn’t, though, wish to see him in the opposite dugout anytime soon – Ross has been assured he will be kept on next season whatever happens. Cowdenbeath might be regarded as the antidote for those who are already turning up their nose at the gimmicky initiative at Broomhill. The club gave Craig Levein a start as both a player and manager. Craig Gordon, the newly named Scottish Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year, played a dozen league games on loan there early in his career. Not many clubs are the subject of an award-winning book. An audio play was also broadcast last year based on “Black Diamonds and the Blue Brazil”, which was written by the Rev. Ron Ferguson and first published in 1993.

Cowdenbeath chairman Donald Findlay - "he is charismatic but measured" (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)
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There is some evidence of a timely upswing in fortunes, helped by the impact made by loan striker Sammy Ompreon, who joined from Falkirk in February. Cowdenbeath have lost just one of their last seven matches. Ross, who took over in November, is enjoying seeing the fruits of his labours. He might be portrayed as the antithesis of Dick Campbell, the celebrated veteran Arbroath manager. Only 41, Ross says he prefers to "coach footballers’ brains rather than their touch". He splits a pitch into 18 zones, stressing the importance of the central areas. He admits the players “took the piss out of me for the first month” but they can now see the evidence for themselves.

“My job is to keep them in the league,” says Ross. “It is a perilous situation. But that is why I am here. These games mirror being in a cup final. It will have that same elation if you win. There are only so many times you get that as a player. I am trying to use that psychology on the players. Celebrate it. Embrace the challenge.”

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He is accentuating the positives, as strange as that might seem for a side that finished eight points clear of safety and are facing the possibility of ‘doing a Brechin City’ – or, indeed, a Berwick Rangers or East Stirlingshire, other clubs who have dropped through the trap door.

Big changes are afoot at Cowdenbeath. “Ahead of next season it will all get ripped up,” says Ross. He believes the team, if they prevail, can finish in the top six in League Two and even challenge for a play-off spot. He is planning to up training from two nights to three. But he recognises the limitations. It’s a world away from his playing career, which was spent largely at the top end of the game, principally at Rangers. He also won 13 Scotland caps.

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Cowdenbeath manager Maurice Ross (left) and SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell watch the League Two promotion playoff match between Bonnyrigg Rose and Fraserburgh at New Dundas Park. (Photo by Bruce White / SNS Group)

“We are in a mining town, as working class as it comes,” he says. “We need to embody that. I never spoke to the chairman about money. I said, if you want me to run your football club, I will run your football club. Let’s get it done. It’s not because I am that well paid. I’m not. I’m in line with the players.”

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Right on cue, David R Findlay, his chairman, rings. “He is charismatic but measured,” says Ross, with reference to someone whose reign at Central Park has stretched to nearly twelve years and means it’s probably time to ditch the urge to define him by his chapter at Rangers, where he was vice-chairman. “He is an emotional chairman," says Ross. "He loves his football club like you would not believe. He is there every game. Stranraer away, Elgin away, which I admire. He cares. But I have full autonomy.”

Findlay has phoned to relay a message from a sponsor who wishes to finance a pre-match meal en route to Bonnyrigg. Ross is clear in his own head about what he wants. He politely declines the opportunity and explains that the players already have their own commitments in the morning. He does not want to disrupt family arrangements. He does, though, readily accept the offer of a team bus to the game.

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Never mind injury-time Champions League semi-final comebacks, this is football at the sharp end. There will be many praying Cowdenbeath’s Scottish league story has some mileage in it yet.

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