From Michel Platini led applause to barbed tweets from East Stirlingshire – where’s the love for Brechin City gone?
David Will, the former FIFA vice-president, had died and the great and the good gathered in October 2009 to pay their respects in the cathedral that grants the city its status.
Former SFA secretary Ernie Walker, who delivered the second eulogy, invited everyone present, including French football legend Michel Platini, to give a round of applause to Will’s beloved Brechin City.
After turning to a fellow mourner in search of some clarification, Platini did as instructed and joined in enthusiastically.
He and hundreds of others applauded Brechin City. For all their recent bad publicity, Brechin were once a lot of people’s second team. Their ground, Glebe Park, was and remains a must-visit for groundhoppers in Britain and elsewhere.
There was homemade soup in the snacks hut and an equally warm greeting in the main stand, where the sign above a door relays a helpful “watch your heid” warning.
There’s the end of the ground known locally as the "Ghostie End" because it backs onto the cemetery. There’s the part played in developing a manager such as Stoke City's Michael O’Neill, who wonders whether his success with Northern Ireland might ever have happened if he hadn't been blooded at Brechin.
“It is a brilliant club, I loved it,” recalls O’Neill. “It was the best place for me. I remember driving up for the interview and I didn’t really think I would take the job if it was offered to me, then I met the people, felt the warmth of the place, and came away desperately wanting the job."
And there is, of course, the hedge that was imperilled in 2009, when there was talk of having to rip it out because the pitch had to be widened to fit UEFA regulations, as absurd as that seemed.
The wonderful feature remains in place, shortly to break into bud, and with its future secure due to a Heritage Protection Order. But not everyone is feeling as charmed as they once were by Brechin City. Few are now applauding the club, who appear to be going all out to obtain their own version of a protection order at the expense, many argue, of sporting integrity.
Languishing at the bottom of the fourth tier, although not quite so entrenched following Tuesday's 2-0 win over Cowdenbeath, Brechin’s crime is actively seeking to nix the League Two play-off when they - or possibly Cowdenbeath - are due to take on the winners of the Highland League/Lowland League play off (either Brora Rangers or Kelty Hearts).
Brechin claim with some justification that this is not a credible scenario in a pandemic-disrupted season. 'Champions' Brora, for example, have played only three times.
The thing is, Brechin made similar complaints last season. There’s now growing resentment that they are acting as a bulwark against one of the most popular innovations in Scottish football in years. Little Brechin have become big, bad Brechin, scourge of the upwardly mobile. No-one likes them, do they care?
Dean Walker cares. He will be at Glebe Park for tonight’s game against Annan Athletic, one of the, er, privileged few permitted to watch.
“We are doing car parking and we will go in and do some stewarding to help them,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it is a benefit because there’s nothing good to see!”
At 27, the chairman of the Supporters’ Club is too young to be burdened by all this talk of 'Club 42' - the term given to the club at the bottom of the SPFL pile - and threats of legal action.
He’s witnessed what an average football supporter does in a lifetime already, running a bus until a couple of years ago when it was cancelled because “the team kept losing, and we were down to 15-16 die-hards in a 49-seater”.
In the last decade alone, he has experienced Brechin reaching the Scottish Cup quarter-final, where they took Derek McInnes’ St Johnstone to a replay after a mud-splattered 2-2 draw at Glebe Park, celebrated surprise promotion via the play-offs – after finishing fourth – to the Championship in 2017 and watched in horror as Brechin then failed to win a game in the entire league campaign – the first side to endure such a fate since Vale of Leven in 1892.
They kept on sliding. Relegation from the Championship was swiftly followed by relegation to League Two, where they’ve become the new East Stirlingshire – and even East Stirlingshire have little sympathy, recently advising Brechin via a tweet to “dry your eyes”, before adding: “you are bottom for a reason”. What happened to ‘we’re all in this together?’
"I have friends who support the other Angus clubs, for example, and they are all saying: 'take your medicine'," says Walker.
"And you have to agree with them. We have been bottom of the league for two years in a row. We have to take it. The idea of going to court to save ourselves is an embarrassment, we just need to take the punishment.”
There’s a prevailing feeling in SPFL boardrooms that Brechin should suffer the consequences if they do in fact finish bottom. It is an SPFL board decision whether to sanction submitting a ‘Club 42’ to a play-off while any proposal involving league construction, however minor – Brechin have suggested beefing up League Two by creating, in the first instance, a 12-team division including both Brora Rangers and Kelty Hearts – requires over 75 per cent of all member clubs to vote in favour.
It is understood Brechin lost support with mention of then introducing colts teams in the aforementioned letter. This is a long-standing bugbear of clubs horrified at the thought of Rangers and Celtic youth sides being parachuted into the mix. “It doesn’t seem to be a flier,” said a source.
The SFA’s legal advice is understood to be that both the Highland and Lowland Leagues clubs have complied with the rules of their competition; the SPFL, meanwhile, is believed to be preparing to unleash contrary advice in a bid to scrap the League Two play-off for another year and preserve a member club. The SPFL’s feelings on the matter seem reflected in the absence of dates for both legs of the final in the list of key dates on their website. Did someone say, closed shop?
Brechin chairman Ken Ferguson, a good man, about whom no-one had a bad word to say until recently, is now portrayed as an ogre intent on crushing the principles of sporting merit. He is pilloried for being on the SPFL board when the ball got rolling to curtail last season and do away with play-offs.
Ferguson is still seen as part of the fixtures and fittings even though he resigned from the SPFL board earlier this month to distance himself from what promises to be another contentious summer of off-field drama, some of it possibly taking place in a courtroom once again.
In a letter to the SPFL board, also distributed around clubs, Brechin spelt out the consequences of the play-off being given the go-ahead – and if they are Club 42. “We would have no choice but to challenge the decision ourselves and would expect the full support of the SPFL Board through any required arbitration process,” the missive said. In other words, they want others to help pay for legal action too.
Then there’s the issue of where Brechin will play if the worst came to the worst and they lost a play-off. They would prefer the Lowland League but the current rules would mean being exiled to the Highland League. “There were some discussions last year about re-drawing the line geographically so they would go into the Lowland League to cut down on the travelling slightly,” reported one SPFL club chairman. “But right now, no-one is interested in helping Brechin.”
Famous hedge or not, Brechin have no divine right to stay in senior football. While they can still save themselves on the pitch they don’t want to take chances.
They are desperate to avoid risking oblivion by competing in a play-off against fresh-legged opposition who are motivated by a sense of grievance at being denied the chance last season.
Brechin signed nine players, including three on loan from Rangers, in January after funds were raised by fans selling old shirts, but their impact has been slow burning to the point of negligible until Tuesday, when Michael Paton’s team showed there’s life in them yet.
Seven points adrift of Cowdenbeath, they have three games left – one more than their ninth-placed rivals. Talk about cup finals.
Dumped into the Highland League, if that’s where they end up, a team relying on central belt recruits could find themselves having even more of a struggle to recruit players willing to trek to places like Wick and Fort William. Look what has happened to the profile of Berwick Rangers, cast out of the SPFL and into the Lowland League in 2019. Be honest, did you even know they were there?
It could mean the end for a club who were admitted to the Scottish League just short of 100 years ago. Brechin and Stranraer are the only two members’ clubs left in senior football.
This set-up makes it more difficult to enact change, which is one reason why inertia has set in. Even as recently as that surprise season in the second tier, to get a season ticket – required to be a member – you had to go up to the club shop. “There was no direct debit, no card machine - it was still a paper ticket,” says Darren Dods, who was manager then.
Even the very appeal of Brechin has begun to work against them, and make no mistake, they still do have appeal – there was an enhanced season ticket option of £150 this season, including a donation to the Motor Neurone Disease charity.
“Having a fan base where it’s one man, one vote, means there’s a lack of any urgency, no-one will ever stand for getting involved by putting money in knowing they could get out-voted by a lot of people who don’t understand how things work – well, that’s one view,” says one Brechin fan, who did not want to be named. “While the fan saying, ‘but I am a fan, I have the right to speak is another view,’ is absolutely right too of course. It’s an interesting moral argument, especially after the Super League was kicked out last week.”
The feeling is the Ken Ferguson era will be over soon. New directors have already been installed. A new broom seems set to sweep away the old, dead leaves.
There are those who believe great past club custodians, those such as David Will, are turning in their grave at the thought of Brechin moving towards incorporation – in simple terms, put on a firmer business footing – in order to help attract outside investment.
Others accept the urgent reality of the situation – if it’s not already too late.
“Speaking in a personal capacity, I am for it,” says Walker. “It’s the only way forward for us to get us out of this mess. We need investment and there’s nothing coming in. It’s the only way. If we do go into the Highland League, potential investors will think: Why am I putting money in here?”
The next few weeks are critical. The question of incorporation will be put to members at the end of May, not a moment too soon in the eyes of some. It’s reached the point where the player who scored the winning penalty against Alloa Athletic to take Brechin into the Championship has now expressed his regret for doing so, since it seems to have set them on this wretched course.
Prior to that season, Brechin had spent ten unspectacular seasons in the Second Division/League Two – even in the season they went up via the play-offs, overcoming Raith Rovers and then Alloa on penalties, they finished 12 points adrift of second place Alloa.
“I’d like to sincerely apologise to everyone because, in the end, perhaps scoring the penalty wasn’t the best thing for Brechin,” midfielder James Dale, now based in Iceland, told The Courier earlier this week.
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