Highland unrest as Brora Rangers weigh up SPFL move

WHEN Brora Rangers are presented with the Highland League championship trophy against Keith this afternoon, it is reasonable to wonder whether the champagne will be flowing in traditional fashion.

Brora's Grant Munro holds off Clydes Stefan McCluskey in a 2013 Scottish Cup tie. Picture: SNS

After all, the fizzy stuff is usually associated with a celebration. From the tone of some of the sounds emanating from the Sutherland village of Brora this week, there is nothing to celebrate. It seems some involved with the club are viewing the prospect of playing in League 2 with some distaste. Twelve-hour round trips to play Berwick Rangers? Annan Athletic? And on a midweek night? No thank you.

Of course, there are miles to go before this scenario becomes a reality. Brora must defeat Edinburgh City in a two-legged so-called pyramid play-off, with the first game scheduled for three weeks today. Although the first leg is advertised as taking place at the home of the Highland League club, this is not yet confirmed.

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The draw is reported to be taking place live on Radio Scotland’s Sportsound programme on Wednesday evening. But, given Brora’s apparent reluctance to make the step up, does any of this even matter? Will the tie still be alive by the second-leg? Or will it be a case of “after you, Claude” from the Brora men, the words of their wealthy benefactor, who is already on record as saying it won’t be in the club’s best interests to go up, ringing in their ears?

Brora's Grant Munro holds off Clydes Stefan McCluskey in a 2013 Scottish Cup tie. Picture: SNS

Ben Mackay, CEO of oil and gas company Rae Energy, has accused Stewart Regan, the Scottish Football Association chief executive, of holding a gun to Highland League clubs’ heads two years ago if they failed to back the pyramid plan. Prior to this week’s venting of feelings by Brora, you would be forgiven for thinking the change to the league structure was a welcome innovation.

“Too late,” was Regan’s reply to the squeals from Brora, for whom sympathy is not guaranteed to spring forth from everyone. Those established top-level players attracted to sign for Brora by the promise of jobs in Mackay’s company are reluctant to go back to league football, where journeying back and forth to games becomes such an onerous chore again.

In midweek, Brora travelled what is still a fair distance to Nairn and whacked County 3-0, with all those goals coming from names that are recognisable from Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s SPL campaigns of recent times; Ross Tokely, Grant Munro and Zander Sutherland.

Perhaps it is little wonder they are currently 17 points clear of nearest challengers Turriff United. Although Regan was on hand to present the Lowland League trophy to champions Edinburgh City last month, he will not be present at Dudgeon Park this afternoon. On holiday, according to what Brora have heard.

Brora manager Davie Kirkwood. Picture: SNS

“I don’t think he is talking to us anyway, to be fair,” said John Young, the Brora chairman, who echoed many of Mackay’s views, if not quite too trenchantly. “It would be nice to see him. It is always nice to see dignitaries from the SFA but I believe he is away on holiday. I got a call from an irate John Grant, the Highland League secretary, on Thursday about what has been said. It has not gone down too well, as you can imagine.”

Young apologised if he said anything out of turn earlier this week. “But I don’t think I did,” he added. “I never said we would not be competing. All I said is that I had concerns, and they were genuine concerns.”

Young confirmed that the club have already started to investigate coach prices for trips to Berwick, for example: £1200. And that is going there and back in a day; overnight stops would be more expensive still.

“A lot of players don’t want to go up, obviously, because they have come into the Highland League to see out their careers,” Young said. “There is no doubt we will have some problems on that front and we will have to recruit. But we have to take it on the nose and get on with it.

The Highland League club may soon be a senior club themselves, meaning long trips for their fans. Picture: SNS

“I haven’t said anything out of place,” he continued. “Maybe we will have to work around them. It will be a great honour if we were the first team out of the Highland League to get into the SPFL, don’t get me wrong. But I have been a lot of years in the Highland League and have a lot of friends. We will miss these people if we have to move on.”

Should Brora emerge victorious against Edinburgh City, as Young stressed they will try to do, then another play-off with “Team 42” awaits. Right now, Team 42 is just another way of saying Montrose, the Angus club currently languishing in last place in League 2, 11 points behind nearest rivals Clyde. With five games left to play, Paul Hegarty’s side take on Queen’s Park this afternoon at Links Park.

Their fears are different to those occupying the minds of those in Brora. It is the prospect of playing in the Highland League that spooks them; regular journeys up long winding roads and the worry that, after being part of the senior set-up for so long, will they ever make it back?

So now the much-trumpeted change whereby the league is opened up is nearing gestation, is there some unease setting in? But then, for so long, many criticised Scottish football’s closed-door policy whereby clubs like East Stirlingshire hung around the basement, ambition dulled by inertia, with entry to a new member occurring once in a blue moon, either through reconstruction or a club going out of existence, such as Gretna.

Is it a case of being careful what you wish for? Brora would argue they never realised in their wildest dreams that when they voted yes to change nearly two years ago, they would be the first one to potentially “benefit” from it.

Only one out of 18 Highland League sides voted against the pyramid system. While the club’s name started with a B, it was not Brora. Rather, Buckie Thistle were the only ones who feared the ramifications, although there are now stories emerging of clubs being railroaded into voting in favour, with threats of withheld SFA payments and Scottish Cup exclusion.

“We did vote for it,” admitted Young. “There is no denying that. We never thought we’d be in a position to win the league at that time.

“That was two and a half years ago; we were whipping boys then,” he explained. “That was when we had just started to improve after money was invested. We have now won the league twice in succession so it is quite a turn-around after being whipping boys for the last 25 years.”

As for the champagne, will it still be flowing this afternoon, after the trophy is handed to them, not by Regan, but by a reporter from the Press & Journal, sponsors of the Highland League? “Oh aye, there’s still no doubt about that,” said Young. “There will still be a party, rest assured.”