League incentive spicing up Lowland League race

Spartans manager Dougie Samuel believes his side can still overhaul Edinburgh City. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
Spartans manager Dougie Samuel believes his side can still overhaul Edinburgh City. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
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Hearts and Hibs are not the only Edinburgh sides involved in an SPFL promotion race this season as there is a battle for a place in senior football being played out between Lowland League champions Spartans and current league leaders Edinburgh City.

The league was established in the summer of 2013 to help the progression of clubs become more linear, and history will be made at the end of this campaign as Scottish football takes on more of a pyramid form.

This season’s Lowland League champions will meet their counterparts from the Highland League to determine who will then face the club finishing at the bottom of the SPFL for the right to be in the senior ranks come next season.

Spartans won the inaugural Lowland League and their manager Dougie Samuel reckons that raising the stakes has had an impact. “This second season definitely has a different feel to it,” he said. “Most clubs have invested heavily on and off the park and it is more competitive every week. The introduction of the play-offs has had a massive psychological impact.

“Last season was competitive but teams have recruited a better quality of player this season. The chance to be playing senior football in a year is a carrot for a lot of players and clubs can offer that now.

“Gretna, Broomhill Sports Club in Glasgow and East Kilbride have all got stronger squads as they are using their large catchment areas well.”

It is, however, Edinburgh City who have had the best start and that is no surprise to the Ainslie Park boss. He said: “They recruited well over the summer by bringing in ex-seniors as well as good players from the juniors and the East of Scotland League. They are a club that have been on a good journey for a number of years. The players that were brought in added to a good group already in place and I did tip them to do well after I saw them in pre-season friendlies.

“I really respect their management team of Gary Jardine and Ross MacNamara – we have a hard job on our hands to peg back their eight-point lead.

“They are still catchable even though they have a cushion. Some people have been saying that the league and play-off place is theirs to lose but it can be done. We are on an unbeaten run just now of six games and if we keep building on that we can get back into things.”

Samuel believes it has been that bit trickier for Spartans this season because they carry the status of champions. “We are a target as we are the league champions,” he said. “I used the motivation of beating the champions when we played Whitehill Welfare last year but we are also a target as we have been very successful club for the last decade.”

The legacy of six East of Scotland title wins since 2002 is still being felt, with Samuel explaining: “Spartans were a good club before then, but Mickey Lawson and Sam Lynch took them to another level. The academy was built during that time and we are also seen as drivers for change in the Scottish game and all that brings a high profile which adds pressure. If you play here you have to be able to handle that pressure.”

Samuel knows a bit about the senior game already. “I played for East Fife after leaving the Hibs youth set-up to join Hutchison Vale,” he recalls. “Dave Clarke was in charge for the season I was there. I then played Junior before joining Whitehill Welfare and I made it back to the senior game with Meadowbank and was at Livingston for the first year of the new club. It would be great for this Spartans squad to compete at that level. We have faced senior teams in the Scottish Cup regularly and it would be great to face them week in, week out.

“Everything off the park is in place and the final piece of one jigsaw will be getting into the SPFL. It would also be the first piece of a second jigsaw.”

Spartans have already started to build with a view to being ready in the eventuality that they make it into League Two. Samuel said: “We have tried to restructure the squad with the end goal in mind over the past three years. We have brought in players we hope have their best years ahead of them and we have a nucleus of players that we reckon can play at a higher level.

“We know that we would need to add if we were fortunate enough to go up and it could be a problem but it would be a fantastic problem to have. Everyone is dreaming of having that problem and of making history. Winning the Lowland League does not guarantee you anything but it does take you closer.”