Wednesday 12 January 2022

The Third Division Is No More! The Demise of Scottish League Football's Original Third Tier Which Folded After Less Than Three Full Seasons

“It’s time the third division of the league was dead. It does not deserve to be alive,” proclaimed the Sunday Post and within a month they would have their wish. 

Whilst third division football thrived after it was introduced south of the border in 1920, up in Scotland this was not the case. The Scottish League’s original third tier introduced three years after its English equivalent lasted only lasted three seasons before folding amid financial troubles amongst a large number of its clubs.

Discussed at the league’s AGM on 17 May 1923, the decision to introduce a third division to the Scottish Football League (SFL) was ratified at the end of the following month on 28 June. 15 new members were elected to the league and joined East Stirlingshire, last season’s bottom club in Division Two, to form the new Scottish League Division Three in the biggest expansion the league had ever seen.

Arthurlie, Beith, Brechin City, Clackmannan, Dumbarton Harp, Dykehead, Galston, Helensburgh, Mid-Annandale, Montrose, Nithsdale Wanderers, Peebles Rovers, Queen of the South, Royal Albert, and Solway Star. Some of them familiar names to the modern-day football fan, some of them anything but - these were the 15 new members of the SFL. The new clubs were given associate members status which gave them no voting rights but, nonetheless, they had all officially joined the Scottish Football League.

Arthurlie and East Stirlingshire gained promotion in the first season of the league meaning top scorers Queen of the South finished third and missed out. Vale of Leven and Lochelly United were relegated from Division Two. Leith Athletic would also join the SFL to take the league up to an uneven 17 teams for the 1924-25 season and the first in which the cracks started to appear. 

Whilst the 24-25 season started with 17 teams it ended with 16 as in February 1925 Dumbarton Harp resigned from the league, had their record expunged, and promptly disbanded. With a population of around 22,000 in the 1920s, not too dissimilar to the town’s population today, It is hard to believe that a town as small as Dumbarton could ever have hosted two league clubs but for the brief period that Harp spent in the league the town did just that. But whilst at the time Second Division Dumbarton FC were attracting crowds of up to 2,000+ Harp were more likely to attract just a couple of hundred to their home games. The problem for Harp, and what would become a common theme for many clubs in the division, was that their gate receipts did not cover increased running and travel costs with one home game netting them just £7 in revenue. This was a little over £450 in today’s money and less than the £15 match guarantee that league rules stipulated should be awarded to the away side. In short, they did not have enough supporters.

All parties concerned were keen for Harp to finish the season but financially it just wasn’t viable and the idea of the SFL subsiding their remaining fixtures, having been contemplated, was considered far too dangerous a precedent to set. 

It wasn’t just Harp who had been in financial trouble either with other clubs in similar situations having also considered resigning from the league but these clubs would survive for now at least. In the case of Montrose, a money-spinning cup tie at home to Glasgow Rangers helped keep them afloat.

Despite the troubles many clubs were facing, the 1925-26 season kicked off as usual. Nithsdale Wanderers and Queen of the South had been promoted at the end of the previous season with relegated Johnstone and Forfar Athletic replacing them. The financial woes of many did not get any better, however, and by the time winter set in they were getting worse. In January 1926 Galston became the second Third Division team to fold in less than two full seasons. Having, like many, coped perfectly well playing regional football the increased travel of a national division was too much for them. With the town of Galston having a population of just 5,000 in their case they could not draw large enough crowds to cover these extra financial costs of Third Division football - Like Dumbarton Harp, they did not have enough supporters and it was a similar story across much of the league.

Many clubs were still not getting anywhere near enough in gate receipts and Dykehead, for example, could only muster takings of £4 for one match against Montrose. In this instance when Dykehead could not pay their visitors the stipulated £15 share they were reported to the SFL who forced them to pay up. It was not only visiting clubs who had trouble getting paid, however, as the players were struggling too and a revolt over unpaid wages at Vale of Leven was amongst the many other financial issues affecting clubs. These issues of course included clubs not having enough money to cover travel costs which made several clubs, notably including Clackmannan and Beith, unable to fulfil certain fixtures in the latter part of that third season. Very quickly things would come to a head.

On 12 April The Scotsman reported that “The affairs of the Third Division of the League appear to be in a serious condition” and with the financial woes of many only getting worse, the chairman of Helensburgh called for an emergency meeting to discuss how the monetary situation could be resolved. When the meeting took place many suggestions were put forward but the most prominent as reported in the press was to merge the second and third divisions into one second tier split into two regional divisions in the same way that in England they had a Third Division North and a Third Division South.

Despite some positive suggestions, however, things still looked grim. “Third Division S.O.S” was a headline in the Sunday Post on 18 April whilst the following week they ran with the headline “Last Days of the Third Division” and in its pages seriously questioned if the division had a viable future. 

When several club representatives met representatives of the league in Glasgow later that month that future was still in doubt with the clubs reminded that the regional proposals mentioned earlier would need the support of the Second Division sides to go through. Assurances of promotion at the end of the season were also sought but could not be met. 

That latter issue above would soon be for many unsatisfactory resolved at the league’s AGM when it was agreed that there would be no relegation and promotion to and from the Third Division that season. With many fixtures still unfulfilled and full completion of the Third Division season increasingly unlikely it was, however, difficult to see how they could find a champion and runner up to promote anyway.

“In their great effort to gain promotion to the Second Division of the Scottish League, Leith Athletic are doomed to disappointment” duly reported the Brechin Advertiser at the beginning of May. With the above coming under the headline “Third Division to Go”, however, it was clear that not only could the current Third Division season not be finished, but the division also would not be able to restart next season either.

As it turned out, discussions at the AGM had gone beyond promotion and relegation and the whole future of the Third Division, or lack of, had actually been discussed and resolved too. This saw the Third Division completely disbanded with the clubs agreeing to join an expanded Scottish Alliance league complete with regionalised divisions to basically take the clubs back into non-league football.

There was one more issue to resolve, however. With no promotion or relegation, it was decided that the bottom two Second Division sides Bathgate and Broxburn United would have to apply for re-election to the league and four ex Third Division sides applied to take their places. In the most up to date league table, Helensburgh were sat atop the Third Division ahead of Leith Athletic in second but if the season had have been completed then third-placed Forfar Athletic would have been likely champions due to a large number of games in hand. This made Forfar more appealing in the re-election process. And so it was, with Bathgate successful in their re-election bid, Forfar, taking the place of Broxburn who would fold six years later, became the only Third Division team to keep their place in SFL for the following season, one which they still hold today.

That with little more than a whimper brought to an end Scottish League Division Three. A third tier would be revived for a short while after the war but this consisted mostly of the reserve sides of First Division clubs and a proper Third Division would not see the light of day again until 1975. That came about mainly due to the shrinking in size of the top two tiers of the SFL, however, rather than adding a load of new clubs. 

As for all the clubs that the old Third Division left behind, Brechin City, Leith Athletic, and Montrose would all be re-elected to the league within a few seasons but the rest would never return. Mid-Annandale, Peebles Rovers, Royal Albert, and Vale of Leven still exist outside the modern SPFL today but the rest are long gone. Leith only lasted as a league club until 1953 and folded two years later reforming in 1996. Brechin on the other hand hung about until just last year when they became the third team after East Stirlingshire and Berwick Rangers to be relegated via the new League Two promotion/relegation play-off system involving the winners of the Highland and Lowland Leagues that was introduced in 2015. Montrose are still in the SPFL having never left.

Finally, of the original 15 clubs who in 1923 joined the SFL and the new third tier that just leaves the fate of the three sides who along with existing members East Stirlingshire gained promotion from the division in its two fully completed seasons. Nithsdale Wanderers failed in a 1927 re-election attempt but lasted outside the league until eventually folding in 1964. 37 years later, however, the club actually reformed. Arthurlie resigned from the SFL in 1929 but continue to this day outside of it, whilst Queen of the South remain a league club to this day and currently play in the second tier Scottish Championship. 

Saturday 1 January 2022

In Focus: Cove Rangers FC

It is certainly not uncommon in English football. Unfashionable non-league club, often with a new owner and a bit of money, rise to make it to the Football League and then truly establish themselves with a further promotion or two. But what about in Scotland? With a true pyramid structure in its infancy, this kind of thing has never really been common north of the border. Gretna FC were one of the few examples of this but they are hardly role models. Gretna fell far more quickly than they rose and a reformed Gretna 2008 currently play in the fifth tier Lowland League having seen their predecessors make it all the way to the Premiership. Could this all be changing, however?

Introduced in 2015, a new play-off structure to get into the Scottish football league (SPFL) has seen three teams in recent years make the step up and thrive. Also, with a full pyramid structure starting to be introduced for junior (non-league) clubs many more could follow. Of those aforementioned three, Kelty Hearts are seven points clear at the top of League Two with a game in hand in their first-ever season of league football whilst Cove Rangers were promoted out of League Two at the first attempt and midway through their second League One campaign are five points clear at the top themselves. Only Edinburgh City have failed to make a major impression having found themselves stranded in League Two despite being the first of the three to make the step up.

Cove’s rise to the second tier of Scottish football, if indeed it does happen, will come in part thanks to the long term backing of local company Balmoral Group who lend their name to the club’s new stadium opened in 2018. Albeit far from majority shareholders, the group have invested heavily in the club through sponsorship and the like as alluded to by one group of locals I spoke to on a recent visit.

Before I continue, I must confess that my recent trip to see Cove Rangers was not actually intended and came thanks to new COVID restrictions denying me entry to nearby Pittodrie home of Premiership side Aberdeen. Spending Christmas in North East Scotland with family gave me the chance to visit a new football ground but when Nicola Sturgeon introduced a 500 spectator limit my plans to visit Pittodrie had to be shelved. Cove Rangers had been my alternative, however, and with their previous match attracting only 585 attendees as long as I purchased a ticket in advance before they sold out I could get my football dose after all. Cove Rangers and the Balmoral Stadium it was then!

Based on the edge of the Cove Bay area just south of central Aberdeen, the Balmoral Stadium sits in the middle of a business park/industrial estate with, unfortunately, little in the way of match day entertainment in the vicinity. The stadium can be reached via the number 3 bus from Aberdeen city centre in about 15 minutes, however, and the city centre has all the pre match amenities a football fan could want. Opened in 2018 it has a modern looking main stand that seats 312 spectators. As a whole, the ground is perhaps basic but, nonetheless, more than functional. Opposite the main stand is a basic 50 seat grandstand, the sort of which you will find in non-league grounds all across Britain with two same size stands of the terraced variety on either side of it. I’d suggest the stadium may well be suitable for Championship football but should they ever reach the Premiership I’d hazard a guess it would not make the grade. Two all-seater stands behind each goal would no doubt do the trick, though, and in the process give it a similar feel to the Caledonian Stadium in Inverness. Perhaps we should not get ahead of ourselves, however. For anyone keen to visit it’s worth adding that a food van near the entrance and truck selling club merchandise next to it complete the ground and being in Scotland some of the culinary choices are a little interesting. Catering options include a macaroni pie which may seem rather strange to someone from south of the border like me but only until you remember that this is the same country that brought you the deep fried mars bar. Once you consider that then a scotch pie with macaroni cheese in the middle does not seem so weird after all.

Seven times champions of the Highland League, which they joined in 1986 after many years of local amateur football, Cove won the league three times in the four seasons that immediately preceded their promotion to the SPFL in 2019. Of course, with that further promotion since and a second looking a real possibility, that pedigree has stood them well in the two and half seasons since. 

Overseeing Cove’s SPFL adventure has been manager Paul Hartley who joined in the summer of 2019 - an appointment that some might have seen as a bit of a coup for the club. After all, Hartley was capped 25 times by Scotland as a player and had previously managed in the Premiership with Dundee. With a squad that includes several players who have top flight experience, Cove play an attacking brand of football that has seen them score 41 goals in 19 league games this season. That is a tally bettered in the SPFL only by Glasgow Rangers who’s two extra goals come having played one game more. Aside from their excellent league form they also started their Scottish Cup campaign with an excellent result against Championship side Queen of the South and now have an away tie against Premiership side Hibernian to look forward to. A well deserved 2-2 draw at home to Queen of the South saw the Dumfries based side stunned in the replay as Cove came away with a fantastic 3-0 win.

That excellent goals tally in the league includes four in their last outing the one in which I was present. After a first half in which Cove failed to find the breakthrough against bottom side East Fife, it did not take long for them to find the lead in the second period and by the 65th minute, they were 3-0 up. The pick of those goals was the third which was a curling effort from Blair Yule who ended up being the sponsors’ man of the match. East FIfe before long pulled a goal back only for Cove to make it 4-1. In stoppage time East Fife grabbed a second with a strike that their Twitter account compared to a rather famous Marco Van Basten volley you have most probably seen replayed a few times over the years! Stunning volley’s from the opposition aside, Cove were good value for their win, though, having controlled much of the game.

With that five point lead at the top of the table Cove will no doubt be favourites to win the league and gain promotion and should they do so I have no doubt they can hold their own in the Championship. A further promotion again, however, would need lots more hard work and investment, but why not? We shall have to wait and see just how far this Cove Rangers side can go.