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.

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