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Saturday 12th March 2016 ko 17.00

Lowland League

THE SPARTANS 1 (Murray 90)


Att 435

Entry £5

Programme £2

Let me tell you a secret, when Chris Berezai a I do a groundhop presentation to a prospective league the explanation normally ends with the rhetorical question, “And let’s face it, there isn’t a non league club that wouldn’t welcome the financial boost a groundhop game gives, is there?” Well, I do wonder whether we did find that one club here…..

Timing in all things is important, and Edinburgh-based Spartans could have easily been a Scottish League club now. When bankrupt Gretna relinquished their league status in July 2008, they were replaced by Annan Athletic. With Spartans being well-backed, but based at the inadequate City Park, you can see why the SFL didn’t vote them in. However in November 2008 Spartans moved to Ainslie Park, which at a stroke gave them a stadium that could host football in the two bottom divisions of what is now the SPFL. You wonder if Gretna had managed to struggle on for another season, whether GroundhopUK would have been pairing up groundhop games at Gretna and Annan instead!

The fact of the matter is that The Spartans are a SPFL club in waiting, and following the theme of unfortunate timing, they won the inaugural Lowland League in 2014, which was the only season when promotion to the SPFL wasn’t available! And its that “League club in waiting,” status that seemed to impact on how they approached their groundhop game.

We give all clubs on our events a brochure of briefing notes on how to host a groundhop game. There’s plenty of advice, and a few hard-and-fast rules. Amongst those rules is the requirement that programmes for the prebooked ticket holders are delivered on the Thursday before the event to make up programme packs. On Thursday Spartans emailed us to state they’d be delivering their programmes on Saturday morning; useless for us, and with Chris already en route to East Kilbride, I contacted the club, and after a little to-ing and fro-ing the programmes were couriered over on Friday morning. Nothing lost or gained in that, but one thing did become clear.

Spartans had clearly decided that this game was going to be hosted in exactly the same way as any league game. Now in a sense that’s fine for us, the ticket-holders were admitted without let or hindrance, and there was no lack of teamsheets for those needing the team lines, but the club missed out on more than they probably imagined.

Save for the postponed fixture at Prestonpans, the biggest disappointment of this hop for me was the catering. I’d like to think that GroundhopUK has developed a reputation for interesting food on our hops; we take the view that if food is unusual, or of the region then people will eat even when not hungry. But with Whitehill’s offering being pies, Civil Service being pies, and Edinburgh City’s being pies, there was an obvious opportunity. So during the phone calls over the programmes I asked what food they were doing, and when they said “Oh the normal… pies,” I inwardly groaned.

Now on one level a club of Spartans’ stature can get away with doing their normal offering, plus extra but when I look at league-mates Threave and Selkirk, whose imaginative offerings made them a handsome profit, I wonder whether Spartans looked at those briefing notes, and if so decided they didn’t need the money? I suppose we’ll never know.

So we got to the game, there was nowhere set aside for the coaches (another hard-and-fast rule), so Carl and Phil our drivers dropped off, then parked up in Morrison’s and paid their cafe a visit and we were treated in exactly the same way as any League game. The crowd count was done by the club, and a well-known football magazine editor was turned away from the press area because “You’re not Press!” He had the good grace not to pull rank…. Still the game took place, everything that had to happen did, and Spartans won a dull game with a last minute thunderbolt from Keith Murray.

The final whistle blew, I found our coaches on the street outside, did the manifest and pondered what I could learn from the experience. On one level, the game went without a hitch, and after Preston Athletic that was a god-send, but I do think there’s a more general point to be made.

Groundhops are a compromise between the needs of the clubs, league and groundhoppers, but when the club is of a higher status than normal, the impact a hop game has on that club is reduced. Take 150 hoppers to the North Berkshire League and the impact is massive, so the clubs put in almost herculean efforts to host them. Put 200 on the gate at Spartans and the effect is diluted so you get what happened here. That of course, has a massive impact on which leagues should host groundhops, and how to deal with the various types of clubs that host games.

None of this should reflect badly on The Spartans, they are one of the great Scottish football club names, but our experience here was a real eye-opener, and one we will learn lessons from for the future.