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Tuesday 10th August 2021 ko 19.45

Scottish Challenge Cup 1st Round


ABERDEEN “B” 1 (Ruth 70)

Yeats sent off (dangerous play) 63

Hanratty penalty saved 75

Att c70 at Dudgeon Park

Entry & Teamsheet £10

On occasion I take the bus into Oxford, and in the High Street, close to the Rhodes statue at Oriel College is a little shop called “Brora.” It specialises in knitwear, and by that I mean the sort of thing that attracts the kind of person that would spend £300 on a jumper. I’ve looked at the place a few times, but there does seem to be a slight issue with their marketing.

Its this, I’ve been through the Sutherland village of Brora on the A9 a few times, most notably on my three attempts to see a game at Wick Academy and this isn’t an area of niche knitwear, far from it. At various times it’s had a coal mine, had boat building, fish curing, and stone from the local quarry was used to build London Bridge, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and Dunrobin Castle. You may be a hour’s drive north of Inverness and the tracks of the Far North Line, may only be singled here, but this is a place of industry. 

Robyn and I had targeted Brora Rangers from the outset. I’d wanted to show her John O’Groats and Dunnet Head but also wanted to add in Dunrobin Castle, and Ebenezer Place (the world’s shortest street- in Wick). That added up to a “North of Scotland” day with a trip to Dudgeon Park on the way back to Inverness. With the benefit of hindsight though I do wonder whether we’d caught Brora at the wrong time.

For a start the competition was odd. The Challenge Cup, called the SPFL Trust Cup for this season is, in essence the Scottish version of the EFL Trophy. It’s for all Scottish League clubs outwith the Premier Division, but in recent years has included clubs from the English National League, the Cymru Premier, the Irish Premier and the Eircom Leagues. This season the format includes 4 teams each from the Highland and Lowland Leagues, and the U21 sides from each of the Scottish Premiership clubs. In short, we’d be watching two sides, neither of which play in the competition’s core league!

Then there was the previous Saturday; we’d seen Brora lose at Fraserburgh and the aftermath had seen manager Steven Mackay resign. It was clear that there was a sense of unease about the club which was at variance with everything I’d been led to believe about them. The fact is Brora are well-resourced and also are the club to beat if you want to win the Highland League. Their location is going to be an issue if they were to go into the Scottish League- a trip to Stranraer involves a 6 hour drive, roughly half-an-hour longer than from Elgin City. While their playing strength now suggests they’d make a success of it, the logistics do look difficult.

I had a little soul-searching to do as well. I hate the EFL Trophy’s inclusion of Premier League “B” teams on the basis that I don’t want to see my club, Oxford United, have to play another team’s reserves, and I don’t want to see those “B” teams enter the EFL by the back door. You could argue that the process has already been started in Scotland with both Celtic  and Rangers entering U21 sides in this season’s Lowland League, apparently as a one-off and all top-flight clubs entering youth teams in their version of the EFL Trophy, the Challenge Cup. 

It would have been entirely logical for us to have boycotted this game and there were no lack of alternative games in the North Region Juniors. The issue was that all of those games kicked off at 19:00 and were towards the Aberdeen area. There was no way to fit any of them in to our north of Scotland day, so I bit the bullet. 

The first issue we had was more prosaic. We knew that there would be no refreshments on sale at the ground, due to Covid restrictions and I assume that this was due to location, the pie stall at Fraserburgh had been open. To give you an idea of the size of Brora we could find only two restaurants available for us to have a meal before the game, and one “Sid’s Tandoori” was closed due to Covid. Fortunately both the food and service at the Sutherland Arms was excellent and I’m pleased to see they sponsor Brora Rangers too!

We’d opted to buy our tickets via the Scottish Fanbase App. It’s a handy way of avoiding the queues, and is a convenient way of guaranteeing entry when capacities have been limited. For the club it avoids cash handling which is both an expensive and the Covid issue is still a live one too.  You get a QR code to show at the gate and it also links in to the club’s Twitter account too. 

We arrived to find one side of the ground closed off, including the main stand out of bounds to spectators due to the area being used as a Covid “Red Zone” I assume the players were using the stand to change in. Please don’t see this as anything like a criticism of Brora Rangers, they are operating under regulations that they didn’t codify.

But a more obvious memory was how quiet it seemed. The lack of crowd was part of it I’m sure, clearly watching a Premier Division’s youth team is no more of a draw than it is in England. I hope whatever the Premier Division clubs are contributing as payment for their participation is deemed worth it.

We saw a perfectly good game of football, and the sunset was spectacular.  I was a little surprised that Brora didn’t try to tee up Dale Gillespie for a repeat of the thunderbolt he’d scored on the Saturday but that was part the start of a new regime at Dudgeon Park. Brora played a full-strength team and they were a very good match-up with Aberdeen’s youngsters. On another day, I’m sure Brora would have won this one, they certainly had the chances to do so. But with that sense of unease chances went begging or were missed. You could see what was going to happen…

Aberdeen lost Finn Yeats; red-carded, perhaps a little harshly, for a poor challenge, but Michael Ruth’s turn and shot was clinical and Kevin Hanratty saw his penalty well saved by Joe Malin in the home goal. As I said it was far from being a bad game, but I saw the issue as I stood with the home fans as their team strived for a late equaliser. They did their best to get behind their team, but fundamentally the game didn’t matter, this was a game being played in a League’s competition that neither side play in and it did show. 

I’m sure Brora will have another successful season, and I’m sure Aberdeen’s B team will no doubt enjoy a home fixture (probably played at Cove) against Arbroath in front of a crowd of dozens. In the end Robyn and I headed back to Inverness chasing what little light there was left, but there was little doubt that we’d probably visited Brora for the wrong game at the wrong time. Please don’t see this as my Mea Culpa or any slight on Brora Rangers; everyone we spoke to was lovely there, and the ground is well worth a visit. It was that the game felt manifestly unimportant.