From Despair To Where: Dispatches From Sutherland

The drive to Dudgeon Park is a peaceful one. With little traffic in the vicinity, it is easy to relax and enjoy the surroundings: a seal colony, oyster catcher nests and, if you’re lucky, dolphin feeding waters can all be spotted from the car window while driving along the impressively flat stretch of the A9 before entering the county of Sutherland. There, the undulating hills envelope farmland and complement an unrivalled view of the North Sea. An hour’s drive north from Dingwall – the nearest town to host professional football matches – Brora is undeniably an adventure for supporters better acquainted with the central belt. That said, the distance to which from, say, Stenhousemuir, is only 60 per cent the length of a journey between clubs in England’s fourth tier.

The beginning of this season saw reason to make the travel north, with Brora Rangers invited to compete in the Petrofac Training Cup along with Spartans. Last season’s Highland League champions won their first league title at a canter, with their side containing a mix of regional veterans of the Premiership slipping into semi-retirement beside younger talents who might not necessarily wish to move away from the area due to job security or other reasons. The top end of the Highland League is competitive and contains a wealth of quality that would seem to rival the SPFL’s League 2, but the depth of the endowment tails off quickly and so skews any superficial comparison between the divisions. The Challenge Cup, however, was the perfect opportunity to test their credentials.

Brora’s opponents, Stenhousemuir, made the fascinating subject. The Warriors recently took on Highland opponents, making difficult work of an eventual 3-0 win over Fraserburgh in the Scottish Cup last year in Martyn Corrigan’s final months. Since then, current manager Scott Booth has renovated the team with fresh furnishings in an attempt to better last term’s fifth place finish. As a habitually mid-table League 1 side, Stenhousemuir ought to have been worthy rivals.

The general styles of play of the two teams varied, which brought another intriguing angle to the match

The general styles of play of the two teams varied, which brought another intriguing angle to the match. On one hand, Stenhousemuir, with their manager tanned, toned and always attentive to the minutiae of his system’s mechanics, were a side who attempted to puncture their opponents with a mix in tempo: a slow, slow build up from the back to a quick release of the attacking midfielders into vacant space. On the other hand, Brora Rangers were embodied by their manager Davie Kirkwood, a pillar of strength and experience inevitably softened by time but whose side gave everything to maintaining a relentless pace in their first competitive match of the season.

On a dry, bouncing pitch, Brora simply would not let Stenhousemuir settle. The visitors’ central midfielders Bryan Hodge and Kris Faulds could not get a foothold in the match and their team were enticed into playing direct football against experts of the style. With both Faulds and centre-back Ross McMillan each caught in possession in trying to measure a move within 25 yards of their own goal in the game’s opening spell, and newly recruited loanee goalkeeper Jack Hamilton thereafter reluctant to distribute the ball to his defenders, the tone was set for Brora to continue to press forward: to try to create chances from loose balls or passes played behind their opponent’s defence and to put them off their rhythm.

The tactic worked in the first half. Stenhousemuir could only produce sporadic moments of possession, with their best opportunity to score coming from Josh Watt skipping beyond a challenge on the halfway line before bursting into space and playing a through ball for Martin Grehan – just as the newly recruited striker was about to score, Ross Tokely slid in to win the ball. Watt looked to be Booth’s main source of creativity, but couldn’t exert any authority until much later in the match due to being thwarted by Tokely’s canny experience and sheer strength.

Booth’s problem was that his side did not contain any distinguishable pace in its attacking areas. Brora’s defence comprised a collection of 6ft plus players, two of which would have a combined age approaching 70, but they could play a high line against Grehan and Sean Dickson behind him, who never attempted to make the piercing run beyond the striker that was required. Instead, Brora could mop up any danger close to the halfway line and look for a release to any of Andrew Greig, Sid Mackay or Zander Sutherland. For the majority of the half, it was as if Stenny could only parry away the chokehold without being able to land a countering move. Brora’s chief goal-scorer Sutherland broke the deadlock directly from an inswinging corner kick and they possibly could have been further ahead from numerous other snatched half-chances.

However, Booth appeared more convinced than ever that his methodical approach could work. He insisted on Hamilton passing the ball short to McMillan and centre-back partner Alan Lithgow, who split the width of the penalty box to begin the patient build up. Mackay and Sutherland would have seen this as little needed reason to stimulate a press yet higher up the pitch and the Warriors suffered some awkward moments at the beginning of the second half.

Yet, to an extent, Booth’s plan worked. With Brora’s midfield pushing up to support the forwards when hounding the ball back, it created space for Stenny’s trio of midfielders deployed behind Grehan in the 4-2-3-1 formation. It was a chipped ball into space from deep midfield that brought a throw-in from which a couple of clumsy Brora challenges on the edge of the box gave the visitors a penalty; Grehan couldn’t miss.

Stenhousemuir were back in the tie but never truly put Brora on the back foot. As the second half wore on, it was the Highland League team who exerted more pressure on the League 1 side, despite Brora’s back four tiring. With space opening up in the middle of the park, Faulds and Hodge could spray more passes but so too could Gavin Morrison, with the former Inverness Caledonian Thistle midfielder showing an enviable range of distribution. Indeed, from the equaliser until the end of extra-time, the Warriors could not create any other clear-cut opportunities, even once Sutherland scored his second and third goals and his team were in a position to invite pressure.

The performance and result are not wholly indicative of each side’s prospects for this season and beyond. To a large extent, Stenhousemuir were the perfect team for Brora Rangers to face, to allow them to press high against with little to no danger of being punished for a high defensive line. Things could have been different had Stenny retained a player like Errol Douglas from last season, who despite his limitations was at his best when bearing down on goal at an angle after beating the offside trap.

Ross Tokely and Grant Munro carry the Highlanders’ stereotype of relishing a direct, physical battle

Indeed, last year’s Scottish Cup showed that Brora could not cope with the pace and mobility provided by Clyde’s forward line. Players like Tokely and Grant Munro carry the Highlanders’ stereotype of relishing a direct, physical battle and of playing long balls, but in their advancing years and expanding girth are increasingly susceptible to passes played behind them. Their vast experience of playing in the top flight – and, for Tokely, every division in between – is invaluable to Kirkwood’s team but those players in particular will continue to define the side by their strengths and weaknesses for as long as they play.

It will not be often that Brora face a team focused so much on penetrating width as Jim Duffy’s Clyde, however, and there is no reason to doubt that, if they were to be catapulted into League 2 for the beginning of this season for any reason, they could avoid the same trapdoor that could so plausibly allow them to enter the SPFL next term. With the financial backing of the main sponsor Ben MacKay able to lure talent outwith the reach of the club’s natural resources, there is little reason to believe that Brora couldn’t consolidate in League 2 over time. Even if MacKay fancies dominating the Highland League for years to come, in essence, Brora appear to be only a floodlights upgrade away from qualifying for competing in the play-offs for promotion to the SPFL.

For Stenhousemuir, things can only get better and Booth probably did the correct thing in picking a reasonably strong XI for a 6-0 thrashing against a fringe Stirling Albion side in the Stirlingshire Cup during the week. There is much room for improvement and the manager might have to compromise on some of his principles and style of play if he is to at least maintain the club’s recent mid-table finishes. In either event, it seems unlikely that they will have to suffer another journey again this season as long and arduous as the trip back down the A9 last Saturday night.

John A Maxwell

John A Maxwell

John is a Ross County supporter whose care for the lower leagues is just as thoroughgoing as when Billy Ferries tore down the wing. His footballing favourites include Fernando Redondo, Gordon Connelly and André Hainault.

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