It’s been the most bizarre summer in Scottish football that anyone can remember. Since the introduction of the disastrous (by any measure) SPL in 1998, the game may have steadily become more commercialised, but it’s never been clear that the world of commerce has ever been particularly interested in Scottish football beyond the caprices of the ugly sisters and whomsoever they happen to be playing on any given weekend. Well, as we all know, one of the ugly sisters has now been banished from the mansion on the hill we’ve been staring up at for all our football supporting lives. They will have to negotiate a tricky and difficult path back towards their former exalted status. It is far from certain that they will even begin this journey, let alone finish it.
The presence of whatever Sevco 5088/Sevco Scotland/The Rangers FC in Division Three has been rubber stamped by the members of the Scottish Football League and in doing so, the combined strength of the 30 chairmen faced down the crude blackmail of the SFA and SPL, and the truly risible doom-mongering from the likes of James Traynor in the daily redtops – SCOTLAND WILL CEASE TO EXIST IN ITS PRESENT FROM IF THE RANGERS ARE NOT IMMEDIATELY RE-ADMITTED TO SFL1, etc. Suffice it to say that if Armageddon was meant to come about with the new Ibrox club being dropped into the lowest league tier, Scotland is coping with it pretty well so far.
But away from all the hyper-ventilations of the likes of Traynor, Burley and Young, the grim dungeon of the Third Division will find itself subject to unprecedented attention and coverage in the coming season. Fans on sparsely populated Third Division terraces have long since abandoned the print media as their source of choice for news, depending instead on internet message boards and dedicated fan sites. It will take a good deal of getting used to the media scrutiny of our league again, a scrutiny probably not enjoyed since the days of the old Second Division of 14 teams.
The received wisdom is that Rangers will simply streak through the league like a naked man on amphetamines evading a waddling steward in an orange vest – this is wholly uncertain. Rangers are in a worse state now than Livingston were when they were bumped into the basement in 2009-10 after nearly dying of a virulent strain of Massone-itis.
Livingston had two factors critical to their survival and speedy return to the First Division within two years: the fanatical support of a local council in a town largely indifferent to the comings and goings at Almondvale; and a very experienced and well connected new chairman in Gordon MacDougall. They also had a squad with First Division quality at its core, and an ambitious young management team.
Rangers, however, have none of the above. They are a pariah, presently, in political terms. Negotiations for the granting of an SFA licence to the “NewCo” are still ongoing and the issue of the punishments meted out to the now dead club, founded in 1872, and the clearing of that club’s historical football debt may yet sink their aspirations to travel to the Shire in the coming season.
This is before we factor in the rather cloudy motivations of Charles Green and his mysterious “investors”, the new chairman also called Murray (whom no one has ever heard of) and the presence of sufficient funding to enable them to guarantee to see through the coming season, let alone the burlesque durational performance piece from “Bomber” Brown, nose pressed to the glass of Ibrox’s main door, attempting to fashion a somewhat unlikely takeover.
On the pitch, Rangers have ten first teamers and falling and an unquantified number of youth players. Their pre-season – barring one closed door friendly with Airdrie – has been an utter shambles – a welter of cancelled games, unanswered questions and the increasingly popular Who Is Coming to Training Today? parlour game at no-longer-Murray Park.
Given the cumbersome drivel above, only a fool would predict how Rangers will fare this season in the basement. Even with a team based around Lee McCulloch, they may well struggle in the first part of the season as they adjust to surroundings they never thought they would see after the early rounds of the cup, and playing against groups of guys who thought that they would only ever see Rangers on TV. Once Rangers’ presence is confirmed, Ally McCoist – whose knowledge of the Third Division would comfortably be written on a postage stamp – has to start signing players used to this level and with some experience of the lower leagues.
It would be a tall order even with a whole summer to arrange this, but with less than six days to go until Newco’s first match against Brechin City at Glebe Park – and with the matter of the year-long transfer ban still unresolved – this could be a much longer season than many Rangers fans and neutrals imagine. The Third Division may well be the poorest senior league in the UK (having inherited that unwanted mantle from the League of Wales some years ago) but a club still needs a coherent player pool, a steady training regime and an off-pitch infrastructure to cope. Rangers currently have none of these things.
So what of the nine diddies who will spend the season squinting like moles in the media’s Xenon headlights? The vortex of downward motion caused by Rangers’ First Division parachute failing to open has propelled playoff losers Stranraer upstairs to Division Two, removing a key contender for this league’s title. That leaves the free-spending Fishy Jailers of Peterhead and the Spiders of Mount Florida as the early favourites.
Peterhead have added to what was an already strong squad over the summer, kept a hold of the brooding plumber-cum-striker Rory McAllister and on paper at least, and have all the attributes to have a successful season. Manager Jim McInally has doused the flaming wreckage left behind by previous incumbent John Sheran and repaired a team who found it impossible to recover from a dreadful start to 2011-12. Perenially the bridesmaid in play-offs, McInally will be determined to showcase his managerial abilities successfully at Balmoor in the coming season.
It has been widely acknowledged in the last couple of seasons that Queen’s Park are the best footballing side in the division. Ricky Little, Richard Sinclair, Ian Watt, Jamie Longworth and Tony Quinn are experienced players at this level, and justly feared opponents. Manager Gardiner Spiers has managed successive unsuccessful play-off appearances and, if he can iron out his recurring Capello-style baffling tactical tics, QP will definitely finish in the top three. The resumption of “derbies” between the Spiders and NewCo Rangers will be an intriguing feature of the season.
The other two teams to watch out for in the division are Elgin City and Berwick Rangers. Elgin, who missed out in last season’s play-offs, have progressed very impressively under the little-heralded Ross Jack. When Elgin joined the SFL in 2000, many expected them to progress through the divisions quickly, but a series of boardroom changes and cash crises have blunted their potential. That said, with a settled and talented squad and a large potential fanbase added to their financial stability, Elgin also have the possibility to progress further. They have a solid midfield and great attacking options up front: the Borough Briggs side will be disappointed with anything other than a top four finish.
Ian “Yano” Little has also impressed at Shielfield. He has cut free a lot of dead wood from Berwick’s patchy squad in the close season and has added shrewdly – the talented former Whitehill Welfare and Cowdenbeath goalkeeper Youssef Bejaoui being his most eye-catching signing. Little’s calm transition period in charge of Berwick in the second half of last season was all the more impressive as he had to endure a permanent existential crisis – the rumours that John Coughlin would return to Tweedmouth refused to go away throughout last season, although they finally seem to have been put to rest. Couple experience such as Chris Townsley and Neil Janczyk with the few faces yet to be added, and you have a group of players who will be difficult to beat. Little’s biggest challenge is countering Berwick’s nasty habit of slumping horribly in the middle of the campaign. Last term, Jimmy Crease’s failure to correct the mid-season subsidence ended up costing him his job.
In any case, one suspects the five named teams above will be the ones finishing in the top half of the division this season. Which leaves us with the mid-table mediocrities and the back markers to discuss.
There has been a nagging feeling for a couple of seasons that Harry Cairney should have really done more with the resources at his disposal at Annan Athletic. Having enjoyed a remarkable debut season and a playoff appearance in 2010-11, last term was, charitably, very disappointing, particularly during in a horrible slump that started before Christmas. Annan develop good young players and have real ability in the squad – Bryan “Toilet Duck” Gilfillan being an example of a player who could play at a much higher level. The set up at Galabank is superb, and in many ways they are a model for how lower league community clubs should be run.
However, the right infrastructure has yet to translate to success on the park. There is a growing feeling that Cairney has just this season to put it right, or seek employment elsewhere. The Annan board may yet live to rue the commendable loyalty that they have shown to their manager. Another mid-table finish beckons.
Stirling Albion have also been in a Stuka-type dive in the last couple of seasons. Off the park again, the story has been an encouraging one with a fans’ buy-out staving off certain oblivion during 2009-10. On the park however, Jocky Scott’s latest counter-Midas touch saw the Binos plucked and ready for the drop early this calendar year, with new incumbent Greig McDonald unable to sweeten the fetid Forthbank stew before it was served. There are good players in the squad – Gary Thom, Jamie McCunnie, and Brian Allison are all players to watch out for – but ultimately this will be a season of consolidation for the club as they adjust to the financial realities of being a supporters-run team. Many would expect Stirling to finish seventh, which is a marked improvement on the rock-bottom tag that they have had to endure for the last couple of campaigns.
All of which rock bottom chatter brings us, finally, to the three Cinderellas who have spent the last two season fighting to avoid having the leaden glass slipper of tenth spot placed on their dainty foot; Clyde, East Stirlingshire and Montrose. Clyde have spent the last two campaigns desperately trying to avoid being engulfed by 20 foot waves of debt. Since Duff Jimmy took on the job mid-way through 2010-11 (after an absolutely calamitous opening to that season), the Bully Wee have begun to inch forward again.
Duffy’s contacts in the game have given Clyde a reach that few other Third Division teams can match, witnessed in his latest signings of young Kille keeper Nic Rajovic, and Hearts youth team striker Gary Graham. Clyde could sneak forward another notch to eighth this season, as the club continues to battle through a legacy of historical debt and uncertainty as to whether they will continue at Broadwood or move to a new facility in East Kilbride.
The Shire, who did well just to stay in existence last season, despite finishing bottom, have strengthened very well in the close season as John Coughlin looks forward to a second full season in charge. Long term, it’s really difficult to see where Shire will end up, with their search for a new ground stalling continually and their five-year ground sharing deal at Ochilview up for review in two seasons’ time. But, on paper, the former “One Team in Falkirk Town Centre” should have a better campaign. Paul Quinn, Rhys Devlin and returning Shire icon Craig “Craigy D” Donaldson will form a decent spine to a team with so few resources. Shire will no doubt still have awful 7-1 days in the season ahead, but in the weeks in between, they will probably amass enough points to steer clear of a second successive wooden spoon.
The above would seem rather bad news for Montrose. The loss of the well-respected Ray Farningham to Dundee at the end of last season was a blow whose effects are still being felt and many of the squad for last season have moved on to exotic locations such as Ballingry and Brechin. The future of star striker Martin Boyle – last season’s top scorer and emerging talisman – remains clouded in mystery. Maybe he will go to Aberdeen, maybe he will go to Kilmarnock. There were even rumours of a trial at Doncaster Rovers. Whatever his eventual destination, Boyle will be gone by the time the transfer window shuts – which leaves the side with a colossal goal scoring void to fill.
Currently, the new management team of Stuart Garden and Lee Wilkie have only 11 signed players, and the pre-season record so far stands at – until Thursday night’s victory over a Dundee side – four defeats with no goals scored and 14 conceded. Montrose, shackled by another historical debt burden ably managed by a new-ish board of directors, have little-to-no room to maneouvre in the transfer market and must bring in players for free – that usually means released Dundee youth teamers, knackered old boilers playing for one last season, and never-quite-weres from the juniors. Expect the club’s new signings to come from one of those three categories, and to form a squad that will struggle this season.
So, that is how the Third Division is looking at the moment. It will be a campaign utterly unlike any other recent seasons. Assuming Sevco start the season, you will be able to watch every sclaff, late tackle, glaring miss and volley of foul-mouthed abuse on satellite television.
Personally, I will settle for no less a volume of coverage than soft-focus lifestyle features of Annan’s Chris Jardine doing his garden, a new THIRD DIVISION LADS series chronicling the not very dexterous fumblings of the Clyde squad as the try – and fail – to have an acceptable night out in Cumbernauld; constant fevered speculation that Shire’s Jamie Benton will be the subject of a FOUR-FIGURE BID in an attempt to persuade him to join Charles Green’s IBROX REVOLUTION (mid–table in Division Two in five years time or your money back!), and, perhaps, a retrospective THIRD DIVISION ICONS series, with an extended journey from Broughty Ferry to Auchmithie in the back of Gary Murray’s taxi, as the former Links Park dynamo recalls in loving detail the times he helped to get it right up Arbroath.
That little lot may be more entertaining than the football they’ll be paying for, but personally I am really looking forward to the parallel universe that is Third Division coverage to a 24/7 news media agenda with full highlights packages.
Who’d a thunk it?