Brora Rangers beating Hearts the latest proof that non-league teams deserve a shot at the SPFL
How many more cup giant-killings must there be in Scottish football before we stop feigning surprise and start taking notice of the quality of our lower-league teams?
Most of the immediate reaction to Brora Rangers’ 2-1 victory against Hearts was understandably focused on the Scottish Championship side losing to a team three tiers below them who, prior to Tuesday night’s encounter, had played just one competitive game in 2021 and trained just five times since March 9.
While there was deserved praise for the Cattachs as well, it was in danger of being lost amid the reaction from Hearts fans and supporters of rival clubs, all unable to fully compute the result.
For those who keep tabs on the teams below the SPFL, the result may have been less of a bombshell.
Obviously the manner of the defeat was what sent shockwaves through the Scottish game but clubs in the fifth and sixth tiers are consistently competing with, and often getting the better of, teams far above them in the pyramid.
On a night when Formartine United knocked out Annan Athletic on penalties, and Buckie Thistle came within four minutes of taking Inverness Caledonian Thistle to extra time, we were given further evidece that perhaps adding these clubs to the SPFL mix would be a broadly positive move.
Managers and players speak of the one-off nature of cup ties, where anything can happen and while that still rings true, we are seeing more and more instances of unfancied teams upsetting the odds.
Earlier this year Dundee needed a last-gasp equaliser to take Lowland League side Bonnyrigg Rose to extra time and even then, only just squeezed past a team that had been playing in the East of Scotland league as recently as 2019.
In recent editions of the competition Brora have knocked out East Fife and Stranraer, and taken Morton to a replay; East of Scotland pair Broxburn Athletic and Penicuik Athletic defeated Cowdenbeath and Stenhousemuir, and Lowland League side BSC Glasgow and Bonnyrigg Rose also eliminated SPFL opponents in East Fife and Montrose.
Penicuik were then just narrowly beaten by Partick Thistle while junior side Auchinleck Talbot took Arbroath to a replay barely 12 months after knocking Ayr United out of the tournament.
The list goes on.
It’s clear why Kelty Hearts and Brora were so aggrieved at the decision to scrap the SPFL play-offs at the end of the truncated 2019/20 season and while either club’s ascension to the league was by far a foregone conclusion, there does not appear to be very much at all between the top teams in the Lowland and Highland Leagues, and those struggling in the fourth tier.
Arguments for reconstruction
There has been a lot of opposition to the idea of reconstructing League Two and adding in colt teams from Celtic and Rangers.
If league bosses are serious about reconstruction it must be done properly, rather than extending League Two and adding in token representatives from the Lowland and Highland Leagues and the Old Firm youth sides.
No one is pretending that reconstruction is a straightforward prospect but the fact remains that we are getting increasingly closer to an unavoidable truth – that the gap between the SPFL and non-league teams is shrinking.
Taking the 2020/21 Betfred Cup as an example, Brora outperformed eight SPFL teams during the group stages while their Lowland League counterparts Kelty Hearts bettered 13 league clubs.
The previous year, non-league representatives Cove Rangers and East Kilbride outperformed 11 and 12 league teams respectively, with both bettering Scottish Premiership side St Johnstone's performance.
This isn’t just one or two teams causing the occasional upset in a cup competition.
How non-league is growing
Brora chairman William Powrie has already spoken of his support for a revamped SPFL that includes teams from the Lowland and Highland Leagues as well as colt sides from Celtic and Rangers, with his main argument focusing on the benefits of change.
He told BBC Scotland last week that the “wonderful opportunity” for the Scottish game would be a “ much-needed change to the lower echelons of the SPFL.”
Powrie continued: “I'm not speaking directly for Brora here, I'm speaking about any club wanting to progress up the pyramid but it will bring us closer to that goal.”
The game is getting stronger further down the pyramid. Players still capable of playing as high as the Scottish Championship are turning out for Lowland League teams.
The Betfred Cup group stages aren't without the odd surprise result.
Games are attracting bigger attendances than some League One matches. There were 1500 spectators at New Central Park to take in Kelty Hearts’ top-of-the-table clash against Bonnyrigg Rose in February last year.
There are as many as five or six teams from the Lowland League who, on recent form, could comfortably compete in the SPFL and probably another three or four in the Highland League.
Even in the East of Scotland Premier Division there are a handful of teams who would no doubt fancy their chances against some League Two teams, never mind those at tier five level.
A Cattachs catalyst?
For now, Steven Mackay’s side will take the plaudits and enjoy possibly the finest result in the club's history. But their success should result in more than perfunctory congratulations and a pat on the back before the next non-league team causes an upset.
Brora beating Hearts in a one-off cup tie won’t, and shouldn’t, be the catalyst for change but it is a reminder that many clubs outwith the SPFL are getting stronger and more competitive.
They have more than earned their right to serious consideration in any discussions around league reconstruction.