Pyramid play-off challenge facing Spartans after Lowland League title triumph
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First, Dougie Samuel’s team will take on the winners of the Highland League over two legs in the semi-finals. That will either be Brechin City or Buckie Thistle, who meet on the last day of the season on Saturday, April 22 in what is expected to be a title decider.
Spartans will be at home in the first leg on Saturday, April 29 and will travel to Brechin or Buckie the following weekend on Saturday, May 13.
Get through those games and Spartans would face the team who finish bottom of SPFL League Two. Again, Spartans would be at home first on Saturday, May 13 and then away in the second leg on Saturday, May 20.
Only five points currently separate the bottom four in League Two with three games to play, so Stranraer, Elgin City, Bonnyrigg Rose and Albion Rovers are all potential opponents. But Spartans will be taking it one play-off at a time.
Will it be Buckie or Brechin?
Buckie probably have an advantage at things stand. They have a four-point lead at the top of the Highland League table and only have Brechin left to play at home on Saturday, April 22. A draw in that game would be enough.
Brechin, managed by former Hearts striker and coach Andy Kirk, must avoid defeat away to Keith on Wednesday night to take the title to a last-day decider at Victoria Park. With Keith 14th in the table and in poor form, they should manage that.
A draw at Keith on Wednesday would suffice, because a subsequent win away to Buckie would mean pipping them to the title on goal difference.
Who wants it the most?
This is Brechin’s second season in the Highland League after being relegated two years ago and they are desperate to get back up to the SPFL.
Given Buckie’s geography and population, the SPFL probably carries far less appeal. Indeed, the club president was recently quoted explaining why they would not want to participate in the new nationwide Conference League that is under consideration.
Is Ainslie Park SPFL complaint?
Yes, absolutely. Ainslie Park would be one of the most modern and well-equipped grounds in League Two if Spartans get promoted. It has a capacity of 3,500, including a 534-seated stand.
The ground has already hosted SPFL League Two football, with Edinburgh City tenants for a few seasons after they were promoted.
Spartans also have a brand new second stand at Ainslie Park which is complete and just awaiting a green light from the city council before opening for use.
How was the Lowland League won?
Spartans clinched the title thanks to Blair Henderson’s second-half strike to defeat Cowdenbeath 1-0 in front of more than 500 fans at Ainslie Park. It’s their third Lowland League title after winning it previously in 2013/14 and 2017/18.
It wasn’t a classic game by any means, but the champions deserved the three points and their big striker did what he does best to get the job done: putting the ball in the back of the net when an opportunity comes along.
Had they not secured a play-off place already?
Yes, Spartans had already booked their place in the pyramid play-offs thanks to last weekend’s 1-0 win away to Tranent, which meant only the Old Firm B teams were mathematically able to overtake them to finish top of the table.
Celtic B and Rangers B, however, are ineligible for promotion, so Spartans had been declared the Lowland League ‘champion club’. Nevertheless, they were determined, like Bonnyrigg Rose last season, to actually win the league too and did just that.
Who do Spartans play next?
There isn’t much time to celebrate the title triumph, with a big cup semi-final to come on Tuesday night (7.45pm). Spartans travel to face Caledonian Braves in the semi-final of the South Challenge Cup. The winners will play Gartcairn in the final.
Their final game in the Lowland League, effectively a dead rubber, is away to Berwick Rangers at Shielfield Park next Saturday, April 22. Expect to see more than a few of the under-20s development squad feature in that one.
Spartans have been drawn away to Bo’ness United in the League Cup but the champions usually withdraw from that competition to concentrate on the pyramid play-offs.
What happens if Spartans fail to win promotion?
It is unclear at this stage. If the proposed Conference League is pushed through quickly to begin next season, Spartans would be top of the list of invited clubs and would have to accept – whether they like the concept or not.
If the Conference League is put back to 2024/25, Spartans would stay in the Lowland League next season but would potentially be another tier – and another year – removed from SPFL League Two. Unless, of course, they were to the Lowland League again and the promotion arrangements allow them to contest another pyramid play-off. That is all unclear.
All that complication and potential delay is all the more reason to secure promotion to League Two this year. But it’s easier said than done.
Who else has been promoted from the Lowland League?
Spartans were beaten by Highland League winners Cove Rangers 5-2 on aggregate in the play-off semi-finals after wining the title in 2017-18. The pyramid play-offs were not in place when they won the league back in 2013/14.
Three clubs have made it up from the Lowland League into the SPFL through the pyramid play-off mechanism, with Cove making it up from the Highland League at Spartans’ expense and now playing in the Championship.
Edinburgh City, now FC Edinburgh, were the first Lowland League club to achieve the feat and now ply their trade in League One. Kelty Hearts followed and are also in League One.
Bonnyrigg Rose made it up after winning the Lowland League last season and are now fighting to avoid finishing bottom of League Two in the first campaign. The Midlothian side could potentially end up in a two-leg play-off with Spartans ... which would be very interesting.