The Clusterf*** Cup

Two Welsh and two North­ern Ir­ish clubs now take part in a Scot­tish cup. Wait, what?

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Chris Flanagan Pho­tog­ra­phy Bryan Keane

The rain is ab­so­lutely lash­ing down, and Benny the Bull is des­per­ately shel­ter­ing be­neath an um­brella as a helper for­lornly tries to zip up his suit. For two or three min­utes the strug­gle looks doomed to fail­ure, but even­tu­ally the duel be­tween man and bull cos­tume is won and Benny marches off, ran­domly moo­ing at mem­bers of the pub­lic as they ar­rive through the turn­stiles. Wel­come to Sligo.

There aren’t many com­ing through said turn­stiles on this par­tic­u­lar Satur­day evening, but maybe that shouldn’t be a mas­sive sur­prise. Four­fourtwo has trav­elled to the west coast of Ire­land for pos­si­bly one of the odd­est fix­tures in the re­cent his­tory of the Bri­tish Isles: Sligo Rovers vs Falkirk, in the sec­ond round of the Scot­tish Chal­lenge Cup, a good 170 miles from Scot­land. One club is bat­tling rel­e­ga­tion from the League of Ire­land, while the other is sec­ond-bot­tom of the Scot­tish sec­ond di­vi­sion. They have never met be­fore, and they may never meet again. How­ever, Scot­land’s ver­sion of the Check­a­trade Tro­phy has pro­vided us with the ob­scure foot­balling equiv­a­lent of Floyd May­weather vs Conor Mc­gre­gor.

Not that it’s de­terred Falkirk’s hard­core sup­port. With more than an hour un­til kick-off, FFT wan­ders across the road to Mooney’s Bar,

where an almighty racket is go­ing on. The Repub­lic of Ire­land’s cru­cial World Cup qual­i­fier against Ge­or­gia is on the big screen, but the trav­el­ling Scots are not show­ing a lot of in­ter­est. In­stead, they’re guz­zling the lo­cal Guin­ness and bel­low­ing Is This The Way To Amar­illo at the top of their voices, be­fore belt­ing out a chant about le­gendary mid­fielder Rus­sell Lat­apy.

“Thirty-five of us have come here on a coach from Falkirk,” says Scott Ivory, who'll be back work­ing at an oil re­fin­ery on Mon­day morn­ing. “It took us about 11 hours to fi­nally get here. We set off at 3am, then got a ferry from Stran­raer at 7.30am, ar­rived into Belfast at 11am and then it was a three-hour drive from there. What time did we start drink­ing? About 3am...”

That is pretty clear from the glazed look in the eyes of the many trav­el­ling fans... and the match hasn’t even got un­der­way yet. For­tu­nately, the weather – it started rain­ing the minute FFT ar­rived in Sligo and hasn’t stopped since – is mak­ing the Bairns fans feel right at home. “This is a pretty sunny day for us, I should have brought my shorts!” laughs Gavin Wood.

“A DOG’S BREAK­FAST OF HARE-BRAINED SCHEMES”

There’s still an ob­vi­ous ques­tion that needs an­swer­ing: how on earth did this fix­ture ever come about in the first place? Pre­cisely 48 hours be­fore the Foot­ball League re­leased con­tro­ver­sial plans for the newly re­shaped Check­a­trade Tro­phy in the sum­mer of 2016 – with Pre­mier League Un­der-21 teams in­tro­duced to the com­pe­ti­tion to the fury of many fans of EFL sides – the SPFL an­nounced a re­vamp of the Scot­tish Chal­lenge Cup north of the bor­der.

First in­tro­duced in 1990 for teams out­side the Scot­tish top di­vi­sion, the tour­na­ment had of­ten suf­fered from low at­ten­dances and lack of in­ter­est. The pre­mier clubs from the High­land and Low­land Leagues were even­tu­ally brought in, and Rangers’ de­par­ture from Scot­land’s elite handed the com­pe­ti­tion an un­ex­pected boost for a short pe­riod: the Gers’ two ap­pear­ances in the fi­nal were wit­nessed by 20,000 fans in 2014 and then 48,000 in 2016. Prior to that, the last fi­nal to be seen by more than 10,000 was in 1993.

When Rangers se­cured pro­mo­tion back up to the top tier a year ago, a more rad­i­cal re­struc­ture of the com­pe­ti­tion was de­vised. Last term, all of the Scot­tish Premier­ship out­fits were asked to en­ter an un­der-20 team and, un­like in Eng­land, ev­ery club said yes. The lead­ing two sides from Wales and North­ern Ire­land were also in­vited and, en­cour­aged by how things went in 2016-17, a fur­ther of­fer was ex­tended to two clubs from the Repub­lic of Ire­land.

The whole thing was ac­tu­ally the brain­child of an English­man: SPFL chief ex­ec­u­tive Neil Don­caster. “It worked re­ally well last sea­son,” the for­mer Nor­wich City CEO ex­plains to FFT. “There was an op­por­tu­nity to re­new the com­pe­ti­tion by ex­pand­ing the teams in­volved, so we ap­proached the North­ern Ir­ish and Welsh leagues and got a very good re­ac­tion. I went over to North­ern Ire­land to see Cru­saders play Liv­ingston – they in­vited me onto the pitch and I wasn’t en­tirely en­thused by the idea be­cause you don’t al­ways get a rous­ing re­cep­tion from Scot­tish au­di­ences. But there was ap­plause, which per­haps re­flected ap­pre­ci­a­tion of North­ern Ir­ish teams be­ing al­lowed to en­ter.

“Change is al­ways dif­fi­cult and there have been cer­tain other com­pe­ti­tions around the world where they’ve in­no­vated and it’s not been as well re­ceived as with this. I do think part of the rea­son is that we con­sulted ex­ten­sively, to be sure it was what peo­ple wanted. It has given the com­pe­ti­tion a higher pro­file. Irn-bru came on board as spon­sors so there’s a fi­nan­cial ben­e­fit, and broad­cast­ers got in­volved, too: Pre­mier Sports in Ire­land, S4C in Wales and BBC Alba in Scot­land.

“It has strength­ened links with other tour­na­ments across the Bri­tish Isles as well. Cross-bor­der com­pe­ti­tion is go­ing to be an in­creas­ing fea­ture of Euro­pean foot­ball go­ing for­ward – I be­lieve there were dis­cus­sions in­volv­ing Ukraine and Rus­sia be­fore all of the po­lit­i­cal changes hap­pened over there. Cre­at­ing our own cross-bor­der com­pe­ti­tion in the Bri­tish Isles puts us in a good po­si­tion for the de­vel­op­ments ahead.”

What those de­vel­op­ments will prove to be re­mains to be seen, although an At­lantic League has been mooted in the past fea­tur­ing out­fits from Scot­land, the Nether­lands, Bel­gium, Den­mark, Nor­way and Swe­den, un­happy that changes to the Cham­pi­ons League in re­cent years have only in­creased the dom­i­nance of Europe’s rich leagues. Cru­saders, Lin­field and Welsh Pre­mier League side Bala Town all fell at the first hur­dle in last term's Scot­tish Chal­lenge Cup, re­named the Irn-bru Cup, but The New Saints made the semi-fi­nals. Don­caster has heard of po­ten­tial in­ter­est from a team on the Isle of Man in time for next sea­son and says noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble – even in­tro­duc­ing English clubs into the com­pe­ti­tion a lit­tle fur­ther down the line. “Who knows where this will take us, but I would not rule out fur­ther changes,” he re­veals. “We should stay open-minded.”

Not that th­ese changes have been uni­ver­sally pop­u­lar. An ed­i­to­rial in the Daily Record la­belled it the ‘Clusterf**k Cup' and de­scribed it as a ‘dog’s break­fast of hare-brained schemes which should have been stran­gled at birth’. Like in Eng­land, many sup­port­ers of lower-league sides are unim­pressed with the prospect of hav­ing to face un­der-20 ‘colt’ teams from the Scot­tish top flight.

“This is a Mickey Mouse Cup,” Falkirk fan Gavin Wood ad­mits as we con­tinue our con­ver­sa­tion at Mooney’s Bar. “You don’t get any de­cent crowds un­less it’s the semi-fi­nal or the fi­nal, and in­tro­duc­ing the colt teams hasn’t re­ally reignited it much ei­ther. But a game like this one at­tracts sup­port­ers who just want to go away for the week­end. I flew from Ed­in­burgh to Knock [in County Mayo] – the flight was £240 and it’s £100 for two nights in a ho­tel, but I’d only spend it on some­thing else any­way. Sup­port­ing a wee team like Falkirk, there aren’t too many op­por­tu­ni­ties to see them play abroad.”

In­deed, the Bairns only ven­tured as far as Ayr dur­ing last sea­son’s Chal­lenge Cup – los­ing 1-0 af­ter ex­tra time in the fourth round – and just twice be­fore have they played a com­pet­i­tive tie out­side Scot­land (games against Ber­wick Rangers ex­cepted). The first one was at Coven­try City in 1971, in the Tex­aco Cup – a com­pe­ti­tion that

brought to­gether teams from Eng­land, Scot­land, North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic of Ire­land. Ris­ing po­lit­i­cal ten­sions led to the with­drawal of both sets of Ir­ish sides months af­ter Bloody Sun­day, and the tour­na­ment be­came the An­glo-scot­tish Cup. Their sec­ond came in 2009 when they made a speedy Europa League exit to Vaduz of Liecht­en­stein.

“I didn’t go to that one,” Ste­wart Stan­field ad­mits rue­fully – in the early stages of ine­bri­a­tion, he’d ini­tially col­lared FFT and in­sisted on or­gan­is­ing a sing-song in­volv­ing ev­ery­body in the pub, purely for our ben­e­fit. “I thought: ‘We’ll beat this team, so I’ll go to the next round in­stead’. But thanks for bring­ing it up! “Peo­ple al­ways moan that teams play each other four or five times ev­ery year in Scot­land. They’ve made a change and all the boys are here for a wee drink and to fol­low us abroad. As long as the Ir­ish teams don’t win, we’ll be happy.”

“We have had a rub­bish start to the sea­son but I reckon we will get the win tonight,” Calum Scott pre­dicts. “Ei­ther way, we are go­ing to come back to this pub, rinse and re­peat – drink if we’re happy, drink if we’re sad.”

“IT TOOK US 11 HOURS TO GET HERE. WE SET OFF AT 3AM, AR­RIVED In BELFAST AT 11AM AND THEN IT WAS A THREE-HOUR DRIVE. WHAT TIME DID WE START DRINK­ING? 3AM"

Top Benny the Bull joins Sligo’s pre-match photo Be­low right The Bairns’ faith­ful drank Mooney’s dry pre- and post-match Far right Rovers’ ul­tras stand their ground af­ter fail­ing to hoist their flag Be­low Sligo mid­fielder Daniel Kearns fends off Falkirk’s Cameron Blues

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