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