When one thinks of the Scottish Highland League, images of big, robust footballers come to mind. Rough and ready, “agricultural” style football. I travelled to watch Cove Rangers play Buckie Thistle in Cove’s new Balmoral Stadium on the edge of Aberdeen to find out how accurate the above stereotypes are.
The Scottish Highland League is a semi-professional league operating a level below the main SPFL League system. The winners of the Highland League play the winners of the Lowland League at the end of each season to earn the right to compete in a playoff for a place in SPFL League 2 against the team finishing bottom of that league. At the end of the 2017/18 season just passed, Cove narrowly missed out on a place in the SPFL by losing to Cowdenbeath who retained their league status with a victory at home after drawing up in Inverurie (where Cove were playing home games at the time).
Cove therefore, as reigning champions, came with a fair degree of pedigree for my first Highland League match. Added to that, the match was being played at the brand new Balmoral Stadium, Cove’s new home after moving out of their previous stadium in the town of Cove itself and living a fairly nomadic life for the intervening couple of seasons. The new stadium is located on the edge of an industrial estate on the southern edge of Aberdeen, just before the city eventually merges into the town of Cove itself. A roughly 20 minute bus ride from the city centre, the stadium is easily accessible by public transport as well as by private car – with the industrial estate including a mix of retail and office units providing ample parking opportunities.
Tucked in behind the industrial estate sits the new stadium. It takes the form of a relatively orthodox pre-fabricated site with a small main stand flanked by cabin units serving as a clubhouse/bar and associated facilities. Within the confines of the stadium there is room for expansion of the small main stand if required in the future. Terracing surrounds the modern astroturf pitch with 3 small sheltered terracing/seated areas along the touchline opposite the main stand. The stadium looks new, all the fencing, barriers pathways and indeed (most importantly) the shiny new pitch are clean and fresh.
Being located where it is however, not in the town of Cove itself and on the edge of an industrialised area which itself is on the edge of the city, the pre or post match entertainment is restricted to fast food restaurants within the industrial estate or a slightly longer trek to hotels or to find a pub for a pre match pint. Having said that, there was a bar of sorts at the stadium which was open and welcoming. Given the size of the club and existing road/public transport infrastructure, the stadium is well connected should pre match refreshments or lunch be sought closer to the city centre or outlying centres such as Cove itself.
Entry into the game was priced at £10 for a space on the terracing, with a £2 supplement required if you wanted a seat in the main stand. Now, as regular readers may be aware I have travelled to watch football abroad and had the pleasure of watching top level Football games for around or less than that price within recent memory. However, it isn’t necessarily fair to compare given it is essentially a different product. A quick bit of pre match research pitched a number of other Highland League clubs admission prices at around £8 for entry, with some also at £10 – so the £10 fee at Cove is at the higher end of the spectrum, albeit these are the Champions and there is undoubtedly a certain “city tax” applied when compared to some of the more outlying, rural sides. All in therefore, the admission price seemed very fair upon entry.
Now to the match itself. The game kicked off at a frenetic pace with Buckie the side who forced a few corners in the opening minutes. Buckie had set up in a solid style, utilising a couple of fast wingers and playing some good, intelligent, quick balls in behind the Cove full backs which caused some trouble. However Buckie were unable to turn this early pressure into anything more than a couple of half chances.
After this slow start, Cove slowly started to find their way into the game. Particularly impressive were the midfield 3 of Scully, Brown and Masson who between them began to control the game. Scully in particular buzzed around winning the ball back and popping tidy short passes to full backs and midfield colleagues. There were a few issues where all 3 midfielders dropped in an attempt to play a kind of “regista” role, only to become cluttered in the middle of the pitch, even more so when the centre halves pushed up, meaning that there were 5 players crowded around the ball within the centre circle on a few occasions which stifled the passing style and became easy for Buckie to close down.
What was really pleasing to see was both sides playing attractive, passing football. Both were prepared to play the ball out from the back with players on both sides very comfortable on the ball and with some really good close control and ability to work or play their way out of tight spaces. The forward players, especially Megginson and McManus for Cove were particularly comfortable with their backs to goal and very adept at playing the ball around in tight spaces on the edge of the box. The quality of football on display was very good and until about 35 minutes there were no real indications or examples of “rough and ready” football. However, seemingly out of the blue the game took a nasty turn. In a fairly innocuous incident from my vantage point on the opposite side of the pitch, the Buckie Centre half MacKinnon was left in a heap on the ground clutching his head. There was an outcry from a few Buckie players and supporters, the referee seemed to have caught the incident, which looked like a flying elbow, and flashed a yellow card to Cove’s MacRae – much to the derision of the Buckie players and supporters. Seemingly after checking on the injured player and seeing the amount of blood pouring from his head (visible from my position on the opposite touchline) the referee appeared to change his mind and instead decided that the incident was worthy of a red card and Cove were down to 10 men. Rather than setting the cat amongst the pigeons, the red card seemed to take the wind out of the game – with the first half petering out thereafter as Cove sought to tighten up and get into half time with no further damage and Buckie unable to break through.
Into the second half and I expected Buckie to make the pitch big with their wingers, stretch the game and take advantage of the extra man. This didn’t quite transpire however. Scully again in the centre of the park for Cove continued to get through a power of work, breaking up most moves which Buckie began to muster before they became too dangerous. Cove then scored 2 goals in quick succession to really stamp their authority. The first was a lovely close passing move on the edge of the box before Megginson was played in where he swivelled the hips, rounding the keeper and finishing well. A very well worked goal. Very shortly after, a clipped ball over the top combined with a mistimed jump from the Buckie centre half allowed McManus to take a touch and finish low past the keeper for 2-0.
After the goals, Cove seemed happy to keep the ball, keep probing but not expend too much energy – this was noticeable but also a wise move given they were down to 10 men. Buckie huffed and puffed, but were unable to really create any clear cut chances with the Cove back 4 and Scully in front remaining solid.
One bright spark for Buckie was their number 10 MacAskill. An old school, intelligent number 10 style player. He floated around the middle of the park but managed to find himself in space on a number of occasions before weaving his way past defenders on a couple of occasions for shots at goal or to try and play in teammates. To no avail, but he looked the best bet for Buckie to find a way back into the game.
Final score: Cove Rangers 2-0 Buckie Thistle.
All in, this was an extremely entertaining game. The standard of football was really good, certainly not as rough and ready as many would think. Both teams kept the ball down and played some great short passing football. There were some robust incidents with the elbow and red card, a few meaty challenges but overall it was a great advert for Scottish football, certainly at this or indeed lower league level and a very worthy use of a Saturday afternoon. The facilities were great, stadium accessible, if slightly remote on the edge of town, and for the £10 entry fee, representative of very good value.
Well worth a visit.