It’s tight at the top of the Highland League, where three clubs are currently two points apart. With a place in the Scottish League at stake, Tony Dawber visits leaders Brora, heading to third-placed Formartine United on Easter Saturday.
From the remote, windswept Highland village of Brora, a fleet of cars and coaches will be following the team bus south to Pitmedden, a settlement of similar size near Aberdeen, home of fellow title challengers Formartine United.
Meanwhile from Aberdeen, high-flying Cove Rangers trek to Fort William for another vital game in the three-man race to the top of the Highland League.
Passions are rising and the stakes are high in Scotland’s far north. Easter Saturday’s showdowns could be the turning point, the top three clubs currently separated by only two points.
Victory for Brora Rangers at Formartine would be a big step towards the title – and a step closer to full league status. Introduced in 2015, a play-off between the Highland champions and its Lowland League counterpart allows the winners to take on the bottom club in fourth-flight Scottish Division Two.
‘The formation of the pyramid system has really been fantastic for Scottish football,’ says David Dowling, a Brora stalwart who heads the club’s commercial department. ‘Both up here and in the Lowland League.’
‘Clubs have realised they have something to aim for and want to better themselves.’
Last May, Brora made it to the inaugural play-off final, only to lose out to a late second-leg comeback by Montrose on an emotional rollercoaster of an afternoon away at Links Park.
Brora is 60 miles south of Britain’s most northerly point of John O’Groats. Given the huge travelling and logistical challenges involved in the Scottish League, would the club actually want the cherished prize?
‘Absolutely, yes,’ affirms Dowling. ‘Last year, the Scottish FA drew up a long list of league requirements and regulations. It caught us out a bit and we thought we would have no chance of being allowed in. All the same, we were disappointed because we were leading at Montrose until they came back late in the game.’
With SFA’s demands now less draconian, a full league place for Brora – or Formartine or Cove – is more realistic.
‘Brora’s a small village but we get support from a large area,’ says Dowling. ‘Even from as far away as Thurso on the northern coast. This year are better prepared and we certainly want that Scottish League place.’
Brora have benefitted not only from the formation of the pyramid system but from the spectacular rise of football in the Highlands.
In 1994, Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle left the Highland League to climb up to the top flight and take on the likes of Celtic and Aberdeen. Caley won the Scottish Cup in 2015, the Staggies the Scottish League Cup in 2016.
‘With Ross County and Inverness both in the SPL,’ Dowling explains, ‘they are signing players from England and beyond. That means we have been able to pick up more of the best players from the local area’.
Formartine, meanwhile, have made spectacular progress under flamboyant chairman Atholl Cadger, who makes no secret of the club’s ambitions to step up to the big league.
Yet soccer romantics would surely side with Brora, the UK’s most northerly senior side until the 1994 admission to the Highland League of fierce rivals Wick Academy.
The Highland League is considered stronger than its Lowland counterpart and its 2016 champions, be it Brora, Formartine or Cove, more likely to reach the play-off final. There the Highland champions would almost certainly face East Stirlingshire – the first club to hire Sir Alex Ferguson as manager.