This weekend sees the return of football for the masses. The SPL kicks off early with managers equally kicking off early in protest at how early they have to er … kick off early! Dundee United, despite a very spirited fight back are out of Europe before they even start their league campaign – Tommy Docherty will have a quip for that no doubt!
But whilst the SPL clubs debate which of the two biggest clubs are due the prize of the league championship this year we down in the lower reaches are ready for some genuine challenges and real contests to see who can win the three other league prizes on offer. But before we begin that we have not one but TWO cup competitions as warm ups.
Commonly known as the diddy cup and the diddy, diddy cup, the newly crowned Scottish Communities Cup (Formerly the CIS Cup) and the Ramsden’s Cup (Formerly the ALBA Challenge Cup) both start this month.
The Ramsden Cup is up first and the announcement that the final shall this year be held in April as it was last year is to be welcomed. Apparently this is due to the beautiful weather and the fans liking football in the sunshine… almost an argument for summer football from the SFL there…
The competition is initially broken geographically into two sections so that travel costs are not onerous for smaller clubs. This weekend therefore looks like follows: –
Deveronvale v Stirling Albion
This will kick us all off at 1pm Saturday due to one of the players getting married so the kick off has been brought forward to allow his playing pals to get to the reception! It also marks the first ever inclusion of two Highland League sides to the competition which evens up the numbers and increases the clamour for a pyramid system in Scottish football.
Jocky Scott has had an interesting summer with trials on the pitch and fan power bedding in off it. The “so you think you’re good enough” trials brought in two players and a great deal of income so eyes will be on them to see if the Highland league outfit are better off without such tribulations and criticism. This is a very difficult one to predict as it will be a cup final for Deveronvale whilst Stirling Albion have been rebuilding following relegation from the First. It will be a shock if Deveronvale win but this could be the first of the afternoon.
Brechin City v Falkirk
“Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic!” Like an episode of Dad’s Army Stephen Pressley has been running round the Falkirk dressing room telling everyone it’s all under control. Losing as many as nine players and replacing them with … not very many means that it will be a youthful Falkirk that takes the pitch at Glebe Park. Their pre season preparations have not been great but when the whistle goes for real action Elvis will show us what’s what…
Jim Weir meanwhile, with a club that constantly plays bridesmaid in the play offs has pretensions of going one better and could see this as a good litmus test for progress. Brechin have had an excellent pre season and news that regular keeper Craig Nelson will sit this one out due to suspension might give Falkirk an edge but be prepared for Jim Weir to be smiling come five pm.
Raith Rovers v Cowdenbeath
This is an intriguing tie which has the two Fife rivals up against each other. Raith will be looking for a springboard to mount their third real challenge in three years for the First Division title whilst Cowdenbeath, under new management, are looking to prepare for the Second Division assault which brings them back to the First Division.
John McGlynn has used pre season experimentally as the results have been all over the place – almost as much as his substitutions and whilst the results won’t always delight fans – especially in the Gilvenbank Hotel Football Festival at Bayview, McGlynn is no mug.
Cowdenbeath have been flying pre season beating not one, nor two but THREE SPL sides. Only Thomas O’Brien and Lee Makel are injured and therefore unavailable but this looks like a tie that will go the way of the league and many expect Raith to triumph at the end of the game.
Forfar Athletic v Buckie Thistle
The second Highland League team to compete this year and Buckie Thistle will be a stern test for the Loons. Forfar’s pre season has not been good and like Stirling Albion there is every possibility that the Highland League may provide a shock.
Since losing their first pre season game four nil to Brechin City, Highland League champions, Buckie have improved greatly including holding a young Inverness Caledonian Thistle side to a three all draw. This could have goals and could have another shock on the cards.
Peterhead v Alloa Athletic
This is another intriguing tie as the two Third Division sides who last year were second divisions sides meet for the first time in the season. John Sheran has quietly gone about the business of rebuilding Peterhead and the pre season games have been all right for his side. The first competitive game will test his quiet approach but Peterhead under his leadership should be a very interesting proposition. The appearance of Rory McAllister for Peterhead in his first competitive fixture for them will be worth the entry price alone.
On the other hand Alloa under Paul Hartley have taken full advantage of Hartley’s contacts and his undoubted knowledge of the game to make quite a noise around SFL3. Winning the Oban Tournament as well as bringing in plenty of new faces including Armand One and Darren Young makes them clear favourites for a return to the Second Division but also for this tie.
Ross County v Elgin City
The return to Ross County of Derek Adams was quite a surprise but his work over the summer has left few in doubt that he is serious about rebuilding the Staggies. Pre season has been very good and County go into the match high in confidence.
Elgin City are also very confident having lost only one pre season game but their victories have all been against Highland League opposition. This will be a much bigger test and Derek Adams should make a successful competitive debut second time round for County.
Montrose v East Fife
Montrose have enjoyed a really decent pre season and are looking forward to a league campaign that shouldn’t be any worse than the last few! They find themselves up against an East Fife team under John Robertson that found their feet and nearly a play off place last season. Montrose are certainly in with a shout but Robertson will have East Fife up and ready for the challenge.
I fully expect a dour encounter or one where it is settled early. Mind you with a number of my predictions not coming off over recent weeks this may the one that is a ten goal thriller decided on penalties!
Arbroath v Dundee
Paul Sheerin’s second year as manager is likely to be as intriguing as Barry Smith’s! This is yet another intriguing tie and we can look forward to Gavin Swankie trying to prove that all the SFL1 clubs who might have been interested in signing him that they missed a trick in not offering him a deal.
Meanwhile Smith will be out to prove that last year was no fluke. Smith has confirmed there will be no Bayne or Riley but apart from that a full strength squad should see off Arbroath despite some seriously good players having left Dundee over the summer. Barry’s credentials as a manager are about to be tested…
Clyde v Berwick Rangers
Two Third Division sides and the rebuilding exercise at Clyde has gone on apace over the summer. Paul McMullan and Ryan Kane will not make the squad whilst Jim Duffy rates Mark Archdeacon as 50/50. Clyde ought to be a better prospect this year than last and the pre season has gone reasonably well.
Broadwood was a happy hunting ground last year for Berwick Rangers but Jimmy Crease knows that cups are very different and Clyde are a different team from last year. Some of Crease’s signings for the new year have been impressive and now they have solved their goalkeeping crisis it could be another intriguing tie. Like Jim Duffy I find this one difficult to predict.
Airdrie United v Livingston
Jimmy Boyle comes into this one with a significantly better prepared squad than he did last season. He has even managed to make signings that strengthen his squad ahead of this game and confidence is fairly high that he can make inroads into the Second Division title race. Performances in pre season games have been improving and this will be a stern test for his new squad.
Livingston have not had the cash to significantly add to their squad and a few of the big money earners are now on their way. Their pre season however has been very impressive and we can look forward to quite a game today. Livingston ought to go and take this one with ease putting Airdrie out in the first round for the second year in a row but the new squad Boyle has recruited should make a game of it.
Partick Thistle v Stenhousemuir
Harry Houdini’s best friend David Irons takes his new look Stenhousemuir on the travel to the West End of Glasgow in fairly good shape. New signings including Kevin McKinlay, Andy Rodgers and Stewart Kean who will go into this game wanting to prove they should be playing at a higher level. The game therefore comes at the right time for them – particularly as it is a First Division side they face. Unfortunately pre season has been disastrous in terms of results so fans will be hoping for better a result from today
Partick Thistle have had a very mixed pre season and manager Jackie McNamara admits they may be a tad short in a few departments. It may be just the right time to catch Partick Thistle and this may be one of the shocks of the day. Having said that McNamara knows he needs a good run at the beginning of the season to cement his and his team’s credentials so will come out fighting.
Ayr United v Queen of the South
As it is the only all First Division tie this comes into the category of THE BIG tie of the first round. Gus McPherson has had a great pre season with Queens and hopes are high that the mayhem and bitterness from Kenny Brannigan’s tenure has gone. The worry that Queen’s fans had during the close season that few signings were being made and the squad looked a combination of threadbare and non existent is slowly disappearing as McPherson and Andy Millen are making their mark. This could be a very dangerous Queen’s side.
Newly promoted Ayr United meanwhile have made a number of signings over the summer which have strengthened them and then have brought out some of the Youth Academy which has blended well. Added spice to the tie is the possibility that two of the midfield that got Ayr promoted – Scott McLaughlin and Ryan McCann have played pre season for Queens. This is a very difficult tie to call and either side winning would not be a shock but Queen’s in this South West derby must be slight favourites.
Stranraer v Morton
Allan Moore will travel down the coast with a very different squad to the one he finished last season with. He bemoaned during last season the lack of goal scorers and will be looking to his new signings to buck that trend – where better t do that than at lower league opposition…?
Keith Knox has meanwhile brought in some decent signings including Chris Aitken and Stewart Devine though he has lost some good players in Armand One and Scott Agnew. This should be a comfortable Morton win and Moore can expect tougher opposition in the next round.
Queen’s Park v Hamilton Academicals
Hamilton drop out the SPL but get to Hampden! Queen’s boss Gardner Speirs is relishing the tie but has significant absentees. Reports are that the injury list BEFORE a competitive ball is kicked includes Tony Quinn, David Murray, Michael O’Hara, Steven Baillie and Giuseppe Capuano. For other reasons Speirs will also be without Paul Stewart, Jamie Longworth, Gavin Lachlan and club skipper Richard Sinclair.
Billy Reid will have new signings Derek Lyle, Willie McLaren and Grant Anderson available though their club captain, Alex Neil is an injury victim. Reid will also give some youth players a run out and can expect with the Spiders’ problems they will be through quite comfortably at the end of the day.
Albion Rovers v Annan Athletic
A repeat of the Second Division play off final will be one worth a visit and should represent another tie of the round. Paul Martin has eschewed big game friendlies and built a solid squad for this coming year – many familiar faces are back.
Annan meanwhile have had a good pre season and though their game against Queen of the South was rained off in July, they will face Rivers in good shape. Bryan Gilfillan will sit this one out for them whilst Ryan Holmes and Ross Hyslop go into the squad on short-term deals. This is another agonisingly difficult one to call and we can look forward to a great game at Cliftonhill.
Dumbarton v East Stirlingshire
The only Sunday kick off sees Second Division versus Third. Alan Adamson has made significant additions to the Dumbarton team and a serious assault on the Second Division title is being contemplated. Adamson did suffer last year in his initial guidance of Dumbarton but steadied the ship and was rewarded with this year’s opportunity. Bringing in Ryan Borris, Scott Agnew and Bryan Prunty will be decent signings.
If Adamson is rebuilding at Dumbarton then he meets an East Stirling side that John Coughlin is coming with a very different squad from last year. Both managers will be keen to see how their new charges play and it’s another very difficult one to call.