When the powers-that-be decided to introduce a relegation playoff from the bottom tier, the move was met broadly with approval from supporters.
Okay, the odds would be skewed against the clubs from the lower tier, but an agreement had to be reached and the league clubs were never likely to play the turkey voting for Christmas.
There can be no question that this has added an extra level of excitement in League 2 as the ‘basement battle’ now has genuine importance, beyond saving face. Finishing bottom is no longer just about avoiding embarrassment, but survival.
One need only look back to the playoff final at Montrose at the end of last season for proof of the excitement that the ‘pyramid’ has brought. 2000 people crammed in to Links Park to watch this game. Never in living memory has a game at Links Park had to be delayed due to a throng of supporters lined up outside the ground desperate to get in. This is the bottom tier of Scottish football; it just doesn’t happen!
This excitement comes at a cost though. Just ask East Stirlingshire. They faced Arbroath on Saturday in what was being dubbed as a relegation six-pointer. An East Stirlingshire win would have brought them within two points of ninth placed Arbroath, defeat would leave them eight points adrift.
Why should anyone care about East Stirlingshire though? East Stirlingshire, put kindly, are not great at football. In the 2001-02 season they amassed 13 points. In 2002-03 they managed eight, conceding 118 goals in the process. For six years on the bounce, until season 2007-08 they were the worst team in Scotland. If it is to be the case that East Stirlingshire drop out of the league then it will be good news, some would say.
They have managed 27 points this season, which is in fairness, a reasonable total. Their goal difference of -29 is the worst in their league. At Arbroath on Saturday they showed why. A young, fresh faced team matching up against an Arbroath side with the experienced, no-nonsense Dick Campbell in the dugout. Manager Craig Tully sent them out with three central defenders and two wing backs, an unconventional move in the bottom tier. East Stirlingshire started brightly. They created chances. Good chances. Perhaps a team with more confidence would have buried them. After 1-0 though, the game was never in doubt. It ended in frustration. Like so many other days over the years for this club, it was oh so frustrating.
3-0 it was then.
The small band of East Stirlingshire fans that had travelled vented their fury. The players were told in no uncertain terms that they weren’t up to the job with the air turning especially blue as they shared their advice with the manager about what he should do next. Much of what was said would be indecipherable with the bleeps that would have to be applied, even on paper. In summary, they were angry.
At this moment in time, there is little that would convince the neutral that East Stirlingshire are worth supporting in their bid to stay up. Scottish football fans appreciate their traditions, their stories and folklore though. East Stirlingshire provide plenty of those.
They gave Alex Ferguson his big break in management. Those 17 matches in charge may well have been the catalyst for Ferguson’s success and perhaps Manchester United should be grateful to East Stirlingshire for the role they played in developing their greatest manager. Then again, maybe not. They were for a period regarded as one of the worst teams in the world. They inspired the book ‘Pointless’ with a fan documenting the lows and further lows of the 2002-03 season. They infamously paid a £10 wage to their players. They did briefly flirt with money. A businessman buying over the club and promising big things. A stadium move was planned, the old Firs Park, full of character was sold off and left to rot.
A ground share agreement made with Stenhousemuir left East Stirlingshire as mere lodgers without a permanent home. Ultimately, any progress made in those years has been more than lost as East Stirlingshire find themselves standing with one foot over the edge of the cliff.
East Stirlingshire will be the sacrificial offering of the League clubs this season. Avoiding bottom from this position looks impossible. The playoff is the only hope that East Stirlingshire have, and today’s performance might suggest that the smart money is on the team on the way up.
East Stirlingshire will be fine regardless. They have young players that look to play football the right way. Even if relegation meant a mass exodus they would be easily replaced. Most importantly, they have a loyal bunch of fans that will support their team until the end and indeed, have supported them through much worse.
Should we care? East Stirlingshire have always been there. For the last 116 years they have played their part in League football. They have had some success, they have had failure and then they have had abject failure. They have attracted a cult following and have given many fans of other teams much joy with their inability to defend.
Perhaps we should be happy that a team that has struggled for so long will be cut out of the league setup for a year at least.
Scotland loves an underdog, though. In East Stirlingshire we have the smallest dog of all.