Spartans nearly achieved the improbable. Standing on the brink of becoming the first non-league side to progress to the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup in nearly fifty years, it was difficult not to become immersed in the story of this year’s competition.
The fact they ultimately felt short of that feat should by no means undermine their run to the fifth round, a road along which they’d already seen off two league sides before a date with Berwick Rangers.
Cup run aside, Spartans as a football club embody everything good about football. A small, but vocal fan base, and a community club with a commitment to its academy and one that stays true to its roots.
What’s not to like? In a day and age, where if anything football clubs are moving away from their very lifeblood, the supporters, it’s pleasing to see Spartans rallying around one another as they progressed on an unlikely journey this season.
Their 1-0 defeat at Shielfield Park to Berwick Rangers may have ended this latest chapter for the side who call north Edinburgh home, but it is perhaps the beginning of an even bigger story for the Lowland Leaguers.
Just seven years ago, the Ainslie Park outfit were shortlisted as a potential replacement for Gretna in the Scottish Football League alongside Preston Athletic and Annan Athletic. The place went to the latter.
Yet, there is hope that the self-dubbed ‘Spartan Army’ won’t have to wait too much longer before they’re welcoming the likes of Berwick’s-ilk to Pilton for Scottish Football League fixtures.
In many respects the infrastructure is largely already in place. While on average they attract between 100-150 supporters to home fixtures, the original tie with Berwick attracted a bumper gate of 2500, while around 1000 travelling Spartans supporters made the trip in the replay.
The makings of a sustainable fan base are there, and their tidy Ainslie Park stadium, with its cosy looking seated stand and its plastic pitch, already have the look of a side determined to make that step up.
Dougie Samuel’s side’s Scottish Cup exploits have garnered a fair share of media attention, and rightly so. While Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian and Edinburgh Rugby may ordinarily dominate the back pages, it was particularly pleasing to see Spartans get the exposure that every non-league side dreams of, and in fact deserves.
Above all, their sensational run to the fifth round of the competition exposed the drama and the quality of non-league football to a wider audience, much like a ‘giant-killing’ does south of the border in the FA Cup.
Two victories over league opposition had them on the cusp of history. A 2-0 home win over Barry Ferguson’s Clyde, before a come from behind 2-1 win against even higher opposition in League One Morton showed just what Spartans were made of. So when Colin Cameron and his Berwick side rolled into town on 7 February, expectations were high and the excitement was palpable.
The fascinating thing about these sorts of cup ties is that it’s a win-win scenario in many ways for the underdog. Lose, and while disappointment will undoubtedly be felt, you will still be commended for how far you’d come. Win, and you’d have shocked everybody.
Things didn’t exactly get off to the best start in the first fixture when they fell behind to a deflected strike within the opening five minutes. But full credit must go to Spartans for the way they weathered the storm and rallied, particularly in the second half.
Their display of grit and determination was inspiring, and such was the nature of the performance in the second period, they were arguably unlucky not to have won the tie out-right.
As it happens, football works in mysterious ways. Just when it looked like their chance had gone, up stepped centre-half Ally MacKinnon to volley home a leveller in injury time.
If the first game was a showpiece occasion, the replay was even more so. With vast amounts of prize money at stake, and history to be made, this had it all. An added incentive was a televised quarter-final trip to Hibernian, and the prospect of a local derby for Spartans.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it, Spartans’ luck simply ran out. Darren Lavery’s 29th minute strike was enough to end their resistance, but not before they struck the woodwork.
In the end it was Berwick Rangers who created their own bit of history by reaching the Scottish Cup quarter-finals for the first time in thirty-five years.
Yet, Spartans restores confidence to football and shows that these sorts of storylines are not a thing of the past. As football becomes increasingly dominated by money, TV revenue and agents fees, no one would blame these community clubs if they simply packed up and stop trying anymore, simply because money within local football is often siphoned away to the more lucrative leagues.
It is testament to the power of football and community spirit that we still see examples of this in modern day football. In many respects this is exactly why we love an underdog story, and simply yearn for an upset, whether it be in the Scottish Cup or its English equivalent.
South of the border there are claims that this is the best season of the FA Cup for many a year in light of the amount of high profile casualties. From Warrington Town, Worcester City and Blyth Spartans’ exploits in the earlier rounds, to the efforts of Bradford City and Middlesbrough to dispose of Chelsea, Sunderland and Manchester City respectively, the magic of the cup is still there for all to see.
In Scotland, it very much is too. Spartans’ escapades are the story of the season, but Raith Rovers also provided an upset by disposing of Rangers in the fifth round too.
What is even more extraordinary is the existence of local non-league clubs is very much dependent on cup windfalls. It is also reliant on the tireless work that hordes of volunteers put in, as well as donations from supporters.
All too often we can become engrossed in the money-bubble of professional football and overlook the smaller clubs within our proximity.
Here in Edinburgh, Spartans are arguably leading the way. The Lowland Leaguers typify the ‘community club’ label, and that is terrific to see.