Almanack: Gala's day is lost in a Highland fling

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The Independent Online
FANS of Scottish football will no doubt have read of the election of Caledonian Thistle and Ross County to the Scottish League last week, and will know that the failed applicants were Elgin City, Gala Fairydean and Gretna. But English newspapers have not addressed the intriguing questions raised by the elevation of the two Highland League clubs. Why, with applicants from all over the country, did the League elect two teams from the far north whose grounds are 10 miles apart? Why were certain Premier Division teams so keen to see two Highland teams chosen? And why does the entry of Caledonian Thistle, of Inverness, and Ross County, of Dingwall, into the League threaten the future of some of its oldest names?

First, the strange case of Gala Fairydean and the Premier League. Gala, a club from the Borders, the only area of Scotland without a senior football team, made what was generally regarded as an impressive pitch for a League place. They produced videos, they lobbied ceaselessly. Gala were supported by the League's lowlier clubs (looking forward to new, weak opponents) but opposed by Premier League teams who might be commercially threatened by a local newcomer.

Voting at the League's meeting was by secret ballot, but Almanack would be most surprised if Hearts and Hibernian voted in favour of Gala: Hibs are rumoured to be seeking sponsorship in Gala's area; and the Hearts chairman, Les Porteous, declared before the vote: 'As far as Gala are concerned, we sometimes have to be a little selfish, and the fact that we have a good-sized supporters' club in the town may come in to the equation.' In other words, Gala worried Hearts. James Traynor, football correspondent of the Glasgow Herald and our man north of the border, is scathing. 'If Hearts and Hibs are scared of Gala Fairydean,' he says, 'it shows how dire the finances of Scottish football are.'

If such concerns were reflected in the voting, they could have sealed Gala's fate: Premier Division clubs have four votes each. Second Division clubs, many of whom were against the admission of two Highland teams, have only one apiece. The big boys didn't want Gala; Gretna play in an English League and were thus out of favour, and Elgin City were in breach of Highland League regulations last year, which must have cost them votes.

Why are some Second Division teams not keen on the newcomers? Three reasons. One: winter weather in the Highlands is persistently foul, and matches are often postponed (witness Huntly and Albion's Cup tie - rescheduled last week for the tenth time). Two: the teams are good (Ross County thrashed Forfar in the Cup last week). Three: every trip to the Highlands will involve a long, tiring and expensive journey. The newcomers, flush with cash, won't mind. Penurious Second Division stalwarts welcome the new teams and their many travelling fans, but aren't so keen on the trip up north. 'The two things are the finance of it,' East Stirlingshire's commercial manager, Tom Kirk, told Almanack, 'and attracting players. If you're travelling these distances that's a whole Saturday taken up. It costs a bit: by the time you've had your travelling expenses, a meal on the way up, a meal on the way back . . . that's very expensive. And we're all strapped for cash - except Rangers.' The door that opened to admit Caley and County can swing the other way, too.