Friday, June 25, 2021

My journey into the Scottish Professional Football League

Towards the end of the Scottish Premiership's 2020/2021 season, I found out that there are a lot more of the games from the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) on ESPN+ than I was aware. The games were mostly for the Premiership and the Championship levels, but the SPFL has four tiers of football, including League One and League Two levels. So I started watching a few games. Then I watched some more. All without any kind of rooting interest for a specific team. 

Around the same time, Indy Eleven signed/hired guys who have some kind of connection to Scotland or the SPFL: Nicky Law (Motherwell F.C. [2011-2013] and Rangers F.C. [2013-2016]), Cammie Smith (born in Aberdeen Scotland - played for Aberdeen F.C. [2012-17], Dundee United F.C. [2016-2021], St. Mirren F.C. [2016-19], and Ayr United F.C. [2020-21]), and assistant (now interim) coach Max Rogers (was an assistant coach at St. Mirren F.C. [2014 - 2016]). Indy Eleven already had the obvious connection to Scotland with Martin Rennie who was born in Thurso, in northern Scotland, as well as Owain Fon Williams who has played in various spots in the SPFL, including Inverness Caledonian Thistle F.C. [2015-2019], Hamilton Academical F.C. [2019-2020], and Dunfermline Athletic F.C. [2020 (on loan) and again for the 2020/2021 season]). After all of those connections, we had Indy Eleven's return to Carroll Stadium immortalized in artwork by Steven Stewart of Football Stadium Prints. Who, wouldn't you know, is from Scotland.

As I've stated before, I don't have a rooting interest in any of the world leagues, including MLS, and as best I can tell going back through some of the hints in my family tree on, I don't have any (maybe one) connections to Scotland. Yet, as I continued to watch games and become more interested and invested in the results, I began to consider that maybe it was the SPFL that should be my world league to support. Without any family connection that I could find to Scotland, it came down to research. I started reading through every Premiership team's wikipedia page to learn about their history and their records to see if I could rule out any or if any spoke to me. I managed to narrow it down a little, but then decided that it was crazy. Why not just ask the guys for their help?

So I did. Since I also receive the press releases for El Paso Locomotive, I reached out to them to find out if Nick Ross, who is from Inverness, Scotland and played for Inverness Caledonian Thistle (different time than Fon Williams) and Dundee, would be interested in answering some questions too. Which he obliged.

So I asked each guy some questions to find out what they liked and disliked about the league, what stadiums they enjoyed or hated, and even how the SPFL differs from American leagues. All in a hope that it would help narrow down the team that I wanted to support. Which it did, but that comes later. Due to the questions that I asked them, I also have a diversion discussion about stadiums. 

ALT: Do you have a (or more than one) SPFL team that you currently root for and why?

Nick Ross (Ross): "I always follow the Inverness scores as that’s my home town team. Growing up I liked Rangers too so I try to follow how they’re doing as well."

Nicky Law (Law): "Team I root for are obviously Rangers and Motherwell as I spent time with both, I always say the 2 years I spent at Motherwell were my favorite of my career by far; great family club, great people, had a brilliant relationship with the fans (until I left for Rangers), and mostly a fantastic manager staff and group of guys to share a dressing room with. Friends for life were made there and we were very successful.

Steven Stewart (Stewart): "I'm from Brechin, Scotland, so I'm a Brechin City fan. I couldn't support anyone else. Although we have just been relegated from the SPFL. We were given a stay of execution last year when the season was cut short because of the pandemic whilst we were bottom of the league. We were given a second bite at the cherry this season, but still ended up bottom and lost our playoff with Kelty Hearts. So, I don't actually support any SPFL Team anymore. My team is a Highland League team now! I don't think I can support any other team like I do my home club, apart from Scotland. I definitely have soft spots for other teams that I have a bit of a connection with. When I first moved to London, I lived in Fulham so went to quite a few Fulham games so I like seeing them do well. Camp Nou was the first overseas stadium I visited and that gave me a bit of a feeling for Barca. I saw Racing v River in Buenos Aires a few years back and the atmosphere in El Cilindro was so incredible that River have stayed with me. But I wouldn't say that I support them. Not in the same way that I support Brechin and Scotland. When Brechin and Scotland lose, it hurts. When they win, I'm punching the air with delight. I don't get that with anyone else."

Steven's response to who he supports feels very similar to mine. I root for Indy Eleven and the U.S. National Teams. I'm writing this article and reaching out to all of these guys about teams in the SPFL, but I suspect that no matter what team I choose, my connection to it will always feel ancillary at best and won't affect me the way an Indy Eleven or USWNT/USMNT result affects me. I guess we'll see that in the future.

ALT: What is your favorite and least favorite memories of your time in the SPFL?

Ross: "My favourite memory is either gaining promotion from the Championship to Premiership in my debut season or winning the Scottish cup (both at Inverness). Also at Dundee, we beat our rivals Dundee United near the end of the season which relegated them and the atmosphere at that game was special."

Law: "Favourite memories were the second place finish with Motherwell, and also playing in European qualifying rounds as a result of that achievement. We had a fantastic side. Least favourite, I don’t really have any, but I would say the cup runs we had in my time with Motherwell were my most disappointing, as those were the competitions were we underachieved. My least favourite memory is playing in bad weather, particularly snow!"

ALT: How would you describe the differences in play between the SPFL and what you have seen in the USL?

Ross: "A big difference for me is the fans. In Scotland, the fans are a lot more demanding and are not shy in letting you know if you’re playing bad! At Dundee, I lost count how many times we were booed off the pitch, even at half time, if we weren’t wining the game. Also, the speed of the game is slower here, but that’s mainly because of the weather. Games in Scotland can be pretty hectic."

Law: "I would say the USL is a slower tempo and more tactical in its approach, whereas the SPFL is high tempo, maybe not as much football played on the floor. It’s a lot of fighting for second balls etc., whereas USL is more trying to play neat football."

It's interesting to me that both guys basically provided the same response. It's also something that I observed when watching the league this Spring. There were times during games that the only way to describe them were as "frenetic." The relegation play-offs particularly had a hectic, frenetic feel to them with the stakes so high for both teams. 

I asked Nick and Nicky stadium questions before I knew that Steven was going to participate, but I'm glad that I did because they all provided me with some great insight into the Scottish stadiums. Obviously, I had already been watching games and was seeing the stadiums, but the games were being played without fans. So I was losing a major component of what can make or break a stadium's attractiveness. I had also started doing more research on them (that's what I do), so let's dig into their responses and what I found.

ALT: What is your favorite SPFL stadium to play in and why (across all levels where you may have played)? Question was adjusted slightly for Steven who has attended games, but not played, in SPFL stadiums. 

Ross: "I always enjoyed playing at the big stadiums, e.g Celtic Park (Celtic) and Ibrox (Rangers), but I’d say my favourite is Tynecastle (Hearts). They have a good crowd and the supporters are so close to the pitch so the atmosphere is always really good."

Law: "My favourite ground to play in was probably the obvious ones Ibrox and Celtic park for sheer amount of fans and noise, but special mention to Hearts, because that’s a tight stadium with the fans on top of you and they generate a great atmosphere also." 

Steven: "I really like Central Park, Cowdenbeath. It has a stock car track around the pitch. It's wild!! Don't be thinking it's anything like the amazing motorsport venues you have in the States. This is a very, very Scottish attempt at that sort of thing and it's marvelous!!"

Photo Credit - Wikipedia
I'll get to Steven's comment in a minute, but stick with me for a bit.

It amazes me that both Ross and Law separately mention Tynecastle Park, where Heart of Midlothian F.C. (or commonly known as Hearts), who play in the Premiership, have played since 1886. Tynecastle Park seats just over 20,000 fans. The stadium is an "all-seated" stadium, to comply with the Taylor Report, which is the report that resulted from the inquiry after the Hillsborough disaster. 

I have to say that having watched this YouTube video highlighting Tynecastle, and doing my research on so many of the other stadiums around the SPFL, I really wish that Indy would consider going with this style stadium design. For me, it's just a classic look that the new American stadiums don't do. The supporters are on top of the action, nearly all of the seats have some level of protection directly above them, and the sound from them should just bounce directly out onto the field, giving you the environment that Nick and Nicky appreciated.

I like the Scottish stadiums that I've looked at so far. There's a similar look to many of them, but they just have a look that appeals to me. In comparison to the sports cathedrals that we build in America, they have a very utilitarian feel to them, particularly knowing that they are stadiums associated with the top tier of Scottish football. This is not intended to denigrate the Scottish stadiums, they're just a different style than we build here. Some Indy supporters have dubbed Carroll Stadium, "American Soccer's Greatest Dive Bar," and I think a Scottish style stadium would be a way to lean into that part of Indy's history. As I said, there's a utilitarian appearance to the stadiums that fits nicely into the idea that I mentioned in my "Indy Eleven and its place in the American Lower Division Soccer Landscape" article about Indy "punching their weight." I like the idea of building a stadium that reflects Indy. Maybe many in Indy strive to consider Indy a "high class" city, but are we, really? Don't get me wrong, we have some really nice things, but deep down we're a tenderloin, root beer (or beer), and a day at the track kind of people. Let's be honest, a utilitarian stadium fits us well. Field, seats, a little protection from the Indiana weather, a place to be safe from the more extreme Indiana weather, and corn dogs and nachos in the concession stand. All that fits nicely into a Scottish style stadium. Yet I know architects and I know the architects that typically get hired to design American stadiums (e.g. Populous) and they would look at one of the Scottish stadiums and cringe. Either way, I suspect an architect is either already under contract to design the next iteration of Eleven Park and it won't be anywhere close to this style. So just to humor myself and educate you a bit more on Scottish stadiums, here are a couple more examples for you to to peruse.

Pittodrie Stadium - Aberdeen FC (Google Earth image)

Fir Park - Motherwell FC (Google Earth image)

Photo Credit - Central Fife Times
For those of you who couldn't read a word I just said about Tynecastle or Dive Bars or Populous, because you were stuck on the fact that Steven mentioned that Central Park for Cowdenbeath has "a stock car track around the pitch," I have you covered. Cowdenbeath F.C. plays in the Scottish League Two, with Central Park (link to YouTube video of drone footage of stadium) having a seating capacity of just over 4,300. 

I, erroneously, assumed that Steven meant there was a track on the outside of the stadium, similar to the railroad tracks that run immediately adjacent to Pittsburgh's Highmark Stadium. Man was I wrong. It's one thing for Indy Eleven fans to complain about a running track between the field and the stands, but this is on another level. Also, I think we may have found Peter Wilt, Andrew Retz, and Peter Evans' "spirit stadium." Soccer and small track racing in one location. All those folks who have said over the years that the stadium should be built inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you were thinking too big. Lucas Oil Raceway on the west side of Indianapolis would work nicely and they have experience with large crowds too since they host the NHRA U.S. Nationals every Labor Day weekend.

 I digress...

ALT: Which stadium has been your favorite to draw? (Note: In Steven's response, for the stadium name, I have linked a photo or video where I could find a good one and for the team name, I have a link to his artwork for the stadium.)

Steven: "Ooh. I strangely like the ones that have more of the surrounding area contained within them. Cappielow Stadium (Greenock Morton FC) showing the huge shipbuilding crane in the background; Christchurch Meadow (Belper Town FC) showing the Nail Factory; Grange Lane (North Ferriby) has the Church, Allotments, and Humber Bridge. I like these as they capture the local area and a bit of the community that the grounds are in. I am far more drawn to old traditional grounds as opposed to the newer out of town stadiums. I like grounds with a bit of history about them. I love that about The Mike and the athletics history that has happened there."

ALT: For somebody who is just getting into watching the league, what should I know and what team should I consider supporting and why?

Steven: "This is a tough one. I'd probably say to see if you can find any family connection at all with a Scottish town. If no family connection, just find any connection at all and then find the closest club. Don't worry about the club size, don't worry about their success, don't worry about the team colours or name. Just find a connection and then that'll help to create an initial bond. If you do end up with a team in the lower leagues you are in for a treat. The leagues are so competitive and things can change so quickly. Promotion and relegation means there is usually always something up for grabs for your chosen team."

Law: "If you speak to Cammy, he will push you to Aberdeen, that’s his hometown and favorite team. I would suggest Motherwell. As I say, family club with good values, an underdog that likes to over achieve."

Going into these questions with these guys, I had a couple of teams that I was finding myself drawn to and interested in watching their games; Aberdeen and Kilmarnock. I didn't mention it to them, but my second level of teams of interest included Motherwell. When I asked Steven about if there was any reason I shouldn't support Aberdeen or Kilmarnock, this was his response:

Steven: "Other than continuous crushing disappointment? haha. But that's Scottish football for you! Absolutely no reason at all not to support any of them. Kilmarnock have just been relegated from the top flight so they will be hoping to bounce back so you should have a pretty exciting first year supporting them. [Editor's note: I was aware of this as I watched the relegation play-off with great disappointment that the team I was considering supporting was outplayed by Dundee and was going to be dropped from the Premiership.] Aberdeen have just appointed a new coach, Stephen Glass, he has most recently been working with Atlanta, and there is now talk of Aberdeen building a new stadium in town rather than moving out of town. So that could be quite exciting. [I was also aware of the Stephen Glass hiring - see my Martin Rennie departure article - and Aberdeen's connection to Atlanta United was one of the reasons that were causing me to lean away from supporting them.]

So who did I decide to support? 

I had done the wikipedia research on all the teams and learned about their history. As I said, Aberdeen was interesting and I think Pittodrie Sadium looks great, but their connection to Atlanta United turns me off. Kilmarnock's history is cool in that the wikipedia entry indicates that they are "the oldest professional club in Scotland." They are also located in East Ayrshire, and my review indicated that one of my distant relatives might (stress might) be from the general area. So following Steven's advice, I might have a connection there. 

Listening to Nicky Law, I went back and researched Motherwell again. My connection to them being Nicky. "Just find a connection and then that'll help to create an initial bond." As I re-read the wikipedia entry, I got to this... "On 28 October 2016, Motherwell became a fan-owned club when supporters club Well Society's £1 deal with Les Hutchison was concluded.[46]"

Motherwell F.C. is fan-owned. I'm in. That's my team to support in the Premiership. I think I'm still going to pay attention to Kilmarnock (my wife and kids love that it reminds them of Ragnarock), because as Steven said, this could be an interesting year for them as they try to bounce back up to the Premiership from the Championship, but Motherwell will be the team that I follow and consider my world team. Like Steven said about his support of Brechin, I suspect I'm still going to have a bit of a disconnect in my support of Motherwell by doing it across the pond and they are never going to supplant my support of Indy Eleven, but I went about finding a team by doing it the only way that I know how. I sat down, did research, and ask questions of people I think I can trust to give me honest answers.

So Motherwell F.C. it is. 

Now that I have decided what team I want to support, I need to figure out the money conversion rate and what shipping is going to cost to get a scarf or jersey. Guessing it won't be cheap.

The lesson that I learned through this process is that soccer/football is still beckoning me and my decision to support a Scottish team probably isn't much different than many people's entry into how they decided to support an EPL or Bundesliga team. It also reiterated for me that despite the toxicity that Soccer Twitter can be, there are really nice people in the soccer/football world who just love talking about the sport with other supporters. I don't know Nick, Nicky, or Steven personally, but they all took time out of their days to answer some questions.  

Thank you Nick, Nicky, and Steven for your time. You're all good people and I appreciate you taking the time to answer a random guy's questions. Thank you Nicky for leading me in a good direction for my team to support.


Tyler said...

If you want see a great stadium design close to Indy check out FC Cincinnati's new stadium. The fans are super close to the pitch and everyone is covered by the canopy.

Steven Stewart said...

I'll need to check the new FC Cincinnati stadium out.

Drew said...

Sorry Tyler. Too much like so many of the other stadiums in the U.S. I'm digging that old-school look from the Scotland (and other UK) teams.