Chances are you’ve never heard of Arbroath.
It’s a small fishing town on the east coast of Scotland, about 75 miles north of Edinburgh with a population of about 24,000. It’s only really known here in the UK for the Declaration of Arbroath, a letter sent to the pope in 1320 asking for wider recognition of Robert the Bruce as King of an independent Scotland, and for the Arbroath Smokie, a type of smoked haddock that is produced in the town.
It’s one of those towns where its most notable former residents all achieved greatness elsewhere. David Dunbar Buick, founder of the car company, lived there before his family emigrated to Detroit when he was two. Neil Arnott, the inventor of the waterbed was born there. Giants kicker Graham Gano was born on a navy base there.
But Arbroath may get a bit more attention thanks to the exploits of its football team.
Formed in 1878, Arbroath FC- nicknamed the Red Lichties after the red lights that used to hang from the harbour to guide ships home- are best known for a couple of pieces of football trivia. The first, is that their stadium, Gayfield Park, is the closest stadium in Europe to the sea, sitting a mere 5 yards from the North Sea.
The second is that they hold the record for the largest victory in a professional game, having beaten Aberdeen-based side Bon Accord 36-0 in the Scottish Cup in 1885 (there was a game in Madagascar a few years ago that ended 149-0 but one team was deliberately conceding goals in protest of refereeing decisions, so Arbroath’s is the highest winning margin in a legitimate game).
All that may be about to change, as Arbroath are in with a chance at doing something truly remarkable. They are in with a good chance to be promoted to the Scottish Premier League
Arbroath play in the Scottish Championship, which-like it’s equivalent in England- is the division below the Scottish Premier League.
There are 42 teams in the Scottish Leagues, but only 22 are full-time, with all 12 of the Scottish Premier League being full-time. The Championship is the point where full-time and part-time teams overlap. Following Alloa Athletic’s relegation from the Championship last season, only one part-time team remains. Arbroath. The other 9 teams in the league are all full-time (Falkirk are Scotland’s other full-time team but have been stuck for three seasons in the league below the Championship and aren’t showing any sign of going up any time soon).
Part time means just that. The players do get paid for playing, but football won’t be how they make a living. The teams don’t train every day, instead it is more like 2-3 evenings a week, to allow the players to fit training in with their day jobs. In Arbroath’s case, top-scorer Michael McKenna is an electrician, veteran goal-scorer Bobby Linn is a refuse collector and midfielder Scott Stewart is a teacher.
As you might expect, the part-time teams are at a disadvantage compared to their full-time counterparts in terms of fitness, but also in terms of tactics, as with limited time to work with the players, teams have to play a simpler game.
However, Arbroath are defying all the odds this season, and at the time of writing are leading the Scottish Championship by three points. It’s still early in the season, but Arbroath are one of a group of teams that are chasing promotion.
The rise and further rise of Arbroath can be put down to a few things, all of which goes to show it’s not necessarily the number of resources you have, it’s how you use them.
Arbroath have an inherent homefield advantage because of the conditions, which are, even on a good day, difficult to play in. I’ve never been, but the stadium is meant to be extremely cold in the winter. Winds come screaming in from the North Sea and at times waves can actually crash over the wall onto the pitch. Arbroath are used to those conditions, and have found ways to play in them, which gives them an edge over the opposition.
Arbroath have also used their part-time status to their advantage. There are several good players out there who are unable, or unwilling, to make football their full-time career and want a more stable, sustainable form of income. For those players, a chance to play at a higher level of football than they otherwise may get the chance to, makes Arbroath a very attractive proposition, and as such, Arbroath are able to attract better players.
Finally, the biggest reason is the management of Dick Campbell. Campbell is a larger-than-life character, affable, fiery and ready and willing to tell a million stories. He’s also a cancer survivor, having beaten renal cancer several years ago.
Campbell is one of those shrewd, wily operators that work in the lower leagues of football. He’s spent over 35 years coaching and is closing in on 1500 games as a coach, mostly spent in the bottom divisions of Scottish football.
Unfortunately, he’s been unfairly labelled as too old-school to ever get a job in the upper divisions of Scottish football, but apart from one ill-fated spell at Ross County, he’s been a manager who’s gained a reputation for turning lower-league teams’ fortunes around.
Instantly recognisable for wearing his trademark bunnet (a Scottish word for a flat-cap) he first formed a formidable coaching partnership with his twin brother Ian during a successful spell in charge of Forfar Athletic, one of Arbroath’s local rivals and his brother is now his assistant at Arbroath. Their roles are reversed throughout the week with Dick working for Ian’s recruitment consultancy as his day job.
The Campbell family’s coaching is rounded off by his two sons, Ross and Iain being on the coaching staff of Montrose FC, one of Arbroath’s local rivals.
When he was appointed in March 2016, Arbroath were second from bottom in Scottish League Two, the bottom division in Scotland. In his first full season, Arbroath won the league. In his second, Arbroath finished third and were narrowly defeated in the playoffs. In his third full season, Arbroath were champions.
Campbell has slowly built a formidable team from a mixture of journeymen and long-serving players. For example, Michael McKenna bounced around the Scottish lower leagues with Livingston and Berwick Rangers before joining Arbroath and is now the top scorer in the league.
Campbell has also been a shrewd operator when it comes to loaning players. Forward Anton Dowds has came in on loan from Falkirk and played excellently. Similarly, Joel Nouble spent his career in the top two levels of the English non-leagues before making a move from Aldershot to Livingston last season. Campbell took him on loan and he has been so good it’s almost inevitable that Livingston will want him back in January.
In their first few seasons in the Championship, Arbroath played a defensive style, making themselves as difficult to beat as possible. However, this season, Arbroath are top scorers in the leagues whilst having the second-best defensive record.
Fans are responding. Arbroath’s average attendance has nearly tripled since Campbell took over,
If the unlikely happens and Arbroath do make it to the Scottish Premier League, it’s unsure what they would do. While there doesn’t seem to be anything in the rules to stop a part-time team from making it to the Premier League, it is hard to imagine they could be competitive. But, at the same time, it is unlikely that Arbroath have the resources to go full-time.
Discussion in 'Scotland' started by David Bolt, Dec 28, 2021.