The Scottish Challenge Cup has always been a highly prioritized competition for Scottish clubs below the top tier. This year however witnesses an expansion, welcomed by UEFA, which includes teams from outside Scottish football for the first time since its inauguration in 1990.
The 2016/17 competition, which kicked off on 2nd August, features 54 entrants. These include, teams in the Scottish Football League below the top level of Scottish football, the under-20 teams of the twelve Scottish Premiership clubs, four Highland League teams, four Lowland League teams and more significantly two teams from the Northern Ireland Football League and two from the Welsh Premier League. These four from outside Scotland are the top two teams from their respective leagues, thus granting places for Crusaders and Linfield from Northern Ireland, and The New Saints and Bala Town from Wales. They will enter the last 16 stage in October and one from each country will be rewarded with a home tie. This exciting new development certainly involves an intricate format, but the eventual winners will unquestionably reap the rewards that the trophy brings.
The inclusion of under 20 teams mirrors that of the English Football League Trophy – formerly the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – as 16 category one Premier League academy sides have also been introduced to this new format. This, unlike the popular reception north of the border, has received criticism for attempting to insert Premier League B teams into the English football pyramid. There have been no such complaints in the revamped Scottish Challenge Cup, which has even been praised for delivering cross-border competition. The utterly disappointing lack of fans all across England for the recent matches in the EFL Trophy are in stark contrast to the strongly followed fixtures in Scotland.
Round three arrives this weekend – and the previous stages have already pleased the neutral fans with a few shock results. Celtic remain the only under 20s team to survive, while Turriff United are waving the flag high for the Highland League. The youth of the Hoops has brushed aside League Two sides Annan and Cowdenbeath, while Turriff have equally impressively seen off St Johnstone under 20s and League Two Montrose. The competition undoubtedly increases in stature with the upcoming inclusion of Championship teams, and the beauty of the tournament sees high flyers Hibernian travel to Turriff in the biggest game of their 62 year existence.
The competition will as always allow the minnows a brief moment in the limelight, but will more importantly provide the youth of Scottish football with a platform to showcase their talent to their clubs and of course to others. This extremely significant factor will allow a country that has somewhat underachieved at national level in recent years to prepare for a bright future with a generation of more experienced players.
Furthermore, fans of these heavily supported footballing countries will get a chance to travel across the United Kingdom in their numbers, not just to follow their team but to secure the ever so sweet bragging rights among their noisy neighbors. And for the players from Northern Ireland and Wales? The opportunity has finally arrived to test themselves in another country, and to possibly go even further by performing in this more glorified football league and kick-start a promising career.
Footballing giants Rangers are the current holders of the now called ‘Irn-Bru Cup’ and played last year’s final at Hampden Park in front of almost 50,000 fans. The neutral venue will be very interesting and highly anticipated if a club from Northern Ireland or Wales reach the final, but a fantastic turn out will be guaranteed.
As most of the fixtures are set to coincide with international breaks, and with BBC ALBA, S4C and Premier Sports broadcasting the matches, the future looks promising for this redecorated facet of Scottish football.