The Magic of the Scottish Cup Has Already Begun

I’m on my feet an hour after paying £4.99 to stream Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic v Bo’ness United in the Scottish Cup First Round as the game goes ahead at the third time of asking. It’s not how I anticipated spending the first day of 2021 but here I am, springing from my couch in disbelief as Rose striker – and 2019/20 Goal of the Tournament winner – George Hunter is fouled inside the area for the third time in five second half minutes. There’s little debate about the decision and, as was the case on the previous two occasions, Lee Currie dispatches the ball into the bottom corner to complete an unlikely hat-trick from twelve yards.

It’s a whirlwind spell that Bo’ness can’t recover from with the home side’s 5-2 victory securing a Second Round trip to Championship Dundee this coming weekend. As the “big guns’ from Scotland’s second tier enter the fray previously absent pens turn eager, ready to scribe stories of football fairytales come true. Bonnyrigg will hope to be a protagonist for those future headlines but, with most of us still watching the Scottish Cup unfold from home, the fairytale narratives have already begun as a treasure trove of unfamiliar faces from unfamiliar places start their journey on the road to Hampden. Even from home there is wonder to be found.

There are team names like Easthouses Lily Miners Welfare, Jeanfield Swifts, Civil Service Strollers and Dundonald Bluebell that let your imagination conjure whimsy-laden backstories around why their founders shunned the more conventional Thistles or Athletic. They may be daintily named but they’re still proud owners of a journeyman bruiser that can crunch into a hefty challenge or the local hero who delivers parcels on Tuesdays and whipped crosses on Saturday afternoons.

Those names come with the intrigue of travelling down the paths less trodden, journeys currently being made by the privileged few. Adventures to terrace framed landscapes of unexpected beauty, seeing corner flags flail wildly in the winds of coastal abodes bruised by tormenting seas, down country roads that seem to twist and turn forever or to the village fields hemmed in by row upon row of tightly packed houses. Back gardens become ninety minute drop zones for the football-shaped missiles that have been ballooned over squat little stands of corrugated iron or past open terraces backed by red brick walls that don’t quite stretch high enough into the sky.

In normal times I would be saddling up for these trails, adrenaline pumping I’d pour over each round in search of that perfect mix of drama and expedition and salivating at the thought of the sensory overload that the early rounds of the cup can bring. These aren’t normal times though.

2020 was tough on fans, we became too accustomed to the missed sensations of homes familiar and new but, as we continue to squint towards horizons locked within an aspect ratio of 16:9, a silver lining on 2020’s heavy cloud has emerged. Clubs, and the volunteers who have kept them breathing have embraced innovation, possessing a visible reach far beyond their usual borders. A means to engage with fans at a time when they will feel at their most distance. For those engaged, both loyal and newly curious, who will often persevere as robotic arms gyrate drunkenly across the pitch or as streams stutter, there is cup joy to be found.

In the first preliminary round, amidst a low setting winter sun that made most of the first half hard to watch on screen I saw one of five tournament debutants, Musselburgh Athletic, make a winning start to their Scottish Cup career as two red cards, five goals and an extra time winner from Darren Downie saw them overcome hosts Penicuik Athletic 3-2 in Midlothian. Their reward is a trip to Wick Academy, the competitions most northern outpost, where defeat would follow.

With more fixtures to pick from in preliminary round number two I referred to the criteria I would use in much simpler times. Firstly, and most importantly, the teams competing should be from different leagues, as far apart as possible. The fixtures you don’t normally get to see, it’s what the Scottish Cup is all about. Then there should be something historic about the fixture as a whole or for one of the sides competing and ideally a potential upset should be at least a possibility.

With that criterion in mind I see Lowland League East Stirlingshire comfortably defeat Highland League Inverurie Loco Works 5-0 at the Falkirk Stadium and BSC Glasgow, who reached the fifth round of the 2019/20 competition, lose 3-2 to another debutant East of Scotland Haddington Athletic. The Hi Hi’s place in the tournament ensured after they met criteria of their own in obtaining Club Licensing earlier in the year.

In the first round proper, my Boxing Day wasn’t spent with family or on the storm-swept terraces but at my desk watching Highland League Buckie Thistle comfortably defeat League Two Albion Rovers 3-0 at a dreich Cliftonhill, 42 years after they lost 1-0 on their previous visit to Coatbridge. Buckie’s Andy MacAskill scored direct from a corner, a rare feat that was then remarkably matched by his brother Craig as Keith (the football club, not a third brother) got past Hill of Beath Hawthorn in extra time. A moment of coincidence that only the Scottish Cup can seem to bring.

Before I tuned in at New Dundas Park the BBC cameras had headed to New Central Park for Dundonald Bluebell against ten time winners Queen’s Park. The nouveau riche former amateurs need extra time to get past a defensively resolute Fife side where on a night blessed by snow Spiders star striker Simon Murray produces one of the funniest misses I’ve ever seen. The first round isn’t over as I wait to see when Camelon v Brora Rangers will finally be accompanied by a tweet that say ”GAME ON”. Sometimes the fairytales have to wait.

These are just the stories I’ve observed, there are more in the first round. Tranent Juniors thrash East Stirlingshire 4-1 against a backdrop of marron, their name shouted in the boldest of fonts from behind one end should you dare to forget it and Linlithgow Roses’s comeback victory over SPFL Brechin City ensure that shocks continue to pour in ahead of a Second Round draw that rewards Buckie with a home tie against 2015 winners Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Bonnyrigg their trip to Dens and the chance for one of Camelon or Brora Rangers to host finalists from the last two seasons, Hearts.

The hype machine will hopefully begin to whirr louder as the country’s most recognizable names enter the fray, where shocks can be bigger as a still distant endgame comes into focus. For me though the true magic comes early. When the days are especially cold as rain and sleet comes in sideways with the jeopardy of not knowing if a game will commence at the fourth, fifth or sixth attempt. Where cameras are pointed towards the imperfect and where teams from places you rarely hear of create stories that become folklore in the communities where they were raised.

The Scottish Cup is magic, from first moment to last, it’s never too late to come along for the ride.

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