By Lewis Michie
Cove Rangers have made quite the impact this season in League Two, following their promotion from the Highland League. It felt like a long time coming for the Aberdeen based side, ever since they were denied the opportunity to replace Gretna in the SPFL back in 2008, it’s felt like a matter of time before Cove somehow, someway found their way in – there were close calls with the play-offs before, but their emphatic performances last season in the pyramid play-offs left no doubt that they belonged.
If there were any sort of doubt beforehand, the beginning to the 19/20 season has certainly given onlookers the belief that the SPFL is better off with Cove Rangers in it. Cove are quite clearly already far more competitive than the team they replaced – Berwick Rangers – and having yet to lose a game in the league,drawing once and winning the rest – including an opening day 5-0 thrashing of Edinburgh City, there is no doubt Cove are in League Two to compete.
The significance of the opening day beating of City is not lost on many. Even before a ball was kicked in League Two, the bookies were making Cove their favourites to win the title. As anyone at the club would have told you however, you simply cannot come into a league like League Two and be tipped so heavily without ever having played a minute – you’ve got to earn it.
Cove took a big first step in doing that when they brushed aside the citizens, they didn’t just beat them, they made a statement. Not just against any side either, last season’s third placed team, a team who with a bit more depth and a little more luck might have been playing in League One this season, and the team made second favourites by the book makers.
In all fairness to Edinburgh City, their supporters were very clear on the opening day that the performance was not nearly what the club is capable of – they’ve shown as much since, propping themselves up right below Cove in the table – and you’d imagine the next meeting of the two will be more contested – certainly in Edinburgh.
So why were Cove favourites in the first place? Why did they not even have to hear the referee’s opening whistle before bookies were setting up their predicted league tables.
For a start, bookies odds aren’t exactly the easiest way to judge a club’s ambitions or capabilities. They are just trying to avoid losing money, and you could imagine a whole lot of people were ready to back Cove for the title seeing as they’d just come up and had a lot of momentum, so reading too much into the odds can be dangerous – as obviously they’d set the odds for Cove in a way that will lose them less money, should the Granite City side win the title, if a lot of people were backing them.
However, there was still plenty of people around that don’t have the ‘dog in the fight’ that a bookie would that tipped to Cove to at the very least ‘do well’. Part of that is simply down to simple elements like the fact that after the momentum of a promotion, and the habit of winning developed over the years at the top of the Highland league can be helpful.
Of course, being in a city such as Aberdeen – the third largest city by population in Scotland, with a decent sized surrounding area – can help in terms of attracting supporters into their relatively new Balmoral Stadium – another plus point. Many smaller cities/areas in Scotland survive with a second team, so there is no reason in a city the size of Aberdeen, there couldn’t be a well supported second SPFL side.
The real test will come in the next few years to see if the club retains the numbers it’s currently putting up in attendances – or even increases them – as the excitement around the club could be boosting this. However, the numbers certainly hold up right now – just shy of 1000 people attended the opening day win against Edinburgh City.
Over 800 went to the next home game against Cowdenbeath, and while that number went down for the next home game against Queen’s Park where over 650 people were there watching these are still decent numbers for a League Two club. It’s worthwhile to note as well that the Queen’s Park game achieved that number in spite of an Aberdeen game taking place at Pittodrie at the same time.
Cove’s current average attendance is 850, around 200 better than the next best attended League Two club in Stirling Albion. You’d expect this number to gradually decrease towards the middle of the season, before rising again towards the end should Cove be involved towards the top of the table – but it will easily be above the majority of clubs in the division who hit about 400 or under on a match-day.
Even if Cove were in League One level – which you would imagine might bring even more supporters through the gates – they’d currently sit 7th in terms of average attendance.
Then of course there is the big one, the money. People of course claim to know budgets of each and every club in the SPFL, but it’s simply not that easy. What we do know is that a lot of people believe Cove have one of, if not the biggest ‘budget’ in their division.
Now, defining a budget isn’t exactly easy, is it just the pot the team have to use for wages of players, does it include managers wages too?
Either way, we can argue about who’s got the bigger budget etc, but at the end of the day, so far Cove are proving a pull for players and staff that might not otherwise be in League Two – that might be because of money, or other reasons – generally, it’s probably a mix.
Either way, the club have attracted some decent talent. Not least their manager Paul Hartley, Falkirk and Dundee fans may argue differently, but someone with Hartey’s CV could have had a job further up the pyramid – but he’s come to Cove. Now, the fact he is the son-in-law of former Cove manager John Sheerin may have helped, but you’d hedge a guess that he’s not on a pittance.
You then have signings like Jamie Redman, who joined this summer from Montrose, and by all accounts was still wanted at Links Park, but dropped down a division. Surely a few clubs higher up the ranks were after Fraser Fyvie, but he’s signed a short term deal at Balmoral. Coming home was apparently a big pull for both players – but at the end of the day they need to make a living and it’s without a doubt that Cove are offering them something worthwhile.
Many speculators on Social media have hinted at Cove as a potential “future Gretna” – as in they believe the club is spending outwith its means and that such a system will eventually catch up with them.
However, there are quite a few details those people may be overlooking – be it by accident or by choice. For starters, while it can be imagined that the likes of Hartley and Fyvie might be earning more than many others in the same division as them, it isn’t a whole team made up of players all on the same wage.
The likes of Harry Milne, goalkeeper Stuart Mackenize, Scott Ross, Blair Yule and captain Mitch Megginson are all part of a group of 15 players still with the club who have come up from the Highland League along with Cove.
They might have gotten pay raises, but they’ll certainly still be on money more in line with that of other League Two players.
While the additions of players like Fyvie or Redman might see the wage structure at Balmoral grow, the squad has also been added to with a number of loan deals.
Declan Glass and Matty Smith have come in from Dundee United – with Glass proving a hit and Smith scoring twice in his first three games for the club. Striker John Robertson has been recruited from St Johnstone and Chris Antionanzzi has been borrowed from Aberdeen.
The likelihood is that, as with many loan deals – especially considering the budgets of the loaning clubs, Cove are only paying a percentage , if any, of these player’s wages.
The downside is of course the short-termism of these deals. Declan Glass will probably continue to make himself key to Cove this season, but is probably destined for bigger things (Even if Cove are promoted), but that’s a risk they’ve willingly taken. Of course, there is also plenty where he came from, and establishing good relationships with these clubs early on can only help Cove in the future.
Other loanees might end up finishing their loan and then even considering a full-time move down the leagues if it’s clear things won’t work out at their parent club, and the goodwill being built now can only help with recruiting these types of players in the future.
So part of that dismisses the chatter of Cove overspending, at least if they are spending beyond their means, it isn’t by as much as what some might make out.
In addition to this, you also have to consider what the club’s means really are.
Just because the club might spend more than a current division rival, doesn’t mean that the expenditure is too much for Cove.
The club as shown previously is clearly drawing in crowds that offer a decent source of income. The location of the stadium appeared an issue when planned – due to essentially no pubs being within walking distance – but the club has remedied that with a supporters bar, which provides an extra source of income and certainly looks busy on a match-day.
A plus point of being in Aberdeen is the oil and gas industry. Cove were able to establish a new kit sponsorship deal worth “six figures” over a three year period at the beginning of the season – the club’s ground is also covered inch to inch in advertisements for a variety of businesses.
Balmoral Stadium is also used for a range of Aberdeen FC’’s youth and reserve fixtures, which must come at a price.
While the construction of Balmoral Stadium came at a predictably large cost – the former ground of Cove Rangers (Allan Park) was sold for a reported three million pounds – which will have helped with costs.
So there is certainly money coming in to help balance the books.
Then of course, you need to look at ambition. Cove quite clearly have made a start that if kept up, would see them in League One next season. Higher prize money, potentially some big gate fixtures – and higher sponsorship costs to go along with it.
If Cove can achieve promotion in one season, even if they may have to overspend for that season, it could be looked as a cost worth paying – but again, we simply do not know at this point if they even are spending more than they bring in.
Ambition goes both ways, if your aim is League One and you spend League One money in League Two, it could be a risk worth taking. Going back to the Gretna example however, if you’re spending Premiership money in an attempt to somehow make the Premiership, you probably won’t even get to enjoy your time in the league once you get there due to the damage done in the pursuit.
Cove Rangers however, are not entertaining dreams of a Premiership run, at least not any time soon.
Speaking to the Evening Express earlier this year Cove Rangers Chairman Keith Moorhouse admitted the club couldn’t get ahead of themselves, saying the aim this season would initially be to stay in the SPFL and ensure survival.
We’re not getting carried away because stuff about us being favourites to win the league is nonsense.
“We take that with a pinch of salt and we know we’ve got a lot of work to do to prove we’re worthy of staying in this league.”
That’s the short-term goal, what’s the long-term aims?
Well, apparently overall in the next five years they’d like to join other North East teams like Peterhead and Montrose in League One.
Moorhouse told the BBC:
Can we get to the Premiership? Unlikely. We certainly think League One is achievable and then we will take stock then.”
That wouldn’t sound too much like a chairman who is spending far too much money for the level his side is at, or thinks the funding of the club is likely to change anytime soon.
Overall, Cove Rangers look like a club ready to make themselves stalwarts of the lower reaches of the SPFL – offering Aberdeen a second team – and they might even overachieve to an extent, pushing towards the top of League One in the future, possibly. Maybe even some strong cup runs – but it still isn’t a club with its head in the clouds thinking it’s just a few years off Europe – feet are still firmly on the ground at Balmoral.