Net benefits of football

On Saturday, Brechin City won the Highland League with a dramatic victory over rivals Buckie Thistle. The Hedgemen – who needed a win at Victoria Park to clinch the silverware and progress to the pyramid playoffs – kept fans waiting a long, long time for what they wanted. Sub Ewan Loudon scored the opener in the 87th minute. A tense eight minutes later, Grady McGrath scored another to seal the win. It was a fairy-tale ending to the game.

For Brechiners, the result on Saturday is far more significant than silverware alone. If the Angus side can ‘keep the heid’, they will bag a return to the SPFL next season. Many would consider this their natural home given Brechin spent 68-years in Scottish league football before dropping down to the Highland League in 2021. With sound management and a buoyant squad heading into a two-leg playoff against Spartans this weekend, the town is feeling hopeful.

Brechin City’s confidence this season has been aided by its 12th man, the fans. Since relegation, Brechiners have rallied around the club, with match attendance consistently strong at home and away. This mightn’t be expected after the bitter sting of relegation and a disappointing third place finish in the 2021-22 Highland League season. On Saturday, seven coaches and dozens of cars departed Brechin for Buckie – it felt as if half the town was travelling north for the title clash.

Brechin City’s fall and fight to rise is a familiar saga in football, which speaks to just how special the beautiful game is. A team can descend into hard times, but the fans stick by it, willing it on to greener pastures again. Their belief never dies. For those who don’t follow the sport, it’s hard to articulate the feelings this evokes. Football is about more than winning games. It’s an inclusive story, where everyone gets to play a part. Loyalty, passion, and true grit is required off the pitch, as well as on it. Clubs require the input of fans every week to keep marching forward.

City’s journey this season has got me reflecting on the joys of fitba, and its net benefits – if you’ll excuse the pun. The beautiful game has a much wider impact. It bolsters community in a world that feels increasingly insular and divided. If you visit Glebe Park to watch Brechin play, you’ll find a wide range of people shouting them on. Young and old, male and female, middle and working class. There’s no discrimination in the stands. Instead, there’s a sense of camaraderie you’d rarely find in any other context. Football is a leveller, and a unifier.

Clubs are often a driver for charitable giving that makes a real difference. They’re a source of tourism and much-needed revenue for the hospitality industry. They inspire children and young people to take up sport and give them skills that will set them up well for life, even if they don’t end up making football their career. In areas that struggle with antisocial behaviour and drug use, the investment of a club can help youngsters stay out of trouble. Football is also a source of encouragement for isolated older people. It’s a real force for good.

In January, I wrote the obituary of Ian Stott, a life-long fan of Brechin’s neighbouring club, Montrose Roselea. He passed away in January at the age of 73. Ian had learning difficulties and was unable to work during his life. The Gable Endies became a huge passion for him, filling his days and giving him a source of pride. His sister Marion, a family friend, told me Ian was an evangelist for the club wherever they went on holiday. ‘Hi, do you support Montrose’, he’d say to anyone who passed him. Doubtless, people heard of the club who never had.

I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone for whom football meant so much, and for whom football made such a huge difference in day-to-day life. But I suspect stories like Ian’s are told in communities across Scotland today. Lonely and forgotten people find friendship and solidarity at the side of the pitch. Brechin City is hungry for promotion this season and I hope they get it. But whatever happens, the club – like others up and down the country – will continue to be cherished by fans, and immensely beneficial to its local community.

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