Scottish football witnessed a seismic shift this summer following the addition of 26 new clubs to the senior ranks through the East of Scotland Football League (EoSFL) – and few have taken as big a gamble as the newly rechristened Dunipace FC.
Since their formation in 1888, the Pace have been on the outside of the senior game – with seemingly little interest in leaving the juniors after joining the Junior FA in 1897 – and surprised many when they announced on April 27th that they would be joining the exodus of clubs heading for the EoSFL ahead of the new season getting underway.
Nestled in the middle of Falkirk, Stirling and Cumbernauld, Dunipace play their games at ramshackle Westfield Park in Denny but are currently undertaking a huge redevelopment of their run-down ground and have embarked on a massive rebuild of their squad ahead of being pitched into a division with clubs who have become synonymous with success in junior football in the east region.
After finishing 11th of 12th clubs in Central Division Two (the lowest tier in the juniors) last season, the Pace will be favourites to finish bottom of conference B but are hopeful that their long-standing youth set up will encourage players to move to Westfield, despite their lowly standing. Chairman Stephen Tait believes that the move to join the EoS league will give young players a pathway to first-team football as they come up against of the some of the now-former heavyweights of the junior ranks in the coming campaign.
“We’ve got a pathway for the younger age groups from primary school age group but the EoSFL also has a development league so we’ll also have an Under-20s team competing in that,” Tait said, speaking to The Dugout as the club’s committee prepare for their first season as a senior club.
“For younger players coming into our club will get the opportunity see a strong pathway and that it doesn’t just end at a youth level. In terms of the East of Scotland league, we were impressed with the set up there and they seemed to have a bit more of a modern approach and were more open to newer concepts and newer ideas.”
Despite so many junior clubs moving to the senior ranks, Dunipace were the only side from the west region to move across – Clydebank have publicly stated their aim of returning to senior football although did not apply to join the EoSFL – and Tait believes that being so centrally-located meant swapping from west to east wasn’t really an issue for them.
“Another thing for us is where we sit geographically so there was no problem moving from the east to the west,” Tait revealed. “Camelon would geographically be our nearest rivals rather than your Kilsyth’s and Kirkintilloch’s, so that wasn’t a major issue – I think the west was thinking about revamping too so we would have been in a group with sides from Ayrshire.”
The prospect of facing such an improved level of opposition this season has seen an influx of new players so far as manager Gary McMillan looks to build a side capable of competing with the big names in conference B such as Bo’ness United, Tranent and Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale and secure a place in next season’s EoSFL Premier Division (the top five teams from each conference will make up next season’s Premier Division with the other forming a larger First Division).
Tait admits the move has allowed the Pace to bring a level of player in that simply wouldn’t have been available to them if they had remained a junior side but is realistic about the chances of immediate success after propping up the west region in recent years.
“The move has attracted a calibre of player that we wouldn’t have been able to sign had we stayed in the west leagues. The players we had were good, strong players but were of a young age – in the final games of the season the average age was something like 19-years-old. Some of the players we’ve signed are around 27/28-year-old so I think it has attracted a better player. The proof will be in the pudding with the results but we’re under no illusions with some of the teams in our conference; there are a number of really strong teams there.”
Although the defection of so many clubs to the EoSFL gathered pace pretty quickly everywhere, much of what is going on at Dunipace has been the product of long-term dedication and the club have taken huge strides in becoming involved with the local community in recent years, putting many of the senior clubs in the area to shame.
Ongoing work at Westfield will see a new synthetic pitch installed as well as new facilities as part of a long-term plan to make the stadium an important part of the town. Dunipace’s impressive youth set-up will also see huge benefits of having everything under one roof rather than using a number of public pitches. After getting funding approved for the work at the start of the year and then appointing a new management team in February, things fell into place nicely ahead of an application to join the EoSFL.
“Getting the funding the synthetic pitch and improvements to the ground have been a long, long time coming, probably six or eight years of work,” Tait said. “But it all came together with getting the funding in January, appointing the new management team – who came with experience of the working in the Lowland League and were in favour of the pyramid system – and knowing the deadline to apply for the EoSFL it all fell into place a bit for us.”
Moving to the senior ranks has long been something junior clubs have been opposed to but Tait admits that getting into the senior pyramid is only the tip of the iceberg for the Pace. While things on the pitch could prove to be a struggle in the short-term, off-field there is a strong plan in place for where the Westfield side see themselves in the near-future. Getting their ground up to scratch and meeting Scottish FA licencing requirements and entry into the senior Scottish Cup – as well as winning over the locals and bringing them through the gates – rather than racing their way up the leagues shows a club willing to take short-term pain for some long-term benefits and the chairman is delighted with the progress he’s seen over the last few months.
“You need to be able to provide a product where there’s interest from the public and it will be interesting to see if we can increase the number of people coming to watch us,” Tait admitted. “Our short-to-medium-term plan will be to get the ground up to the licencing standard for the Scottish FA and that will give access for us to the preliminary rounds of the senior Scottish Cup. We won’t be a million miles away from the licence criteria once we get the ground works completed in late August/September so that will be the next target. I’m not going to make any bold predictions about where we’ll be, and at the moment that would really be up to the manager to tell you that, but I’m pleased with the work that’s being put in and we’re certainly working tirelessly to make a right good fist of it.”