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Before they were famous – Cove Rangers’ history before the SPFL and their rise to the Championship

Allan Park - where the Cove Rangers story began.
Allan Park - where the Cove Rangers story began.

Cove Rangers are now in the Championship – a far cry from their early history in the Aberdeen amateur leagues.

The Balmoral Stadium outfit have quickly made themselves known to fans across Scotland after beating Berwick Rangers in the two-legged pyramid play-off final to move from the Highland League into the SPFL in 2019.

Rampaging to the League Two title in Paul Hartley’s first season in charge, there is no bigger reflection of Cove’s ambition than the fact they were disappointed when they didn’t immediately follow it up with yet another promotion in their first campaign in League One.

They were stopped in the play-offs by Airdrieonians last term, but it only fuelled the fire which has seen them blaze past all in front of them this time around to take the crown and land automatic second-tier promotion.

While Cove’s SPFL success and the big question about how far they can go is drawing more and more people to them with each season, where have they come from?

Amateurs to Juniors to Highland League

Founded in 1922 and joining the Aberdeen Juvenile League, it was 25 years later in 1947 when Cove Rangers FC became one of the original members of the Aberdeen Amateur Football Association (AAFA).

They won their first title the same year and also built Allan Park, named after the farmer who provided the land. It was the Granite City’s first ground owned by an amateur side.

Cove Rangers’ 1955-56 side. Back row: Doug Smith, Fred Barnett, Forsyth, Kenny Campbell, Ian Cameron, Taylor. Front row: Billy McGrath, John Massie, Jimmy Stuart, Henry Davis, Will.

Other highlights of Cove’s time in the amateurs included reaching the final of the Scottish Amateur Cup in season 1953-54 and also an invincible, triumphant league campaign in 1964-65.

In 1981, Alan McRae – who later served as president of the Scottish Football Association –  took over as Cove chief, with the club stepping up to the Juniors in 1985.

They won the second division in 1985-86, before applying for and being accepted to the Highland League for the next campaign.

Former SFA President and Cove Rangers honorary club president Alan McRae. One of the driving forces of the Aberdeen side’s history.
Cove Rangers training for their first ever Highland League game – against Lossiemouth – in 1986.

Close to 15-year quest for Highland League crown

During more than 30 years in the Highland ranks, Cove won seven league championships, including in their final season, of course – a campaign which also saw them play at their new Balmoral Stadium home for the first time following several campaigns ground-sharing with other clubs.

However, it actually took Cove until 2000/01 to claim the Highland League crown for the first time, under Bob Summers, having finished runners-up four times previously. Quite different to the way in which they’ve made SPFL titles look straightforward.

Cove Rangers captain Doug Baxter with the club’s first Highland League championship trophy in 2001.

Five of Cove’s subsequent Highland titles came under John Sheran over two spells.

Speaking in 2019, Duncan Little – Cove secretary since 1986 – said Sheran, who was co-boss with Graeme Mathieson when they won promotion to the SPFL before stepping down, is one of the giant figures of the club’s pre-Scottish League history.

“He’s without a doubt our most successful manager,” Little said.

“We joined the Highland League in 1986 and just progressed.

“We had a super team in the 1990s, but were always pipped by the Huntly team who won five in a row.

“We tailed off for a few years, before coming back under Bob Summers, then tailed off again.

“When John came in, it’s been a rollercoaster since then. We didn’t do too well at the very beginning, but you could see the potential – then it all clicked.

John Sheran celebrates his first Highland League title with Cove Rangers in 2008. A young Paul Coutts is on the far left of the picture.
John Sheran at Shielfield Park to watch his side win promotion to the SPFL in 2019.

“He has really good experience. He’d been manager at Montrose and has an eye for a good player as well.”

Cove’s other Highland League championship came between Sheran’s spells, under Kevin Tindall in 2012-13.

During their time in the Highland League, Cove also won six Highland League Cups, three Evening Express Aberdeenshire Cups, seven Aberdeenshire Shields and two Scottish Qualifying Cups (North).

Big names rolled through Cove in the Highland League era

Regulars at the Balmoral Stadium – and further afield – will know all about current Cove stars like skipper Mitch Megginson, the former Dons youngster who was a big part of their pyramid promotion-winning side after returning home to Aberdeen.

They will all also be familiar with Rory McAllister, Fraser Fyvie, Iain Vigurs and Shay Logan.

But there were some big names who spent time on the Cove books in the pre-Scottish League era, too.

Among the playing talent over the years were Neil Simpson – the European Cup Winners’ Cup winner with Aberdeen and Scotland international who joined in a player-assistant manager role in 1993 – as well as Paul Coutts.

Aberdeen Gothenburg Great Neil Simpson during his Cove Rangers spell.

Coutts starred in England after being sold to Peterborough United, playing for several clubs, including helping Sheffield United back into the Premier League.

Cove also signed Ray Stephen from French side Nancy in 1992 after the ex-Dundee player had been brought to the Continent by none other than legendary Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. The striker scored six goals on his debut.

Ray Stephen during his time at Cove.

According to Little, speaking in 2019, the impact of players like Mike Megginson – current talisman Mitch’s dad – and former skipper Eric Watson was a big part of Cove’s pre-SPFL success.

Little said: “Mike played for 11 or 12 years and got a testimonial as well.

“Graeme Park was here for around about the same time, and was a coach when we won the back-to-backs under John Sheran in 2007-08 and 2008-09.

“Eric Watson has more honours than any player Cove ever had.”

Cove Rangers captain Eric Watson with the final Highland League championship trophy they won in 2019.