MUSSELBURGH are within touching distance of the big time. They currently sit seventh in National League One, a solitary point behind sixth placed Gala – and next season’s league restructuring means that if they can get something out of their final game of the season at home to Jed-Forest on Saturday, and Gala fail to pick up anything away to top of the table Marr, then the Stoneyhill men will return to the top flight of the Scottish club game for the first time in 33 years.
Jed, who still have an outside chance of finishing top of the table, are not going to be in holiday mode, so it is going to take a huge performance and a bit of luck – but even if Musselburgh don’t make it, there should be a real sense of satisfaction at what the club has achieved this season.
“It is a massive opportunity for the club, if you had said to us at the start of the season that come the final game we could still have a chance of getting into the new Premiership then we would have taken your hand off,” acknowledges Graeme Paterson, who moved from Trinity Accies to take over as head coach at Musselburgh last summer. “The way we started, we probably should have had this already wrapped up, but we have kind of shot ourselves in the foot with results in January and March. So, it is frustrating that it is not totally in our own hands – but we’re going out to beat Jed and we’ll see what happens.”
Musselburgh won nine of their first 12 matches in the league this season – including an excellent 17-30 away victory against Jed at the end of October – and were one of the pace-setter on the league. But then managed just one win in their next eight games, before a 25-44 win away to Kirkcaldy in their most recent league outing on 6th April provided hope that they may still have enough gas left in the tank to get over the line.
“It is our fault that we’re in this position, but I do think the season structure doesn’t help, and can hurt some clubs more than others,” surmises Paterson. “We had a fair bit of momentum up to Christmas time, then you get the festive break, potential weather issues, and the break for the Six Nations – things just become disjointed and players inevitably lose some focus.
“We didn’t have a game in February. We were due to play a cup game, but Newton Stewart called off. We were looking for friendlies, but other clubs didn’t want to play for their own legitimate reasons – and that did affect us. We lost continuity. We have to understand that it is an amateur game and people have things on, so we have to find ways round that to make it easier to stay engaged, because you can’t demand too much of players who are not being paid.”
Ready to step up
Despite this disappointing second half of the campaign, and the fact that several 1st XV members will be missing on Saturday because they are at club captain Craig Owenson’s stag party, Paterson remains optimistic.
“Going up would show the worth of having a strong, community-based pathway, with a real sense of identity of who you are and what you are about as a club,” he says. “It would show that there is an opportunity for one of the less fashionable clubs in the Edinburgh area to work hard and get their just reward.
“It will be a fantastic opportunity for these guys to test themselves at the next level. The club is fully behind it. Yes, there will be challenges if we do get there, but it will also give us opportunities to retain players and coaches, and while it will hopefully help us to attract one or two new faces I’d expect the core of our team to remain constant.
“Within the senior squad, you are probably looking at upward of 80 percent coming through either the school, the youth set-up or having been a part of the club for several years having arrived on their volition. There are a lot of brothers and family connections within our squad, so taking that forward is key.”
One of the success stories this season has been teenage scrum-half Kyle McGhie, who is an East Lothian boy and arrived at the club last summer after leaving nearby Loretto School.
“He played a bit of Sevens for us at the tail-end of last season, and he’s been fantastic this year,” says Paterson. “He’s a very good young player who has really pushed himself forward, and we’ve done all we can to support and promote him. He’s got the recognition he deserves with his call-up to the Scotland Under-20s squad, and he’s now getting attention from the Super 6 sides, which is great because it shows that young players don’t necessarily have to be in the top flight to advance their playing prospects.
Tight-head prop Colin Arthur has also been a key man. “We’ve based a lot of our game around our scrum, which has been a really good platform, but his ball-carrying has also been outstanding,” Paterson explains.
“And the players’ player of the year was inside-centre Rory Watt,” he adds. “Sometimes you see the value of a player when he is not playing, and that was evident in a couple of games when he was out, and we just missed that focal point at 12.”
A few members of the squad have previously had Premiership experience, including skipper Owenson and back-row Michael Maltman with Heriot’s, plus stand-off Danny Owenson with Gala back in the days were they were near the top of the tree and competing in the British and Irish Cup.
“It is great to have that experience, which has been invaluable, but there is also a bit of a new broom element which often happens with a club when there is a change of coach, which leads to players feeling refreshed and re-engaged,” says Paterson, who has been working alongside David Officer as backs coach this season. “Rugby is a simple game made complicated by coaches and players, so we’ve not tried to be too clever – just concentrate on the core things to make the players better individually, which contributes to the collective being stronger.
“It’s not a dictatorship, it about everybody taking ownership, so a lot of it is about getting players involved in how we are going to play, where we see our strengths and weaknesses, and how we feedback after a game. One of the important things for us as coaches is being able to step back a wee bit and let the team go.
“If we don’t make it up this year then we’ll work hard to give ourselves an opportunity to do it next season,” he concludes. “From our conversations so far with the boys, we’re not expecting a player-drain if we don’t make the Premiership, although one or two guys will move on to a higher level with all our best wishes.
“There is so much unknown about how things are going to look next year – like, how strong are the Super 6 ‘Club XVs’ will be – so all we can do is focus on playing at the highest level we can, and if that’s National One then so be it. If you go up, you deserve to go up.”