When Albion Rovers take to the field against Celtic on Sunday afternoon in their Scottish Cup fourth-round tie, it will be two sides from the opposite end of the footballing spectrum meeting.
The storied Scottish champions were playing in the Champions League eight weeks ago, pitting themselves against the likes of Barcelona and Manchester City, against whom they twice drew. Countless honours lie in the Parkhead side’s trophy room, including the 1967 European Cup, and they have the capability of drawing crowds of over 60,000.
Rovers, who play in Coatbridge, a town less than 10 miles from the big-city lights of their opponents, consider it a good gate if they attract over 600 to their tumbledown Cliftonhill ground. But they are a proud club - and one made prouder by the achievements of manager Darren Young, who has guided them to the relative heights of the Scottish third tier, where they continue to defy expectations.
And in reaching the fourth round of the cup, eliminating higher-ranked Queen of the South in the process, they have certainly achieved that.
While they remain ambitious, there is also a realism about their prospects when they take to the field at Airdrie’s New Broomfield ground, which offers better facilities and a greater capacity than their home field.
“For some of the players it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience so you want them to take as much of the day in and not let it pass them by. In terms of the game, you only improve by playing against the best teams and individuals you possibly can, so regardless of the result the players will learn a lot and improve because of this experience,” first-team coach Antony McMinn explained.
Indeed, the management team is a unique blend. McMinn came through a coaching pathway from youth and amateur football into the senior game after knee problems put an end to his hopes of playing, while assistant manager Billy Stark (pictured below) is replete with experience on the Scottish club scene, at one time occupying the same role at Celtic and even leading Scotland Under-21 for a period. The trio is spearheaded by the ambitious Young, who is currently in his first senior managerial role.
“It works because of our desire to succeed, our communication and hard work - we challenge each other. Darren encourages us all to have an input but ultimately the final decisions are his and we all respect that. We all want to be the best we possibly can be and to create a lasting legacy at the club. Even on Saturday we were out looking at our league opponents, not just focusing on the Celtic game,” McMinn said.
For the 30-year-old coach, though, the achievements of Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers are something he particularly wishes to emulate – and not just because of his lifelong support of the Parkhead side.
“Hopefully we get a chance to speak to him and the rest of the staff after the game. I look at how he has progressed through youth football and where he is now, and to be honest it is pretty inspiring as I am on a similar journey. If it takes me to half the places Brendan has been I will have had a good career,” he said.
“It was just a hobby that has developed into a job. I have been very fortunate that people have believed in me and supported me throughout it. From [amateur side] Riverside to Alloa Athletic, Dundee United and Darren taking me to Albion Rovers. I am also lucky that my girlfriend is understanding – I’m never back before 10pm at night.”
The desire for Rovers, indeed, goes further than just to compete against Celtic – it is to go into the heart of the community and provide a link between the town and, what they hope to be, the best part-time team in Scotland.
“The club has progressed tremendously on and off the field since we arrived three years ago. We have a group of players and staff who buy into everything Darren has put in place and this has been reflected in us setting benchmarks, like winning League Two, our highest finish in a long time and our first league win away to local rivals Airdrie in 70 years,” McMinn continued.
“The board and Darren have allowed me to look at setting up a unique pathway from our community teams straight to our development squad, which is headed up by Brian Kerr, and into the first team. This goes against what most teams do as we just play in local leagues instead of the pro-youth pathway. We are seeing this bearing fruits already, with six players who have come through this being included in the match day squad to face Celtic.
“In terms of off the pitch the club have allowed me to establish a community initiative and we are now involved in all the schools in Coatbridge, as well as running community teams and holiday classes. This will be further progressed as we are launching Rovers in the Community, which is a registered charity in which we aim to ‘Inspire Coatbridge’. Something the players will hope to do with a good performance against Celtic.
“On the field our goal is to become the best part-time side in Scotland. There is no point playing if you don’t want to be the best.
“Off the field, the club will aim to have a really influence in the community and be a force for good in the area.”
And what if Rovers were to cause the ultimate upset?
“I can’t see any of the Celtic supporters’ busses I have travelled on for years giving me any tickets in the future. But that would be a small price to pay!” McMinn admitted.