From Podcast to Promised Land? Could Open Goal Replicate Its Studio Success on the Pitch and Progress through Scotland’s Footballing Pyramid?

Media group Open Goal, after taking over Lowland League club Broomhill FC, have designs on progressing up the professional ladder of Scottish football.

Scottish football has never been in short supply of intrigue or unpredictability. Counter to claims south of the border, the game in Scotland is alive and well and arguably far more blockbuster than its English cousin. Many outsiders harness their views on Scottish football exclusively through the exploits of its two famous Glasgow clubs, who have indeed historically cast a dominant shadow over the country. True, the almost soap-style drama of Celtic and Rangers’ ferocious rivalry certainly contributes heavily to Scotland’s footballing dynamic and, by extension, embeds itself into the very fabric of native society. However, those invested in the narrative of the Scottish game would swiftly point to a myriad of other tasty plotlines.

Open Goal Broomhill FC in Scotland's Lowland League
Art by Shivani Khot

One of the more compelling stories is the emergence of Open Goal Broomhill FC, a newly branded football club plying its trade in the fifth-tier Lowland League. To a distant observer, the prefix ‘Open Goal’ may feel like an odd selection, chosen as a random piece of footballing terminology as opposed to reflecting anything of substance. Yet, ‘Open Goal’ is a phrase regularly pursed on the lips of many a Scottish football fan; well, at least when discussing their favourite Monday evening podcast.

Open Goal is a media platform sponsoring several podcasts hosted by a select ensemble of local and rather maverick personalities. Each has trod their own pathway through the Scottish footballing terrain and beyond, bringing their own indomitable style to proceedings. The ‘anchor’ programme, Keeping the Ball on the Ground, has now earned cult status, entertaining a legion of football followers with its charming blend of dressing room-style antics and honest insider insight from ex-professionals.

Commencing in the summer of 2017, the Open Goal podcast series has added several programmes and features to its repertoire, with interview segments and prediction ensembles now included in its roster. More impressively, the cast have sold-out two live shows in Glasgow’s premier entertainment venue, the OVO Hydro. Furthermore, during last summer’s delayed Euro 2020 finals, the group staged a series of matchday events, with thousands attending to watch Scotland’s brief first appearance at a major tournament since 1998, soaking in a carnival atmosphere and enjoying the company of the now revered Open Goal hosts. Although, despite a heroic draw with England, the Scots ultimately disappointed at the Euros, audiences basked in an energy and spectacle produced by a band of men who are quickly gaining popularity across the length and breadth of the country.

Fast-forward twelve months, and we find ourselves in completely new territory. Open Goal has now formally entered the world of competitive Scottish football. The media moguls have taken control of Glaswegian club Broomhill FC, rebranding it as Open Goal Broomhill FC and majorly re-setting the strategy and direction of a formerly unassuming football club.

Broomhill has a relatively modest history, initially operating as BSC Glasgow before its senior and junior ranks split. The first team then adopted the name Broomhill (given that the club was spawned out of Broomhill Sports Club in Glasgow’s West End), while the youth side kept its original title, and ventured off to the development division of the West of Scotland football league. The club has experienced some modest previous success, but its vision for the future is now far more ambitious.

Simon Ferry, the first and leading presenter of the hugely popular podcasts, was appointed manager of the revamped club shortly after the media firm’s acquisition. Although some may cast a disparaging glance towards Ferry’s tenure, perhaps alleging he has been given the role purely on the premise of his talents as a podcaster, there is little doubt that the ex-Swindon Town midfielder has been given the job based on his credentials.

Towards the end of a relatively successful playing career, where he also featured for Portsmouth, Dundee, and later Peterhead, Ferry immersed himself into football management. Indeed, his final season at League One Peterhead saw him increasingly take on managerial accountability, complementing his efforts in gaining the required coaching badges.

True, Ferry is relatively untested in the role and has yet to perhaps experience the turbulent life of a football manager. However, his tenacity, drive, and determination to move Broomhill into the realms of the SPFL (Scottish Professional Football League) should not be underestimated. Just have a listen to one of his podcasts. The new Broomhill chief talks with a level of passion perhaps more accustomed to Guardiola’s sitting room than a Glasgow studio and does so with no shortage of tactical or technical nouse.

Yet, a few short years ago, Ferry’s ambition and fervour would have had no release valve in the stifling environment of Scotland’s disorganised network of amateur leagues.

Indeed, the historic structure of Scotland’s domestic football scene was never truly fit for purpose and shed a misleading light on the prowess and popularity of its smaller clubs. For years, Scotland’s ‘junior’ leagues, or those functioning outside the four tiers of the SPFL, have belied their humble, regionalized stature. Matches have always attracted fans in their droves, with participating clubs often drawing substantially higher gates than their football league counterparts. The product on the pitch is often also superior, perhaps best illustrated by junior teams consistently performing well in the Scottish Cup, taking many a higher tier scalp on their journey to the later rounds.

Finally, in 2014, these sides were given the rightful opportunity to ascend towards the SPFL, when the protracted establishment of the Scottish football pyramid came to fruition. Now, the Lowland League, and its northern equivalent, the Highland League, act as official feeder competitions to Scottish League Two, the lowest rung of the ‘professional’ ladder. Previously, junior outfits finishing top of their respective leagues were consigned to a closed shop, blocked from any chance of progressing towards league football. The rule change has exposed the extent of the previous structural contradiction, with former ‘junior’ teams already surpassing long-standing SPFL members. For too long, a number of league clubs dined out on their protected existence, free from the jeopardy of relegation and all too comfortable occupying a space that really belonged to someone else.

Although the pyramid affords the opportunity for promotion, the route is still relatively arduous. The winners of the Lowland and Highland Leagues must first battle one another in a championship play-off before the victor takes on the club that finished at the foot of the Scottish League Two table.

Nevertheless, since the transition to a pyramid format eight seasons ago, no less than four former Lowland or Highland League sides have entered the SPFL, further highlighting the pre-existent strength of junior outfits. Bonnyrigg Rose, promoted last May after overcoming Brechin City in the play-off, have adjusted well to their new surroundings and already recorded wins over league stalwarts Forfar, Stirling Albion, and East Fife this season. FC Edinburgh (formerly Edinburgh FC), who dispatched of East Stirlingshire in 2016, now find themselves in League One, accompanied by the 2020-2021 Lowland League Champions, Kelty Hearts, earning their place in the third-tier on the back of successive promotions. However, perhaps most impressive are Cove Rangers, fresh into the Scottish Championship after lifting the Scottish League One title last campaign.

Could a Premiership place be next for the Highlanders?

The incredible trajectory of these clubs emphatically demonstrates the scale of the potential opportunity on offer—something which certainly won’t be lost on those advancing Open Goal Broomhill’s interests.

The omens for seizing their chance look good. Despite a generally inconsistent start, Broomhill have already shown glimpses of their capability. An impressive opening day victory over a well-organized Spartans side was quickly followed up with a 3-0 away win over Cowdenbeath, the side that fell through the League Two trapdoor last season.

Moreover, leaning on his considerable list of contacts in the game, Ferry has managed to recruit more than a few notable players. Last term, Kirk Broadfoot was playing with Inverness Caledonian Thistle, standing on the premise of a return to Scotland’s top flight. Now, he joins Open Goal’s assault on the Lowland League, excited by a project that could leave a substantial imprint on the Scottish game for years to come.

Ryan Conroy, who has also bolstered Broomhill’s defensive options, is in possession of a Scottish Championship winner’s medal earned during his spell at Dundee, while skipper Gary Fraser has plenty of experience in the SPFL, accruing over 50 appearances for Partick Thistle.

Assistant Manager Derek Lyle, a household name amongst many Scottish football circles, adds a playing role to his managerial responsibilities, dipping into the qualities that have contributed to a two-decade career as a prolific striker. His goal in Broomhill’s 3-2 win over Berwick Rangers made him the first player to score in all of Scotland’s top five footballing tiers.

There’s also the small matter of having the boss himself in the middle of the park, dictating the tempo of the press and encouraging a fluid, attacking approach while in the thick of the action. The 34-year-old presenter isn’t quite ready to hang up his boots.

However, the progress of Open Goal Broomhill and the Lowland League (and, to a lesser extent, the Highland League) needn’t be mutually exclusive endeavours. At least, that’s the view held by Messrs Ferry, Kyle, Slane, and Halliday, the four men who front up the smash hit show. All are quick to emphasize the benefits Open Goal’s venture presents to the wider league, which should serve to provide unprecedented exposure, new financial avenues, bumper crowds, and variant consumer profiles.

Indeed, regular listeners are already descending in numbers to Broadwood, the 8,000-capacity stadium Broomhill are using to host competitive home matches. Average attendances are tracking higher than more than half the clubs playing in League Two and ahead of Clyde and Peterhead in League One. This is already arguably having a halo effect, with league compatriots Tranent Juniors pulling in similarly larger crowds in comparison to the SPFL’s lesser-supported clubs.

Even the mere presence of ex-Scotland international and fellow podcaster Kevin Kyle, who regularly takes up a position in the commentary gantry, and Ferry’s humorous partner in crime Paul Slane, who recently rejuvenated his footballing career to sign for Open Goal, is enough to drive footfall into Lowland League grounds across the country. Therefore, Broomhill’s whirlwind arrival will undoubtedly provide a major shot in the arm to the lower echelons of Scottish football, helping it continue its journey towards claiming the recognition and respect it truly deserves.

The addition of Celtic, Rangers, and Heart of Midlothian ‘colt’ teams further enhances this sense that a sudden, unexpected bout of glitz and glamour has reinvigorated an environment that previously felt stuck in an eternal cycle of stagnation.

Nevertheless, Simon Ferry’s thoughts will be squarely focused on the next eight months and whether Open Goal Broomhill, under his diligent stewardship, can get somewhere close to the SPFL promised land. If they can achieve that elusive first step and earn their status as a League Two side, the podcasters and their hordes of loyal fans may just start to believe that this unique enterprise could turn into something extremely special.

Whatever the outcome, one thing’s for sure: Ferry will make sure his side get to their future destination by ‘keeping the ball on the ground’.

Ryan Murray

With a lifelong association to football, Ryan Murray has embraced the beautiful game in all guises; as a player, spectator, and now writer. Specializing in the daily soap dramas & cultural nuances that perfectly characterize the chaos of the Scottish game, you can often find him scrolling through endless reams of information about his beloved football club (which will remain unnamed), or alternatively researching a particular bizarre or intriguing (well, at least he finds it so) episode from some distant corner of the footballing world. He resides in Leeds, but appears more often at seventh tier grounds around the urban sprawls of West Yorkshire than at Elland Road - it just feels more like football. He lives with his fiancée and sausage dog, both of whom now support the right club.