On The Road applauds the Caledonian Braves on their bold journey towards a bright future in the SPFL

Caledonian Braves 7 Newton Stewart 0

The journey starts at Strathclyde Park as a bus pulls up to take Caledonian Braves to a cup final at Galabank, Annan. The subsequent conversations invoke France, Singapore, Malaysia and the USA.

But in many ways the Braves are heading home. Galabank is where their journey started. Who knows where it will end? It is the million-dollar question.

‘We are almost there,’ says Chris Ewing when Annan’s stadium is reached for the Southern Counties Challenge Cup. He is referring to the initiative to bring a host of owners to the club. The idea is simple: one makes a donation through an app and then, voila, one is an owner.

‘We are at $950,000, just within reach of that million bucks,’ says Ewing, the driving force and original owner of the Braves, who has flown in from his home in Paris to watch the final.

The Braves story is remarkable but can be distilled into the tale of how a boy from Pollok formed a club (Edusport) to bring French lads to Scotland to learn how to speak English and play a bit of football.

In 2019, this Edusport project spawned the Braves. The South of Scotland League was entered and won and the Lowland League is now the stage. It is, of course, not the limit. Ewing and the club’s head coach, Ricky Waddell, make clear that the SPFL is the target.

Braves players celebrate their win in the Southern Counties Challenge Cup final

Head coach Ricky Waddell gives out the instructions to his staff

Head coach Ricky Waddell gives out the instructions to his staff

Club owner Chris Ewing is an interested observer at the match

Club owner Chris Ewing is an interested observer at the match

As Ewing scurries around Galabank, trying to make a live stream to his investors in the USA work, the scale of the ambition of the Braves becomes clear. The chat surrounding the club has been of professionals working in the NBA, NFL and in American soccer all investing in a side that plays at Alliance Park in Strathclyde Park.

However, the most striking aspect of the plan is the amount of people who have invested. ‘We have 3,000 owners,’ says Ewing, sipping a cup of tea at half-time. ‘This vindicates the vision of opening up the club. We are just off the million bucks and will probably call it a day on that aspect soon.’

It is difficult to appreciate fully what Ewing has done. A lad from Pollok, he was signed by Motherwell before realising ‘he was no good’. This harsh verdict did not restrict his ambitions, however. Edusport was formed as a direct result of Ewing travelling to the World Cup in the USA in 1994. Tommy Coyne, the former Celtic and Ireland player, had married into the Ewing family. A then 15-year-old Ewing travelled to New Jersey to watch Ireland defeat Italy.

This trip changed everything. He was besotted with Manhattan, infected by the American dream. Eventually, Ewing formed Edusport USA to take boys to play and study in the country. This extended to France and boys came over from there to be educated in various colleges in Scotland and play football. Some of these French boys were in at the ground level of the Braves but the first team now has a definitively Scottish accent because of the high demands of Lowland League football, though French lads still come across to play in under-age teams.

The link to USA, too, persists to this day.

‘One of the wonderful things about the ownership plan is that it has rekindled that allure of New York,’ he says. He recently took his daughter to Manhattan and the trip was enhanced by his plans for the Braves. Notable investors include Mujtaba Elgoodah, former manager of team development at the Golden State Warriors, Isaiah Covington, strength and conditioning coach of the Boston Celtics, and three professional footballers from the Kansas City women’s team.

These links gave Ewing and his daughter the opportunity to watch an NBA match at Madison Square Garden but, while enthralled by this experience, he points out that the true thrill lies in attracting so many other investors to the club.

‘Owning a football club can be a lonely place,’ he says. ‘It’s good to be back at Galabank because this is where we started and there are a lot of good people here.’

He has no time to reflect further. The boy who went to the USA, the man who lives in Paris, the businessman who runs a club in Lanarkshire, now has to find power for the transmission of a match to the world.

WANDERLUST is a common theme at the Braves. Waddell surveys the artificial pitch at Galabank and says simply: ‘I was an all right player. I did well to grind out a career.’

He played for Falkirk, Airdrie, Partick Thistle, Clyde and Hamilton Academical. But he also travelled to Malaysia, Singapore and USA to play at the fag end of his career. His horizons have always been broad. He is a holder of the coveted UEFA Pro Licence. Both his travels and his studies indicate a man who has a panoramic vision.

For the moment, though, Galabank under the sun dominates his attention. ‘We played here when we first started out,’ says Waddell, who met Ewing through a mutual friend more than a decade ago and found their ideas and ambitions chimed.

Braves on their way to a fantastic 7-0 victory over Newton Stewart

Braves on their way to a fantastic 7-0 victory over Newton Stewart

Another goal is celebrated for a dominant Caledonian Braves side

Another goal is celebrated for a dominant Caledonian Braves side

Waddell had been working with academies at both Rangers and Hearts and when the Braves post came up his friends were surprised that he jumped at it.

‘It was a straightforward decision for me,’ says Waddell. ‘Four years ago I became full-time here and it was because I fancied doing a project myself. I wanted to set down my ideas on coaching. I thought I could really get my teeth into that. I really fancied it.’

His pro licence studies took him to Nantes and this trip has heavily influenced his philosophy. He points out that the French club had an academy where the boys lived and were educated. The drive to become better was obviously encouraged by coaching but the boys took their inspiration from their peers. Nantes thus produced a stream of first-team players from the academy.

‘The Braves offered a blank canvas,’ says Waddell. ‘I am big on youth football. I want to see players improve. I know that sounds like a cliché but it’s true. The basic reason I came here is because I had all those ideas and I wanted to see if they would work.’

He accepts football has been his passport to a life less ordinary. ‘My wife always says I am restless, ready to go to another country,’ he says.

For the moment, though, the Braves still satisfy that drive to coach, to build relationships, to make players better.

‘Our ambition here is to get the team promoted,’ he says. He felt two seasons ago that this campaign would be the one where the club could compete at the very top of the Lowland League. Instead, the close season was marked by a stream of departures. ‘The money at this level can be mental,’ he says. ‘Players left for bigger contracts and we had to rebuild. That was a big blow for me.’

The money brought in by the new investors will help but Waddell points out that the club seeks to improve across the board. ‘We feel we need to be better on and off the park and I have a few ideas on that,’ he says. ‘We need to improve the structure and the professionalism. I have boys who train four times a week. I want to change the mindset that training two nights a week is enough.’

His football career has been an education. But what has been the biggest lesson?

‘I have learned a lot about human relationships. My passion is to make people better. Again, that’s a cliché but true. I have also learned to be a bit more pragmatic in style of play. It can’t be Pep Guardiola football all the time. But mostly I have learned about people. At a football club you need to be the mother who nurtures them, the father who disciplines them, the brother who provokes them and the teacher who educates them…’

It is a fine night at Galabank. The cup is won after a dominant display. I sit in the bus as the coaches and players trickle in after justifiable celebration. The journey back to Strathclyde Park begins. It is what lies beyond that intrigues.

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