Dougie Samuel felt it the moment he walked through the door, and over 20 years later he’s just as sure.

“The club had a different DNA for me,” said the first-team manager, community academy chief-executive and former player. There can be no doubt the ‘Mr Spartans’ moniker has been well-earned.

That DNA he speaks of may always have been there, but it’s clear few, if any, have harnessed and enhanced it as much as Samuel. When he first ventured to Pilton in the twilight of his playing career, the entire club comprised of just two men’s amateur teams. Now, there’s a an 800-strong youth setup, a women’s side in the SWPL, thriving community coaching initiatives and a para-football section, to name but a few.

Samuel is already a Spartans legend, recognised nationally for his community work that went above and beyond with an MBE in 2022, but on Saturday he and his Lowland League champions can take the club into the SPFL for the first time ever. Their League Two play-off final against Albion Rovers could not be more delicately poised from a 1-1 first-leg draw, the promise of history within touching distance.

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This is Samuel’s 10th season as manager, and although he admits League Two has been somewhat of a ‘Holy Grail’ in football terms, the true indicator of Spartans’ growth is what he sees off the pitch every day.

“Truthfully, it’s not been about that for me,” he said. “It’s the bigger picture. It’s been more about creating a football club embedded in its local community, one that can make a difference.

“First and foremost, that’s my priority every day. I’m very, very passionate about the football side of things and, like every other Spartans fan, I’d love for the club to play in the SPFL, but I’m very proud of the journey it's been on.

“This result on Saturday won’t alter history or change the journey we’ve made. I think we’re recognised as being a community anchor organisation that does help local people.

"You’ve seen the last four to six weeks, the Spartans family has really come together and attendances at the play-off games have been absolutely fantastic. It demonstrates the potential that exists within this football club.

“It’s an interesting setup because my deputy chief-executive Debbi McCulloch is head coach of the women’s first team. I remember when I took the job all those years ago, the chairman Craig Graham said to me that when you join Spartans it’s very much a lifestyle choice.

“I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it’s something I’ve certainly discovered over the last 20 years.”

The Herald: Samuel could make history at SpartansSamuel could make history at Spartans (Image: Stewart Attwood)

This may be a club all about the bigger picture, but that’s not to say that finally making the jump into League Two does not mean an awful lot to Samuel, because that in turn opens all sorts of doors for what the future may hold at Ainslie Park.

“I’m so proud of this group of players,” he said. “The challenge at the start of any season is: can you lift the jersey to new heights? These players have done that.

“Spartans have never reached this stage of the play-offs before, now we’re within one game of reaching League Two.

“The challenge then is for the players to take the jersey even higher, and that’s what we’re focused on. You’ve got to remember the current context, though, where you’ve got people going to foodbanks and struggling to feed their families.

“We’re playing a game of football on Saturday, and while it’s important and we really want to win it, the academy will still be there on Sunday, the football club will still exist on Sunday and the direction of travel for this club will still be upwards.

“If you look at that direction of travel, I’m sure at some point – and I hope it’s in the immediate future – that this club will play in the SPFL.

“I’d very, very proud to be part of a group of people who have taken this club there. It’s been a real collective, team effort and while I might be the face of the coaching staff and one of the leaders within the Spartans family, trust me, this has taken a lot of effort by a lot of people to get us to this point.

“I would enjoy seeing the rewards it would bring for the next generation. I see kids in the youth section who want to play in the Spartans first team, and I would love that to happen, to see them in a side that’s in the SPFL.

“One, you’ll raise the profile of the club by getting there, and hopefully raise levels of aspiration within the Spartans family and wider community. We won’t get to see where the ripple effect will end, but we know it will be a positive one. That’s exciting.”

Appointed Spartans manager in 2012, Samuel has been around the Lowland League since its inception a year later. Compared to then, he barely recognises it.

A glut of ambitious clubs all looking upwards, a few hefty budgets and the addition of Celtic, Rangers and Hearts B teams make it one of the most competitive competitions around. Much discussed is how difficult it is to rise out of it, but as Samuel himself points out, going the other way is something League Two clubs are equally desperate to avoid. East Stirlingshire and Cowdenbeath have fallen through the SPFL trap door in recent years, with both showing little sign of clambering back up.

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It underlines just how much is at stake at Cliftonhill come Saturday afternoon.

“The league is genuinely unrecognisable to when I started,” Samuel said. “In the first year, there were, realistically, two or three teams people would think: ‘they can win the league’.

“This season, there were probably seven or eight teams mentioned as potential winners. The strength in depth is phenomenal.

“Look where Cowdenbeath finished this season - they’ve not long been relegated from League Two and they’ve finished in the bottom four.

“That’s obviously the fear for clubs like Albion Rovers, that if they get relegated they’ll never come back. The landscape is changing.

“There are lots of hugely ambitious clubs, like ourselves, who are making progress and their direction of travel is also upwards. It’s certainly for the better.”

That changing landscape has prompted no small amount of disagreement and discontent of late. It has been a long held view below the SPFL that the path upwards is too narrow, too in favour of the status quo. Drop a little further and you will find the same sentiment extended towards the Lowland League from clubs in the West, East and South of Scotland Leagues.

The perceived influence of Celtic and Rangers in advancing greater prominence for B teams has also bred resentment in certain quarters. Add the ham-fisted lobbing of a proposed Conference League to sit below League Two into this already volatile mix, and tensions have risen to boiling point. With so many vested but conflicting interests across the board, the prospect of full agreement feels a long way off.

For someone who has been around this level of the game for so long, Samuel’s stance has considerable gravitas, and he believes there is a need to consider real change. Firstly, though, he’d like to see everybody take a deep breath.

“Clearly, there needs to be a review of the pyramid setup because it’s not fluid enough," he said. "But I’m sure there’s enough brains within the Scottish game to come up with a solution.

“Like most things that involve change management, it’s messy. We didn’t get here in a straight line, did we? It’s been an up and down journey.

“It’s still a bit messy but if we just have a mature conversation that’s open and transparent, I’m sure we can find a fairer model that respects everybody’s level of ambition, history and traditions.

“It can hopefully serve the greater good, as well, because the criticism and perception coming from most parties just now is that this change is being driven by two clubs in particular. You’re going to have resistance when something is seen as unfair.

The Herald: Samuel is in favour of reviewing the pyramid setupSamuel is in favour of reviewing the pyramid setup (Image: Stewart Attwood)

“I think it’s time for everybody to draw a deep breath for a bit of review and reflection, then we can have a mature, open, transparent conversation around: what are the options that exist, and what is it that we’re trying to achieve?

“Look how long it took for the Junior clubs to become part of the pyramid; people forget that was a bumpy ride. I understand why – I played for two years at Bonnyrigg Rose and two years at Newtongrange, so I have great respect for Junior football, but that didn’t happen smoothly in the beginning.”

Ultimately, though, how Scottish football is shaped in the future has no bearing on what Samuel and Spartans will strive to achieve on Saturday.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes all the way to penalties,” he said.

Given their long-haul journey to reach this point, maybe it’s only right this final push goes to the wire.