AS my son and I reached the top of the stairs and emerged blinking into the bright sunshine to gaze out at the cavernous wonder that is Camp Nou, a thought crossed my mind: I’m going to have to do a helluva lot of work to make up for this.

That, in essence, is freelancer’s guilt. The constant reminder that when you’re not working, you’re not earning. Even on a family holiday to Barcelona and then up the Catalonian coast last summer the sense of serenity would occasionally be interrupted by the fear that it had been more than a week since you last filed any work. And all those pizzas, ice creams and beers would need paid for somehow.

Thank goodness then for the Betfred Cup group stage. Emails were dispatched from the airport as we waited for our flight home and the calendar for the rest of July quickly filled up. I ended up working at eight matches in the space of a fortnight, happily accepting orders to go anywhere and everywhere to take in a contest.

One of the most appealing aspects of the League Cup in its current guise is that it gives lower division and some non-SPFL clubs a regular fixture against teams from the top two tiers. Previously visits from the leading lights of the game boiled down to the luck of the draw. Some lower tier clubs could go years without landing a plum tie.

For most football writers who rarely get the opportunity to travel beyond the Premiership grounds and Hampden, it also means a chance to stretch our wings and spend a summer visiting some of Scottish football’s lesser-reached outposts.

Five of the games I worked at took place at League One level or below. Two were at grounds I had never visited before.

From a working perspective there were naturally some challenges. Most of these clubs have no need for extensive media facilities but did their best to accommodate the temporary surge in demand.

Stirling Albion’s press box was out of commission for the Hibs game so the press were plonked in with the fans in the home stand in front of the roped-off “VIP section”. This included the young match mascot who peppered his mum with questions throughout the match about every aspect of the contest, many of which were more pertinent than those posed by journalists after the match.

At East Fife we were in among the visiting Hearts fans, balancing our laptops on our knees and trying to type amid the din. A colleague and I had arrived at the ground with just minutes to spare and were quickly ushered down the tunnel moments before kick-off.

You could almost sense the disappointment from the supporters that it wasn’t the teams emerging as we poked our heads out of the tunnel and scanned desperately for our seats.

Unsure of where we were going, we climbed a set of stairs where a door opened and out came Hearts owner Ann Budge, smiling benignly. We quickly moved out of her way.

At Albion Rovers on the hottest day of the year, the small, airless press box was more like a sauna so the journos present decided we would sit in the back row of the stand instead. A very polite chap told us halfway through the second half that he normally sat there as it was the only row with decent legroom in the rustic main stand. He rather decently didn’t try to shift us.

At East Kilbride it was a similar story, a block of plastic seats with “reserved” printed off on A4 paper and stuck on each one. The “directors’ box” in the block next to us was the same but with seats in a different colour.

The common theme throughout it all, however, was the warmth of welcome we received at every ground. Turning up at the front reception hoping your name would be on a list, each time there would be an official happy to whisk you through and into the ground.

These clubs matter as much as any other in Scottish football. They are as part of the game’s fabric as much as Celtic, Rangers or Aberdeen. Often with long-standing traditions and heritage, they have become vital institutions within their own communities, run by teams of ever-willing volunteers who do so only because the need is there. Part-time players turn up for training after long hours at their day job and still give their all.

The recent accusations from Gordon Strachan and others that League One and Two clubs give nothing to the game are hugely disparaging and unfair. The incremental financial model ensures they earn the least from the SPFL prize pot. They are not taking money away from other clubs. The notion of plopping Colt teams into their divisions also shows little regard for the clubs that compete there and their fans who turn up week after week to watch competitive, proper football.

Only seven years ago it was decided that a 42-club solution was the best way forward when the Scottish Football League was effectively swallowed up by the Scottish Premier League. Anyone pointing fingers now about smaller clubs “holding the others back” ought to keep that in mind. Those at the bottom deserve to be treated with just as much respect as those at the top. They’ve earned it.