This week saw another big Junior side, Bonnyrigg Rose, declare their intention to leave the grade and join the SFA pyramid after a fan & member vote. Applications to join the tier 6 leagues (entry level) will be accepted until the end of March, when we will begin to understand the gravity of change coming next season. With the SJFA seemingly losing control of its future as members deliberate jumping ship, is the end nigh for the historic Scottish Junior game?
First off, a quick history lesson – for those unfamiliar with football in Scotland, we have 3 adult grades (unlike most countries who have only 2): Senior, Junior and Amateur. The SFA look after the senior game (and the pyramid as a whole), while for historical reasons the SJFA run a separate regional league system. Many of the players are part-time and paid, and in some cases the top Junior sides can compete with the lower end of the SPFL when it comes to wages. However, last year’s East Region champions Kelty Hearts became the first Junior side to leave the grade behind and join the still-new pyramid system in the East of Scotland League (EoS). Now, it looks like promotion to the Lowland League is on the cards, and they have opened the floodgates for others to follow suit.
Initially, these pressures mainly affected the East region of the Juniors. Below the 5th tier (Highland & Lowland leagues), only two “Lowland” leagues reside in the bottom tier of the pyramid; the EoS and South of Scotland League (SoS), which contains mainly south-west sides that don’t seem as keen on promotion. The Junior regions cover North, West and East of Scotland – while the North essentially slots in below the Highland League (which doesn’t have relegation, and hasn’t had any new joiners for a few years) the West teams don’t have a natural home to move to in tier 6 at this stage. With the early success of Kelty drawing attention, however, change is coming; the East of Scotland League have proposed running a parallel league in the West which is now under discussion.
Before Bonnyrigg’s announcement, there had been a confirmed 3 applications from Junior sides to join the EoS league next season, with another 2/3 indicating that they would follow suit before the deadline. Dalkeith Thistle are the only club to go public with their application thus far, while Clydebank’s members voted to ‘seek a return to the senior game’ but still await how this will be proposed. What was significant about Clydebank’s public declaration? Well, they became the first West Junior side to announce a desire to join the pyramid, despite the lack of a natural division for their region. A copy of fellow West side Kilwinning Rangers’ recent general meeting minutes then ‘leaked’ the news that the EoS was looking into running a West league, with at least 5 top West Junior clubs interested in becoming founding members.
You may well be reading this, thinking ‘why?’ – there are several thousand reasons why every year, in the form of cold hard cash! The SFA runs a ‘licencing’ scheme for clubs, which is required to progress from tier 6 up the levels. It sets minimum standards to be achieved (spectator covered capacity of 100, facilities at an acceptable standard, proper book-keeping off the field) and provides rewards for doing so: the possibility of promotion; automatic entry into the potentially lucrative Scottish Cup; access to grants and schemes, and more besides. Clubs signing up to the pyramid system also become eligible to receive around £10,000 in funding to improve their facilities and reach an acceptable status for licencing.
To sum up the Juniors currently: the traditionally weaker North region is unlikely to see anything change in the near future; the West is bracing itself as it feels the pressure of the pyramid’s pull for the first time; the East is set to be severely weakened, losing established & well-supported sides , and potentially facing a forced league restructure as a result. It would take a very naïve opinion to suggest the imminent end of the Junior grade, but things will undoubtedly be tougher for the SJFA in years to come. The only question remaining for the blazers in charge is whether they will belatedly choose to negotiate with the Senior game and join the overall pyramid, or whether they will continue to diminish in stature as more and more member clubs choose to chase the dream (be it either football or financially driven) every year.