Originally written for Sports Marketing Scotland
Scottish football has been accused of going stale in the last few years, with the lower league journey of a reformed Rangers completed and Celtic continuing their domestic domination under Brendan Rodgers. However, one overlooked change may be about to bear fruit, and in doing so revitalise the lower reaches of the football pyramid: just a few years ago, the Highland League joined a newly-created Lowland League to offer a competitive pathway for clubs to reach the SPFL leagues on merit for the first time; underneath, a seemingly weak East of Scotland League bounced back as the main Lowland feeder, sitting alongside the South of Scotland League in tier 6. Now, with several Junior sides ready to jump ship and follow trailblazers Kelty Hearts into this ‘brave new world’, the Scottish Junior Football Association has agreed to initiate contact with the ruling Scottish Football Association – the intention being to negotiate their integration into the still-fledgling pyramid system.
I recently put together an article asking where Junior football was headed, in the wake of Kelty’s initial success and rumours of other clubs applying to the East of Scotland League (EoS) for next season. We now find ourselves in unchartered waters: at least 10 East Junior clubs have applied to the EoS ahead of the March 31st deadline; Clydebank have broken ranks in the West, with their recent club statement committing to the EoS from 2019/20 unless things change; several others including current West Superleague leaders Kilwinning Rangers are openly considering their options. While the North Region essentially sits below the Highland League, and only Banks O’ Dee seem to have any interest in progression upward, the West and East Regions are now being pressured like never before.
How did we get here then? Well, the Lowland League was doubted by many at the time of its formation, but is now going from strength to strength. Several ex-SPFL talents grace the likes of East Kilbride, Spartans, East Stirlingshire and BSC Glasgow while even clubs down the pecking order are respected enough to sign quality young talent on loan from SPL sides. At the time, most big Junior clubs considered the opportunity and decided the grass was not greener. A few years further on, Kelty’s move to the East of Scotland this season (with the purpose of achieving promotion to the Lowland) has proven all the doubters wrong: crowd numbers and gate receipts have actually improved; the playing squad recommitted in unison and has been strengthened overall; the club was able to plan and start building their new stand with SFA grants; achieving licenced status guarantees potentially lucrative Scottish Cup entry every year (while a few Juniors have this already, all future licensees must commit to joining the pyramid system and invest in their own facilities – much easier to do when grants are available).
News is trickling out around the clubs who are applying, and will likely all be confirmed after the EoS deadline this week. The only confirmed application in place thus far is from Dalkeith Thistle, while the membership of Bonnyrigg Rose & Clydebank have officially voted to join the pyramid and Tranent have scheduled an EGM. My information is that no West sides have yet lodged their paperwork, meaning the East Juniors are about to experience a seismic shift in losing several current clubs. The SJFA have often been accused of being slow to adapt to the times, and on this issue they have certainly been caught unawares. Take the following comments, attributed to secretary Tom Johnston this week, as an example:
“That was a surprise to us (Bonnyrigg committing to joining the pyramid). I’m finding it hard to follow the logic of Bonnyrigg. They could have been playing in and winning the Scottish Junior Cup and participating in the Scottish senior cup. I haven’t heard for definite from Bonnyrigg that they have left, so until that happens I don’t know. The Lothian areas are predominantly Junior country so if they do decide to go, I’ll be surprised.”
These attitudes seem to be prevalent even now among those running the Junior game, and completely miss the reality of the situation. Cold, hard cash is a major driver when it comes to securing a club’s future, and will always take precedence over the ‘prestige’ of playing in the Scottish Junior Cup or the ‘chance’ of qualifying for the main Scottish Cup by winning the aforementioned competition or the region’s top division. The over-riding force behind this wave of Junior sides considering a move is to secure a better future, and they now have concrete evidence of the approach working if done correctly. Finally, a new pressure has now arisen…if clubs don’t jump this year, they could end up finding themselves behind others in the queue, and possibly in an East of Scotland 1st Division below the main league. However, there are still some Junior sides steadfast in their opposition to leaving the grade, led by the famous name of Auchinleck Talbot.
The pyramid as things stand is far from perfect. It could be successfully argued that separate Lowland West and Lowland East leagues would work better in tier 5, while the major outstanding issue is the lack of a West of Scotland League in tier 6. EoS bosses have made initial inquiries about running a ‘West’ division (as discussed by Kilwinning), and have interest from at least 6 top West Junior sides in such an arrangement. Previously, Lowland side BSC Glasgow sent an e-mail exploring interest in a similar arrangement, and would be interested in running a reserve side as part of the division (similar to Stirling University in the EoS). Momentum is now growing and it is highly likely that such a league will be set up by the 2019/20 season (either by integrating the Junior leagues or as a new competition with applications invited).
The major question now is the nature of the SJFA’s recent announcement, as backed by a majority of member clubs. Talks will inevitably happen with the SFA, but will the Juniors approach these with a realistic mindset or insist that their leagues come in at a higher level than the existing infrastructure? The successful future of the grade rests on the outcome: it remains to be seen whether any clubs in the grade wait to see progress, or continue taking matters into their own hands by making the jump for next season and beyond. The Juniors will always have their place regardless, but getting this wrong could see some of the biggest and most historic names departing for the now-greener grass of the SFA pyramid.