End of the Juniors? Scottish football set for historic change

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The 2017/18 season has been unremarkable in many ways: Celtic continue to rule the roost comfortably, Rangers are still dropping ‘intriguing’ club statements and the SPFL is once again serving up great entertainment overall. However, we may remember this campaign in future years as pivotal in the future of Scottish Football as a whole, with major developments further down the league structure – this week has seen fourteen Junior sides leave the grade and join the “professional” SFA pyramid, being accepted into a revamped East Of Scotland League. Perhaps emboldened by this and seeking to secure a future, the SJFA have now begun a summer of negotiations to merge into our senior pyramid after member clubs gave their approval.
If you are a fan of an SPFL team, you may be forgiven for not realising we have the makings of a pyramid in place already! Back in 2013, Stewart Regan approved the formation of a ‘Lowland League’ beneath League 2, to sit at the same level as the Highland League and cover the rest of the country. Applications were invited from non-league senior and junior ranks, with the carrot of potential promotion to the SPFL on offer for the first time. Since 2014/15, the winners of the Highland and Lowland have met in a playoff, with the victor then facing League 2’s bottom side fighting for their SPFL survival.
Ultimately, no Junior sides applied, and the remaining non-league senior clubs filled out the East of Scotland and South of Scotland leagues sitting below the Lowland. Promotion and relegation were also put in place here, although unlike the tier above a solitary tie between champions of both these leagues carries the prize of promotion. With this fledgeling pyramid gaining traction, a major shift occurred at the end of last season: Kelty Hearts, winners of the East Superleague in the Junior system, left the grade to join the seniors. For the first time in recent history, a big name had decided to move away through choice, and many more began to contemplate their own future as a result:

Kelty Hearts FC’s Stadium – New Central Park.

“We did extensive research on the East Of Scotland and Lowland League upon submitting our Licence application and it became apparent really early that our future lay in the Scottish pyramid system being an SFA Licenced Club” recalls Dean McKenzie, GM of Kelty Hearts. “The clubs are friendly and welcoming and it’s a League very much on the up. The transition has been fairly straightforward on the pitch, what we have noticed having played Lowland League and obviously, EOS teams is that they are more technical with clubs packed with players with energy, pace and technique.”
With the current season drawing to a close, we find ourselves in uncharted waters – Kelty’s move has proven successful, with promotion to the Lowland League – and a potential meeting with SPFL neighbours Cowdenbeath – just a playoff away. Several SJFA clubs have now committed to following the same path into the pyramid system and been accepted into the East of Scotland League: Blackburn United, Bonnyrigg Rose, Camelon, Crossgates Primrose, Dalkeith Thistle, Dunipace, Easthouses Lily, Edinburgh United, Haddington Athletic, Hill of Beath Hawthorn, Musselburgh Athletic and Tranent join for 2018/19; youth academy Inverkeithing Hillfield Swifts have also gained immediate acceptance for their new senior side; additionally, junior clubs Clydebank and Dundonald Bluebell have applied for a deferred 2019/20 entry.
“Camelon Juniors are moving forward and there is a real buzz around the Club at the moment. People are engaged with what is happening here” enthuses Camelon JFC chairman Eric Henry. His club put out an early statement committing to the move next season, and are delighted to have now secured approval. “It’s still the opinion of the club that this is the only way to secure the clubs long term future, and may I once again state that this is a view endorsed by all at the Club. Our first team management and players, youth development coaches, players & parents alike, have been coming forward in great numbers showing support for us undertaking this journey…furthermore, we’ve had so much encouragement from our fans.”
The Mariners – Camelon JFC – Carmuirs Park.

These changes have dealt a profound blow to the SJFA and Scottish junior football as a whole. We now find ourselves in a situation where the junior body is beginning negotiations with the SFA to join a pyramid it had previously rejected, while some of its member clubs look into their options should these talks ultimately fail. Strong rumours have broken over the last week that West sides, in particular, will seek to form a ‘West of Scotland’ league, working alongside the East of Scotland at tier 6, not particularly comforting news for SJFA secretary Tom Johnston as he undertakes his most important assignment yet. It is important to note, however, that many clubs in the historic grade do not favour integration. One of the most successful teams in the West, Auchinleck Talbot, has taken on the mantle of the vocal minority in this volatile environment:
“We certainly didn’t vote for it,” club secretary Henry Dumigan told BBC Scotland just last month as events began to unfold. “We see ourselves as a junior football team, we’ve no ambition to play senior football. It’s fine participating in the Scottish Cup, where we’ve done reasonably well and competed well with the senior clubs, but we see ourselves as a junior club and that’s it. We feel there’s a strong possibility that it will damage, not the reputation, but the identity [of the club]. We’re very proud to be a junior club.”
The sudden developments of the last two months have surprised many lower league aficionados. Many fans of Scottish football – myself included – never dreamt of the day that a full, inclusive pyramid could come to fruition – now, we are presented with a huge opportunity to achieve profound change. Ian Maxwell is about to take his place as the SFA’s new chief executive, and it could be his influence that establishes a “proper” pyramid. As with all mergers, or potential ‘hostile takeovers’ should the talks fail, not everyone will be happy with the immediate outcome…the true test will come in 5/10 years’ time as the dust settles and clubs can realistically find their natural level. While the summer of 2018 will now be remembered for Steven Gerrard’s arrival at the top level, it might just be the lower levels that provide our national game’s main milestone in the long run.

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