The Rise of the Juniors

Junior football - not just for the young. The domestic Scottish game faces some difficult questions, could looking to the lower leagues provide some answers? Craig Anderson reports.

‘Juniors’ is an often-misunderstood term in the world of football. Elsewhere it usually refers to boys or juvenile football. In Scotland though, it's quite different.

The term ‘Junior’ relates to the semi-professional level, incorporating players that are winding down their career, those perhaps not good enough for senior level, or even the up and coming starlets. It has its own association within the Scottish Football Association and has its own competitions - mostly regional or the big one, the Scottish Junior Cup. It carries a reputation of being full of hatchet men and thugs, an accusation unwarranted most of the time in fairness but admittedly there have been a few unsavory battles in matches along the way.

But the ‘Junior’ sides in Scotland are carving a niche as tricky opponents for some of the senior teams in the Scottish Cup, with all four representatives out of the five taking part this season in the hat for the third round draw. The entrants are made up of the champions of the three regional top-flight leagues (North, East and West Regions) as well as the Scottish Junior Cup, along with Girvan FC who have the unique distinction of holding memberships to both the SJFA and the SFA, guaranteeing them a place every year.

Two of them knocked out Third Division opponents to get there, with Albion Rovers and Queen's Park losing to Sunnybank (North champions) and Bo'ness United (East winners) respectively. Beith, champions in the West, thrashed Glasgow University 8-1, however at the time of writing Girvan still face a replay at home to Golspie Sutherland following a 2-2 draw.

I was lucky enough to witness my first ever ‘giant-killing’ as Bo'ness United came from behind to beat Queen's Park and having frequented the Juniors as a rookie writer, I was familiar with the atmosphere and the set-up for most clubs like United. On Cup day there were differences given this was something of an event - signs everywhere for press and dignitaries, hospitality for the media and guests, an impressive 1,271 crowd, portable toilets found on every corner of the ground, a police presence (albeit only two officers), and perhaps even a lick of paint in one or two areas of Newtown Park. This truly was an occasion for a club like Bo'ness rather than a normal match, made all the more special by the fact they came from behind to beat their senior luminaries 2-1.

There has been an improvement in the fortunes of the Junior sides in the ‘big cup’ since they were first entered in 2007. Both Linlithgow Rose and Irvine Meadow have been lucky enough to reach the utopian Fourth Round stage, where the SPL clubs arrive and those Meadow fans will have great memories of their trip to Easter Road and Hibernian last season. However the next round looks a little trickier for the minnows this season as Beith and Sunnybank face Second Division opponents in Airdrie United and Ayr United respectively while Girvan, if they get past Golspie Sutherland, would face Third Division Stranraer.  Bo’ness on the other hand need to overcome Highland League champions Buckie Thistle.

Up against teams in the Highland, South and East of Scotland Leagues, other semi-professional non-leagues, arguably of an equal standard, the Juniors have fared well with victories over what you would call established Scottish Cup competitors. Now they're taking scalps from the senior teams, showing that they've arrived on the big stage. Their inclusion is not one welcomed by all though, with one newspaper columnist last season claiming Irvine Meadow were taking money "out of the game" when they were facing Hibs. They haven't always been popular for one reason or another but they’re here to stay.

There are claims by many that they are happy to muscle in on the seniors game, but stay in what’s perceived to be a parochial bubble. One such accusation is that the Juniors don’t conform to the rules of the seniors, particularly in terms of transfers and contracts. The much-maligned “retention rule” applied by Junior clubs for example would see a player go out of contract, but their registration can be retained by their club and protect them from missing out on a potential fee. It has been amended recently that if a player can’t agree terms with the club holding his registration, the buying team must pay 40 weekly wages as compensation. In the Bosman era, such a rule in any other association would be treated with utter revulsion and horror.

Then there is the issue of SFA membership where clubs have to adhere to certain criteria to be involved, such as floodlights, facilities and even policing. The Juniors’ involvement in the cup sidesteps that, something that has upset some of the other non-league clubs in the three other senior non-leagues.

There's no doubt the Juniors’ somewhat staggered entrance into the senior game has been a success in the last three years and whether it would lead to a "pyramid" system, which would allow promotions and relegation for teams like these to play in the senior ranks, is a distant dream. In the current atmosphere, change is badly needed and many favor a pyramid, but how that’s to be accomplished could present more headaches. Underneath Divisions One, Two and Three, there is the South, East and Highland Leagues as well as the Juniors, who all appear to be parallel in status and ability.

Introducing relegation from Division Three would be the easy part, but it’s where the relegated side would go that provides the problem. Unlike England that has the Blue Square Premier under League Two, Scotland has no non-league feeder division so you would be looking at amalgamating the Juniors and senior non-league sides. Then a choice would have to be made about whether to adopt a ‘national’ league or a regionalized set-up? Common sense would say local due to lack of finances, but this is a small country who’s Football League still sends Stranraer in the south up to Elgin City in the north in midweek, so that wouldn’t necessarily apply.

If the Scottish Cup has shown anything in recent years, it’s that there’s an appetite for the Junior clubs to become more involved and the results these teams have enjoyed would certainly prove that. Relaxing the SFA criteria, or even conditioning it, to allow Junior clubs to join is one suggestion. After all, with Girvan as a precedent, it is certainly achievable, but then it would come down to the ambition of the Junior clubs themselves. A lot of these clubs are owned and run by people who are happy with the status quo and are not keen on change, couple this with a lack of encouragement from the SJFA or the SFA and change doesn’t seem imminent.

It seems a lot of people want to breathe new life into the Scottish game, but these aren’t the personnel in a position to help implement it. In the meantime, the Juniors will have to make do with their token gesture and keep shocking the institutionalized clubs in the Scottish Cup until something can be changed.

If you would like to hear from Craig, you can follow him on Twitter @CraigyAnderson