THE demise of Gretna has not yet created a vacancy in the senior leagues of Scottish football, but there has already been evidence of interested parties who would want to step forward if the Raydale Park side's prophets of doom prove to be correct.
Spartans from the East of Scotland League have shown their hand, while Highland League sides Huntly and Cover Rangers have also emerged as possible contenders to step up.
The Highland League has been a victim of its own success in recent decades. Ambitious clubs eager to progress through the ranks of Scottish football have been tempted to take the plunge when a rare vacancy has become available in the SFL. In fact, of the five openings that have arisen since the early 1990s, member clubs have opted to pluck teams from the Highland League on four occasions. The only exception was in 2002 when, ironically, Gretna were elected.
There have been mixed fortunes for the Highland League graduates. Inverness clubs Caledonian and Thistle merged in 1994 to take their place in the Third Division along with near-neighbours Ross County. The newly-formed Inverness Caledonian Thistle surged through the leagues and have now established themselves as an SPL force, while Ross County will play in the First Division next season.
Elgin City and Peterhead entered the SFL in 2000 and the Blue Toon are plying their trade in the Second Division. Elgin, on the other hand, have struggled, although they could still make the Third Division play-offs this season.
Meanwhile, only two clubs – Wick Academy and Inverurie Loco Works – have plugged the gaps in the Highland League since 1994.
But if there was to be another vacancy in the SFL, would there be a stampede to the league offices at Hampden Park? The answer is no. The Scotsman has contacted all 15 clubs, and only Huntly and Cove Rangers indicated that they might go for it.
Cove Rangers have applied twice in the past for entry to the SFL, but were unsuccessful. The club is currently pursuing the prospect of developing a new stadium, which could help.
In 2000, Huntly lost out to Elgin City in the vote to get into the SFL, and applying again is something the Christie Park club would not rule out. Of the others, the strong message is that clubs would rather add a team to the league, to give an even number of members and a balanced fixture list. Keith are the reigning Highland League champions, but chairman Sandy Stables does not see the Third Division as the club's next step. He said: "The SFL need to look at the whole structure because it is suicidal at the moment. Inverness CT, Ross County, Peterhead and Elgin City all now play league football in this area. It used to be a famine and now it's a feast."
One suggested solution to the problem is the introduction of a pyramid system similar to the set-up in England, and this has the backing of Deveronvale. The Banff-based side's chief executive David Brown said: "A regionalised pyramid system would appeal to us. Banff is not the easiest place to get to and while we would like to advance our club, we cannot see ourselves entering a league where we would have to travel to the likes of Berwick and Stranraer for away games.
"It would be a great opportunity for the SFL to introduce a regionalised system the next time a vacancy occurs and I think many Highland League clubs would support this."
Current Highland League title challengers Buckie Thistle are definitely against the idea of moving into the SFL because of the current nature of the Highland League. Club president Mark Duncan said: "I believe the Highland League is the most competitive league in Britain.
We also have to look after our supporters. They can then quite easily get to Huntly or Inverness for an away game but they wouldn't be able to go to the likes of Berwick."
Stadium requirements are also an issue for Highland clubs, with more stringent ground criteria in the SFL putting many clubs off.
But former Highland League player Steven Rattray, who now works closely with the league's management committee, believes the Highland League is as strong as ever on the field despite the loss of clubs.
"During the initial years after Inverness CT and Ross County left, there was a dip in quality because these clubs also took the best players with them into the SFL," he said. "The Highland League became a one-team league with Huntly strolling to the title, but now with the dilution of talent, many teams are capable of winning the championship.
"It has been ten years since we had back-to-back title winners and clubs have become financially better off over the last three or four years.
"Players are now turning their backs on the SFL to play in the Highland League and I believe the league is in a very strong position."
"We wouldn't be looking to enter the SFL because of our location and population. There just isn't the fan base to support a league club.
"The league has taken a while to get over losing the other clubs. Losing another wouldn't be ideal and we would all have to work that bit harder to maintain the profile of the league. But we wouldn't criticise a club for wanting to better themselves" – secretary Kevin MacKay
"We are definitely not interested in moving to the SFL. When teams from this area have moved to the Third Division they have used players based in the central belt and we would not want to lose our local identity.
"I would not want to see any team leave the Highland League because it would create an imbalance. I would rather see a team come into the league but there is too much legislation" – president Mark Duncan
"We would not be interested. The travel costs are too prohibitive and I know from speaking to people at Elgin that they can run into the thousands. It would be a hard blow for the Highland League if another club was to go" – chairman David Dowling
"We have never hidden our to desire to play in the Scottish League. We have had two attempts at gaining entry in the past but we were knocked back" – chairman Keith Moorhouse
"I don't envisage us applying to enter the SFL in its current form but a regionalised pyramid system would appeal to us.
"Banff is not the easiest place to get to and while we would like to advance our club, we cannot see ourselves entering a league where we would have to travel to the likes of Berwick and Stranraer" – chief executive David Brown
"For financial reasons, we would certainly not be interested. We are looking to get another club into the league, not lose one" – club secretary David MacDonald
"We are not interested (in joining the SFL) at all. We want another club to come into the Highland League. We don't want to lose anyone" – chairman Jimmy Campbell
"Moving to the SFL is not something we are looking to do mainly because of our location. We respect clubs who are looking to move but we do believe a pyramid system will be introduced soon" – secretary Finlay Noble
"If a vacancy came up anytime soon, it is definitely something that we would talk about and consider" – director of football Andy Troup
INVERURIE LOCO WORKS
"We would always take a positive view on anything that would enhance our club. But it is perhaps too early for us" – chairman Steve Innes
"It's not something we are looking at. The problem for us is population. Keith is a town with only 5,000 people in it while Elgin has a population of 25,000 and they have struggled" – chairman Sandy Stables
"We are in the middle of building a new team so the SFL is of no interest to us. We have lost thousands in gate money from our derbies with Elgin City but if another club was to leave it would not make much difference to us" – secretary Alan McIntosh
"Nairn County are focused on progressing within the Highland League and we have suffered from losing several big derbies against Inverness Caley, Thistle, Elgin and Ross County. I am not wishing to restrain ambitious clubs, but the Highland League is the reason that these clubs are in a position to make the step up and the SFL should recognise this" – chairman Peter Mackintosh
"We would be in favour of a pyramid system but not entering the SFL in its current form. I think most Highland League clubs would not be able to enter the SFL at the moment. In fact, I think it is highly unlikely a club from our league would make the move anytime soon. Grounds up here in the Highlands are simply not as good as non-league grounds in the central belt and clubs there are better off financially too" – secretary Brian Cameron
"It would be a negative step for the club to enter the SFL. You just have to look at Elgin City who were huge in the Highland League.
"They are now a bottom-half Third Division club and their crowds have suffered as a result. But I am not ruling us out of stepping up one day because we travel long distances for our away games as it is and I am positive about the footballing talent in the Wick area" – League management representative Rob Murray
Ins and outs
1973: Inverness Thistle lose out to Ferranti Thistle (later Meadowbank) in the vote to join the SFL. Clubs' unwillingness to travel north for away games is the reason for the Jags' rejection.
• 1994: Inverness Thistle merge with Inverness Caledonian to form Caledonian Thistle (later Inverness Caledonian Thistle). The new club takes its place in the SFL in time for the start of the first ever Third Division season along with Ross County. Wick Academy are admitted to the now 14-team Highland League.
• 2000: Peterhead and Elgin City are admitted to the SFL following the SPL's expansion to 12 teams. Huntly lose out to Elgin in the final round of voting.
• 2002: Inverurie Locos join the Highland League to form an unusual 15-team league.
• 2008: The potential of Gretna going out of business raises the issue of another Highland League club moving to the SFL.