The dutiful game: Welcome to the world of junior football in Scotland

During the week they are anonymous working men. At the weekend, they are transformed, local heroes playing for not much more than pride. Welcome to the world of junior football, where passion and loyalty to a team, a community, run deep

• Seven-year-old Josh Maxwell and Scott Macleod celebrate. Photographs: Rob McDougall, Robert Perry

A stranger visiting Scotland for the first time and keen to get an idea what the place looks like could do worse than stand in the centre circle at a few of the country's 150 or so junior football grounds. Beyond the terracing, the visitor would see high flats and Highlands, coast towns and ghost towns, cash-strapped streets and snow-capped peaks. Around Barrfields Park, home to Largs Thistle, the hills are thick with whins the same gold as the team strip.

From the vantage point of Prestonfield, the ground of Linlithgow Rose, you can make out the steel-steepled palace in which Mary, Queen of Scots was born, and the post-war semi that was the birthplace of Alex Salmond. You learn a lot about Scottish culture and values from junior football, and the first lesson comes in through the eyes.

Junior football is not, despite the name, a game for youngsters. It is played by men, real men who work through the week, typically as joiners, brickies, mechanics and other grafters, then spend Saturday afternoons playing hard, attacking football. They are watched from worn, phlegm-flecked terraces by passionate, obsessive crowds, which are often greater in number than those attending third and even second division games.

Linlithgow Rose and Largs Thistle will today meet in the final of the Scottish Junior Cup at Kilmarnock's Rugby Park. It is the most coveted prize in the junior game, and the subject of a great Scottish novel, The Thistle And The Grail, published in 1954. When Robin Jenkins described these cup ties as a "mysterious masculine sacrament", he wasn't indulging in hyperbole. There is a devotional aspect to junior football.

Take the Auchinleck Talbot centre-half who, at dawn on the day of a cup final, visited his father's grave to pray for success. Then there was the loyal committee man who, when his club won the cup, took the trophy home and photographed each of his 13 grandchildren sitting by it, as if it was a sliver of the true cross.

Tommy Scouler, the 75-year-old kit man with Largs Thistle, regards the cup final as a personal second chance at glory; as a player with Greenock Juniors, he missed the 1960 cup final due to injury. So when Largs won their semi-final, the years fell from him in a kind of miracle. "Ah wisnae even limpin'," he says. "Ah threw ma stick away."

At a time when the Scottish Premier League is withering for lack of money, it is refreshing to spend time in the pure-hearted world of junior football. The typical player gets about fifty quid a week. Some clubs pay more, others less, some pay nothing at all. None of these men are in it for the money. It's about love of the game. This passion finds a deafening echo in the cries of a crowd, each member of which will have paid around a fiver to get in. Every time the ball is won, the home fans let out an orgasmic roar; a ball given away is greeted by a frustrated wail that suggests coitus interruptus. Over 90 minutes, this is tantric football.

At Prestonfield on Saturday 17 April, Linlithgow Rose are at home to Dundee's Lochee United in the second leg of the Scottish Junior Cup semi-final. Rose are 1-0 down from the first match and the 1,400-strong crowd is tense. Linlithgow have won the cup on three previous occasions – 1965, 2002 and 2007 – and are regarded as one of the leading junior clubs. But things aren't looking good.

"We're nervous," admits David Archer, 45, a Rose fan sitting in the social club next to the ground. It would be wrong to think that, because junior clubs are small, the pain and joy of following them is at all diminished. For the fans, defeat hurts just as much as it does for SPL supporters. "More so," says Martin Brown, 39, wearing a maroon replica top, "because instead of it being a team from 60 miles away, it's a team from just over the hill that have beat you."

Junior football is played in regional leagues, pitting town against town, village against village. Bad-tempered local derbies are common. "It can feel like the longest drive home in history," says Brown, "and it's just a few miles."

Standing by the social club bar, members of the Linlithgow Reed Band, splendid in scarlet jackets and black peak caps, have drams in one hand, drums in the other. They are preparing to take to the field and perform the much-loved club song, Hail The Gallant Rosey Posey, which is played to the tune of Battle Hymn Of The Republic.

"If the Rose win today, Linlithgow will be empty on the day of the final," explains Alex Grant, the 71-year-old cornettist. "Everybody will be there. When they win the cup, we play on the open-top bus that takes them through town."

Rose, of course, do win. The game is one long act of faith. Linlithgow concede an early goal, but equalise from a penalty shortly before half time. In the second half, the resurrection is complete – they score three.

At the final whistle, Danny Smith, the talismanic centre-midfielder, has tears in his eyes as he runs over to hug his sister and niece. Later, walking into the social club to huge cheers, he winks at the doorman – "Do ah need to sign in?" The answer, of course, is "no". The man is a hero.

The air smells of beer and bridies, victory and reheated hope. A Lochee fan downs a scunnered pint and heads for the bus, leaving his blue and white scarf where it lies. "You're very welcome to that," he says. "I never want to see it again."

Danny Smith is 32, lives in Denny, and works as a coach-builder. He looks older than his years – tough, like Richard Harris in This Sporting Life. He sits in front of the telly, Gordon Brown resigning quietly behind him on the news, and talks movingly about what Linlithgow Rose and its support means.

"You see your superstars of football?" he asks. "Well, I've lived that dream, but on a different level. For a working-class guy like myself, it's been amazing."

Smith has been with Linlithgow Rose since 1998. As a teenager, he had hoped to make it as a professional, but that didn't work out so he joined the juniors. The best junior players carry within them a perfect mixture of humility and pride; humility because they have accepted they are not – in general – as talented as the pros; and pride because, despite their limitations, they continue to do their best for club and community.

"My level's junior football," says Smith. "At seniors, I could be ordinary; at junior football, one of the best. I realised early doors that Rose was a special club and I could make something of my time there. The supporters appreciated me because they could see that I was going out on a Saturday and giving it everything I had. We've got a real special bond. It means the world to me."

Part of that bond is the result of the fact that Smith has sustained many bad injuries while playing for Rose. Junior football can be very aggressive. Smith has broken ribs, a foot and his right leg. The second time he broke his leg, the bone snapped and he lay on the pitch for 40 excruciating minutes, waiting for an ambulance. "I was 29 and everybody thought that was it for me. The papers said my career was in tatters, and I thought that myself."

It was a miserable period; he was off work for four months and suffered a number of infections. But, after almost two years, he returned to training. "I got a right hunger inside me to play again. I didn't want to be remembered for breaking my leg and that being the end. It was the start of a new journey."

One Saturday morning, the Rose manager named him as a substitute in a game against Tayport and he came on in the last ten minutes to tumultuous roars. Danny Smith was back.

"I've proved to any doubters that are out there that I can still do it. I've won well over 20 trophies with Linlithgow, but this cup final means more to me than them all put together." He plans to retire as a player at the end of this season. "I feel I've got one last big medal in me. I want to go out on a high."

Smith has become a sort of holy martyr for Rose fans. The man willing to take the pain. Yet he's an icon they can touch, an idol with whom they can share a joke or drink. "If you're a professional football player, you don't have a relationship with the fans," he says. "You maybe sign something and walk on. To me, the fans are more like friends."

There is an intimacy in junior football between supporters and club. Much of the angst in professional football comes when supporters feel alienated by the club they love. The anti-Glazer protests at Manchester United could never happen in junior football because the clubs are run by fans on an unpaid, voluntary basis. Often, these volunteers have a relationship with the club as long and deep as a marriage.

"I've only been on the committee for 46 years," says one man at Largs Thistle, dismissing himself as an dilettante.

Davie Roy, the club secretary at Linlithgow, has held that position since 1959. Before George Best, before The Beatles, he was helping the Rose to bloom. He's 77 years old and cuts the grass yet.

Football can transform people, elevate them. The players spend all week doing ordinary jobs; come Saturday they have the opportunity to shuck off anonymity and achieve momentary greatness. The footballing life can also, despite the evidence of the tabloids, be personally exalting.

"The junior game has changed my life around so much," says James Marks, the 27-year-old striker with Largs Thistle. In his late teens, having moved to Greenock from the United States, he fell in with a bad crowd and became, in his own words, "a ned", wasting his days with fights. "I was running the streets, getting bad press in the local papers, I was going to court quite a lot."

He was approached, at this time, by Sandy MacLean, now manager of Largs Thistle but then with Greenock Juniors, who had heard he could play football. Marks would be allowed to play with the team, he was told, but he had to clean up his act. "Ever since that, I've worked hard, and I've not been in one bit of trouble. I don't run about with the same crowd, I train twice a week, and I keep my head down. My wife says that junior football has saved me."

Winning the cup would be, for Marks, a glorious symbol of his redemption. "It means everything," he says. "It's the biggest game of my life."

Just as junior football can transform individual lives, it can shape and change whole communities. Take Auchinleck Talbot, one of several teams based in what were once thriving mining villages in the Ayrshire coalfield. It's no exaggeration to say that Talbot, known as The 'Bot, were built on coal. Nearly half the squad that won the Scottish Junior Cup in 1949 were miners, and the following year 12,000 tons of pit slag were dumped round the ground, Beechwood Park, to form an ersatz terrace. Football culture in those days was more bing than bling.

Since the pit closures, Auchinleck and nearby Cumnock – home to their hated rivals, Cumnock Juniors – have struggled for employment and meaning, but the football provides an identity and focal point these places would otherwise lack.

"What does the club mean to me?" says John Davidson, 50, sitting in the Beechwood Park social club before a game. "It's part of the family. You've got your weans and you've got Talbot."

During a mid-week match against Irvine Meadow which yields three goals and ten bookings, the fanaticism of the Auchinleck support is evident. Sitting in the stand, having chosen a seat with great care to avoid the pigeon mess, there's much entertainment in listening to the fans shouting at their team. "Keep the heid, Talbot!" one man cries. "Play f***in' fitba'! It's no a hoat spud yer kickin'!"

This is tough love. The devotion of the fans has been repaid in so many victories it's arguable that Talbot are the greatest junior club of all. They certainly know about winning the Scottish Cup, having lifted the trophy more often than any other side. They won it five times between 1986 and 1992.

"Willie Knox was the man that done that," explains Jim McAuley, a 50-year-old whose fandom is such that he named his dog after one of the players. "Willie Knox is a god in Auchinleck."

Willie Knox is 71 and lives a life of quiet obscurity with his loving wife Sheila down a cul-de-sac in his home town of Kilmarnock. At weekends he helps out as "gofer" at a local boys' team, carrying the balls and corner flags. Yet Knox is regarded by many as the best junior football manager to ever stalk a touchline. Some say that, in his way, he was the equal of Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and Matt Busby. Yet he had no interest in managing a senior club, preferring to keep close to his roots and inspire a community for whom he had great love and empathy.

As manager of Talbot between 1977 and 1993, he won 43 trophies, taking the team from nowhere to the dominant force in the junior game. His greatest achievement was to lift the Scottish Cup for three years in a row, a feat that has never been equalled. His cup runs took place at a time when Auchinleck and much of Ayrshire were depressed and divided by the pit closures and miners' strike. Whole families had been torn apart as some men chose to cross the picket line. Footballing success, in this context, was a healing force. What's remarkable is that Knox intended it to be so.

"What goaded me on was that in Auchinleck there was nothing," he recalls. "The pits was shut and there was nae work at all. When I started we were lucky if there were 30 people coming to the games, but see by the time I finished up? You're talking about 2,000, maybe more. We had to win the cup to unite the village. That was very important for me 'cos my dad was an ex-miner.

"When we won the cup that first year, we went back to the village and the scabs and the guys that had stayed oot on strike aw got drunk thegither."

Knox is not physically a big man, but he has presence and authority even now. As a player he started his professional career at Raith Rovers beside Jim Baxter before joining Third Lanark in the late 1950s; the near-mythical Glasgow club were then managed by Shankly, a man from whom Knox learned many of his later managerial skills.

As a manager, Knox was known for his sang froid. In 1986, with Talbot 2-0 down to Pollok in the Scottish Junior Cup final at Hampden, the gaffer was in the dug-out, calmly eating an egg piece. His composure proved justified when Talbot went on to win 3-2.

Under his regime every player was paid the same. He himself got 20 a week, but a retired miner once gave him a ton of coal for his fire with the proviso – "As long as you keep winning for Talbot". Money was never important to him. When he received a cash prize at an awards ceremony he spent it on a park bench in memory of a local Labour councillor. "I've made nothin' oot o' fitba'," he says, "but I've made a lot o' guid friends."

Unquestionably, Willie Knox embodies the values of junior football – egalitarian, community-minded, loyal and thrawn. Most likely, some of those values will be on display today at Rugby Park. Largs versus Linlithgow, Thistle against Rose, west meets east – all opposites, but the teams and players are united in a desire to excel and to display the true spirit of a game which, though seldom beautiful, is always a sight to behold.

"For 90 minutes all hell breaks loose," is how one fan described the cup final. He might have added that afterwards, if you win, you're in heaven. n

The final of the Emirates Junior Cup will be played at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock, today at 4pm and broadcast live on BBC Alba

Fact file

• Junior football should not be confused with juvenile or youth football. It is played by adults - semi-professionals with day-jobs who are paid a small amount to turn out for their junior team.

• There are over 150 junior sides in Scotland. Clubs compete within regions - North, East and West - each of which is subdivided into a number of leagues. Teams can go up and down, but it is not possible to be promoted out of junior football and into the seniors.

• Many clubs are happy with this situation as the best junior teams can attract crowds well in excess of those drawn by the Scottish third division sides they would be playing if they did win promotion. A recent development has seen the league champions of each region, plus the team that wins the junior cup, qualify to compete in the Scottish Cup.

• Many junior teams date back to the 19th century. For reasons lost to history, it has been popular to name clubs after flowers. Some floral teams have withered away over the years, but the tradition is upheld by Dundonald Bluebell, Dundee Violet and Linlithgow Rose.

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 23 May.