Junior clubs in the west are about to get the best of both worlds
While lower league and non-league football is often afforded greater romance, the junior game has always been viewed as more of a drunken fumble round the back of the social club.
But, the mass migration of more than 60 of the junior association’s West Region clubs across to the newly-formed West of Scotland League has changed that. Along with the flit, comes a place in Scotland’s pyramid system and a new aura of respectability. Like the town rebel who is welcomed into civilised society, the game’s perennial outsiders have become part of the establishment.
It is a move that has angered some but others see it as a necessary change as the integration into the Scottish league set-up does away with the glass ceiling and allows them to target an assent up through the SPFL ranks.
“Don’t get me wrong there are some fans who are junior through and through,” admits the SJFA president and St Anthony’s FC match secretary Felix McKenna, pictured inset. “They weren’t interested but at the end of the day, if you are a fan of any club then that club will always be important to you. You might have objections to certain decisions and you might not be happy with the direction we’ve taken but most people will still support their club. They might be moaning and groaning but they still go to the games.
“Everyone has opinions. That’s what football is all about.”
And at junior level, there is rarely any holding back. Those who have taken in games at junior grounds around the country and encountered the ‘characters’ who line the pitches, holler from terracings or bawl down from stands, can vouch for that.
The decision, which was essentially taken two seasons ago but has been a couple of years in the execution, to move as a block has ensured those rough edges will not be sanded down, though, according to those who have been part of the game for decades.
“The aim was always to keep everyone together and all move in one step. We wanted to retain the junior identity,” said Colin Chisholm, the commercial manager at Ayrshire side Auchinleck Talbot.
While clubs such as newly-crowned champions Kelty Hearts and fellow Lowland League high-flyers like Bonnyrigg Rose, as well as others such as Newtongrange Star and Penicuik in the East of Scotland feeder league, all crossed the divide years ago, doing it in dribs and drabs, and leaving a weakened juniors East Region in their wake, there was a more collective approach in the west, as they voted to move as one. Aware of the need to remain competitive and attractive to sponsors, the interwoven history was also important.
“There are a considerable number of local derbies in that group and we wanted to protect those,” explained Chisholm, who has spent around five decades following his team and served for 21 years on the committee. “A lot of these clubs go back to the old coal-mining days and other working-class industries within the area. They are important to the communities and there are some real rivalries between the towns and villages. That is important and a huge part of the junior game so it was a big part in why we wanted to stay together.”
“You should never forget your roots,” said McKenna. “We are custodians of our clubs and we have to do what we think is best. We would only have been holding our clubs back if we hadn’t taken the next step. But, we know it is a big step. We know we won’t be playing in a junior league but, at heart, we are all junior clubs. That is our heritage. The good thing about this is we will still be members of the junior association, as well as members of the West of Scotland League. To me that is very important. It will still allow us to play in the Scottish Junior Cup. That matters to a lot of clubs and fans.”
All 63 clubs have been accepted into the new leagues, along with four other west coast clubs, Bonnyton Thistle, Glasgow University, St Cadocs YC and Drumchapel United.
It means that there will no longer be a west junior league. Not officially. But, in the West of Scotland Football League, it will be recreated in all but name.
But, having always been a law unto themselves, in one of Scottish football’s strangest quirks, the clubs will now have to work within a bigger and more convoluted system of titles, and play-offs, with the eventual target of promotion into the SPFL League Two, as things stand.
Auchinleck Talbot are among the giants of the junior ranks, as regular title winners since the late 1970s. They also have a record 13 Scottish Junior Cup victories to their name and, in recent years, they signalled the potential of the new West of Scotland League sides as they made a name for themselves in the senior Scottish Cup. No longer completely annexed, junior sides were admitted to the national knock-out competition and, in 2012, Auchinleck reached the fourth round and gave an impressive account of themselves against Hearts. They lost 1-0 but their performance and the travelling crowd of 2,000, consisting of several generations of families, gave them and junior football greater credibility.
In 2018-19, the club built on that and, in front of 3,100, scored their first triumph over a full-time outfit, Ayr United, to reach the last 16.
“This is a new challenge for us all, for the manager and the players,” explains Chisholm. “We know there are some fans who would rather we stuck with the juniors but why would you want to be at one level when you have the opportunity to move to a higher level and take on another challenge? There are those who are against it but I think it has given most clubs a boost.”
Progressive, with driven committee men and women and ambitious managers and players, the decision to unify with the rest of the game shows there is more to the juniors than bludgeoning industrial language and a crowd baying for blood. Come derby day, there will be no quarter asked for or given but away from the match-day blood and thunder there is a desire to evolve.
It was the former SFA chief executive David Taylor who once said: “The atmosphere at Junior matches is quite different to what you get at senior matches. To go along and stand on the terraces at Renfrew or Pollok, as I do these days – or at Carnoustie when I go home – is different. It is much more of a social experience, and we don’t want to lose that. It has to be nurtured and protected – and developed.
“To some extent, that’s where Junior clubs have stolen a march on the senior clubs at the lower end of the scale, who seem to have lost that community support. Once you lose it, it’s very difficult to get it back.”
In looking to the future, the juniors’ determination to abandon their home league en masse shows they remain well aware of their past and what it means to their fans and their own identity.
Maybe the junior game is more than a drunken fumble after all. Maybe it is about long-term commitment, to each other, and a shared history, and an understanding of what makes them who they are.