Set-up offers reward for ambitious non-league clubs

MIKE Lawson was on the golf course when he received the phone call telling him Spartans had not been granted entry to the Scottish Football League.

It was the second time he had been manager of a highly-successful non-league side attempting to gain access to the higher echelons, the second time he has suffered such a knock-back.

“It was soul destroying,” says the most successful manager in the East of Scotland league, who is in his third spell at Whitehill Welfare. “You were waiting for teams to go bust to get the chance to go to Hampden and pitch for their place in the leagues. The first time was with Whitehill [Welfare] in the 90s and then again with Spartans when Annan Athletic got in instead of us. I wasn’t at Hampden that day and I decided to kill time on the golf course, but it felt just as bad when I got the phone call. It felt like no matter how hard we worked, how successful we were there was always this glass ceiling.

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“It’s not the way it should be. I have been saying that for years and I’m not the only one. There should have been a pyramid system before now, but at least we are getting there now. Things are changing and I’m excited. It’s a fresh challenge.”

This season signals the start of the Lowland League and while there will be no promotion at the end of this campaign, next season the Lowland League champions will move on to a play-off with the winners of the Highland League and the club at the bottom of the SPFL League Two.

“It has been a long time coming and it means teams at our level have a reason to keep improving because they see there is somewhere they can go, they don’t have to stagnate. Hopefully, that will mean more recognition from the TV, radio and papers, and that will help us get more sponsorship and more fans into the game at this level.”

Whitehill open their campaign with a home match against Gala Fairydean Rovers, another club who suffered an SFL knockback. They took some time to regroup but have been galvanised by the prospect of what now lies ahead.

The lack of a progressive pathway has been a problem at non-league level with ambitious clubs restricted in how far they could reach. Clubs who tried and failed for a move into the SFL were left with no great incentive to invest in their ground, their youth system or any kind of long-term planning. But with the introduction of the Lowland League ambition can earn its reward. With SFA licensing a prerequisite for Lowland League membership, the foundations have been laid on and off the pitch.

“With no disrespect to some of the teams we have been playing, we will go into this league knowing we won’t be playing on public parks and we will be up against fresh blood,” says Lawson, “with teams from the South of Scotland and East of Scotland and the likes of East Kilbride giving us a completely new challenge this season and, hopefully, we will get some of the junior clubs joining next season.

“This season there is no promotion, but I think we will all be thinking long-term, and the chance to play our way into the league set-up next season is a carrot all the managers will be using when it comes to signing players.”

Having won league titles and dominated the cup competitions in recent seasons, with Spartans and then last season at Rosewell, Lawson knows how hard it is to keep players, coaching staff and committee members motivated in such circumstances. With nothing new to aim for he has lost players, looking for something fresh, to the junior sides and seen others quit the game early as the highs of winning were diluted and the monotony of the league set-up chipped away at them. But now, players have a new challenge.

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We know we still can’t offer the same money as some of the junior clubs, but in the past we would dangle the carrot of being able to play in the Scottish Cup. Now we can tell players that they have the chance to help get promotion to the SPFL next season and I think that is exciting for a lot of players who want to prove themselves. Hopefully this means we have a better chance of holding on to our best players and bringing even better ones in. I can’t wait to get started.”