Aidan Smith: Scottish football Pyramid is a farce but who can blame Highland teams if they want to stay put?

Buckie Thistle fiasco is just another example that the SFA’s boast about having a super-duper Pyramid set-up doesn’t stack up
Buckie Thistle were denied a chance to compete for promotion to the SPFL after failing to secure an SFA bronze licence. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)Buckie Thistle were denied a chance to compete for promotion to the SPFL after failing to secure an SFA bronze licence. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)
Buckie Thistle were denied a chance to compete for promotion to the SPFL after failing to secure an SFA bronze licence. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

They’re a funny bunch up there in the Highlands. Please don’t write in to complain, Mr MacSporran, I mean that as a compliment.

My first and so far only Highland League game was Keith vs Buckie Thistle in 2005. Maroon vs green for the uninitiated, which I thought might make for a neat interlude for the book I was writing about a Hibs fan trying to follow Hearts for a season. It was a daft idea in hindsight. The crowd weren’t at all demonstrative and I didn’t pick up a single couthie chant or comment. Plus, Buckie’s Celtic-type hoops rather stymied the comparison I was struggling to make. But something happened post-match in the bar at Keith’s Kynoch Park that has stayed with me.

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The TV in the corner was pumping out the full-time reports from England and the rest of Scotland. Big games involving big teams summarised by ex-pros wearing big headphones. We’re all in thrall to top-level football, right? This was Sky Sports, but you couldn’t have encountered folk who were less interested in Celtic and Rangers and Liverpool and Man U. “What aboot the Highland?” said one. “Fit else has been gangin’ on the day?” Apologies, by the way, if I haven’t got the vernacular quite right. The barman was urged to switch over to BBC Scotland, though everyone knew this was a forlorn effort. The Beeb wouldn’t be calling their scores either.

Former SFA Chief Executive Stewart ReganFormer SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan
Former SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan

Parochial? No, completely endearing. Not everyone deserts the far north early on Saturday morning for a match in Glasgow. They like keeping the football local and keen rivalries do exist, as I learned in that bar. “We dinna like the Buckie bling,” one Keith fan told me.

Well, Buckie have blinged their way to the top of the Highland this season, clinching the title by just two goals from Brechin City. They should have been on the first steps of the Pyramid yesterday for the start of playoffs hopefully leading to entry to a division where they would have their results read out on the box at five o’clock - SPFL League Two. What a mess, though. Whit a bourach!

The SFA in a statement say Buckie have failed to meet the necessary fit-and-proper rules for membership. Buckie in their statement say, more or less: “Yer haverin’.” The SFA say the club failed to respond to three letters and missed the deadline for applying for a “period of grace” to allow more time to meet the criteria. Buckie hit back insisting they were in regular contact with the SFA, attended a meeting with the blazers and, following the decision which has sent Lowland champs East Kilbride straight through to the showdown with the bottomest of the bottom in the fifth tier, have been left “stunned and devastated”.

Ah but Brechin City, who Buckie pipped by those two goals, have an interesting take on all of this. Chairman Kevin Mackie - officially “raging” - calls out his division’s bosses for incompetence and maybe something more sinister.

Why, he wonders, did the Highland League reschedule Buckie’s outstanding fixtures against hapless, bottom-of-the-heap Strathspey Thistle for the crucial moment when the title was within reach and a lorry-load of goals was virtually certain? As it turned out Buckie won 6-1 and 7-0, leaving Strathspey with a whopping final deficit of minus 116. “How can that be fair? asks Mackie.

He accuses the Highland’s administrators - and Buckie - of “making a mockery” of the Pyramid and adds: “What’s the point of having teams playing [for a championship] when it’s known that some who might win it don’t even want to go up?”

This is the elephant - or Highland coo - in the room. How much do these clubs want to be trudging all the way down to the likes of Dumbarton? Brechin do, having been in the senior ranks for so long, but are they really dreaming in Nairn of one day tussling with, say, East Fife? Are Wick Academy definitely fantasising about the opportunity to test themselves against unfamiliar outfits far, far away in the much less bonnie Central Belt?

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And by the way, if Buckie couldn’t fulfill for whatever reason why weren’t Brechin handed their place? According to Mackie they’ve spent “thousands” getting themselves ready for the chance to return to the seniors. The whole thing is a farce and, never mind the Highland’s beaks, reflects poorly on the original devisers including former SFA chief Stewart Regan who brags about himself on Linkedin: “Successfully launched a Pyramid system into Scottish football … ”

It is hardly successful if clubs from one constituency - making up exactly half of the supposed aspirants - are not exactly gagging to play among the big boys. And it’s difficult not to think of the Highland League as being like a cartoon game of pass-the-parcel with the title a bomb labelled “TNT” which some teams just don’t want to be left holding when the music stops.

In 2015 I followed Brora Rangers’ scaling of the Pyramid. In the boardroom they were getting dizzy. Was this really what the club wanted? The treasurer was probably in a cold sweat over the cost of all that additional travel. In the end, despite being minutes away from final success at Montrose, they contrived to lose and so stayed where they were.

Fine in principle, laudable. But is the Pyramid also virtue signalling by the men in charge of Scottish football? A trendy system so that the SPFL can call itself inclusive and - though the term has been discredited - woke? Brechin’s claim that clubs in the Highland don’t want to leave, are perfectly happy among their ain folk, deserves serious and urgent examination.



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