The Scottish Junior Football Association has had its challenges in recent times. After over a hundred years of football played across three different centuries the Junior grade is perhaps in danger of extinction. In the East Region, as I have written about extensively, twenty five clubs have jumped ship to the senior East of Scotland Football League. Recently there have been rumours that West Region clubs are considering setting up a West of Scotland League in order to get the same chance at reaching the SPFL as ex-Juniors on the other coast. Does the bell toll for Junior fitba? Is it about to pass into the long night? I suppose time will tell.
While the SJFA is still alive its greatest prize, the Holy Grail, continues to be the Scottish Junior Cup. The only national trophy in the grade, the Scottish Junior Cup has been contested since 1886 when Fairfield of Govan defeated Edinburgh Woodburn by four goals to one (‘after protest’ as the Wee Red Book points out). In one hundred and thirty two years sixty six clubs have raised aloft that glorious old trophy and today I’m in Glasgow as Shettleston take on Dundee North End, the winner taking a small step toward being winner sixty seven. Today is round two of the cup in city’s east end at Greenfield Park.
Quite often with old Junior clubs it can be difficult to get information about their history and this is particularly the case with today’s hosts Shettleston. What I have been able to discover is that they were formed in 1903 and go by the nickname ‘The Town’. They have reached a single Junior Cup Final, losing 2-1 to Ayrshire cracks Irvine Meadow XI in front of 65,000 plus at Hampden Park the 16th of May 1959. Prior to this The Town had made little impact on the tournament, a solitary semi-final against Saltcoats Victoria in 1925 being their previous best performance.
After that I have found little more information on the club. They have won trophies and divisions over the decades, most noticeably three West of Scotland Cup wins in 1975, 1993 and 1995. Their last accolade was the West Super First Division title in 2014/15, but last season saw relegation from what has become the West Region Championship into League One.
While historical records of the club itself have been hard to come by information on former players who have gone onto big things have been much easier to find. First up we have Bill Gorman, who started out at The Town in 1936. He went on to play for Bury and had over a decade at Brentford as well as playing for both Eire & Northern Ireland. Then there is Bobby Russell who left Greenfield for Ibrox, playing for a whole decade for Rangers before being part of the ’91 Scottish Cup winning Motherwell side.
In contrast to those who used Shettleston as a stepping stone to greatness others have used it as a stop on the path to winding up their careers. For me most notably was my ’99 Championship Manager favourite and former St Johnstone starlet Keigan Parker. Parker left The Saints for a successful spell at Blackpool before going on to have more clubs than Neanderthal man prior to his brief stint at The Town in 2013. At last check he was still plying his trade at Thorniewood despite only being a couple of months my junior.
Not only have Shettleston provided players for some big clubs but they have introduced players to the game who have gone on to big things in management. Take Ernie Merrick for example, a young player at The Town in the early seventies, he emigrated the Southern Hemisphere soon after and played for Frankston City and Doveton in Australia. His playing career may have been unspectacular but as a coach down there he has led three A-League sides Melbourne Victory, New Zealand’s Wellington Phoenix and Newcastle Jets, whom he still manages today. Not only that but he has international experience as head coach with Hong Kong back in 2012.
A further example, perhaps the more famous one, is Tommy Docherty. Prior to playing for Celtic, Preston North End & Arsenal and managing the likes of Chelsea, Aston Villa, Porto & Manchester United as well as Scotland ‘The Doc’ was a Shettleston player. This really encapsulates why I love the beautiful game, the idea that someone can come from such humble beginnings and end up at the top resonates with me. That with Docherty there is a direct line linking Greenfield Park to such places as Stamford Bridge, Estadio do Dragao and Old Trafford is brilliant.
So it is a game today to see who takes the next step to one of the grandest prizes in the whole Scottish game and an opportunity to see two teams from different regions clash. I’m off to visit a club with a lot of history, what looks like an ace social club and a beautiful old ground at the heart of a community I’ve never been to before. I’m anticipating a good day and am pretty positive I won’t be disappointed.
I arrive in the birthplace of veteran fitba commentator Archie MacPherson (whose dad played for Shettleston) at around the back of eleven. I had read the place was an area of deprivation with 92% of people living within five hundred metres of vacant or derelict land, however I find the main street to be a pleasant, bustling place full of wee independent businesses and of course pubs.
First up is The Town Tavern, that looks brand new when you walk through the door, everything is freshly painted and upholstered. It is immaculate too, perhaps the cleanest pub I’ve ever visited, with not even a fingerprint to be found on shiny surfaces and the smell of disinfectant lingering in the air. I opt for a half pint of expensive Birra Moretti that would have been four quid for a pint and have an explore.
The Tavern has a few nice nods to regulars with framed cartoons up on the walls an two massive murals one of the town and another of Greenfield Park. Add to this the family friendly food offers, a nice relaxed atmosphere and we have a great start to the day.
Pub two, The Marquis Bar, is very different but by no means inferior. A sign outside indicates that from Monday it closes for a fortnight to be refurbished so I expect the worst, but I enter a bar that at first glance looks grand. It is a typical ’70s style old man’s boozer, bright with large windows and pale wood. A pint of John Smith’s is £3.10 and is served by very friendly bartender.
Drinking my pint I start to see why a refurb is required. The lounge is worn and dank, the carpet in dire need of being taken outside, shot and burned. The toilets need an overhaul too, decorated with a bookies slip bearing the message ‘Do not smoke in here’, the lavvie lacks a seat. No doubt that in two weeks however the old place will be back to its former glory.
Next up is The Portland Arms notable for its untouched art deco interior. Amazing to step back in time to a large central bar with a pair of snugs tucked into the corners (just like the one in the Peaky Blinders pub). The olden days effect enhanced by the half pint of Tennents Special I receive for £1.50.
The place is busy with men, women and kids, many heading off to Parkhead in a bit for Celtic vs Aberdeen. Despite its charms and popularity the place is in need of some restoration, this old pub has the potential to be something special.
Finally I arrive at the Shettleston Juniors Social Club and from the outset I will declare that the club approached me earlier in the week with the kind offer of free hospitality. Now you know me The Fitba Nomad cannot be bought, so I will be brutally honest in my assessment of what must be the greatest social club not only in football but in any sport.
I’m met at the door by Peter, a coach at the club who whisks me into the building. It is an impressive set up with a function suite and members bar mobbed with Aberdeen fans (great coup for the club to get bus loads of fans headed to Celtic Park, thousands of pounds must have gone over the bar). In the members bar I’m seated with a couple of Don’s supporters before being presented with a pint, lentil soup and steak pie with chips. Fantastic. It is a great setup: smart and modern, clean and friendly, great service despite the crowds. There is free phone charging and even a cocktail list. I stick to the beer.
Enjoying the social club, I only get into Greenfield Park seconds before kick off and instantly notice a continuation of a theme. In Fife and the Lothians clubs keep their grounds immaculate regardless of size or facilities; expert topiary on perimeter hedges, weeds removed from inbetween slabs with tweezers and fresh paint on barriers & gates every season. In Glasgow and Ayrshire grand old grounds are left to go to seed; high banks of weeds, abandoned old turnstiles and corrugated iron flapping in the breeze.
Greenfield Park is typical of the west, but you know what, I wouldn’t change a thing. You enter the ground behind the western goal which is fully covered and has benches for about 200 to sit on. On the southern touchline is an ancient building housing the changing rooms in the centre with a corrugated iron cover over terracing to the east of it and the remains of its twin to the west. Behind the other goal and the north touchline is the perfect environment for fans of wildflowers, nettles and abandoned, broken tractors.
It’s old, crumbling and ramshackle but it is totally charming and utterly unique. I love it. The pitch undulates slightly but the surface is near perfection. The pie stall has a feature I’ve never seen before, a door on the street side meaning punters not at the game can rock up and get a pie and Bovril, genius.
I didn’t know what to expect from these two sides today but what I did get was a terrific end to end contest between a couple of contrasting but equally capable teams. The visiting ‘Dokens’ were a young, lean side who were very well organised while The Town, clad in Real Madrid all white, were more a mixture of ages and body types with lots of drive and passion. The first half highlight was the awarding of an early penalty to Shettleston that was universally decreed a wrong call by the referee. Justice was done however when the North End ‘keeper pulled off an excellent save. Half time (blown at 43 minutes by my count) it remained nil nil.
I hopped in for a drink at half time and I must give credit to the staff here again. Toilets that were left a bomb zone by a hundred plus Aberdonians before the game were now spotless.
The second half began and entry to the third round of the Scottish Junior Cup was anybody’s. End to end again as each team had their chances, with perhaps a little more pressure coming from the Dundonians. Just as I started to ask if it was extra time or a replay North End scored, their reaction showing just how much this wonderful tournament means to them.
Straight from kick-off the Shettleston number 9 went for it, he charged for goal beating player after player, he pulled the trigger and the ball smacked the net. Alas it was the side net, it would have been a screamer, a belter, a total peach but it was just wide. The Town never got a better chance and the final whistle blew (suspiciously early again, I’ve been to longer rugby matches), Shettleston’s quest for a Scottish Junior Cup win is over for another year.
After the game I joined players and officials from both clubs in the function suite and the game was dissected while people watched Sky Sports News awaiting the fate of their coupon. On the two trains and bus back home I had plenty of time to reflect on my day. First up I must really thank Peter and Shettleston Juniors for their welcome and their hospitality. That social club is something special, I’ve been to many whose heyday was long in the past but here the heyday is now as it remains the hub of a community, a place where special birthdays, engagements and other major life events of locals are still regularly celebrated.
I love the old ground that is Greenfield Park, for all its flaws it really feels special. The action on the park was first class entertainment too. While Shettleston might not always spring to mind for an afternoon out I can thoroughly recommend it, particularly when it’s cup weekend.