This afternoon I’m off to the one hundred and thirty first final of a tournament so massive all involved and those supporting them refer to it as simply ‘The Scottish’. At a time in footballing history when the senior cups awarded by the SFA & its English counterpart have lost much of their lustre the SJFA has managed to keep The Scottish Junior Cup unarguably the very top prize in their grade and, in this writer’s opinion, made it the best knockout competition in the land.
First contested over the 1886/87 season (when the long deceased Fairfield of Govan defeated the equally no longer existing Edinburgh Woodburn 3-1 ‘after protest’) the Scottish Junior Cup has been fought for ever since; not even world wars or the changing fortunes of the Junior ranks being able to stop it. The halcyon days of the tournament came in the decades after World War Two when Hampden hosted finals which were seen as gigantic sporting events of national significance. In 1951 a record 77,650 traveled to Glasgow to watch Petershill of Springburn beat Irvine Meadow XI by one goal to nil. That may have been the peak but a slow descent meant that thirty five thousand was a sixties record for the 1965 final between Kilburnie Ladeside & Camelon and in the seventies 22,830 saw Linlithgow Rose defeat Ballieston in the 1974 end of season showpiece. Today the finals are attended by just a few thousand away from the much maligned national stadium at venues far less grand but much more practical.
Now I’ve given you some history but how about I give some evidence to back up my claim that ‘The Scottish’ is the greatest cup competition Scotland has today. Well firstly the season didn’t start with just any of the 120 plus SJFA clubs capable of winning the trophy, however there were plenty that were more than able to do so. Taking this year’s finalists out of the equation and I’m willing to bet that the likes of Pollok, Lochee United, Beith, Hurlford United or even Thornton Hibs might have fancied their barra in regards to winning the cup this campaign. After them another dozen or so had a more than decent chance of reaching the final. Compare that to the senior Scottish Cup or League Cup where only a fool would have bet against Celtic with anyone outside the SPFL Premiership top six being an over 500/1 shot.
Another factor that makes this cup so brilliant is that no single club has ever dominated it. In one hundred and thirty two years the Scottish Junior Cup has had sixty six different winners, with thirty seven champions only lifting the famous trophy once. Now the senior Scottish Cup is over a decade older yet only twenty five sides have ever won it. Yes one of today’s finalists has won twelve titles but that dominance is a relatively modern phenomena and represents less than one percent of cup wins in total. After them Cambuslang Rangers and Petershill are way behind with five wins each. In contrast the Old Firm account for more than half of all Scottish Cup victories.
A wide field of potential winners and a lack of dominant force are two good reasons to name ‘The Scottish’ the country’s greatest cup competition, but there are more factors to consider. Next is the fact that winning this cup gives small communities their day in the sun. When was the last time a major senior trophy didn’t go back to a big city? The league title being almost exclusively property of Glasgow. Yet when Beith took the cup home in 2016 that home was a town of just over six thousand souls. Glenafton Athletic‘s victory in 2014 delighted just three thousand and change who no doubt danced in the streets of New Cumnock that night. Then in 2004 Carnoustie Panmure distracted the population of the largest town in Angus from golf by winning the big one; all twelve thousand of them. I love the idea of an open top bus celebration traveling just a quarter of a mile.
Finally the key reason that the SJFA has been able to keep their cup as their greatest prize, while the Scottish and FA Cups have become consolation prizes, is simple; ‘The Scottish’ is the only national competition in the grade. While the winners of the leagues in SJFA Regions North, West and East can claim to be the greatest; the only way to prove it is to win the Scottish Junior Cup.
Moving on; today’s finalists Auchinleck Talbot and Largs Thistle have very different Scottish Junior Cup histories. The Bot are the record holding twelve time champions, the dominant force in the last thirty years of the competition, while The Theesel’s single win in ‘The Scottish’ came with a one nil win over Glenafton in 1994. Talbot are the reigning West Region champions, in excellent form and will be strong favourites today. Largs finished strongly in the same division as their opponents, with a home record the envy of many. One reason for that solid home form was the silky football they played on their plastic pitch. With today’s surface being synthetic too perhaps the odds on the Theesel winning should be shorter. Regardless of who wins this final has the capacity to be a classic, a showpiece event for all fitba fans.
A showpiece final needs a glamorous location and in their infinite wisdom the Scottish Junior Football Association has chosen Hamilton… It isn’t a town I’ve ever been to, so will reserve judgement on its glamour for now, however it is a bit annoying that I need to take two trains to get here for a 16:10hrs kick-off. Any Ayrshire fans who aren’t on buses but doing a double rail journey must be more pissed off than me.
In an effort to generate some feeling of cup final grandeur I Googled ‘Pubs in Hamilton’ and identified two that sound a bit classier than my usual haunts; based solely on their names. Thinking back on my travels, particularly visiting places like ‘Rumours’ in Barrhead or ‘The Ritz’ in Cambuslang, does make me consider that my plan is bloody stupid. Regardless I’m off the train at Hamilton Central and straight up the road to The Libertine.
To my surprise I have landed in a rather swanky, modern establishment with the vast selection of the spirits behind the bar and the ornate cornice surrounding the ceiling lit by colour changing LED lights. In large fancy frames icons of rock and pop are displayed so the likes of Hendrix, Cobain, Winehouse and Morrison gaze down upon drinkers. Cocktails are advertised but a list is nowhere to be found while a board states that a pint, cocktail and malt of the month are all on offer yet there is nothing to say what they are.
Just past opening time and cleaning is still in progress, the bar top can’t have been done yet as it’s stickier than a knocking shop carpet. I get the feeling I’m in at the wrong time, with a DJ booth in the corner I’d bet this place is rocking on a Friday or Saturday night. It clearly ain’t designed for Sunday lunchtime drinkers. Pint swiftly consumed and I’m off.
I make a pit stop on the way to planned establishment number two at the very unglamorous, yet very lovely and homely George Bar. It is a proper auld man’s boozer with what they claim are the only cask ale pumps in the whole of Hamilton and today they are serving two beers from the local brewer Strathaven Ales. The pint of ‘Teuchter’ is gorgeous, as is the warm welcome from the friendly young fellow behind the bar. I have a great chat with Neal who tells me the same couple have ran the place for twenty plus years and that the hundreds of pump clips on display represent only a fraction of the huge variety of real ale they’ve had on in recent times.
I could have drank the ale all day, simply forgetting about the fitba, such was the relaxed nature of The George. However I’d promised myself a bit of upmarket drinking today and boy did the next place deliver.
The JunkYard was to be the big juicy cherry on top of today’s pub crawl cake, everything I was looking for this afternoon and more. The décor is modern and smart with a bit of a BrewDog minimalist thing going on. Of particular note is the conservatory, who’s walls are clad in mosaic of railway sleeper cross sections. In terms of drink the ‘JNK YRD’ (as its name appears on the exterior & interior signs) has a great selection of draught beer including two Drygate offerings as well as a couple from Glasgow’s German inspired brewery WEST. Then tucked behind the till I spy a selection of American whiskey, the Basil Hayden’s rye catching my eye. It may be £6.50 a nip but it is the smoothest liquid I’ve ever consumed.
Sometimes on my travels I find a pub that defies all the expectations I have about the town I’m visiting. A bar that I would travel across country to visit again whether there is a game on or not. There haven’t been many of them but The JunkYard is certainly one such place. I head to the match a very happy and slightly tipsy man.
Since I’m in Hamilton it’s obvious that the game is on at the home of The Accies; New Douglas Park. Situated right next to where old Douglas Park stood and just a short distance from the Hamilton West railway station. A convenient path runs straight from the station to the ground with enough cover from flora & fauna so fans can arse the remainder of their carry oot before a game.
The ground itself was completed in 2001 and is a simple ‘L’ shape with just two stands; a main stand along the East touchline and it’s identical twin in all but length behind the north goal. There is also a wee white plastic temporary stand on the opposite touchline not unlike the one that has served Alloa‘s Recreation Park for over a decade. What I do like is that entry into the ground is at the corners as you never go inside the innards of a stand. To get to your seat you need to climb stairs at the front by the pitch meaning row A is a good ten foot off the ground and thus a great view is guaranteed for all. The synthetic surface is a new Greenfields MX one that looks amazing; the irony of a stadium sponsored by a Cannabinoid products company having faux grass is not lost on me.
As kick-off approaches I suddenly notice the place is packed, the ground is reaching capacity. There is a real carnival feel with a drum beating somewhere, beach balls being battered about and hundreds of flags waving. Toddlers waddle about in full kits, young lassies are dressed to the nines and committee members are in sharp suits with club ties worn proudly. New Douglas Park has a capacity of 6,000 and we are nearing that number, the sense of occasion is massive and I’ve never been so excited just before a game.
Alas the match did not live up to the occasion and had much in common with the Liverpool versus Tottenham Champion’s League Final from the night before. Craig McCracken nodded in from a corner early for The Bot and from then on the cup was only going to one team. The Theesel fans remained confident for a good while after however, as their young team dominated possession and pressure, playing that lovely along the floor passing game that got them here. However Largs seemed more determined to keep the ball, knocking it around the box, rather than having the confidence to test the Talbot goal.
Then it was over; just before half time Keir Samson blasted home an Auchinleck cross for a two nil lead. At the break it was party time in the Talbot end as most experienced Largs fans sat deflated with the knowledge that the soon to be thirteen time champs rarely lose from this position. After play resumed Largs stuck to their previous plan with supporters dying for them just to have a crack at goal. The best chance of the half went to Talbot however as substitute Mark Shankland spanked the crossbar as some Theesel fans were heading for the exit. Two nil it finished.
Firstly let me just state that Hamilton caught me of guard; it is a fine wee place and has some excellent pubs with plenty left for me to check out when I come back to see Hamilton Academical or their SWPL sisters. From the homely comfort and real ales of The George to the glamour and choice of fine drink at The JunkYard there is something to offer all types of punter. The SJFA were wise to play the final here; stick the excellent New Douglas Park into the equation and we have an ideal venue for a Junior Cup Final, Challenge Cup Final or a smaller Women’s National Team friendly.
The moments before kick-off today when that ground was truly alive with a mass of fans who understood the importance and history of a Junior Cup Final were precious ones to me. Hairs rose on the back of my neck as I realised I was right, this is the greatest cup competition in the land. Yes the game didn’t match the rest of the spectacle but even the grandest of European tournaments suffer the same fate. With a better kick-off time I can see this game becoming and annual fixture for me, I was proud to share the big day with the Ayrshire fans and look forward doing so in the future with.