It began with the emigration of Kelty Hearts in 2017 has become a mass exodus. Junior clubs are leaving the grade, with over 130 years of history, in droves to join the senior ranks of the SFA’s Scottish Pyramid System, a set-up which removes the glass ceiling and allows anyone with the right money and ambition into the Promised Land of the SPFL.
As things currently stand Lochore Welfare‘s acceptance into the East of Scotland Football League this week leaves Tayport as Fife’s sole East Region SJFA side in a kingdom once synonymous with the Junior game. Then in a massive development over on the other side of the country during the last month the entire West Region of the SJFA has made the leap into a new senior West of Scotland Football League. They’ll be joined there by Drumchapel United, St Cadoc’s and Bonnyton Thistle. From now on in Ayrshire, where Junior fitba has long been the one true faith, that strata of our national sport is no more.
Junior football may appear mortally wounded but it ain’t dead yet. The North Region SJFA appears to be continuing as normal (with Banks O’ Dee even refusing to replace Cove Rangers in last season’s Highland League), while Dundee and Angus sides remain in a diminished ERSJFA, not qualifying for EoSFL entry due simply to being north of the Tay. Then we have the anomaly that is West Lothian; where Fauldhouse United, Bathgate Thistle, Whitburn and more have stubbornly refused to turn senior. Not knowing why and in an effort to find an answer to this particular ‘West Lothian Question’ I contacted Scott Watson, secretary of another Junior holdout Armadale Thistle, to get his views on the migration of SJFA sides to the senior ranks and ‘the pyramid’ itself.
Scott started helping out at Volunteer Park around twelve years ago and two seasons later joined a committee, that like most Junior clubs consisted of older members, who were custodians of facilities in severe need of modernisation. Bringing in a fresh bunch of committee members they set about bringing the pavilion up to standard and approached the local authority to buy the ground back from the bank, bringing stability to a club who had flirted with eviction on several occasions. Watson ascended to the position of secretary in 2014, when Thistle legend Jimmy Smeaton resigned due to feeling his failing sight did not allow him to fulfil the role, and almost from day one ‘the pyramid’ and SFA membership became hot topics.
Away from Armadale Thistle Scott a construction site manager for a specialist contracting company, an occupation he believes helps when dealing with players and coaches. Football was a childhood hobby with the game very much part of his DNA as his Grandfather played senior and Junior well into his late thirties. Scott had a ball at his feet from taking his first steps, not long before he and his grandfather travelled all over West Lothian on a Saturday looking for games to take in. At a recent school reunion one of Scott’s primary school teachers talked about him as ‘the wee boy with a fitba’ in class; they were convinced he would become involved in the beautiful game.
I hope you are well during the current Covid-19 crisis, how is Armadale Thistle coping as a club?
The current situation has been a bit of a nightmare, revenue streams totally stopped overnight. Fortunately the club is well run and as a result we have reserves in the bank to cover our wages and other bills. Some planned improvements we had for this summer will have to wait until our income returns and we recover financially.
The official Armadale Thistle Twitter account aims a lot of vitriol at ‘the pyramid’, the Lowland League and the exodus of Junior clubs to the senior ranks. What are the club’s issues with what has gone on in non-league football since Kelty Hearts made the switch in 2017?
The pyramid in Scotland is a bit of a joke in my mind (but then Scottish football as a whole is a bit of a joke at the moment, if the truth be told). I have been at clubs of all levels and understand the protectionism that exists. That’s why I believe the SFA must take ownership of our game and put in place a long term solution from top to the very bottom, this would allow any club to move upwards when ready. The pyramid system needs to include ground criteria per tier and financial checks on clubs depending on the level they are at.
My experience of the East Region Junior migration to the East of Scotland Football League was probably the worst experience I have had in football, people I respected in the game lied and deceived other clubs. For me sitting in the same room as these men will be hard, in fact I have asked if somebody else at the club would take over if or when we are forced to move into the EoSFL. I believed Junior football was about the communities and clubs working together for the good of the game, yet all the clubs that left conveniently forgot the Tayside and Angus clubs have nowhere to go in the fantastic ‘Scottish Pyramid System’. The recent expansion of the Lowland League was always on the cards as the quality of the product was nowhere near the standard of the best Juniors and miles behind the Highland League (in my opinion by far the best non-league in Scotland). All clubs must have access to a level that suits their financial situation, the facilities they have and football they play. This isn’t currently the case.
I can see a time when the clubs at the bottom of the SPFL will set out to restrict access from below in order to protect their status. With both East Stirlingshire and Berwick Rangers now doomed to a fate of non-league competition for many years to come, those close to the bottom of League Two will inevitably look at stemming the flow. Then Scottish Cup access for non-league clubs will be the next big target, however with too many noses in the trough any financial rewards will be greatly diminished.
What do you think the future is for the East Region and Scottish Junior Football in general?
I think that Junior football will struggle to survive in the current climate. That said a lot of clubs will disappear from the game over the next ten years, regardless of the grade they play in, and that will be a shame.