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February 2005
Groundhog Daze

Junior Showtime











Forty years ago the Scottish League was so worried about falling attendances that it proposed changing the existing two-division set-up. The plans were for three divisions of 14-12-12 but, controversially, placings were to be decided, not by merit, but by attendances.

The scheme failed, not least because of opposition from Celtic. Any plan that didn't enjoy the support of both the Old Firm never stood a chance. But a look at the proposed membership suggests little has changed in the past four decades. The intended members of the top division were Aberdeen, Celtic, Dundee, Dundee United, Dunfermline, Hearts, Hibs, Kilmarnock, Morton, Motherwell, Partick Thistle, Rangers, St Johnstone, St Mirren.

Ten of those clubs are in the SPL today and three others have played SPL football within the past four years. Morton are the only absentees.

What's more, of the 12 'middle' division clubs suggested in 1965 only Queen of the South have failed to play in the top flight at some stage since. And of those slated for the bottom division only Cowdenbeath with one season in the old First Division and Dumbarton with three years in the old First Division and one in the pre-SPL Premier have reached the top league in the past forty years.

All of which suggests that a club's place in the hierarchy of the game is pretty much set in stone, with little variation from one season to the next.

In fact if we go back even further the ossified nature of our game becomes even more apparent. Since the end of the First World War 32 entirely new clubs (as opposed to those who dropped out then returned) have played Scottish League football at some point. Of those, just eight have played in the top division. Of those eight the most successful club is Queen of the South with twenty full seasons in the top flight. And their last season in the big time was over forty years ago!

The others are (including 2004-05) East Fife (14 seasons), Arbroath (9), Livingston (4), Clydebank (3) and Alloa, Bo'ness and ICT with one apiece.

And of those 32 clubs the only names to ever bother trophy engravers are those of East Fife with three League Cup successes and another in the Scottish Cup and Livingston in last season's League Cup.

Which makes what has happened in the past decade all the more remarkable.

Five new clubs have been admitted to League membership since 1994. ICT are in the SPL, Ross County in the First Division and both Gretna and Peterhead are running away with the promotion places in this season's Third Division. Of the new clubs only Elgin City have brought little to the table.

From being a rigid and unbending monolith unwilling to expand its geographical horizons the SFL has become a truly national league, extending from Dingwall to Gretna.

And those new clubs have been successful. Indeed, by comparison with the past, phenomenally so. The arrival of SPL football in Livingston in 2001 and Inverness this season means that twice as many new locations have welcomed top flight football in the past four years as in the preceding 66!

That's right. After Arbroath in 1935 the only entirely new location for top flight football before Livingston was Stirling in 1949 (Clydebank were a new CLUB playing top flight football but not in a new TOWN as the old Clydebank club spent several years in the top flight between 1917-1926).

Amidst the doom and gloom which (alas, often rightly) surrounds much of our game this expansion has been a tremendous (and largely unheralded) success story.

Yet more could be done. The lack of unity between the senior non-league and Junior structures is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the creation of a pyramid system similar to that in England which would allow ambitious clubs the opportunity to gain League membership on merit.

For despite the success of the clubs that have come into the League since 1994 it should be remembered that all of them owe their elevation to election rather than playing merits.

A pyramid system would also answer the critics who fear what would happen to existing clubs that lost league status, as they would take their place within the appropriate regional structure. There's no suggestion of forcing League membership on reluctant clubs. Many are happy to continue at their present level but others - Gala Fairydean spring most obviously to mind - have been trying to obtain League status for years, thus far without success.

A pyramid structure which allowed, initially, for the bottom club in the Third Division to drop out and be replaced by the winners of a series of play-offs involving the champions of the top senior and Junior leagues (or the highest placed club seeking League membership) would boost not only non-league football but the Third Division as well.

At the moment all too many matches in the Third are meaningless as clubs know they could finish last every year, losing every match with no effect whatsoever on their status. That's not a healthy situation and it has gone on for far too long. Surely a bottom-of-the-table match where League survival was at stake would produce a far bigger crowd than at present?

A 'fail-safe' of reviewing the situation after five years could be built into the system. This would allow for greater opportunities for advancement to be introduced if the play-offs proved a success or a reversion to the status quo ante in the (unlikely) event of promoted clubs failing to hold their own.

We may not be able to do much about the iron grip of the big two at the top of our game but the experience of the past decade shows there is much that can be done to stimulate competition at the middle and bottom and thus bring to an end the 'groundhog daze' Scottish clubs have endured for almost a century.


Speaking of the Juniors, this season's Scottish Junior Cup has reached the quarter-final stage with many of the 'usual suspects' such as Arthurlie, Pollok, Renfrew and Tayport all still in the running for the Junior game's biggest prize.

But creeping, almost unnoticed, into contention are Troon FC who have qualified for the last eight for the first time in their history. This column attended their emphatic 2-0 fifth round victory at home against a Petershill side containing the likes of former Scotland Under-21 internationalist Sergei Baltacha.

The Peasies are currently top of the West Super League First Division and were expected to provide a sterner test than they did. Troon also have an away win over another of the promotion contenders - Shotts Bon Accord - to their credit as well as triumphs over Fauldhouse and Port Glasgow on their march to the quarter-finals.

While the next stage may be uncharted territory their opposition isn't. Maryhill are going strongly in the West Super League Premier Division, having lost just once all season and if they win their games in hand could challenge Pollok for the title.
The teams have already met at Troon's Portland Park in the League with the honours shared in a 3-3 draw and the clash between the pair at the same venue on March 12th promises to be a real thriller.

Troon reach the last eight for the first time

There's a suggestion that the Junior Cup may be heading the same way as senior competitions with the tournament being dominated by the 'big' clubs. No fewer than five of this season's last eight are from the West Super League Premier. With two of the top three from the East Super League also present, only Lugar Boswell Thistle of the quarter-finalists represent the lower orders.

The quarter-final draw has something for everyone. Lugar's game with Tayport is one for those who enjoy cheering on the underdog, Lochee v Arthurlie sees first in the East meet second in the West and Pollok v Renfrew will enjoy the most media coverage.

But for this website Troon v Maryhill is the match of the day and, impartial as always, we have no doubt that having disposed of one mob of Glesca keelies that Ayrshire's finest will easily see off this bunch of Partick Thistle rejects!

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