“Stick that on yer Bebo, big yin!”
Unknown Rutherglen Glencairn fan, Clyde Gateway Stadium, 2009.
In the unlikely event that I ever write a weighty tome looking back on my years reporting on Scottish Junior football, this would be the epigraph. Seven words shouted at me on the south side of Glasgow seven years ago. It’s hardly a biblical quote or a choice piece of wisdom from Shakespeare or Dickens, but it would give you a clear impression of what ‘the Juniors’ are all about – local pride, humour, a dash of danger, all delivered in an accent and with an attitude that is unique to working-class areas of Scotland.
Before I go any further, I should quickly explain exactly what Junior football is, for the benefit of anyone unfortunate enough never to have been to places like Guy’s Meadow in Cumbernauld or Dunterlie Park in Barrhead. The term ‘Junior’ has nothing to do with the age of the players, instead denoting the difference between Junior football – which is governed by the Scottish Junior Football Association – and Senior football, i.e. everything that goes on under the auspices of the Scottish Football Association, from the Premiership all the way down to the Highland and Lowland Leagues. Unlike Highland and Lowland League outfits however, Junior clubs do not have the opportunity to do what Edinburgh City did last season and win promotion to League Two via a play-off system. They are a closed shop.
But we are not talking about a quiet backwater here. The SJFA is more of a hulking behemoth, comprising 159 clubs and split geographically into three sectors: North, East and West. My reporting has always been limited to the West Region, but that hasn’t made things any less confusing. The West alone has 64 clubs under its banner, competing in five different divisions and a dazzling array of cup competitions, from the Sectional League Cup to the Central League Cup, the West of Scotland Cup, the Scottish Junior Cup, even the senior Scottish Cup, if you’re good enough to have earned qualification by winning either the Junior Cup or Super Premier Division (they do love a dramatic adjective). It’s this fixture congestion, combined with the huge amount of postponements caused by frozen or waterlogged pitches in the winter months, that means Junior clubs are playing well into June most years to fulfil all their commitments.
But let’s return to the young Rutherglen devotee that accosted me, Budweiser bottle in hand, as he celebrated his team’s winning goal. The most striking thing about the incident in hindsight is not that Bebo was the eminent social media platform of the time – chilling a realisation as that is – but that upon seeing me scribbling into a notebook in the stands he assumed I was an anorak, the football equivalent of a trainspotter. The idea that I was actually being paid to be there, or that somewhere out there a group of people cared enough about the fortunes of his wee team to want to read about them, was obviously too far-fetched for him to consider.
Or he could simply have been ripping the pish right out of me. But it’s a sentiment I’ve encountered fairly often over the years at small, ramshackle grounds across the central belt. Namely: “What are you doing here? Why have you gone out of your way and wasted time and money to come here and watch this? We’re local, we’re shackled to this mob whether we like it or not, but you have a choice. Run! Save yourself!”
Part of that is good, old-fashioned Scottish self-loathing, of course. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t sat through my fair share of dross through the years but, let’s be honest, so has every fan of every club at every level of football in Scotland.
In fact, there are signs that the Juniors are in good health right now. Take last season’s Junior Cup semi-final between Pollok and Hurlford, for example. Both legs drew impressively large attendances, with 1,645 crowding into Pollok’s Newlandsfield home for the return. As for the 180 minutes, they were a little light on entertainment – two goalless draws followed by a penalty shootout win for Pollok, who then lost on spot kicks to Beith in the final – but the attritional nature of the football played was arguably the most impressive part of the whole shebang. Tactical sophistication is the last thing any newcomer to the Juniors would be expecting to see, but that’s exactly what Pollok manager Tony McInally and his Hurlford counterpart Darren Henderson served up. High-scoring Hurlford, who had netted at least once in every game up until that late stage of the season, suddenly found themselves hamstrung by a superbly well-organised ’Lok defence, the 22 players producing a passable impression of the kind of tense chess match we tend to see in Champions League semi-finals nowadays, or in the overhyped ‘Super Sunday’ clashes between the English Premier League’s top four.
There are other indicators of progress, performances in the Scottish Cup being one. Ayrshire outfits Irvine Meadow and Auchinleck Talbot have both reached the fourth round in recent years, where they were beaten by Hibs and Hearts respectively, whilst East Region side Linlithgow Rose made it all the way to the fifth round last season – becoming the first Junior side to do so – before succumbing to Ross County. Not bad for teams playing in leagues where it’s not unheard of for players to miss big matches because they’re off to Magaluf on holiday or working overtime on the day job.
Then there’s the surprisingly large amount of ex-Junior players popping up in the Scottish Premiership and Championship these days. Ali Crawford, Dougie Imrie and Darian MacKinnon are arguably Hamilton Accies’ best three players, but did you know they once turned out for Bo’ness United, Lanark United and Clydebank respectively? Mackinnon and Patrick Thistle striker Kris Doolan, formerly of Auchinleck, are particularly interesting cases, having both transferred to their current clubs directly from the Juniors and became influential first-teamers fairly quickly.
The top flight in the West Region is the aforementioned, tongue-tripping-off Super Premier Division, and it’s a nice showcase of what the Juniors have to offer. Competitive, entertaining and with a decent standard football to boot, it boasts a fair few clubs that, in my opinion at least, have what it takes to ‘do an Annan’ and hold their own in League Two, if somehow they were to end up there.
Auchinleck have the SPD title on lockdown, having won it every year since 2013. Fabulously well-run and followed home and away by an amazingly passionate group of fans (sometimes a little too passionate, as anyone that’s been to the Auchinleck-Cumnock derby can attest), Talbot have won an incredible nine trophies in the last three years under the shrewd guidance of long-serving manager Tommy Sloan.
One of the few sides that offered Sloan’s side any kind of competition in the league last season were Pollok, despite McInally’s men having only just returned from a one-year detention in the First Division. McInally has a track record of being a nuisance to Auchinleck, having led Shotts Bon Accord to a shock victory over Talbot in the Junior Cup final of 2012. Just as the south side of Glasgow is becoming an increasingly gentrified and culturally alive alternative to the feted west end, Pollok have the potential to steal Partick Thistle’s crown as the city’s foremost trendy outsiders. With their sleek black strip, skilful players and impressive stadium right in the heart of Shawlands, the ’Lok have all the ingredients to be the team whose name you mutter when approached by a drunken Old Firm fan up the back of a double decker bus and asked that fateful question: “Who’d ye support?”
Hurlford meanwhile, could be said to be the Junior equivalent of Gretna, even if their boss Henderson and co might not appreciate the comparison. The club from just outside Kilmarnock have made remarkably quick progress thanks to what is by Junior standards a large cash investment, finishing third, second and second since their promotion to the SPD in 2013, and also managing to get their hands on the Junior Cup during that time.
And there are several others worthy of mention. But what does all this go to say? Am I really arguing that Junior clubs should somehow be absorbed into the pyramid system?
Well, yes and no. Going by all the relevant evidence, it wouldn’t be an outrageous argument to make. The likes of Auchinleck and Pollok already draw attendances that stand up well when compared to the current League Two line-up’s figures, and can’t be that far off in terms of operational nous and quality of personnel either. Nonetheless, it would be remiss of me not to mention that most Junior clubs give the impression they’re perfectly happy where they are, thank you very much.
Tom Johnston, the SJFA’s Association Secretary, explained why when I spoke to him in his office at Hampden.
“The normal Junior fan is happy to pay £6 to get in, they wouldn’t want to pay £10 or £15, as they would need to if you get into the SPFL,” said Johnston, a former player and manager with Neilston Juniors.
“But there’s lots of issues to stop Junior clubs applying for membership of the Lowland League and the SPFL. A lot of them don’t want to be part of a national league because of the travel involved. We’ve been trying to get an East-West Super League together, the best of the East and the best of the West, six and six, and even that is a struggle, mainly because of the travel, and also because Ayrshire make up nine of the 12 teams in the SPD, their costs are minimised by that.
“You’ve got to meet club licensing criteria to play in the Lowland League, and even for the likes of Auchinleck and Pollok, it is a major investment. Floodlights are mandatory to play in the SPFL and would cost you £60,000-£80,000.”
Johnston was a very welcome counterbalance to my own perhaps naïve enthusiasm, emphasising the positives but also pointing out that, as much as certain Junior clubs have potential for growth, for many others it’s a struggle simply to remain a going concern. With the number of SJFA member clubs having slipped from 160 down to 159 a matter of days before the interview, due to Falkirk Juniors going out of business, it was only right and proper of him to do so.
“Teams are struggling out there, we’re struggling to get spectators in, and there’s lots of different reasons for it. I think it’s the same in all levels of the game. We’ve got an ageing volunteer force as well, that’s a big issue. At the top end the game’s healthy, at the bottom it’s probably as good or as bad as it’s always been, teams go hand to mouth.
“The fact we’re in so many small communities throughout Scotland helps us, because the local people tend to rally round. Pollok get anything up to 800 on a Saturday, Auchinleck get healthy crowds, but they’re not as good as we’d like them to be. We need to up the ante, so to speak, try and encourage people to come in, advertise that we do need people. But a lot of the time some of the clubs are happy to go on doing what they’ve always done, and that’s not working now, we’ve come to a crossroads and we really need to do something different.
“But I still think we market the game well, it’s only £6 to get into a Super League game and £3 for an OAP or a kid. Even a Lowland or Highland League game, their costs are much higher than ours. Our season does run into the third Saturday in June and I think we should make use of that. People are more likely to come out and watch a game of football in June than they are in December.”
Here’s the thing: wouldn’t the things that make the Juniors special and unique be at risk once the door to mainstream Scottish football had been opened?
Perhaps, if more people are to be encouraged to go out and support their local Junior team – and that’s something I can wholeheartedly say I do want to see happen – it’s the differences between Junior and Senior football that need to be emphasised, and not the similarities. Because at its best, Junior football is as far removed from conventional football as things like Laser Quest and paintballing are.
You’ll have to forgive me my grandiose Roy Batty moment here, but I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. A Vale of Clyde fan trying to get on to the pitch to batter one of his own players. The Cumbernauld manager being ‘sent to the stand’ at a ground that had none. A gang of 12 and 13-year-old Shettleston ‘ultras’ letting off flares and bawling into megaphones, before marching the whole way round Greenfield Park just to square up to the bemused visiting Largs Thistle fans.
Being a regular spectator of Junior football can feel like being a combination of Danny Dyer in his The Real Football Factories phase and those pseudish “ooh, the banter” characters from Chewin’ the Fat.
Part of the attraction, undoubtedly, is the booze factor. Many Junior grounds have a social club either next to or built into their stadiums where alcohol can be purchased at strikingly reasonable prices, while there are usually a few supping from bottles or cans in the stands at most games. Official SJFA policy does not permit this, but there often seems to be a tacit agreement to let it slide as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. In my experience, it rarely does – an encouraging unofficial experiment for the long-awaited return of alcohol to Scottish stadia.
“The policy is that we ask clubs to put up ‘no alcohol’ signs at games, but we’re practical enough to know that’s not going to happen,” remarked Tom Johnston. “I don’t understand why guys can’t go an hour and a half without a drink, but I don’t have a lot of problem provided they behave themselves. I don’t mind, on a summer’s night, a guy coming along and having a can of beer at a game, but it’s what happens after that.”
The grounds alone are something to behold. Some announce themselves boldly on main streets, like Kirkintilloch Rob Roy’s fondly remembered Adamslie Park, now in the process of being turned into flats. Others, like Duncansfield, the home of Rob Roy’s arch rivals Kilsyth Rangers, are hidden away in remote corners of industrial estates, wedged in between breakers’ yards and haulage companies, making you feel you’ve reached the end of a quest when finally you turn the corner and see the faded façade and old gent selling programmes. Yoker Athletic’s Holm Park, currently shared with local rivals Clydebank, is directly under the Glasgow Airport flightpath, the roar of the crowd often drowned out by the roar of jet engines as the planes pass scarily low overhead. The grittier the surrounds, the more authentic your matchday experience can feel, and nothing quite tops Glasgow Perthshire’s Keppoch Park in that regard.
Situated in Glasgow’s Possil district, it’s slap-bang in the middle of what’s surely Junior football’s biggest hotbed, with Petershill, Rossvale, Maryhill and St Roch’s grounds all within three miles and Ashfield’s Saracen Park a mere 150 metres up Hawthorn Street. Whereas Saracen Park is practically unmissable though, with its bright signage, large car park and social club, Keppoch Park almost seems to have been designed with the specific purpose of keeping it concealed from intrepid football bloggers or ‘casuals’ in mind. Sandwiched in between a demolished bus depot on one side and a wooded area littered with the detritus of teenage drinking sessions on the other, the street it stands on (named Ashfield Street, funnily enough), is inaccessible by car from Hawthorn Street. In more recent times a perimeter fence has been built, but before that the only thing separating the pitch from the bus depot was a concrete platform that fans congregated on in lieu of a stand. Dedicated committee men had to scramble through the rubble and weed-strewn tarmac of the depot on a regular basis to retrieve balls punted out of play.
When I was first sent to cover Glasgow Perthshire they were competing in the second of the West Region’s four tiers, but now they’re in the fourth, and I haven’t been there on ‘official business’ for almost three years. Lacking a proper reason to pop along to Keppoch Park, I manufactured one, making a nostalgia-fuelled return to Ashfield Street on a rainy weekday in August to see what had changed. I wandered into what’s left of the depot, and there stumbled upon a lone football boot, an old Nike one, the laces ripped out, the tongue mournfully flopped down over the toe. It almost seemed too perfect, like the classic child’s teddy bear planted at the scene of a fire by an unscrupulous photojournalist. But, on reflection, it seemed the perfect visual metaphor for the Junior game in Scotland.
Hidden away, unloved, out of fashion – but proud, defiant and not without a certain hard-bitten style, enduring there amongst the weeds in the hope that, one day, future generations will find it and lavish it with the attention it surely deserves.