Crunch Time In The Highland League
With little other than a couple of play-off spots still to be settled in the Scottish Football League, keep an eye out this afternoon for the big game of the day on this side of the border – the Buckie Thistle v Deveronvale title decider in the Highland League. It’s come down to top v second in the final game, with two points separating them. A draw will be enough for Thistle to retain the title, but the Vale can steal the glory with a win – and they shouldn’t lack confidence in their ability to get it, having beaten Thistle 7-0 in the reverse fixture earlier in the season.
Thistle’s title last year was the first since the 50s – though they had been regular winners prior to that – while Deveronvale are a more recent force, their two league wins during the last decade being the first in their history. All of that has to go down as something of a tribute to manager Greig Carrol, who is responsible for all those recent title wins having managed first Vale and now Thistle.
But, without taking anything away from those achievements, the emergence of new forces in the Highland League over the last few years has of course been influenced by the departure of a number of their leading clubs to fill vacancies in the SFL. Since 1994, five clubs have left for that reason (two of them, Caledonian and Thistle, merging to form the most succesful of those clubs in their new lives). Of those clubs that remain, Aberdeen-based Cove Rangers have also been applying for SFL membership and will be very strong contenders if and when another vacancy should arise.
Whether there’s any more general will for the Highland League, and the other non-leagues, to merge within a centralised structure is less clear. Some do, some don’t, for most it would be likely to depend on the terms on which they could do so. There are few who seem to view it as a pressing priority.
You may have noticed that it’s been a little while since my last article on league reconstruction here in Scotland. For which you’ll no doubt be thankful if you’re as bored of the subject as everyone else is. But for the record, the SPL have a further meeting next month, at which they are hoping to take a vote on a package of proposals, the headline being the reduction to a ten team top league. The vote is not expected to pass, unless there’s some serious arm twisting between now and then, with Inverness, Dundee United and Kilmarnock all believed to be opposed and Motherwell also expressing reservations. If more than one club votes against, the proposals fail.
It’s very sad that it’s come down to this already. Just a few months back there was hope that the McLeish report would focus minds and provide a real impetus for a reformation and restructuring of the Scottish game, including the ultimate dream of a pyramid system to match the one down south. And almost immediately, all that talk has been lost in the wash, and the question of whether or not there’ll be any reform has been reduced to the same long-standing irrelevance of the size of the top league.
It’s a bit depressing, though it’s as much the fault of the report as the rest of the football world. Indeed, the second part of McLeish’s report was so lacking in credibility that I’ve barely heard it mentioned since the day it was published – he simply accepted the SPL working committee’s proposals in their entirety. Since these proposals – regionalisation from the third tier with the inclusion of SPL reserve sides – were quite obviously a non-starter, it was a big opportunity wasted, and there’s been very little talk of wider reform since.
But if that’s a disappointment to me, it doesn’t mean that those in lower levels of football are much bothered about it. And on a day like today it would be hard to blame them for being happy as they are. Who among those at Buckie this afternoon would wish themselves instead in the place of Elgin City, who have spent eleven seasons now scratching around in the lower half of the third division since their election to the SFL?
Perhaps Elgin wouldn’t have it any other way either, there may come a point when a single league becomes limiting and you need to make the effort to see if you can prove yourselves on a wider stage, but for now it seems such decisions will continue to be made haphazardly rather than as part of wider structure. Games like today’s will continue to generate tremendous local excitement up there in the respective towns of Buckie and Banff on the north Aberdeenshire coast, but will attract little wider attention from the press in the central belt. The Highland League remains a world of its own.
To be fair, it’s not a league to which I give much coverage myself. So while I’m doing so, I’d like to take the opportunity to give a shout to the Ultras of Fort William. I saw one of their games – coincidentally at Buckie – a week or two back. Fort William were dreadful, they’re bottom of the league anyway (as ever) and have player availability issue for a midweek away game which meant they were essentially fielding a youth team. Men against boys, quite literally, against a team going for the title, and the Fort actually did pretty well to keep the score down to 9-1, given that there were forty minutes left when the eighth goal went in.
But the teenage lads of the Fort Ultras sang, drummed and vuvuzealaed their way throughout the game, a display of support that would put many an SPL side to shame. All respect to them. That, far more than bickering about SPL reconstruction or which of the Glasgow Two will pip the other to the title, is what football is all about.
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