The first round draw for the Scottish Cup, made this week, threw up one intriguing though rather unfortunate tie: Beith Juniors v Linlithgow Rose. The significance might not be obvious to the casual observer, but these are two of the four Junior sides – and the best two at that – to be allowed into the Cup this year. It’s only the fourth season in which any Junior sides have been allowed into the Cup at all, and both of these two will have fancied their chances to show the some of the senior sides what they can do. Only one will now get the chance.

For the uninitiated, the term Junior has nothing whatever to do with age, it simply distinguishes it from senior football which includes the SPL and SFL but, a little confusingly, also a network of senior non-leagues which coexist with the Junior ones. It’s pure historical accident, dating from back in the nineteenth century when the leagues were first forming. The Scottish Junior FA was formed to unite already existing local organisations in 1886, thirteen years after the SFA itself but before the formation of the League, and was nominally a lower grade of football, played on a more local level, with the exception of the Scottish Junior Cup which is compted for nationally and remains their most prestigious tournament to this day.

Nowadays, the SJFA is affiliated to the SFA, but continues to run things its own way within that structure, and is very much a world apart, with separate rules and a seaparate player registration system and so on. The Bosman ruling has had no impact on them, for example, so clubs can still demand a fee for players whose contracts have expired. Presumably it’s no more legal for them than it was for the rest of us, it’s just that the sums of money involved are so paltry that it’s not been worth anyone’s while to challenge it. A series of league reconstructions over the years culminated in 2002 with the current set-up of three regions – North, East, West – the top divisions of each having, in theory at least, equal standing.

For those of us, like myself, who would love to see non-league football in Scotland formed into a pyramid like that down south, all of this set up would have to be combined with the senior non-leagues (ie those governed more directly by the SFA) – also divided into three regions, North, East and South. In the north, it’s clear that the (senior) Highland League is better and more prestigious that the (Junior) North Region Premier League. But further south it’s not so clear, and regions tend to divide roughly into codes on roughly geographical lines – north Ayrshire, Glasgow, West Lothian and Fife up to Dundee being Junior hotspots, while Edinburgh, East Lothian, the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway are predominantly senior. So, for example, of the sides who have gone out of business from the SFL in recent years and been reformed by supporters, Clydebank did so as a Junior side, and Gretna as senior – the reasons are mostly geographic.

It’s very difficult to say how the standard compares, not least because the worlds never meet. Until 2007, there was no competition in which Junior and senior sides could ever compete. And there still isn’t, to any great extent. But at least now there are four Junior teams allowed admission to the Scottish Cup – the Junior Cup winners and the three regional league winners. Generally speaking they’ve done rather well, I watched Lochee United force Ayr to a replay a couple of years back, and last season Irvine Meadow got as far as a fourth round tie away at Hibs, where they weren’t disgraced. It should be remembered, however, when comparing their performances against other non-league teams, that these are the very best sides that Junior football has to offer.

Within each area, the Junior set-ups have a number of leagues with promotion and relegation and (at least in the East) further regionalisation – but compared to the wonderful English system with readily comprehensible levels and a defined system of promotion from the lowest rungs right up to the Premier League the whole thing is, to the outside observer, a bit messy. To which I think the response of most Junior fans would be – sod the outside observer. And that’s an attitude I can readily understand.

So although there are working parties at the moment working on ways to get a similar pyramid system going up here, I suspect the differences will be insurmountable. Not so much because of the practical difficulties (though these are many) but because it’s far from clear there’s a will for it. No Junior sides applied for the most recent vacancies in the SFL, although there are several that could surely have put together good bids if they’d been so minded, and in a world where football has become increasingly commercialised and divorced from the communities in which it developed, it’s easy to see why you might want to keep things just the way they are. Junior sides are often important to their local towns and villages but get little or no coverage in the wider press, they’re run by the volunteers on whom these levels of football still rely, and whose effort and commitment is worth far more than any limited extra funding that might (or indeed, might not) be available as part of a larger set up). Much as I would still like to see an integrated system, it’s entirely up to them and if they want to remain as they are then all power to their elbow. Those looking to “reform the game” should think twice before riding roughshod over such local wishes, and risk losing that goodwill and commitment that Junior clubs rely on.

Furthermore, there is plenty of good football being played at that level. General opinion seems to be that standards have improved since the last reorganisation, and with many league sides tightening belts and reducing their squad sizes over the past year or two there are a lot of reasonable players around with league experience.

This weekend then, there is plenty of cracking football taking place throughout Scotland, even without a league programme, and while Non-League Day has been principally an English campaign, there’s no reason not to extend it. Unfortunately, one of the flipsides of the lack of national coverage is that there tends not to be much in the way of central points for finding fixture info. Things are better than they were though – the North and West Juniors have fixture info within the SJFA’s own page, the East region has its own site, with fixtures rather unhelpfully listed by competition rather than by date – sometimes it’s easier to use club’s own websites, of which several give comprehensive fixture info for the full league (here for example, are this Saturday’s games as taken from the St Andrews FC site).

For those preferring the senior non-leagues, the Highland League fixtures are covered by the BBC, or more reliably from the Highland League’s own website. The EoSL also have a website, but the SoSL fixtures seem to be a closely-guarded secret – if anyone can let me know a good source I’d appreciate it, but meantime I had to track down this Saturday’s games by looking at the refereeing appointments for them.

Take in a game if you can, then (the weather forecast is reasonable for all those uncovered terraces) and make the most of football as nature intended it.

3rd Sept 2010