With this week’s focus properly set to the non-league game, it seems appropriate to also delve into Scottish non-league football. Perhaps unfairly at times, the Scottish game generates comparisons in several footballing matters to that of the game conducted in England. It must be said, though, that often those comparisons originate from the nation’s own prominent football authorities, with success or failure being approximated in English measurements. From its top flight split with the Football League to the money–or lack thereof in the case of Scotland–generated from its television revenues, player transfers, etc., there will apparently never be a moment when the Scots do not look south and gauge themselves against representative sides of the Auld Enemy. Regarding treatment of Scottish non-league football, though, there exists a recommendation to imitate but as of yet a desire to bring about such emulation, causing further stagnation at the lower levels of the Football League.
Recommendations from the McLeish Report sparked ample discussion going back to its release in December, but most of the axes grinded pertained to the top flight and Football League in general. Mention the number ten or the word “colt” and expect a furious debate these days. Beneath these hot topics, though, lies the further call for Scotland to create a pyramid system wherein non-league clubs have a more regular path to gain entry into the Football League. The sixth recommendation for reinvigorating Scottish football, found here in PDF form, is for the SFL’s current 3rd division (the new 2nd division should any changes be made up the ladder) to be the gateway for aspiring clubs from the Highland, East of Scotland, South of Scotland, and Junior Leagues to partake in league football, rather than encountering the glass ceiling currently in place. Still operating under an election system, the last non-league side to move up the ranks was Annan Athletic in 2008, owing to the collapse of Gretna, which itself had just been elected to the league in 2002 following the folding of Airdrieonians FC.
The impression the current and slightly antiquated system leaves, then, is a bit of a sad one. The only way for an aspiring club like Annan Athletic–which was found to be in the thick of the second division promotion playoffs last season–to climb into the league is to have the dead carcass of a league club make a hole in that glass ceiling while falling through on its way to non-existence or having a club thrown out for finishing bottom of the 3rd division three consecutive seasons. The story of a phoenix club earning promotion to the league place of its dearly departed predecessor, as AFC Wimbledon did this past season, is a fairytale too unbelievable to happen in Scotland at the moment. So, while the reincarnated Gretna 2008 have recovered and won promotion last year to the EoS Premier Division in only their third year of existence, their supporters can only hope the new club’s success in the non-leagues continues while perhaps hoping some third division’s club goes the way of the dinosaur, opening up a chance for re-election.
Admittedly, a lack of any annual promotion/relegation scheme between the 3rd division and non-league football exists to insulate some of the poorer-performing SFL clubs from their already tenuous financial state that would be made catastrophic should they play themselves out of the league, but such a zero sum game seems to at times reward complacency over competition. As observers of Premier League teams in Europe recently saw, an absence of true domestic competition has filtered all the way up, affecting even those Scottish clubs with the once most fearsome of reputations. Further, while there would perhaps be only a handful of non-league sides that could cobble together the ambition and money to meet ground grading requirements for league play were there a regular promotion from the non-leagues, operating the current relatively closed league system unduly punishes those non-league sides that possess the ability. Instead, we witness a Highland League club like Cove Rangers, which has won the league three times over the past decade, finished second on four other occasions since they joined the league in 1986, still have yet to be admitted into the Football League after losing the vote to Annan Athletic the last time the SFL opened up three years ago. Galabank–which became Annan’s stadium for league play–was adjudged to be a far more “superior facility” by league representatives.
At least, that seems to be how it was decided, as the official SFL rules refer only to “the opinion of the board” rather than providing specific targets for a non-league side like Cove Rangers to meet should an opportunity present itself in the future to elbow their way into the 3rd division of the SFL. The Toonsers are now in the process of building a new home which will have twice the seating capacity of Galabank, a stadium that might be hosting 2nd division football matches next season should Annan Athletic continue their winning form throughout the 2011/12 campaign. Then again, potential promotion for them would still rest in “the opinion of the board” which would likely be holding them to a higher standard than the former EoS side faced when making the leap from non-league to the 3rd division.
As it stands, then, the longer Scottish football does without some sort of pyramid system rather than its current antiquated mode of communication between the SFL and the non-league game, the more it seems to be withering on the vine. While McLeish’s Report strongly recommends this along with regionalisation of the lower leagues, declaring, “It is clear the pyramid system could work in Scotland,” he also admits the appetite for such a wholesale restructuring will not be there “without some positive benefit accruing to the SFL clubs.” And while it is generally agreed that Scottish football is presently in a moribund state with something needing to be done to inject greater domestic competition and interest with an eye to international performances, strong non-league clubs such as Cove Rangers and Buckie Thistle from the Highland League, along with Spartans from the EoS League essentially have to bide their time until another tragic implosion of an SFL club comes about and ensure they appear pretty enough to win 1st prize at the impending beauty pageant. It just sounds odd that, with so many calls being made for real grassroots action to shake up Scottish football, root and branch reform necessary to put the game on a firmer footing, most of the attention has been placed to the leaves at the top of the tree.
Sadly, this is an attitude Scotland’s non-league clubs share in common with their English counterparts, but at least in England, some non-league sides are given the chance to get off the ground.