I’m very jealous of the FA Cup in England. Not all of it – not the purely financial decision to play semi-finals at the National Stadium, not the ongoing domination of the trophy itself by a small number of teams. We have those bits already. It’s the early rounds, the qualifying rounds and preliminary rounds and the excitement it generates by the simple expedient of allowing pretty much anyone to enter.
We don’t have that. Instead, the Scottish Cup is a closed shop, with no qualifying rounds. There are all those hundreds of teams playing in a hotch-potch of league systems across the country, the large majority of whom have no structure under which they could conceivably play one another. Most obviously, there are two different codes of non-league, the senior leagues – of which the Highland League is the most prestigious and probably the best – and the junior leagues, those affiliated not to the SFA but the SJFA. Until recently, the two could never meet.
Then four years ago there was a very limited concession, under which the four best Junior sides (the three regional league winners and the Junior Cup winners) were to be admitted each season to the Scottish Cup. Some of them have done very well, too, taking a series of senior scalps. Take Bo’ness United, who reached this weekend’s game by beating Queen’s Park in the battle of the apostrophes in round two. It should of course be cautioned that we’ve only seen the very best teams that Junior has to offer, but nonetheless their impact on the Cup has been so positive that I’d love to see it expanded. Or better still, I’d love to see barriers scrapped, and make it a free-for-all like the one down south.
It’s not going to happen. Too many vested interests. The Cup is restricted at the moment not so much by the senior / junior divide as by the club licensing system by which the SFA runs the senior leagues. Not even all the Highland League teams meet the necessary criteria, it requires money to be spent on all kinds of ground improvements, among other things, and since entry to the Scottish Cup is one of the main incentives, those clubs who have spent the money are not going to be too happy if the rules are suddenly scrubbed. On which you can see their point, but it’s a flimsy and rather temporal reason to deny yourself a prospect which, in this columnist’s humble opinion, which be such an exciting development for the Scottish game.
Even less valid is the argument from some quarters than Junior sides have their own Cup, a little bit like arguing that Whitley Bay shouldn’t be allowed into the FA Cup because Chelsea don’t get to play in the Vase. And nor, as some have suggested, is there any reason why the SJFA should reciprocate by allowing those senior teams who don’t qualify for the Scottish Cup to enter their version – it’s no concern of theirs that the SFA have such (largely pointless) restrictions, nor that there is no other national senior cup at non-league level to pick up the slack. And the only other argument I’ve heard – that Junior sides in the Cup simply take prize money away from the senior game – seems to be predicated on the idea that only the senior sides generate this revenue, that Junior football has nothing to contribute. I reject this entirely, there’s no reason why sides from all leagues don’t contribute to the prestige of the competition at whatever level they’re capable of reaching. And the more of them, the better.
In the absence of any progress on a combined non-league / pyramid structure (plans for which have lately been abandoned again), it’s the one big change I’d wish for Scottish football. Regionalise the early qualifiers if you like, as they do down south, but within that restriction, just imagine, anyone could play anyone, and they’d all start in August with the dream of Hampden. Or more realistically the dream of playing giants (if not Celtic then at least Brechin City) in a later round. It would, I’m convinced, make the competition far more attractive to sponsors. But that’s by-the-by anyway, if the English experience is anything to go by it’ll pay for itself through increased gates.
Witness this game, and a healthy turnout of 1,300 for an intriguing clash between the two champions of their respective leagues. Bo’ness, representing Junior football as last season’s East Region Superleague champions, against Buckie Thistle, not only Highland League Champions but sitting top again this season and on a run of eight straight wins – in three of which they’d scored seven times. There was no danger of that happening again today, but nonetheless it was clear they were going to give the home side a very stiff test.
A word, too, for the venue, the historic Newtown Park. Bo’ness United themselves may be a post-war creation, but their forerunners, Bo’ness FC were a Scottish League side for a spell between the wars, before being expelled in the 30s for financial issues. This was their ground, and it dates back to the 1880s. The derelict main stand which straddles the halfway line looks like it probably dates from about that vintage too: the clubhouse underneath is still in use but the stand itself is now occupied only by passing pigeons. The rest of the ground is terraced, with a grass bank at one end, and scant covering from the rain which kept threatening to lash it down all afternoon but thankfully never quite did.
Kicking off at 1:30 (the general lack of floodlights being one of the hallmarks of Junior footie) Bo’ness started positively for the opening five minutes, only for Thistle to score from their first attack. Martin Charlesworth met a cross from the left with a clip so delicate that, even from six yards out, it took a second or two for the couple of hundred away supporters to be sure that it was indeed crossing the line. That largely set the pattern for the game, Bo’ness continued to have the larger share of possession, while Thistle looked threatening on the break. It didn’t produce many chances either way, in the first half. There were a couple of half-chances for the home side, the best of which feel at the feet of Paul Shields – one of the players in their ranks with a reasonable amount of senior experience, including a single appearance for Celtic and a spell at Gillingham. From fifteen yards, Shields lifted his shot over the bar. Shortly after, his strike partner Nicky Walker had the ball in the net, but the flag has been raised immediately for offside. In between times, Thistle came close when Zander Sutherland cut in from the left wing and produced a decent save from Ryan McGurk.
The second half started on similar lines, both sides were clearly up for it but neither was able to settle well enough to really play their best football. Thistle, however, extended their lead just before the hour mark. A lofted free-kick was headed back across goal and Charlesworth reacted quickest, lifting the ball over McGurk from a tight angle and prompting joyous celebrations in front of their own fans at that end.
Having made three substitutions in the next few minutes, the home side rallied and were finally able to muster a sustained spell of pressure. For ten or fiteen minutes they had Thistle pressed back. They never really cut them open, but there were a couple of scares. Alistair Crawford sent a snapshot not far wide and had another effort blocked, while full-back Will Snowdon saw a low free-kick saved in not entirely convincing fashion. Had they got a break of the ball somewhere around here and pulled one back then things might have got very interesting. But credit must go to Thistle, who defended stoutly and continued to hit on the break – in truth they came closer to making it 3-0 than they came to conceding, with McGurk twice making last-ditch stops when a goal looked inevitable. That would have been harsh on Bo’ness, who gave it a right good go over the course of the game. But by the time the ninety minutes were up their flurry of pressure had blown itself out and Thistle coasted out the closing stages.
One-up for senior football then, though if Bo’ness came up short in the end they certainly didn’t look out of their depth (and don’t believe the BBC report which seems to think Thistle were “dominant throughout”). For Buckie’s part, they will probably feel they can play better than this, and won’t be entirely happy that they surrendered so much possession in midfield, but they were sharper up-front, created the better chances and deserved the win in the end. They’ll be in Monday’s fourth round draw when the big guns come in.
Finally a mention for the home support, who got behind their team and kept on singing throughout despite the events on the pitch. It was, after all, their first ever run in the Scottish Cup, and they’re as well to make the most of it because in the current set-up they have no way of knowing when – or even if – they’ll ever get another one. That’s unless my dream of an expanded Scottish Cup comes to pass ….
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