Before the pyramid

For many years, you would have been forgiven for assuming that the Scottish football scene consisted of only the top four leagues.

Unlike England, where the much-envied pyramid system means that a pub team could technically end up playing in the top-flight, Scottish football’s upper echelons were a closed shop of 42 clubs. Clubs struggling at the bottom of League Two didn’t need to look over their shoulder, as there was no relegation trapdoor to fall through – leading to accusations of a lack of ambition, and ludicrous situations like East Stirlingshire’s infamous run of five successive bottom-placed finishes (including a season where only eight points were accumulated) without demotion.

Other teams did exist, of course: each time a place became available in the league system a slew of teams would emerge from the woodwork seeking to fill it, with Annan Athletic successfully doing so in 2008 and becoming an established League Two club. Then there was the Scottish Cup, whose early rounds regularly threw up a host of teams with evocative names teams like Burntisland Shipyard, Hawick Royal Albert and the Spartans. Some of these teams could clearly play a bit too – the Spartans’ impressive 2003/04 cup run saw them dismantle league sides Alloa and Arbroath before finally succumbing to Scottish Premier League outfit Livingston in front of a full house of 3,000 fans. But, when the spotlight of the cup turned away, to what dark corner of the footballing map did these teams return?

The answer was ‘non-league’, a phrase covering all manner of footballing sins. Best known of the non-league systems was the Highland League, an established and well-supported set up that had been running for over a hundred years in the Highlands and North East. Highland League clubs looked a lot like some League One and League Two sides – well-run, part-time community clubs, with their own facilities and crowds up to the mid-hundreds. The rest of the country was served by a patchwork of leagues of varying quality, including the East of Scotland and South of Scotland leagues.

Then there was the Juniors, a parallel league system that was huge in some areas (particularly Ayrshire) but a total mystery to others. Large crowds for derbies (Auchinleck Talbot v Cumnock chief among them) and cup finals (the Scottish Junior Cup Final has regularly attracted upwards of 5,000 fans in modern times) hinted at the potential of this strangely ring-fenced group of clubs, whilst good performances in the Scottish Cup since 2007 (when Junior clubs were first allowed to enter) showed that they could compete on the pitch with their league counterparts.

Given how complicated the non-league scene was, with local intrigues and vested interests at every turn, it is little wonder that successive football administrators had baulked at the idea of trying to knit it together to create a cohesive pyramid structure.

The early days

All of that changed forever in 2013, however, when the SFA chief executive Stewart Regan (apparently inspired by the meteoric rise of French club Auxerre from park football to Ligue 1) took the brave decision to make a pyramid system a reality. Sitting at tier five of that system (ie. directly below the existing SPFL) would be two regionalised leagues: the existing Highland League, and a newly formed “Lowland League”, with the winners of each facing an annual playoff for the opportunity to gain promotion to the SPFL’s League Two (via a further playoff against League Two’s bottom side).

There was intrigue among fans and pundits as to what the new Lowland League would look like, and in particular the identity of the founder teams. Whilst the likes of Spartans (with their cup pedigree) and Gretna 2008 (a phoenix of the defunct former top-flight club) provided an air of familiarity and legitimacy, there was less excitement around Stirling University (a student team) and Selkirk (a struggling and poorly supported East of Scotland League outfit who appeared to owe their promotion predominantly to having met the SFA’s off-field licensing criteria ahead of other clubs). There were concerns as to how the new setup would fare, and in particular whether its member clubs could attract crowds that would lead to a sustainable competition which would provide serious contenders for promotion to the SPFL.

The early years of the Lowland League proved a lot of those doubts wrong, however. The fear that its clubs would be consistently dwarfed by their wealthy Highland League counterparts was dispelled when Edinburgh City became the first team to win promotion to the SPFL from the new pyramid in 2015 after playoff wins against Highland League Cove Rangers and SPFL League Two East Stirlingshire. There were expansions (BSC Glasgow being a notable addition) and cup runs (Lowland League clubs reached the last-16 of the Scottish Cup in successive seasons), whilst East Kilbride’s record-breaking run of 30 wins in a row attracted national media attention and an unlikely friendship with Ajax which saw Edwin van der Sar deliver congratulatory beer to the club! It wasn’t all good news (Selkirk’s financial meltdown and Threave’s resignation from the league being notable bumps), but this was a competition that appeared to be on a gradual upward trajectory.

Eastern promise

It was in the summer of 2018 that the Lowland League’s transformation from respectable oddity to non-league powerhouse really started to take shape, though, with the news that 25 teams from the Junior game’s East region had been admitted to the East of Scotland League (the feeder division directly below the Lowland League). This included the reigning East Juniors champions Bonnyrigg Rose, as well as fellow heavyweights Linlithgow Rose and Bo’ness United, with Kelty Hearts having blazed the trail one year earlier.

The influx was so great that the East of Scotland League had to immediately re-arrange itself into three new conferences to accommodate the incoming clubs, many of whom had budgets and fanbases far larger than its existing teams. The lure of potential entry to the SPFL’s league system was clearly the major pull for these ambitious teams, with Bonnyrigg secretary Robert Dickson stating “we feel the move is to progress the club and we have set the wheels in motion to make a move into senior football”.

That ambition paid off almost immediately, with Kelty and Bonnyrigg both quickly gaining promotion from the East of Scotland League into the Lowland League, and finishing the current season (prematurely ended as a result of the COVID-19 crisis) in first and second place in the table. Bo’ness, meanwhile, sit 8 points clear at the top of the East of Scotland league and therefore have demonstrated that they too have the quality to be a Lowland League team. Regardless of the doubts about how this season will end, it is surely only a matter of time before some of these ambitious Junior sides find themselves in the promised land of the SPFL.

Opening the Western front

All of this has been watched with great interest by clubs in the Junior game’s West region, which has traditionally been the strongest region of the Junior game and is home to such fabled sides as Auchinleck Talbot and Irvine Meadow.

The Lowland League announced in February that it intended to further expand the pyramid by setting up a new West of Scotland League to sit directly below the Lowland League at tier six (alongside the East and South of Scotland Leagues). On 14 April, it was confirmed that a staggering 67 teams would make up the new league – including every one of the West Junior FA’s clubs – meaning the new league will be significantly larger in size than the SPFL itself (which has 42 clubs across four divisions). Add in the potential for top Junior clubs to bring bigger crowds and bigger budgets to the table than many current Lowland League Sides (and some lower-end SPFL teams), and the new setup starts to look like an exciting disruptor to Scottish lower league football.

Sadly, the fresh exodus of clubs entirely wipes out the West Junior league setup and raises real question marks over the future viability of the Junior grade across the rest of the country. However, fans of common sense will have been heartened to note that the West Junior FA appear to have collaborated with the Lowland League on the establishment of the new league, choosing perhaps to be part of the inevitable change rather than an obstacle to it. A joint statement issued by the parties on 24 March identified that current Junior clubs who join the new league would still be eligible to play in the Scottish Junior Cup, a compromise that allows the Junior game’s identity to be retained through the competition that was always the jewel in its considerable crown.

And where does this leave the Highland League, once seen as the more viable half of the pyramid’s base (and which has already contributed current League Two leaders Cove Rangers to the SPFL’s ranks)? The 17-team competition remains well-run and thriving, but its pool of clubs now looks incredibly shallow in comparison to that of its Southern neighbour. Only the nine-team North Caledonian League sits below it – and that does not look likely to change any time soon. Unlike the Lowland League (which has the entire central belt in its patch), the Highland League does not have many major centres of population from which to draw new members, and the remaining football clubs of the Highlands are generally amateur clubs from small towns or villages (many of which struggle for attention in an area dominated by the native Highland sport of shinty).

The explosion of the Lowland League may have left the base of the pyramid looking somewhat ill-balanced, but it is nonetheless a welcome development for all lovers of Scottish lower league football. In just seven years the Lowland League has managed to transform itself from an awkward and little-known competition to a magnet for ambitious clubs seeking to carve out a path to the big time. Its future, like that of Scottish lower league football in general, looks exciting.