One of the more welcome advents in Scottish football in recent years has been the introduction of junior clubs into the Scottish Cup. The likes of Irvine Meadow, Linlithgow Rose and Pollok have all acquitted themselves well in the national cup competition, as have today’s visitors to Tynecastle, Auchinleck Talbot. There may be those who snide that the participation of such clubs in the Scottish Cup devalues the competition, particularly as the juniors have their own national competition, of which Auchinleck Talbot are the holders. Personally, I think that’s a ludicrous view and if anyone doubted the value the juniors bring to the game, they only have to look the Roseburn Stand here at Tynecastle this afternoon to think differently. The atmosphere created from those from Ayrshire undoubtedly made this afternoon a special occasion.
The Scottish Football Association are to be applauded for amending the rules of the Scottish Cup to allow ambitious junior clubs such as Talbot the opportunity to prove themselves. It’s a pity the Scottish League doesn’t share this widening of horizons. What Scottish football needs, in my humble opinion, is a pyramid system, as happens in England, where non-league clubs are given the opportunity to have their ambition rewarded. Such a system has long been spoken about north of the border but, as yet, nothing has come to fruition. Which must be a huge source of frustration for clubs such as Auchinleck Talbot, Pollok, Tayport and, in the Lothians, Linlithgow Rose and Newtongrange Star. A look through the history books will tell you that many a top player has progressed from Newtongrange Star to Heart of Midlothian; Freddie Glidden, Willie Bauld, Dave Mackay, Alex Young, Bobby Prentice and Walter Kidd among others have all graced the Star colours before heading to Tynecastle. One of the most famous players who plied his trade with Auchinleck Talbot was goalkeeper Hugh Sproat, who moved from Talbot to play with Ayr United in the Premier Division in the 1970s. My abiding memory of the moustached custodian was his outstanding performance for the Honest Men when they defeated Hearts 2-1 at Tynecastle in April 1977 - a result that all but confirmed Hearts relegation for the first time in their history.
As we saw from the size of the travelling support at Tynecastle this afternoon, Auchinleck Talbot has one of the largest supports in junior football. Now, with respect to the likes of East Stirlingshire - whose games I attend regularly when Hearts are not in action - Montrose and Elgin City, these clubs attract little more than 300 fans to their home games. Talbot’s average home attendance this season is around the 700 mark and,at one point, there was talk of nearly ten times that figure coming to Tynecastle this afternoon - although, in the end, it was someway short of that.
Now there’s no one more of a football traditionalist than I. And I certainly don’t want to see our established clubs go out of existence. However, there’s little doubt some clubs struggle away year in year out in the Irn Bru Third Division without being under serious threat of losing their league place and happily playing in front of three men and a dog on occasion. What I would suggest to the powers that be is that a play-off system is introduced, as there is in England. Clearly, there would need to be preliminary rounds before the team at the bottom of the basement league faced their potential replacements in a two-legged play-off - the junior game in Scotland has a strong presence not only in Ayrshire, Glasgow and the Lothians but in Tayside and, as Culter proved against Partick Thistle in the last round of the William Hill Scottish Cup, Aberdeen. However, this hurdle could be easily overcome. Moreover, think of the interest generated in Ayrshire if Auchinleck Talbot or, dare I say it, Cumnock played against the likes of East Stirlingshire for a place in the Scottish League. It took several long years for Highland clubs such as Inverness Caledonian, Ross County, Peterhead and Elgin to gain admittance to the Scottish League. Caley Thistle, as they became, are now an established SPL club while their neighbours Ross County look likely to join them in the top flight next season.
The ambition of these clubs has been rewarded and rightly so. Ambition is usually rewarded in any line of business. It’s time for Scotland’s leading junior clubs to get their chance.