The joy of junior football would be ruined by exposure to senior leagues

First-time visitors to Celtic/Rangers games depart these encounters vowing to tell their friends that they must attend the great Glasgow derby at least once in their lifetime. If you really want to add something fresh to your sporting bucket list, though, I’d suggest you get yourself along to a game in Scotland’s junior football sector. This really is something that must be experienced in the flesh.

It is a raw environment where it seems that no pre-match team talk is complete without the phrase “take no prisoners”. Games involving Scotland’s top junior sides are not without a degree of skill and a good level of fitness, but players are expected to be able “to look after themselves”. This defines anything from the ability to sustain a meaty challenge to a working knowledge of the most sensitive areas of the male human anatomy and the inclination to test them in combat. The outcome of many games can rest on moments of high technique but also on shards of physical malevolence prohibited under the UN convention against torture.

Scattered among Scottish junior football’s nomenclature are names that stir the echoes of a long-forgotten small-town pride and carry a hint of romance – Jeanfield Swifts, Bonnyrigg Rose, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy. Many of these teams were hewn from working-class towns and villages dominated by heavy industry and came to represent an authentic sense of local pride that has prevailed for more than a century.

More than two decades ago, a vivid and robust encounter between two of junior football’s finest helped rescue me at a time when I was the sports editor of one of Scotland’s national titles. Most of the senior matches had been wiped out by a cold snap, thus posing a major difficulty in the task of filling a 10-page sports section.

The juniors are made of harder stuff and a match featuring Auchinleck Talbot and Cumnock in the Ayrshire division began to twinkle. Graham Spiers, who remains Scotland’s top football writer, had then chronicled the weekly carnage from the charnel house that was Ayrshire junior football in his celebrated and very funny Sports Diary. What if we gave the Auchinleck/Cumnock game the full back-page treatment: pictures, fancy graphics, player ratings – the full bifta? Spiers, who would normally report on games involving Celtic or Rangers, rose to the task and so did Auchinleck and Cumnock. The game between these two bitter rivals was played before a full house and featured three red cards, a galaxy of yellows and 90 minutes in which no prisoners were taken and each player looked after himself with extreme prejudice. It was glorious mayhem.

The match report gained Spiers that year’s coveted best sportswriter title. The accompanying picture by the renowned photographer Robert Perry showed an Auchinleck player heading for an early bath while flicking the V-sign to a gallery of craggy Cumnock supporters, each of whom was returning the gesture with a degree of vigour. I’ve never since seen a better football match report or photograph. Last week, I was delighted to see a typically robust response from Auchinleck Talbot to proposals that junior clubs are to be given an opportunity to enter the Scottish senior leagues by way of the SFA’s pyramid system.

Scotland was beaten by Costa Rica at home in a friendly match in March.

Scotland was beaten by Costa Rica at home . Photograph: Stuart Wallace/REX/Shutterstock

Auchinleck’s club secretary, Henry Dumigan, stated firmly that the proposals would harm his side’s identity. “We see ourselves as a junior football team; we’ve no ambition to play senior football. We feel there’s a strong possibility that it will damage not our reputation, but our identity. We’re very proud to be a junior club.”

Dumigan’s rejection of this bizarre idea is sturdy and eloquent. The juniors carry a resonance in Scottish civic life that travels well beyond the shallow capitalism of professional football. Within a generation, several of these grand old clubs would simply become the bottom feeders in the lower divisions of the senior game and prey to the dismal coaching manual of the Rabs and Tams who inexplicably graduated from the Largs coaching school. The temptation to overreach themselves financially would soon become irresistible, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The move to assimilate junior clubs into Scotland’s senior game comes in a week when the elite countries of world football made their final preparations for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It is 20 years since Scotland have qualified for a major football tournament, a wretched run that has seen 10 World Cups and European Championships pass us by.

While Gareth Southgate was finalising his 23-man World Cup squad after games against Holland and Italy, Scotland were being beaten at home by Costa Rica and scambling to a 1-0 win over Hungary in a shockingly bad match played on what looked like a potato field.

There are many reasons why Scotland, where football continues to provide rich rewards for mediocrity on the field and in the boardrooms, are one of the worst performers in Europe. While other nations with little of Scotland’s wealth and football heritage began to embrace a modern and sophisticated way of playing the game, we still allow our youngsters to be coached by an assortment of touchline gorillas while our referees continue to apply the rules of tag-wrestling to matches.

The men who traditionally run Scottish football are drawn from a cadre of small businessmen who operate in a world where the politics of the masonic hall and golf club still hold sway. As other nations build sprawling indoor football complexes and Nasa performance indicators, what’s been our response? Aye, we’ll just let the juniors in.

Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist

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