Juniors set to grow up in the big games

It's FA Cup weekend in Scotland too, with the lower-leaguers joined by junior teams who can't get in the league. Craig Anderson looks at Scotland's rather quirky parallel system...

Down the years, non-league teams have enjoyed many an FA Cup success in England. Now, in Scotland, sides of equal stature are starting to make themselves known to the senior ranks.

The Scottish Cup Third Round takes place this weekend. That's the round where all the Second Division teams and six from Division One join in the party – and if it's been anything like the tournament so far, it'll be a very exciting weekend.

Taking four of those third-round berths are so-called "junior" teams – basically non-league teams that operate and work within their own association (the SJFA) separate to the SFA, who themselves have non-leagues in operation such as the Highland League, East of Scotland League and the South of Scotland League.

But don't for one second be confused by the term. Juniors is not a kids' league. Ask anyone that's ever watched it, let alone played in it. It's a level of the game where some of the country's best-ever footballers have played to toughen up. For example Billy McNeill, Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain were all farmed out to junior teams in the early stages of their career – and look what they achieved.

"Snooker me, would ye? Off tae the juniors..."

Now, four of the juniors are rubbing shoulders with some of the more conventional names in Scottish football when West Region League champions Beith visit Airdrie United, North Region champs Sunnybank go to Ayr United, East Region equivalents Bo'ness United host the Highland League champions Buckie Thistle, while Girvan have something of a local derby with Stranraer.

Girvan's involvement is somewhat unique, as a team that hold memberships to both the SFA and SJFA, making them eligible for all junior tournaments and the Scottish Cup. As an SFA member, they are included in the cup regardless of their success in the league. The others have to win their respective regional league or the Scottish Junior Cup.

But the fact that four of them are there this year is not only a huge success for the junior game as a whole, it's the first time it's ever happened and shows how right the SFA were to allow them to take part when they restructured the tournament in 2007.

Bo'ness and Sunnybank have already eliminated league opposition to reach this stage, beating Third Division sides Queen's Park and Albion Rovers respectively, so they're no million-to-one shots to reach the utopia of the Fourth Round - at which point the SPL clubs enter the fray.

Irvine Meadow were the first such club to be drawn to face a top-flight side when they met Hibernian in last year's Fourth Round and, somewhat inevitably, were beaten 3-0 in the end. It was a truly memorable experience for fans and players alike; those who went to Easter Road that day will tell you Irvine really gave a good account of themselves.

Meadow fans enjoy the big day out in the capital

Had Meadow pulled off an unlikely result, it would have been arguably the competition's greatest ever cup shock. Never mind Berwick beating Rangers in 1967, or Celtic being outclassed by Inverness Caley Thistle in 2000, this would surely have been the daddy of them all. That's how big a shock it could have been.

Plus it was Meadow that became the first junior to beat a senior counterpart in a competitive game when they beat Arbroath 1-0 in last season's third round to earn that tie at Hibs so there is a huge incentive for the quartet still involved to earn some cash as well as lock horns with an SPL side.

If you were to compare the juniors with their other non-league counterparts, it's probably fair to say that on the football pitch, they are undoubtedly on an equal standing.

However, their inclusion in the cup is not welcomed by all, with one newspaper columnist last season claiming Irvine Meadow were taking money “out of the game” when they were facing Hibs. They haven’t always been popular for whatever reason, but their success and contribution to the tournament in recent years surely mean they are here to stay.

There’s no doubt the juniors' somewhat staggered entrance into the senior game has been a success in the last three years. But it's another argument entirely as to whether it should lead to the adoption of a “pyramid” system similar to that in England, which would allow through promotions and relegation for teams like these to play in the senior ranks.

It seems there is an unwillingness to change things that much any time soon. This reluctance to really open things up appears to come from the SJFA and the SFA, not to mention the clubs themselves.

Until someone with big ideas comes along, the junior sides will have to make do with their token gesture and keep shocking the institutionalised clubs in the Scottish Cup – hopefully starting this weekend.