Junior football’s unique position in the Scottish game should be protected and nurtured, says SFA chief executive David Taylor.
He says there will always be a place for the teams who mean more to their communities than the Old Firm. And he should know. Taylor played Junior with Forfar East End, and sat in the stand when home-town team Carnoustie Panmure won the Scottish Junior Cup in May.
However, in an exclusive interview with Mud & Glory, Scottish football’s top man said Junior football can’t afford to live the past - and warned that the archaic rules have to go.
But he praised the new Super League set-up and said ambitious clubs must be allowed to find their own level, along with the non-league teams of the Highland League, the East and the South.
"I don’t see Junior football as an island, " said Taylor "It is part of Scottish football although, obviously it has its own history and traditions. I think because we don’t have a pyramid system for all semi-professional teams, as they have in England, Junior football has been seen - and has perhaps been wanted to be seen - as an island on its own, looking out for itself.
"I think the time has come for that to change, and it has to be seen as being part of the integrated football set-up we have in Scotland."
Taylor acknowledges that in the days when crowds of 40,000-plus were common for Junior Cup finals, operating in isolation was not an issue for Junior football. However, he added: "Attendances across the whole of Scottish football are not what they were then.
"All organisations have to adapt to different environments, whether they be football clubs, leagues or associations. Part of the adjustment that we think Junior football should make, and I think is willing to make, is to be part of the wider Scottish football scene. I think that can only be for the good of the game as a whole, because I believe Junior football has many, many strengths - particularly the community element.
"The atmosphere at Junior matches is quite different to what you get at senior matches. To go along and stand on the terraces at Renfrew or Pollok, as I do these days - or at Carnoustie when I go home - is different. It is much more of a social experience, and we don’t want to lose that. It has to be nurtured and protected - and developed.
"To some extent, that’s where Junior clubs have stolen a march on the senior clubs at the lower end of the scale, who seem to have lost that community support.
"Once you lose it, it’s very difficult to get it back. It’s not just at the lower end; just look at how hard Livingston have needed to work to get the support of their community. Junior clubs have that and they should hold on to it dearly, and use it to strengthen the base of their club.
"There are some senior clubs who, for one reason or another, have thought themselves to be above that sort of thing. So, yes, Junior football does occupy a special place in the Scottish football structure but I think it has more to offer and can develop further. That’s why I think it’s important that we have people running Junior football who have the ability to think about the development of the game.
"These are the type of people who we want involved in the administration and management of organisation; not simply people who can churn out a fixture list."
Taylor confirmed that talks are taking place which could lead to the top Junior clubs being given a spot in the Scottish Qualifying Cup - the first step on the Road to Hampden. He is, however, quick to point out that there is nothing in SFA rules preventing Junior clubs from applying for membership and entering the Scottish Cup by right.
The key phrase, however, is "SFA rules". The stumbling block remains the question of player registration, and it’s the Scottish Junior FA rules which create the problems.
"The rules relating to the registration of players should be designed to enable all clubs in Scotland to find the right level," added Taylor.
"There is an awful danger that the rules themselves become the most important thing."
"For instance, when Girvan wanted to retain their SFA membership AND play in the Junior leagues there was quite a body of opinion from people around the table who said that Girvan should not be allowed.
"Fortunately, there were enough of us who took the view that the whole object of the thing was to find the best environment for that particular club to play in, to maximise its contribution to Scottish football.
"We had to look for a way in which it could be done. You don’t start from the other end and say the rules state it’s not possible. If it’s worth doing, find a way to do it. Finding a way for Junior clubs to play in the Scottish Cup remains the next big challenge.
The chief executive added: "We are in discussions and, although there are a number of hurdles to get over, that seems to be the easier proposition than a pyramid systems involving all the non-leagues, although I’m very much in favour of both.
"Maybe in the longer term, the template will be the one we’re about to set up for youth football, with six regions across Scotland. Initially there would be regional football, feeding into the national game. But all of these things need to be discussed and debated.
"One thing I’d point out, though, is that when FIFA issue regulations relating to transfer windows and the like, they have a very simply view: you’re either professional or you’re amateur.
"We need simplified registration systems. Any other rules relating to players should simply be competition rules, or league rules.
"Player registration should be reduced to a very simple process. The problem is that, over the years, the registration proves has been hijacked by those at all grades of football who want to attach various conditions to the signing of players, in order to protect their own grade."
If Taylor is including Junior football’s antiquated player retention laws in that, he’s not saying. However, he added: "Whether it’s Junior football or any other classification of football, it has to recognise that it’s part of the wider scene, it cannot sit in isolation - even the law of the land says that.
"But in saying that, I’m sure it was very difficult to accomplish what has been done with the Junior Super Leagues. I believe that has been a big step forward. The quality of play has improved, the level of competition has improved and I understand the attendances have improved.
"I’m not saying change is always better you mustn’t lose the traditions. But you have to watch that you’re not hide-bound by tradition. Junior football has to promote tradition as a positive."
Taylor’s father, Junior football columnist for the Dundee Courier for 25 years, taught him well.
First published in Mud & Glory, Winter 2004.