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Junior football in Dundee tonight – and why Highland football fans should care

By Niall Harkiss

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Strathspey Thistle are bottom of the Highland League. Picture: Callum Mackay
Strathspey Thistle are bottom of the Highland League. Picture: Callum Mackay

When the Highland football pyramid agreement was established in 2019, it changed what many would have previously considered the north football landscape to be.

Tonight, there will be no greater example of that, as the outcome of a game being played near Dundee in the East Region Midlands League is of uncharacteristic interest to football fans in the Highlands, and Grantown in particular.

A win for Lochee United, who have played three games less than league leaders Broughty Ferry Athletic, will put them in pole position for its league championship.

The reason this is of particular interest, however, is that Lochee United are an entry level licensed Scottish FA member club – one of only four across the entire sixth tier of the Highland pyramid.

More importantly, this license doubles as a "golden ticket" for league winners, as it gifts them a Highland League promotion play-off tie against the bottom-placed side in the Highland Football League.

Indeed, the likelihood of Highland League away days in Dundee next season is not as remote as it may sound.

So, how did we get here?

The Scottish football pyramid, in terms of the idea of enabling competitive movement up and down Scotland's football levels, was first introduced about ten years ago.

It led to the introduction of the Lowland Football League – the south's answer to the long-established Highland Football League – an all encompassing new fifth tier designed to be a conduit for clubs across the southern half of Scotland to earn promotion to the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL).

As time went on, the Scottish Junior FA, which once boasted regional league systems across the east and west, witnessed all of its member teams leave to join newly established pyramid leagues in the hope of working their way up to the Lowland Football League.

As many as ten tiers now exist in the south for teams to work up through in hope of one day making it to the "big leagues".

While consternation remains about the flow of said movement between the leagues, the Lowland half of the pyramid has proved quite successful – at least in terms of teams winning promotion to the SPFL.

In the last four years alone, Kelty Hearts, Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic and Spartans have all earned a place in SPFL League Two via play-off.

In the north, only Cove Rangers, who won the Highland Football League in 2019, have gone on to earn promotion.

The north half of Scotland was not initially at the forefront of discussion when it comes to the development of the Scottish football pyramid.

That was until 2019.

In a bid to create synergy with their southern counterparts, the Highland Football League took steps to lead discussion on what a Highland football pyramid could look like.

This eventually lead to the formation of a new sixth tier in the north.

The North Caledonian League, which had for over 120 years served as an independent regional league covering the north Highlands was brought together with the North Region Junior FA, a division of the Scottish Junior FA which now predominantly covers the north-east areas of Nairnshire, Moray, Banff and Aberdeenshire.

Both leagues possess a history as a "stepping stone" for sides moving up to the Highland League.

Fort William and Wick Academy both gained membership via the North Caledonian League in the 80s and 90s, and they were later followed by teams such as Formartine, Turriff, Inverurie and Strathspey Thistle, who have all graduated from the juniors.

It was resolved that the winners of both divisions should compete in a two-pronged Tier 6 play-off, with the winner, if eligible, qualifying to challenge the bottom-placed side for its place in the Highland Football League.

The move brought about the most significant change to the structure of the Highland Football League since its formation in 1893 – the risk of relegation.

The risk though, was fairly remote, as there were so few teams with the requisite license that membership of the Highland League would require.

Although we are now in the third season of the Highland football pyramid being in effect, we have yet to see a playoff played.

Ever since North Junior champions Banks o' Dee secured promotion at the expense of Fort William's forfeiture in 2022, the notion of the Highland pyramid has become a lot more about the creation of a pathway in theory, rather than the introduction of any sort of competitive laxative.

At least, on the face of things anyway.

An effect of the fast-decreasing junior leagues in the south, was that several of its former clubs could not find a place in the southern fold, and as such were pyramid "exiles".

The Scottish Junior FA, which now only has league sides in the north and the east, established a new league designed to serve teams in Dundee, Angus and Fife – named the East Region Midlands League.

This new league, by virtue of its geographic position north of Perth, immediately took its place as part the Highland football pyramid – and with that became the third vertice of its sixth tier.

The 20-team league has so far been dominated by Carnoustie Panmure, who won the league in its first two seasons. They also won the division's cup and seemed to have a firm grip on the region.

This matter proved to be of little consequence to anyone north of Dundee though, as Carnoustie are an unlicensed member of the Scottish FA – and therefore are not eligible for promotion.

A lack of equipped suitors has been seen as something of a lifeline for Club 18 in the Highland League so far, most recently Strathspey Thistle, who finished bottom of the division in 2022-23.

This season, however, the Midlands League bears a different complexion - and one which Highland football observers should be aware of, if they are not already.

Lochee United, unbeaten after 25 games, will tonight host league leaders Broughty Ferry Athletic in a showdown that could put the race for the title straight into their hands.

And if Lochee United are to win tonight, it will surely prompt the ringing of alarm bells in Grantown-on-Spey, where an ailing Strathspey Thistle – rooted to the bottom of the Highland League with one win in 23 games – could be facing a daunting head-to-head with the East Region's golden ticket bearers.

There is a lot of football left to be played of course, but the Highland League trapdoor has never been closer to opening.

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