Starved of football for the summer and short of plans last weekend, I took up an invite from an Arbroath-supporting friend to attend one of their pre-season friendlies. Although Arbroath lost 1-0 to East of Scotland Football League side Craigroyston, my first taste of junior football left me with a lot to ponder.
Like many fans of senior teams, I must admit to having a real ignorance about the junior game, and even a sense of superiority. However, there’s no doubt that the false stigma attached by some to the junior game is slowly being eroded. The year-on-year improvement of junior teams in the Scottish Cup will surely only progress as teams such as Spartans and Whitehill Welfare ply their trade in the new Lowland League.
The extra attention being paid by senior teams to the junior leagues is beginning to show. Dundee’s acquisition of Carlo Monti, who had been at Celtic as a youth player, from junior side Pollok hints at the wealth of talent that has, for various reasons, slipped through the cracks and into the junior game, but in the new era of financial discipline could once more be discovered.
For me, junior football is the hidden gem of the Scottish game. There’s a real community feel to games at a junior level that isn’t always present at a senior level. There were around 90 spectators for the game I attended, many of whom were obviously closely involved with the club or were friends and family of the players. Even better, I only had to pay £4 at the gate. Considering that you’re lucky to get a decent pint in Edinburgh for £4, it’s a bargain, particularly on a beautiful day like last Saturday.
Thanks to the lack of wind and close proximity of the stands, it was possible to hear the conversations between the players and the officials. Conversation is, in this case, definitely a euphemism for instructions that are unprintable on a family friendly website, but it certainly set the experience apart from anything I’ve had at a senior level. It was great to hear the referee’s discussions with players and being at pitch level so close to the action, gave a far better insight to the tactics of each side.
Although there was a ‘back to basics’, Sunday League-type atmosphere at the game, the standard of football was anything but Sunday League. Although, as a pre-season friendly, the experimentation in line-ups and Arbroath’s massive turnover in personnel since last season must have had a detrimental impact, there was not as huge a gap between Craigroyston and Arbroath (who just missed out on Division One football this season) as would be expected. Given that Arbroath had just six months ago held Celtic to a 1-1 draw at Parkhead, this came as even more of a surprise.
There were some abysmal defensive lapses and some poor tactical decisions at times, but no more than would be seen at any other game.
Although my season ticket for Dens Park will limit my ability to attend more junior games, my first taste of junior football was certainly a welcome one. Here’s hoping that the Lowland League brings the format to more fans and that the simple pleasure of watching eleven men against eleven men remains preserved in the era of boom and bust football.