Focus on local football: East of Scotland League ‘now place to be’

Lothian Thistle have won the East of Scotland League three times in the past five years, although they were pipped by Kelty Hearts last term. Pic: TSPL
Lothian Thistle have won the East of Scotland League three times in the past five years, although they were pipped by Kelty Hearts last term. Pic: TSPL
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The launch of the Pyramid system was just what the Scottish game craved. However, it hasn’t been the smoothest transition.

The East of Scotland League took the biggest hit with league membership plummeting to as low as 11 the season before last. A once thriving division bursting with flair and aspiring semi-professional footballers was suddenly in danger of falling off the map.

With the Lowland League able to offer a lucrative pathway into senior football, the association had a real challenge on its hands just to retain interest. However, good things come to those who wait and although it must have felt like an eternity, the East of Scotland League is now the place to be.

Last week’s EGM made national headlines with the announcement of a revamped 39-team league set-up, starting next month.

To accommodate a mass exodus from the Junior ranks – 24 clubs in total – the East of Scotland League will split into three conferences with each section comprising of 13 clubs. The winners of each conference will then play-off against one another in a round-robin competition to determine who are the league champions.

Former Junior powerhouses Bonnyrigg Rose and Penicuik Athletic are just two who have elected to jump ship and start afresh. Kelty Hearts were the first club to leave the Junior set-up for the EoS last year and earned promotion to the Lowland League last month at the first time of asking.

Now that the dust has settled following last week’s announcement, EoS chairman and president John Greenhorn admits the committee have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of applications to join Scottish football’s sixth tier.

“We couldn’t have envisaged having this interest in joining, absolutely not at all,” he told the Evening News. “All 26 clubs have been voted in unanimously and there wasn’t one single vote against any of the sides applying. I must say the Junior clubs have been excellent to deal with so it’s been quite a smooth process putting everything in place.

“The teams that are coming in might find that the East of Scotland League is their level but there will be others aiming for a lot higher and that’s where we offer that opportunity.

“Kelty Hearts coming into the league a year ago really triggered things. It gave us that hope that we were still an attractive proposition because it has been a really difficult few years for everyone involved.

“The inception of the Lowland League was a real hit for us as we virtually lost 50 per cent of our clubs. Obviously it was great for football in this country as the Pyramid system gives that route into senior football. But we were right down to the bare bones and just surviving. I suppose we were in the doldrums a bit.

“Ten clubs would have been the absolute minimum and anything else it would have been goodnight. I think it [the thought of folding] did cross our minds to be honest. We’re just fortunate we never got down to that stage but the lowest we did get to was 11 which was a worry.”

READ MORE: Junior chiefs admit they could not convince clubs to stay

Greenhorn now expects the league to go from strength to strength.

“The league has been here for a long time and hopefully it’s still here for a very long time,” he said. “I’m expecting quite a few applications next year as well but that will all depend on how we structure the league. At the moment it looks as if we will go to a Premier Division and then two regional First Divisions feeding into it. But nothing’s been decided yet. That may put off some clubs applying as they wouldn’t come into the Premier but it’s safe to say they’ve had their chance.

“There are clubs in our league now that are a lot stronger than clubs in the Lowland League and that’s great to see because we really were stuck in a rut. The level of competition with the existing clubs and the new ones coming in makes for a really exciting season ahead.”

Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale manager Raymond Carr, who has steered his side to the league title three times in the past five years, welcomed the changes and is looking forward to locking horns with the likes of Bonnyrigg Rose having been placed in Conference B.

“The new set-up enhances the standard of the league with the teams that are coming in so it’s going to be difficult,” Carr said. “But that’s the challenges you want as a footballer, playing against top opposition every week. We’re looking forward to it.

“It’s going to be a lot closer than it has been in the past as there are probably four or five teams from each conference who can go on and win it. It will be more competitive and it’s different opposition for the players as well.

“It’s probably the biggest thing to happen in Scottish football since the SPL was formed [in 1998] so it’s a big change. I still feel that over the last five seasons we’ve won the league three times and we haven’t gone up but we’re definitely looking to change that this year.”

READ MORE: Lowland League sees latest developments as ‘wake-up call’