JUNIOR football has traditionally had an unflattering reputation for being rife with ageing hatchetmen keen to enjoy one last payday before hanging up their boots. Things are different now, however.
With the financial grip taking hold on Scotland’s top professional clubs and forcing them to discard more players than ever, the top Junior clubs are hoovering up the best of the unwanted talent, rebuilding their shattered confidence and providing them with a platform to get back on track.
As a result, Junior football – particularly the East and West Region Super Leagues – is flourishing, to the extent where cash-strapped SPL and First Division clubs have been urged to look to this unlikely hotbed of untapped talent in order to bolster their threadbare squads.
With Darren McGregor having been transformed from run-of-the-mill Arniston Rangers player to one of St Mirren’s prized assets in the space of little over two years, Max Christie, the Bonnyrigg Rose manager, is adamant Scotland’s top clubs are missing a trick if they don’t start plundering the cream of the Junior crop.
“There’s definitely not enough scouts from the senior clubs coming to watch the Juniors,” he said. “It’s definitely a road they should be looking to go down – no doubt about it. The East and West Super League have had a lot to do with improving the standard of Junior football.
Maybe in the past your average Junior players were seen as hardy but less athletic, but that’s no longer the case. They’re much fitter now.”
Steve Pittman, the Broxburn manager who played in Scotland’s top flight with Dundee and Partick, echoed those sentiments. “The likes of Linlithgow, Bo’ness, Bonnyrigg and Broxburn have all got players who could definitely go and play at a far higher level.
“It’s hard for boys from our league to get a chance in the SPL, but there are definitely some who are good enough if clubs decide to give them a chance. If I was manager of an SPL or First Division club, I would definitely be looking at the Juniors.
“How many times have you seen SPL teams pay good money to bring in a foreign player, who plays just a few games and then you never hear of them?
“What have these clubs got to lose by looking at the Juniors? It would cost hardly anything to sign boys from the Juniors and they’ll have the hunger that maybe more experienced players won’t.
“There’s certainly not enough First Division and Premier League teams looking at the Juniors, although there have been a few at our games in the last few weeks.”
Those curious interlopers that Pittman speaks of have been flocking to Albyn Park lately to check out the manager’s son, Scott. A 20-year-old midfielder who suffered heartache after being released by Hamilton Accies as a teenager, Pittman junior has fallen back in love with the game and is currently the standout player in the East Region Super League.
“Scott could definitely play at a higher level – but I’d rather let others be the judge of that,” says Pittman senior, reluctant to blow his son’s trumpet.
Instead, he lets Christie do this for him. “The biggest gem in Junior football is Scott Pittman, Steve’s son,” said the Bonnyrigg manager. “He’s a ringer for Derek Ferguson. He is as natural a footballer as I’ve seen and is also very athletic. He can play at a high level – it’s a case of when rather than if.
“He could easily play full-time football. Scott was probably a bit young and a bit lightweight when he was at Hamilton and ended up just becoming another number in their youth system.
“He has probably been a bit neglected by clubs as a youngster. Every time I see him, he’s head and shoulders above the opposition and as comfortable and natural a footballer as I’ve seen in years. He could be parachuted into the First Division at the very least tomorrow.”
Pittman senior is happy to keep his son on board at Broxburn for now, but, in the long run, he’d love to see him make the step up to full-time football. “He was thinking of chucking football because he wasn’t given a chance when he went on loan at Alloa when he was younger,” laments Pittman. “He’s a typical example of a boy who suffered disappointment at a younger age and is now showing what they can do in the Juniors.
“He has been absolutely outstanding for us this season. I’d love to see Scott get back into senior football, but I want that for all these good young players in the Juniors.
“Scott’s the standout, but there are plenty others like him who dropped out of the senior ranks at a young age and are trying to get their careers back on track.”
Citing the example of Darian McKinnon, who, at the age of 26, made the jump from West Super League side Clydebank to First Division Hamilton, Christie highlighted just a few players, who, along with the peerless Pittman, could be considered for full-time football.
“There are plenty players like Darian in the Juniors if clubs are willing to have a look,” he said. “Kris Renton, who I’ve got at Bonnyrigg, could definitely go senior.
“At 16, he was the youngest player ever to play in Norwich City’s first team and now he’s playing Junior football, which is not the level he should be at. He could be a full-time footballer no problem if he applied himself correctly.
“Kris and Scott are the two absolutely obvious ones that spring to mind – they could certainly go on and make a good living from the game.
“There’s also the likes of Nicky Walker at Bo’ness, Alex King at Bonnyrigg, Michael McKenna at Musselburgh, and Tommy Coyne, the MacLennan brothers [Roddy and Ruari], and Jamie McKenzie at Linlithgow. There are plenty others as well.”
Pittman thrives on trying to reinvigorate young players who have become disillusioned with football after suffering rejection in the senior ranks.
“A lot of Under-21s getting released by SPL teams are dropping into the Juniors now so there’s some really good football getting played and loads of great youngsters running about the Juniors just now.
“Just because you get released by Rangers, Celtic or Dundee United or because one manager doesn’t fancy you, it doesn’t make you a bad player.
“The Juniors gives these boys a second chance.
“At Broxburn, we’re already looking to the end of the season when the next batch of young boys will get released by the senior clubs.
“When you’re 19 or 20 and you get released, you think it’s the end of the world. A lot of them get really disappointed, but we try and get them back into it as quickly as possible.
“In an ideal world, I would be hoping just to have them for six months to a year before they get another chance in the senior ranks. It all boils down to whether or not they get given the chance to show what they can do.
“Often it comes down to just being in the right place at the time. For example, Darren McGregor probably only got his move to the SPL because Danny Lennon, who was his manager at Cowdenbeath, got the St Mirren job.
“Darren made the step up and took to the SPL like a duck to water – there’s plenty more where he came from, though.”