Updated: Dec 30, 2020
The up-till-then second-best senior League outside the SPFL was reduced to a single division of sixteen teams and then it further decreased to just eleven clubs during the 2016-17 season. Enter Kelty Hearts.
When nine clubs left the East of Scotland Football League (EoSFL) in 2013 to join the newly launched Lowland League, the EoSFL appeared to be in irreversible decline. Further departures to the Lowland League and the Juniors meant that by Season 2015-16 the up-till-then second-best senior League outside the SPFL was reduced to a single division of sixteen teams and then it further decreased to just eleven clubs during the 2016-17 season.
Enter Kelty Hearts.
The ambitious and highly successful Fife Junior club, based in a village of 6,000 inhabitants less than three miles north of Cowdenbeath, were crowned the East Super League Winners at the end of 2016-17. By then, to the bafflement of many in Junior Football circles, “the Hearts” had become full SFA members, resigned from the SJFA and had their membership application accepted by the East of Scotland League.
Twelve months later Kelty Hearts won the East of Scotland League championship and gained promotion to the Lowland League, following a 10-0 aggregate play-off win over Threave Rovers of the South of Scotland League. Kelty had reached tier five of Scotland’s football pyramid and were now just one step away from becoming an SPFL club. It was a situation which did not escape the attention of the leading Junior clubs throughout the Lothians and the south-east.
In April 2018, thirteen clubs, most of them from the East Juniors, were accepted into the EoSFL for the 2018-19 season, doubling the League’s membership. When the window for applications was extended, even more clubs quit the Juniors, bringing the EoSFL total membership up to thirty-nine clubs, divided into three conferences.
The apparent irreversible decline of the East of Scotland League had been overturned in the most dramatic fashion. Aspirational Kelty’s stunning success had clearly been a factor but there also appeared to be a domino effect in play caused in part, no doubt, by the possible loss of lucrative local derbies.
In this unprecedented and tumultuous upheaval, the real losers were the SJFA East Region, who almost overnight were deprived of most of its best clubs. The broader picture was a revitalised East of Scotland League and the prospect of the Lowland League, over time, gaining some of the best-run “small town” teams in Scotland.
This expected improvement in the standard of clubs in the Lowland League is very unlikely to be matched by any improvement in the Highland League which has provided so many splendid clubs to the SPFL in recent years. That supply has surely ended, Cove apart, and it seems fair to assume that, more often than not, the bottom SPFL club will face play-off opponents located in the Lowlands and increasingly the east Lowlands at that – unless there is also a realignment of Junior football clubs in the West of Scotland into a re-titled South of Scotland League.
It’s not clear whether Auchinleck Talbot’s stunning result in the Scottish Cup earlier this season against high-flying Ayr United makes such a move more or less likely but further change does seem inevitable.