East of Scotland League

As well as competing in inter-university competition on Wednesday afternoons during term time, the Watt’s men compete in various grades of weekend football.  The First Team plays in the East of Scotland League.  This is a Senior League which, until the establishment of the Lowland League in 2013 was one of the main feeders to the Scottish Football League.   When a vacancy in the SPFL last arose (prior to the establishment of play-offs for promotion into the Scottish League), four East of Scotland League clubs applied to fill it and one – Annan Athletic – was successful.  East of Scotland League games are mostly played on Saturdays, with some midweek fixtures as required, mainly towards the end of the season.

During the summer of 2013, the Scottish Lowland Football League was introduced as a counterbalance to the Highland League in preparation for the implementation of plans to try to introduce a “pyramid” system within Scottish football.  This new League is positioned between the national league structure (now the Scottish Professional Football League) and the East of Scotland League.  In terms of the pyramid, the Lowland League and Highland League now constitute Level 5 (the SPFL having four divisions) and the East of Scotland League is now at Level 6.

At the end of season 2015 – 2016, successful applications by Civil Service Strollers and Hawick Royal Albert brought to ten the number of clubs which had moved from the East of Scotland League to the Lowland League.  To gain promotion to the Lowland League requires a club to hold a licence, which few of the current members of the East of Scotland League have so far obtained.

Heriot-Watt has been a member of the East of Scotland League since 1971.  Erosion of the League’s membership, mainly due to the inception of the Lowland League, reduced the number of clubs in the League, but from a low point of eleven clubs (down from a peak of twenty-six in season 2012 – 2013), thirteen clubs competed in the East of Scotland League last season, including Kelty Hearts, the previous season’s Junior Superleague Champion club, which decided to move to Senior football in an attempt to reach the SPFL.

For those new to Scottish football at its lower levels, it must be explained that ‘Junior’ football has nothing to do with youth football in Scotland.  The Juniors operate under a separate Association, dating from the early days of football organisation in Scotland.  Nowadays it is a semi-professional grade in which the top clubs are financially stronger than almost all ‘Senior’ non-league clubs – and indeed than many of the clubs in the lower reaches of the national league.  This, of course, enables them to maintain teams which are formidable at this level.

The description in the previous paragraph is a little out of date now with reference to East Central Scotland (although it continues to hold true in the West Central area).  The move into the ‘Senior’ structure by Kelty opened the floodgates, precipitating a general movement of East of Scotland Junior clubs towards the pyramid structure and tripling the number of clubs in membership of the East of Scotland League for season 2018 – 2019.  Of the thirty-nine clubs playing in the East of Scotland League this season, twenty-six are new members.  Most of them have come from the East Juniors, including almost all of the members of the East Junior Superleague which were geographically eligible to apply (Dundee and Angus teams situated north of the River Tay being out of the SFA’s north-south dividing line).  This has, of course, totally altered the nature of East of Scotland League football, which this season is operating in three ‘Conferences’ of thirteen teams each, with end-of-season play-offs to decide the champions.  It is intended that for next season, a top division of sixteen teams will operate, feeding on to the Lowland League, with subsidiary divisions below at what will become Level 7 in the pyramid structure.

The Watt’s record in East of Scotland football since the year 2000 shows highs and lows, but there have been some notable successes.  The League operated in two divisions between 1987 and 2014 and after winning promotion in season 2004 – 2005, the Watt side, managed by Billy Henderson, finished second in the Premier Division the following season, losing out on the championship itself by only two points. The League Cup was also captured during that momentous season.

After the departure of many influential players at the end of 2005 – 2006, the Watt struggled the following season and was relegated, but under new manager John Young, the First Division championship was won again to restore Premier Division football to Riccarton. When John moved back into the Scottish League to join his friend Dick Campbell at Forfar, the Watt appointed former Hibernian player and Berwick Rangers manager Michael Renwick as Head Coach.  After being promoted as champions in 2008, Watt had three seasons in the Premier Divison from 2008-2009 onwards, during the first of which it won the King Cup in 2009. The club then dropped back to the First Division for a season before returning as champions again to the higher division for two more seasons.

When Michael Renwick departed to take up a coaching position in California, Watt’s Under-21 Coach, Chris Smith, was promoted to the top job.  Watt was again relegated at the end season 2013 – ’14, but would have been promoted once more had the two-division structure been retained.  By that time, however, departures to the Lowland League had reduced East of Scotland League membership to the point at which a return to a single structure was necessary.  After two seasons in the Head Coach’s position, Chris Smith resigned to enable him to pursue opportunities arising from his S.F.A. position.

At the start of season 2015 – 2016, Ian Little was appointed as Head Coach.  In his playing career, Ian represented Meadowbank Thistle, Stenhousemuir, Alloa Athletic and Berwick Rangers.  At Berwick, having topped the 500 mark in Scottish League appearances, he served for three and a half years as player-coach, followed by two and a half seasons as player-Assistant Manager, then two seasons as Manager.

When Ian Little accepted a position at Livingston F.C. prior to the 2016 – 2017 season, the Club returned to the internal promotion route to appoint his successor, recognising the excellent work done by Banji Koya as Under-20 Coach. ‘Bejay’, as the Head Coach is known to all, is a fine game analyst and a superb coach.  He was accredited to UEFA ‘B’ licence standard at the time of his appointment and has since secured his ‘A’ licence – a qualification rare to the point of uniqueness at this level of football.  His enthusiasm for the game and his love of the Club are legendary.

In Bejay’s first season in the top job, Heriot-Watt finished fourth in both the East of Scotland League and the Lowland and East of Scotland Under-20 Development League.  Last season, the First Team finished sixth, with the same three teams ahead of us, plus new entrants Kelty Hearts, the league winners, and Preston Athletic, who had been relegated from the Lowland League.  The Under-20s, momentously and memorably, actually won the Lowland and East of Scotland Development League, a league consisting chiefly of the youth sides of Lowland League teams.  The teams finishing immediately below the Watt side were Cumbernauld Colts, Spartans, Whitehill Welfare, University of Stirling and Edinburgh City.

The Watt side was assigned to Conference C of the League, along with former Junior Superleague sides Broxburn Athletic, Camelon Juniors, Jeanfield Swifts, Sauchie Juniors and the redoubtable Linlithgow Rose.  As always, Bejay is fully committed to playing good football and developing his players in both technique and character.  At around the half-way point, it’s going fine.  The Watt side is in mid-table, about as high a position as any of the original East of Scotland teams occupies in any of the Conferences and still in with a chance of finishing in the top half and qualifying for Level 6 next season.