Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner. Facebook Messenger An icon of the facebook messenger app logo. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Facebook Messenger An icon of the Twitter app logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. WhatsApp Messenger An icon of the Whatsapp messenger app logo. Email An icon of an mail envelope. Copy link A decentered black square over a white square.
Highland League

Concerns remain despite Conference League being kicked into the long grass

The Press and Journal has consulted Highland League figures for their thoughts on why the Conference League failed, what may happen in the future and changes that could be made to Scottish football.
Callum Law
The Conference League proposal was withdrawn before clubs had the chance to vote on it
The Conference League proposal was withdrawn before clubs had the chance to vote on it

The Conference League proposal has been the controversial issue in Scottish football in recent months.

The plan for a new fifth tier featuring Premiership B teams, Breedon Highland League clubs and Lowland Leagues sides was withdrawn following mounting public opposition prior to being voted on at the Scottish FA’s AGM last week.

Although it’s off the table for now the Press and Journal has taken another look at the Conference League concept.

We spoke to respected figures from within the Highland League – one of the divisions that would have been most heavily impacted by its introduction – and discovered there are still concerns about what the future holds.

Where did it go wrong for the Conference League?

The Highland League’s representative at the SFA’s congress, Brora Rangers director David Dowling, felt the goalposts kept moving every time the proposal was discussed.

Initially he stated publicly the Cattachs would vote for the proposal having been given assurances that every non B team in the Conference League would qualify for the SPFL-run League Cup.

However, that offer was soon revised so that only the top three non B teams would have been granted a League Cup place.

Dowling said: “Every time it was spoken about the offering was getting diminished.

“For us at Brora we started off as supportive, but when the offer of playing in the League Cup was withdrawn that meant it wasn’t financially viable.

David Dowling, right, felt the final Conference League offering fell short of what had been previously promised

“There was also talk at one point of the Challenge Cup being enhanced and more money being available in that.

“I was specifically told 100% of non B teams in the Conference League would receive League Cup entry.

“Speaking about it at Brora, that appealed but when that was withdrawn that tipped the balance for us.

“When we saw the final proposition, it fell short of what we’d hoped for so we came down on the side of no.”

Buckie Thistle president Garry Farquhar believes a lack of transparency hindered the proposal.

He said: “There was quite a period of time when we’d all heard about it, but not many people – including supporters – were properly aware of what it was.

“I think it could have been presented in a more open manner and there definitely needed to be more discussion with the clubs before they came up with their proposal.

“The Highland League is happy to move with the times and is open to change.

“But on this occasion the Highland League remaining as it is is the best thing that could have happened.”

Keith chairman Andy Troup believes the impact on the pyramid system was the final straw for many across the country.

If the Conference League had been introduced every club below the SPFL – apart from those involved in the new set-up – would have been pushed a tier lower down the pyramid.

He said: “I don’t think it was handled well, more talk needed to be had.

“For me you can’t relegate 200 clubs, it just can’t happen, we’re all part of the pyramid system.

“If something is going to be introduced I think it needs to be along with these clubs in the pyramid not trying to force them into something.

“You need to work with them because if you don’t do that there’s no chance of things going through.

“No club should be relegated, it should be on merit on the pitch.”

What does the future hold?

Although the consensus across the Highland League was that the Conference League proposal being withdrawn was a positive, because it wasn’t voted down there are concerns it could be regurgitated and brought back to the table at a later date.

Troup said: “Don’t be mistaken this hasn’t gone away. It will be back at some point in some form and I think Ian Maxwell (SFA chief executive) made that clear in his statements after the AGM.

“I think it will be back on the go in some form at some stage in the future.

“Does that concern me? Yes it does. But until you see another proposal you can’t really comment because they might come back with something that suits all parties.”

Keith chairman Andy Troup

Farquhar added: “I was pleased it was pulled, but whether they go back and revisit it is another story, but at least for the time being it’s on the backburner.

“I get the impression it will be looked into again, but hopefully it’s either a while down the line.

“Or they look into it in a bit more detail in terms of the potential distances would have to travel depending on what the make-up of a new league was.

“There definitely needs to be more consideration towards the fans as well.”

However, Formartine United chairman and senior vice-president of the Highland League, Sandy Sinclair, is upbeat when he looks to the future.

Formartine United chairman and Highland League senior vice-president Sandy Sinclair

He said: “We’ve got to move on, we still believe the Highland League is one of the most competitive leagues in Scotland.

“At Formartine we thoroughly enjoy being part of it and we’re already looking forward to the new season.

“I think the new season will be more competitive than ever.

“I’m not sure if that’s the last we’ve heard of the Conference League or what will happen.

“We’re all in favour of improving the Scotland national team and everyone has different views on how to do that.”

Changes that could be made?

We also asked those we spoke to what changes they felt could be made to improve Scottish football.

All four agreed with Brechin chairman Kevin Mackie, who last week suggested a change in the financial distribution model to narrow the gap between the SPFL and the leagues below.

Farquhar said: “My major change that I’d like to see is summer football.

“I think the Highland League would be a good league to trial it, partly because of the winters we get in the north and the disruption it can cause.

“My view is that if we were playing in better weather the league would benefit from bigger crowds and the product on the pitch could also be better because of more favourable conditions.

Buckie Thistle president Garry Farquhar

“With the way things are just now it’s maybe quite a big jump to get there, but in the longer term I think summer football is something that should be investigated.

“I think the distribution of funds does need looked at. There is a massive gulf between League Two and the divisions below it.”

Dowling would like to see more extensive reconstruction of the SPFL set-up considered.

He added: “There are teams in the Highland and Lowland Leagues who would like the opportunity to play in the Scottish League.

“I do wonder if expanding the Scottish League could be looked at. What if League Two went to 16 teams? Or the three leagues below the Premiership also went to 12 teams?

“There would be plusses and minuses as there is with every suggestion, but I never quite understood why the only suggestion was the Conference League.

“Throughout the whole process I felt there was more could have been explored, and I still think that.

“Financially there is a massive gap and it would improve the pyramid if more money came down to our level.

“League Two clubs are probably guaranteed a minimum of about £100,000 in prize money across all competitions.

“Could things not be tweaked where clubs at our level received a chunk of that pie?”

Looking at player development, Troup believes things could be done to improve the loan system.

“It’s maybe not a massive thing but I think the registrations of players could be a bit more flexible to allow them to be loaned out to lower league clubs more easily,” he said.

“There’s maybe something that could be done to improve the loan system.

“Aberdeen, as an example, have had a lot of young players out at Highland League clubs as well as Cove, Peterhead and Elgin and it’s worked for them.

Aberdeen REJECT chance to enter colts in Conference League – here’s why

“I can’t see why that model couldn’t work for more clubs at the top end of the structure.”

Looking at the financial side, Sinclair said: “I would support the comments Kevin Mackie made, there is a big gulf.

“Brechin have had experience of it because they’re the only club in our division that have come down into the Highland League.

“Kevin’s spoken about trying to find ways to get more money into the Highland League and if there was anything that could be done we would be supportive of that.”

Conference League timeline

  • March 9 – Reports first emerge about the Conference League concept and state it would be made up of four Premiership B teams, of which Celtic, Rangers and Hearts are likely to be three, and clubs from the Highland and Lowland Leagues.
  • April 26 – The trail had gone quiet but another report emerges suggesting SFA member clubs will vote on the Conference League idea at the SFA’s AGM on June 6. Aberdeen are also linked as the fourth Premiership side that would field their B team in the new division.
  • April 28 – The P&J reveals the Dons’ entry is not guaranteed with the Pittodrie board keen to consider the positives and negatives.
  • April 28 – Nairn County become one of the first clubs to express their dismay at the idea, releasing a statement outlining their firm opposition to the plan.
  • May 2 – Highland League figures speak to the P&J anonymously and one club director revealed the Conference League plan had made them consider quitting football.
  • May 3 – Brora Rangers’ David Dowling sets out the case for the Conference League and asks people to consider the rationale behind it, of helping to develop better Scottish players, before dismissing it. Meanwhile, Lossiemouth signal they will vote against the idea.
  • May 4 – Ross County manager and former SFA Performance Director, Malky Mackay, expresses his concerns about the proposal.
  • May 5 – Highland League sides Turriff United and Keith indicate they will vote against the Conference League.
  • May 7 – Clachnacuddin and Huntly also state publicly that they won’t support the proposed new division.

  • May 12 – All SFA member clubs receive the final Conference League proposal for consideration ahead of the AGM vote on June 6.
  • May 15 – Aberdeen reject the chance to field their B team in the division. The costs, damage to non-league clubs and a desire to continuing loaning players out are among the Dons’ reasons.
  • May 18 – Highland League clubs hold a special management committee meeting to discuss the Conference League. Following the meeting Forres Mechanics announce they won’t support the proposal.
  • May 21 – Deveronvale are the latest club to voice their opposition.
  • May 26 – Peterhead say they can’t support the idea.
  • May 31 – Brora and Buckie say they will vote against the plan and it emerges doubts about entry into the League Cup and Challenge Cup have added to clubs’ concerns.
  • June 2 – Rothes indicate they will be voting against the Conference League.
  • June 4 – Cove Rangers say they will vote against the proposal.
  • June 5 – A survey reveals that 22 of the 26 clubs in the P&J’s patch intend to vote no to the Conference League.
  • June 5 – The Conference League proposal is dramatically withdrawn the day before the vote at the SFA’s AGM.

Highland League reaction after Conference League proposal withdrawn ahead of SFA AGM