Is it getting harder for Highland League clubs in the Scottish Cup?

Inevitably, after the Scottish Cup first round weekend, the performances of Breedon Highland League clubs sparked debate.

This season, six of the division’s 18 clubs have reached the second round of the domestic tournament.

As more teams from the West of Scotland and East of Scotland leagues obtain Scottish FA licenses and are eligible to play in the Scottish Cup, some believe it increasingly difficult for Highland League teams to compete.

Meanwhile, others will say clubs in the north have underperformed.

Andy Low played in the Scottish Cup with Buckie Thistle, Inverurie Locos and Huntly and also captained Locos in the competition.

He believes the growing strength of leagues in the central belt is making it more difficult for clubs in the north.

The south sides have a large catchment area

Low said: “Over the last two or three years I think the quality of players coming into the Highland League has improved for a variety of reasons.

“But the same seems to be happening in the Glasgow area where there is a large catchment area and teams are attracting players who could play in the Scottish leagues.

“So those teams are probably stronger with players playing for them rather than in the Scottish League.

Andy Low, left, played in the Scottish Cup with Buckie Thistle

“When Inverurie played Broxburn Athletic (East of Scotland League Premier Division) three years ago I went to see them and was a little surprised because I came away thinking they would be among the seven or the top eight in the Highland League.

“Once you dig a little bit on some of these sides you can see that they are solid and have a large catchment area.

“It’s very competitive and it’s difficult for the Highland League because our catchment area isn’t as big.”

Breakdown of statistics

Looking at the figures since the Scottish Cup was opened up to more clubs in 2007-08, they show that the performance of Highland League teams this season – with exactly a third of teams qualifying – are below average.

The high point of the Highland League for the last 15 years was 2012-13 when 10 of the 13 clubs (76%) who entered the first round won their draws.

Another good campaign was 2015-16 when 11 of the 16 teams (68%) in the first round progressed.

It perhaps says something about the growing strength of other leagues that since this season, the Highland League has only once had a first round success rate of 50% or more.

It was in the 2020-21 season when – due to a revamped format – seven of the 14 teams that entered the competition in the second preliminary round were successful.

The worst first-round performance in the Highland League came in 2018-19, when just four of 16 (25%) won their draws.

In 2016-17, five out of 16 (31%) reached the second round.

In 2017-18 and 2019-20, seven of 16 (43%) passed, while last quarter seven of 18 (38%) progressed.

Buckie Thistle beat Lossiemouth in the first round of the Scottish Cup this weekend

Looking further back in 2013-14, eight of 15 clubs (53%) in the first round were successful with eight of 13 (61%) progressing in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2011-12.

In 2007-08, five of 13 (38%) succeeded, while six of 15 (40%) won in the first round in 2014-15, with five of 12 (41%) overcoming the first hurdle in 2010-11 .

Since the opening of the Scottish Cup in 2007, the average success rate of Highland League clubs in the first round of the Scottish Cup has been 47%.

However, this is the 16th season and in the first eight campaigns the first-round success rate was 53%, while it was 41% in the last eight.

The statistics, while they don’t tell the whole story, suggest it’s getting tougher and tougher for Highland League clubs in the Scottish Cup.

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[Is it getting harder for Highland League clubs in the Scottish Cup?]