The first season of the expanded East of Scotland Football League is nearing its climax and things are heating up across all three conferences. With most sides having no more than half a dozen league games left to play, it's time to take a look around the sixth tier of the pyramid structure to see how the new arrivals from the Junior FA are fairing against the established EOSFL sides and who is in contention for promotion to next season’s Lowland League.
When Kelty made the move to the East of Scotland Football League at the start of the 2017/18 season, it sparked an exodus of clubs from the East Region Junior FA. Many of Kelty's old rivals from the Superleague followed the Fifer's lead and made the switch to the senior setup the following season, leading to a major re-vamp in the East of Scotland League.
For season 2018/19, the league was divided into three conferences, with the teams seeded to ensure an even split. At the end of the “regular” season, the top side in each conference will enter into a 3-way round-robin play-off to decide the East of Scotland Champions. The winner will they go into a play-off with the South of Scotland Champions to earn promotion to the Lowland League.
Next season will see the formation of the East of Scotland Premier League. The 16-team league will comprise the top five sides from each conference as well as (potentially) the side relegated from the Lowland League. With the EOSFL still accepting applications for next season, there is still the possibility of yet more Junior sides making the switch, meaning the rest of the league structure for next season is still under review.
Things are pretty tight at the top of Conference A, with Penicuik sitting in top spot, five points ahead of Hill of Beath, who have a game in hand. The two sides met at Penicuik Park last week, the match finishing 1-1, a result that probably suited Athletic more than the Haws.
There isn’t a lot to choose between the two in the run-in however. Athletic with 4 of their remaining 8 matches at home and only two against sides in the top half of the table. The Haws are not out of it just yet though, with 5 home games and 4 away still to play, they are well placed to capitalise on any slip-ups. The chances of a Fife derby in next season’s Lowland League are still very much alive.
Elsewhere, Musselburgh have enjoyed a really strong second half of the season, and find themselves in third spot, with Nitten Star just a point behind, as the ex-Superleague sides lock-out the top spots.
The age old question of what’s more favourable at this stage of the season - points on the board or games in hand - might still come into it, with Nitten having played more games than any of the top 4, but Musselburgh with a relatively straight forward run-in. It could ultimately come down to the last game of the season, when Mussie travel to Penicuik in mid-April.
Dunbar look fairly safe in the final automatic Premier League spot, the ex-East Region Premier side providing a few surprises along the way this season, while Leith are the only established EOSFL side making it into the top half of the table.
This one already looks like a done deal, with the current Superleague Champions Bonnyrigg Rose well clear of the rest of the pack. Kelty fans will remember some classic encounters against Rose in recent years, and will be well aware of the quality they possess. With a comfortable points cushion and unbeaten all season long, Rose only need 8 points from their remaining 6 games to finish top and bag their play-off place. If they do manage to negotiate the play-offs and make it to the Lowland League, few would bet against them having the same sort of impact that Kelty have at this level.
The rest of the conference are effectively playing for automatic Premier League spots, with Dundonald Bluebell and Bo’ness looking comfortable, it looks like a three or four way battle for the remaining two spots.
Dundonald host Bonnyrigg at Moorside Park this weekend, after which their run-in looks pretty simple - away matches at Tynecastle and Dunipace followed by a home game against Haddington before Tynecastle come to Fife on the last day of the season.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Conference B has been the poor showing of EOSFL heavy-weights LTHV, who currently sit in 8th spot with just 26 points from 17 games. The additional quality coming into the league has clearly hampered Vale, but they have also lost some key players from the squad that pushed Kelty all the way last season.
Earmarked at the start of the season as probably the most competitive of the three conferences and so it has proved. Broxburn grabbed the advantage last weekend, with a last minute winner in an enthralling 3-2 victory over Jeanfield at Albyn Park. Athletic now have their destiny in their own hands, but with only two home matches left before finishing the season with four away games on the trot, this one isn't over yet.
While Broxburn were winning at home, another of big name ex-Junior sides, Linlithgow lost ground on the leaders with a disappointing 3-3 draw at home to Ormiston and will be looking to get back on track when they travel to Edinburgh United this weekend.
After finishing 14th in last season’s Superleague, Jeanfield have been the surprise package of this conference, that defeat to Broxburn their only loss of the season. The Perth side have the toughest run-in of the top sides though. They still have to play Lithgae home and away, including a final day matchup at the Riverside, which could prove pivotal.
Once again, the four former Superleague sides have proved strongest in the conference, with Camelon in a safe looking fourth spot. Preston in 5th look like being the only one of the established EOSFL sides with a realistic chance of making the Premier League next year.
A quick glance around the tables shows that there are a good number of sides across all three conferences with games in hand, and therefore still plenty of opportunity to influence league placings. With three Cup competitions still active, including the traditional season closing King Cup just getting started, fixture congestion could yet be a factor for many sides. Now that the lighter nights are on the way, midweek games are back on the cards and playing a Saturday / Wednesday schedule usually takes its toll, especially on those with smaller squads.
One thing is for sure, with plenty of football still to be played, there will be twists and turns along the way before the silverware is handed out. The three way play-off system makes the pathway to the Lowland League just that little bit harder, with the conference winners facing a challenging total of six play-off games to win promotion to next season's Lowland League.
If the run-in is as entertaining as the season so far, we are in for a real treat.