The SJFA was formed in Glasgow on 2 October 1886 and the first season's Junior Cup saw 39 clubs take part. Junior football had existed since the early 1880s, initially as separate local associations across Scotland for clubs not in membership of the SFA. This new national association acted as an umbrella for these local junior associations, as well as establishing the Scottish Junior Cup, a national cup competition. The first three winners of the Scottish Junior Cup all joined the SFA and stepped up to senior level. Gradually, a number of junior leagues grew in strength — particularly in Glasgow, where leading clubs drew large crowds. The Glasgow Junior FA, having seen a number of its proposals rejected at SJFA meetings, seceded from the SJFA in 1907 but returned a year later. Further disputes occurred in 1922 over "poaching" clubs and, in 1927, the GJFA was instrumental in the Intermediate dispute which split the SJFA for four seasons. The record number of clubs to enter the Junior Cup was 412 in 1922–23.
The local associations continued to run their leagues until 1968, when the SJFA instituted major reforms. This first phase of regionalisation removed the need for the many local associations, replacing them instead with six regional committees. These six regions — Ayrshire, Central, East, Fife, Tayside and North — still exist, to a certain extent, as divisions in the national league structure and as operators of certain cup competitions.
The last major league reform took place in 2002, with the six regions "merging" to create a three-pronged league setup (see "Organisation and regions").
From the 2007–08 season, four Junior sides have been able to qualify for the Scottish Cup. The four teams are the three Superleague winners (West, East and North) and the Scottish Junior Cup winners, all from the previous season. In the 2015–16 season, Linlithgow Rose became the first junior team to reach the last 16 of the Scottish Cup after beating Forfar Athletic. (see "Juniors in the Scottish Cup").
In 2011, the Scottish Football Association created two new operational boards, Professional and Non-Professional, to provide more focused governance in these differing areas of the game. Junior football is represented on the Non-Professional Game Board alongside other organisations such as the East of Scotland Football League, South of Scotland Football League and Scottish Amateur Football Association.
The term "junior" does not relate to the age of players. Football for youngsters is generally known as "Youth" (up to Under-19) or "Juvenile" (which is to Under-21 level) football. In the late 19th century, membership of the SFA conferred "senior" status on a club and the junior grade developed outwith the SFA framework. Today, the senior grade of football in Scotland is played in the Scottish Professional Football League (until 2013 divided into the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Football League), as well as the four senior non-leagues: the Highland Football League, the Lowland Football League, the East of Scotland Football League and the South of Scotland Football League. Over time, as various local football associations and leagues — both junior and senior — have risen in strength, or in some cases disappeared completely, Scottish football developed its current pattern with either junior or senior non-leagues taking precedence in various parts of the country with some occasional overlap. Nowadays, membership of the SJFA automatically confers on a club registered membership of the SFA; however, junior and senior non-league clubs still play in separate competitions.
Despite the lesser media coverage the juniors get, many of the club sides are fairly popular, and some of the bigger games between clubs (such as the local derbies between Arthurlie and Pollok, and Cumnock Juniors vs. Auchinleck Talbot) can attract attendances in the thousands, although crowds were far bigger in the past (76,000 for the Junior Cup Final in 1951, with nearly 90,000 watching the semi finals (including a replay) compared to the level of support attracted now.
The main league structure is organised on a geographical basis, with the 159 member clubs being split into three regions:West Region (64 clubs)
East Region (60 clubs)
North Region (35 clubs)
Each region contains several divisions and all are also split into further geographical sections in the lower divisions. This is a remnant of the pre–2002 system in which there were six district committee setups that comprised the leagues. Pressure to create more competitive leagues and a higher number of "big games" caused the rationalisation to three main district leagues.
As well as the local leagues, there are a number of local cup competitions competed for; however, the biggest competition is the Scottish Junior Cup, which every junior club competes for annually, with the final generally held each May. This cup was established in 1886. Highlights of the advanced stages of the competition are broadcast on national television, with the final match usually being broadcast live. The cup's sponsor for 18 years, until the start of the 2006–07 season, was OVD Demerara Rum, replaced at the semi final stage of the 2006–07 competition by Scottish coach operator Citylink. Emirates Airlines sponsored the tournament from 2009–2013. The current tournament sponsor is ETHX Energy.
The first attempt by the Scottish Football Association to allow Junior representation in the Scottish Cup was voted down in June 2005. In June 2007 however, the SFA did approve changes to the way that all non-league clubs entered the Scottish Cup. The North and South Qualifying Cups for full and associate member clubs in non-league football, which had both sent their four semi-finalists into the main competition, were scrapped and all these clubs now qualified automatically for the first round. In addition, the winners of the East of Scotland Football League, South of Scotland Football League and top two clubs in the Highland Football League all received a bye to the second round, even if that club was only a registered member of the SFA.
Further to this move, allowing registered member clubs to qualify for the Scottish Cup for the first time, it was announced that the winners of the Scottish Junior Cup, North Superleague, East Superleague and West of Scotland Super League Premier Division would qualify for the first round. This process has continued with the winners of the Scottish Amateur Cup qualifying for the first round from 2015 onwards. Girvan still qualified for the Scottish Cup from 2007 as a result of their historic full membership of the SFA. In 2014, they were joined as annual entrants to the competition by Banks O' Dee and Linlithgow Rose who achieved the SFA National Club Licensing criteria. Girvan themselves were awarded a National Club License in June 2016.
If a Junior club does a "double" by winning their respective Superleague championship and the Junior Cup, runners-up do not qualify and the Juniors are only represented by three qualifying entrants. This occurred in the 2007–08 Scottish Cup which was the first competition since the changes as Linlithgow Rose had won both league and cup. Rose performed the best of all three Junior qualifiers in this inaugural season, reaching the fourth round before losing to eventual finalists, Queen of the South. Of the other early entrants, Pollok defeated St Cuthbert Wanderers before taking Montrose to a replay in Glasgow, watched by 1,873 spectators. North champions Culter defeated two East of Scotland League clubs before defeat to Highland League side Huntly in the third round.
In the 2008–09 competition, Banks O' Dee achieved the first double figure scoreline by a Junior club, with a 10–0 defeat of Highland League Fort William. This was bettered in the 2016–17 cup by Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic, whose 14–0 defeat of Burntisland Shipyard remains the largest margin of victory by a Junior side in the competition.
Irvine Meadow became the first Junior side to knock out Scottish Football League opposition in 2009, defeating Arbroath in the third round and became the first side to face Premier League opposition when they drew Hibernian in the next round. Linlithgow Rose's defeat of Forfar Athletic in the 2015–16 competition saw them become the first Junior side to reach the fifth round. In 2016-17 Bonnyrigg defeated Scottish Championship side Dumbarton away from home in the third Round.
In the intervening years, Junior clubs have had reasonable success with several clubs defeating Scottish Football League opposition. These results are listed below:
Juniors also play internationally, with the best players being picked to play for the Scottish Junior international team against other countries' non-league select teams. The Umbro Quadrangular tournament takes place every two years and is competed against teams from Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. The tournament is hosted in turn by each country, with matches taking place at the larger junior grounds in the host country, such as Dunterlie Park, Pollok's Newlandsfield, and Petershill Park when the tournament was last held in Scotland, in 2005. The team's most capped player is Bert McNab, of Petershill, who won 12 caps between 1951 and 1955.
After the formation of the Scottish Junior Football Association in 1886, officials began to explore opportunities for representative international matches. On receipt of a £17 guarantee, the Lancashire Junior League in England agreed to raise a team, and on 11 May 1889 the first junior international was played at Douglas Park, Hamilton, with Scotland winning 10–1. A return fixture could not be arranged as the Lancashire league could not provide a sufficient guarantee.
On 15 February 1890, Scotland played their first match against Ireland at Hibernian Park, Glasgow. The 11–0 scoreline in the hosts' favour remains a record victory for the Scottish Junior international team. This fixture did become an annual event, and on 14 February 1891 the team travelled to Belfast for their first away match, a 1–1 draw at Ulsterville, the home of Linfield.
In 1894, games against England resumed with a fixture against Birmingham & District Counties F.A. in Leamington. These games continued until World War II, then were revived for a short period in the 1970s. Scotland suffered a record 5–0 defeat in the 1927 fixture at Molineux, Wolverhampton. Games against Wales began in 1912 with a fixture against a representative side of the North Wales Coast F.A, the first game taking place in Bangor on April 13, Scotland winning 2–1.
In 1920, the Scottish Junior international side created history by being the first representative football side from Scotland to undertake a foreign tour. In June, a party of 13 players and three officials visited Norway and played three games each in Stavanger and Bergen. The full Scottish national side did not play a match outwith the British Isles until 1929 when they also travelled to Norway.
A game against the Irish Free State was played on 9 March 1929 in Dublin with Scotland winning 2–1 but regular games against a Republic of Ireland side did not begin until 1947. The first game in this series was played at Dalymount Park, Dublin on 25 May, with Scotland winning 3–2.
In September 1975, the team travelled to Osnabrück, West Germany, to play three matches against a BAOR Select side, winning two of the games.
The number of games against the different home nations has varied in regularity over the years. From 1958 until 1967, Northern Ireland were Scotland's only opponents, while in the 1970s there was an eight-year gap between the two sides meeting. Currently, games against England and Wales are in abeyance, and the team contest the biannual Quadrangular Tournament with friendly and testimonial matches arranged intermittently in the intervening seasons.
The following list notes players who all went on to gain full international honours for Scotland after winning junior international caps, the junior club with which they played at the time and the year of their junior cap.
1Round-robin tournament format used from 2000–01 onwards.