A REVAMPED Challenge Cup, featuring Welsh and Northern Irish teams, could become a testing ground for additional cross-border competitions being introduced further down the line. The vastly-overhauled new format for next season was revealed yesterday and, as well as under-20 colt sides from all 12 Ladbrokes Premiership clubs, four teams from the Highland League and four from the Lowland League, it will include Crusaders and Linfield from the Northern Ireland Football League and The New Saints and Bala Town from the Welsh Premier League.

The Setanta Cup, last played in 2014, featured clubs from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, while Scandinavia previously had the Royal League that was fought out between teams from Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In outlining his proposals to the SPFL clubs chief executive Neil Doncaster felt that this new Challenge Cup could be similarly ground-breaking, testing the waters on “cross-border competition with a view to future developments in the game across Europe.”

The draw for the first round of the tournament, now featuring 54 teams and set to be broadcast by BBC Alba, S4C and Premier Sports, takes place on Tuesday, with a new sponsor set to also be revealed to replace Petrofac Training who backed the competition for the past two seasons. The quirky nature of some of the proposals – for example, should the two Irish or two Welsh sides go all the way then the final of the Scottish Challenge Cup wouldn’t be played in Scotland – meant the announcement was not met with universal approval but Doncaster felt the new UEFA-endorsed competition, hot on the heels of the spruced-up League Cup, would become a welcome addition to the Scottish football calendar.

“This is another exciting day for Scottish football with the announcement of this exciting new format of the Scottish Challenge Cup demonstrating further innovation and forward-thinking for the game in this country,” he said. “The introduction of Ladbrokes Premiership u20 teams will give young players a taste of competitive football at senior level, while extending the number of Highland and Lowland League clubs taking part further strengthens the pyramid system and their place within Scottish professional football.

“We are also very pleased to be supported by UEFA in delivering an element of cross-border competition through the invitation to our colleagues in Northern Ireland and Wales which brings a completely new dimension to the Challenge Cup and the levels of excitement and interest in it.”

The competition will unfold over seven rounds played mostly on international weekends, beginning in August with the 12 “colt” teams, the eight Highland and Lowland League sides, and eight teams from Ladbrokes League 2.

The 10 Championship clubs come in at the third-round stage in September, with the four Northern Irish and Welsh teams – who can’t be drawn to face each other – appearing in the fourth round in October. Draws will be regionalised through the competition and seeded in the first three rounds.

Those involved in Welsh and Northern Irish football were just as enthusiastic as Doncaster about this bright new dawn.

“We are both really delighted and excited to have two Welsh representatives included in this competition for the 2016/17 season,” said Andrew Howard, the Welsh FA’s Head of Competitions. “We are confident that this new format will generate a great deal of interest from Welsh football fans and we believe that the quality of the clubs in the Dafabet Welsh Premier League will be showcased for all to see.

“We would like to thank the SPFL and the Scottish FA for their vision, their invitation and their cooperation and we hope that this is the start of something quite special for all parties and especially the Welsh clubs concerned.”

Andrew Johnston, Northern Ireland Football League Managing Director, added: “The NI Football League is delighted that two of our member clubs will participate in this competition next season and I have no doubt that it will prove to be a success both on and off the pitch. It will provide a different kind of challenge for all clubs, and is a great opportunity to showcase the product on offer in the NIFL to a wider audience.”

Linfield, who finished as runners-up to Crusaders in the recently-concluded Danske Bank Premiership table, also revealed their enthusiasm to take part.

A statement on their website read: “Linfield FC has been delighted to accept an invitation to take part in 'The Challenge Cup' in the season ahead. Linfield and Crusaders FC will be NIFL representatives in the knock out competition, with TNS and Bala Town accepting an invite on behalf of the League of Wales.

“Other participants in this innovative competition will be Scottish teams from the various leagues below Premiership level, as well as the development teams from the various Scottish Premier League teams. It is expected that Linfield will enter the competition at the 4th round stage to face a midweek game, around November. The game will be a one-off cup tie, home or away and it will not be possible for Linfield to be drawn against Crusaders at this stage of the competition.”