LONG-in-the tooth Junior aficionados will know just how difficult it is to predict the outcome of the Scottish Junior Cup at this time of year.

Not altogether surprising given that January is traditionally the month when the showpiece competition's fourth round ties are played between a mix of 32 survivors – although that number is 36 in the current state of affairs.

The exit of holders Glenafton makes for an even more open field in the opinion of most pundits though bookmakers have promptly installed beaten finalists from last time out and record 11-time winners Auchinleck Talbot as joint favourites. They are joined by Pollok and Beith at the top of the list – despite the fact Tommy Sloan’s men have landed one of the toughest last-32 ties of all the strongly backed sides against derby rivals Cumnock at Townhead Park.

It’s widely acknowledged that Talbot are a team in transition this season following the summer departures of legends James Latta, Martin McGoldrick, Keir Milliken and Bryan Young and as a consequence they appear to be lacking the consistency so often associated with league title winners. But raising their game for the Cup is a different matter entirely.

Willie Lyle & Co underlined their credentials by lifting the early season Ardagh Glass Cup and may take some stopping if they can prevail against arch-rivals Cumnock and progress into what is shaping up as an extremely exciting last 16.

And there’s no great secret to Talbot’s success because they do so much with relatively little possession by simply playing the ball forward to turn defenders and have them facing their own goal with willing runners Graham Wilson and Jamie Glasgow breathing down their necks.

Last season’s beaten semi-finalists Bonnyrigg Rose and Linlithgow Rose are tipped to head up an array of fifth-round qualifiers intent on stopping the Ayrshiremen contesting a remarkable sixth final in eight years. And there’s also a strong swell of East Region opinion reckoning they will be joined by fellow top-flight quartet Lochee United, Sauchie, Carnoustie Panmure and Bo’ness United at the expense of lower league West Region opponents – even if Bo’ness are likely to face a stiff examination away to Rutherglen Glencairn.

Not faring quite so fortunate in the draw – staged by TimesSport last month – are East big guns Forfar West End pitted with a journey down to take on Kilbirnie Ladeside while Glenafton’s conquerors Rob Roy should similarly account for Kennoway Star Hearts, but Jeanfield Swifts may find playing at home is not enough of an advantage to help them get the better of strong going Beith.

Hurlford United's greater physical strengths and experience should see Darren Henderson’s side through against Haddington Athletic while Arthurlie appear to have too much in their locker for Gartcairn and the same must surely be said of Pollok ahead of their tie with Central First Division frontrunners Rossvale.

It remains to be seen whether the big spending Southsiders will add to the reinforcements recruited during the close season now that McGoldrick has taken up an offer of permanent work overseas and is moving to Dubai later this month but if they do strengthen again then Tony McInally’s side could go a long way.

Scottish Junior Cup 4th Round(Ties to be played Saturday 20th January)

Kilsyth Rangers v Carnoustie Panmure

Lochee Utd v East Kilbride Thistle/Thorniewoood Utd

Blackburn Utd v Linlithgow Rose

Rutherglen Glencairn v Bo’ness Utd

Bonnyrigg Rose v Newtongrange Star/Cumbernauld Utd

Hurlford Utd v Haddington Athletic

Jeanfield Swifts v Beith

Cumnock v Auchinleck Talbot

Bellshill Athletic v Sauchie

Whitburn v Yoker Athletic

Kilbirnie Ladeside v Forfar West End

Gartcairn v Arthurlie

Wishaw/Dundee Downfield v Forth Wanderers

Rob Roy v Kennoway Star Hearts

Rossvale v Pollok

Dyce/Irvine Meadow v Dunbar Utd