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Monday, 10 October 2016

Scottish Cup, Round 1: Facsimile of Steak


When the draw for the first round proper of the Scottish Cup was made, I drew up a wish list of the ties I fancied attending. As a football tourist with no fixed loyalties, my plan for this year’s competition is to visit some grounds and, perhaps, some places I’ve never visited before. A number of intriguing possibilities presented themselves, but events conspired against me. The weekend of those first round ties coincided with my wedding anniversary and my wife had selfishly booked a weekend abroad to celebrate. Not only did she expect me to go with her, she could not be persuaded that a visit to Deveronvale, Galashiels or Inverness to watch a first round Scottish Cup tie would surpass any of the supposed delights to be found abroad. Astonishing, I know. 

While I was away, I found it difficult to keep up with the scores. You’d think that most of the major news agencies would want to keep the world abreast of Beith Athletic v Strathspey Thistle or Inverurie Locos v Buckie Thistle, but even the Scottish Football Association’s website was tardy about posting the results. Upon returning to Scotland, I was relieved to find that the dedicated Scottish Cup channel on youtube contained brief highlights from most of the ties.  I’ve been at games where the ‘highlight’ has been a fight between players, a comedic goalkeeping blunder or a dog running on to the pitch, so I was hoping that the youtube clips would do a bit more than just focus on the goals. As if to conform to the stereotypical view of Scottish football, the first round produced a few goalkeeping errors. In the game between Keith and Banks o’ Dee, the Dee centre forward manages to score from a difficult angle, mainly because the home goalie, in a foolish attempt to feign nonchalance, allows the ball to run past him, clearly expecting it to go out of play. Only once the nippy striker has played the ball across him and into the empty goal does he realise that he might just have made a catastrophic error of judgement. As he puts his hand up to his head (as if to say: “Damn … I knew I had forgotten something. My job is to stop the other team from scoring”), you can’t help but respect him for having the grace not to try and pin the blame on his defenders.   

(As an aside, if there ever was a United Kingdom non-league cup, I’d like to see Keith drawn to play Leigh, with the winners away to Dave in the next round).  

If everyone attending the game between Civil Service Strollers and Hawick Royal Albert had brought a pal, the crowd would still have been on the ‘lean’ side of sparse. The few who attended witnessed the Hawick custodian dropping a clanger of Clemencian proportions to allow a soft equaliser. Supporters of a certain vintage will understand that reference, while younger readers may wish to google ‘Scotland v England, Hampden Park, 1976’ to see what I mean. On a positive goalkeeping note, the Wick Academy goalie made the save of the round in their 3-1 victory away at Dalbeattie Star. Wick is the most northerly professional league club in the United Kingdom, but they took what sounded like a decent support to a tie in which the home team had a man sent off for the heinous crime of ‘falling’ and another dismissed for saying something naughty to the referee. The man in the middle featured rather a lot in the brief highlights package, which isn’t a good sign; as a general rule of thumb, the referees you don’t notice are better than the ones you do. At Claggan Park, in the foothills of Ben Nevis, Fort William got clobbered 4-1 by Brora Rangers, their only consolation coming from the knowledge that their ground was more picturesque than most. Miles down the west coast, at Girvan-in-the-gloom, the home side lost 2-1 to Huntly. This game also featured a controversial refereeing decision, when a very good home shout for a late penalty was turned down. If I were a Girvan fan, I would definitely have been chanting “Who’s the teuchter in the black?” By the sounds of it, the best atmosphere was at the Inverurie Loco Works v Buckie Thistle match, where the Buckie boys, in their not-quite-Celtic strip, knocked six past the home keeper. By coincidence, the victorious team featured a John Hartson lookey-likey, who almost scored a spectacular goal from inside the centre circle.

If you watch the highlights of Turiff’s game with Bonnyrigg, look out for the middle-aged guy in the shirt and tie standing on the stairs in the little stand behind the goal. His celebratory jig after Turiff open the scoring is delightful; my guess would be that he runs the club bar and that he was already dreaming of Celtic, Rangers, Hearts or Aberdeen visiting the town. ‘Just think of what we’ll take at the bar’ he expresses, through the medium of dance; or, if not ‘dance’, then the medium of jumping about and shouting ‘Yaas!’ Unfortunately, his team got cuffed 4-1 in the replay.
One of the best things about these youtube clips is the fact that they don’t have any commentary, which means you invariably pick up some fruity contributions from the spectators. There is a lovely little moment in the game between Deveronvale and Gretna 2008 (a reformed club which, in a previous incarnation, came within a penalty shoot-out of winning the Cup). Already trailing by a goal, the home defence, stumbling around like drunk men trying to avoid standing on lego, concede a soft second, at which point you can hear an anguished cry of “That’s a shambles!” I can just picture the guy who shouted this. He’ll be a lifelong fan, middle-aged and unable to break the football habit his old man got him into. I’d wager that, on many a Saturday afternoon, he’ll have let his eyes stray from the pitch across to Banff Bay and, in a quiet moment of existential angst, asked himself why the hell he has paid money to watch this pish. Just listen to that plaintive “That’s a shambles!” and tell me that you don’t feel his pain.

The most exciting tie was undoubtedly at Mosset Park, home of Forres Mechanics, where the match with Lossiemouth provided a great example of early-round cup-tie football, red in tooth and claw. Among several moments to savour is the 94thminute equaliser by the home goalkeeper, Stuart Knight, who comes up for a corner and scores with what, at first glance, appears to be a header, but a closer look reveals that he probably knocked the ball in with his clavicle. Scenes of wild abandonment follow as fans and players invade the pitch, while Lossiemouth reel from the sense that some kind of injustice has occurred. But there was no injustice; it was clearly a clavicle flick, as Stuart might have said in a post-match interview on Sky Sports Scottish Cup Special:

"Yeah, no, I’ve gone up for the corner in the last-minute. Dazza’s whipped it across and I’ve lost my marker and just got the clavicle on it. Credit to the lads, we’ve worked on that at training all week and it’s obviously paid off. But like I said, it’s not about one player, or one player’s clavicle. It’s about getting this football club into the next round of the cup.”   

I’ve never been to Grant Street Park, home of Inverness Clachnacuddin, but it looks like a great little lower-league venue. Watching the highlights from their tie with Stirling University illustrates, among other things, why the home club chose not to be part of the entity formed in Inverness in 1994. With a place in the Scottish League in the offing, two of the three Highland League clubs then playing in Inverness -Caledonian and Thistle- amalgamated (in spite of lots of opposition from supporters of both sides) to form a club called, unsurprisingly enough, Inverness Caledonian Thistle. It’s just as well that Clach, formed in 1885 (yes, they’re older than Celtic), didn’t want any part of it, because if they had, the new team might have had the longest name in world football: Inverness Caledonian Clachnacuddin Thistle. Or maybe Inverness Clachnacuddin Caledonian Thistle. I’d probably have gone for Athletico Inverness Clachnacuddin Thistle Caledonian Rovers, just to cover all the angles. The merged neighbours have since worked their way to the top national division, while Clach have remained as a Highland League club. I’ve no idea whether or not they have any ambitions to join the Scottish League, but it’s clear that if they ever do, it will be done on their own terms. Behind one of the goals at Grant Street, there is a structure called the ‘1947-48 Clean Sweep Enclosure’, commemorating the season that Clach won the Highland League, the Scottish Qualifying Cup, the Highland League Cup and the North of Scotland Cup. In spite of this illustrious history, they contrived to lose 2-1 to Stirling University, although -for what it’s worth- I don’t think all of those Stirling lads looked like students.

Scottish football has recently witnessed the emergence of several ‘new model’ football clubs, including Edusport Academy, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld Colts and BSC Glasgow, each professing to take a community-oriented approach to football development. For all of the worthiness of these projects, I find the idea of seeking out a cup tie at East Kilbride or Cumbernauld somewhat unappealing, for a variety of reasons. I’m not going to say anything about the aesthetics of town planning here; I’ll merely observe that both of those settlements are close enough to my home city to be quite familiar. The size of the respective populations has been used to support the case for professional clubs in these towns, but a few inconvenient, elephant-in-the-room sized facts get in the way. For one thing, the West of Scotland is not exactly short of football clubs; for another, both towns are very close to Glasgow and the football-minded folk are almost certainly Rangers or Celtic supporters already. Twenty years after Clyde moved to Cumbernauld from the south side of Glasgow, their average attendance at home games is around 500. They share their home with Cumbernauld Colts, who were granted more than half a million pounds of public money to develop their facilities and install a 3G pitch. According to their website, Colts have more than 330 playing members, with “four operating strands, a senior male first team, a female first team, an extensive grassroots Football Academy and ‘Colts in the Community’, which provides a range of community-focused outreach programmes that are delivered throughout the year.”
Cumbernauld has a population of 52,000. This may sound brutal, but have a look at the highlights from the home team’s 1-0 replay win over Leith and take a guess as to how many people in the town are interested in watching the team.  

Where the grounds of Deveronvale and Clach are picturesque or characterful, East Kilbride’s is bleakly utilitarian, with a synthetic pitch and a big green fence behind one of the goals. It looks like one of the least soulful sporting venues on the planet, but at least the team is pretty decent. They shared ten goals with Vale of Leithen in their first round tie, although -as the home team- they insisted on their share being 90%. Last year, East Kilbride got to the last sixteen of the Cup and only lost by two goals to the mighty Celtic, a result which had the hoops supporters incandescent with rage on the radio phone-ins. East Kilbride was formed as recently as 2010, with the intention of bringing senior football to one of Scotland's largest towns. Their motto is ‘a priori’, which indicates an attempt to claim a heritage link with clubs which previously existed in or around the town. It has 28 teams and over 600 players in all age groups; according to their website, they “also have a thriving Sunday Club for children with Additional Support Needs and an ever growing Girls Section with girls from 6 to 15 years.”

There is a scene in David Cronenberg’s 1983 horror sci-fi film ‘The Fly’ in which the brilliant scientist Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum) is trying to perfect a transportation device. He has two giant ‘teleporting’ pods set up in his laboratory, with which he successfully transports non-organic matter from one side of the room to the other. He understands that the next stage of his experimentation must involve the successful transportation of organic matter. As he works towards this astounding goal, he decides to transport a steak from one pod to the other before persuading his journalist girlfriend (Veronica, played by Geena Davis) to eat it. Upon trying the teleported ‘steak’ she gags, because it tastes horrible, lifeless and synthetic. It looks like a steak but it isn’t really a steak. It’s something else; it’s a facsimile of a steak. And that, in my middle-aged, conservative, ‘things-were-different-in-my-day’ prejudice is what I feel about some of these new clubs. They do lots of good work, particularly when it comes to encouraging community participation; they are licensed by the Scottish Football Association; they have all the correct procedures and policies and can attract the kind of funders interested in supporting politically-prescribed notions of social gain.
I can accept that pretty much anything that gets hundreds of people exercising on a regular basis is, in and of itself, a good thing. But, deep in my gut, I feel no emotional connection to these socially-aware enterprises with their aims and objectives that go far beyond winning a few games of football.

By contrast, although I don’t actively support teams like Ayr United, Queen of the South or Clachnacuddin, I can still feel some kind of emotional connection with them. These clubs (and others like them) play in their own unique temples of ramshackle beauty, each one echoing memories of glorious successes, inglorious failures, moments of low comedy and high farce. A football club is -among other things- a living socio-cultural document and the players who pull on those jerseys are representing more than just a club or a town; they are writing another chapter in history.

I’m not an idiot. I understand that ‘new’ history can be made. When Caley and Thistle merged to form that club in Inverness in 1994, few would have predicted that they would work their way so quickly through the league structure and make such a great contribution to the Scottish game. In ‘The Fly’, Veronica’s ‘steak-tasting’ moment presaged a world transformed by the possibilities of molecular deconstruction and successful re-assembly; perhaps, like her, I’m just on the wrong side of a significant historical development.   

Perhaps I’m wrong to believe that the last thing Scottish football needs is some new professional clubs; perhaps I’m wrong to state that public money might best be focused on celebrating, preserving and developing the clubs we already have. Perhaps I’m wrong and there are thousands of people in Cumbernauld and East Kilbride keen to find an alternative to bussing it into Glasgow to watch the Old Firm trample on their latest victims.    

Perhaps, in time, these new clubs will accumulate enough history to be something other than what they currently appear to be: facsimiles of steak.

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