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Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Scottish Cup, Round 2: What we think about when we’re not thinking about football

For the second round of the Scottish Cup, I decided to head to Annan to watch the home side take on East Stirlingshire. My extensive pre-match research revealed that these clubs had something remarkable in common, in that each have endured a single ‘ghost’ season when they disappeared off the football map.

Annan Athletic competed in the Dumfries and District Junior Football Association until it was disbanded in 1951, at which point the club went into hibernation for a year because of administrative difficulties with the local football authorities. Depending on who you believe, this was either down to mere incompetence or to a massive bureaucratic conspiracy which led from petty football politics in Dumfries all the way up to the assassination of JFK.
After that enforced ‘gap’ year, they joined the Carlisle and District League. Given that the town of Annan is located very firmly in Scotland, it is perhaps surprising that it was only as recently as 1976 that the club decided to return to the fold and re-join Scottish football. Since then, they have played in both the East of Scotland League and the South of Scotland League (no … me neither) before, in 2008, they were voted into the 3rd Division of the Scottish Football League.

East Stirlingshire’s ‘ghost’ season came in the mid-60s. After relegation from Scotland's top division, they controversially merged with Clydebank Juniors to form the only professional club (as far as I can be bothered checking) to have existed for one year only. The merger was controversial because of one awkward little detail: the fans didn’t want it. While the imaginatively-named ‘East Stirlingshire Clydebank’ played the 1964-65 season in Clydebank, Firs Park (home of the ‘Shire) lay empty as the fans and shareholders dragged a complicated legal case through the courts. In the end, the law decreed that the two clubs should ‘unmerge’ and Clydebank were obliged to return to non-league football; a year later, they were admitted to the Scottish League in their own right. During that bizarre single season, the novelty club set a record attendance at Kilbowie Park when nearly 15,000 spectators attended a Scottish Cup tie against Hibernian. These days, the only way East Stirlingshire could pull a crowd of 15,000 would be if they were to provide the support act at a Take That gig. 

But this little club has a place in football history for at least one other reason I can think of. In 1974, they appointed an ambitious young manager, fresh from having spent the previous few seasons as a feisty (yes, that’s a euphemism) centre-forward at Falkirk and Ayr United. During his short spell in charge (it lasted for roughly twice the amount of time that Sam Allardyce was manager of England), this abrasive young man took the team to third place in the table and, in the process, secured a first league victory in 70 years over fierce local rivals Falkirk. He then moved on to manage St. Mirren, but I don’t know what happened to Alex Ferguson after that. 
Last season, the ‘Shire became the first club to be relegated -as opposed to voted out- of the national league system. This year, playing in the Lowlands League, their away results have included an 8-3 win and a 7-4 defeat, so I journeyed to Annan with reasonable hopes of entertainment. After a frisky opening spell by the away team, during which they created several scoring opportunities, the game settled down into what might politely be described as a ‘stalemate’. When I say ‘settled down’, I mean that things stopped happening; or at least the things that were happening were not interesting enough to write about. Twenty five minutes or so into the game, I started to reminisce about the glory days of the opening fifteen minutes; the excitement levels had dipped, to the extent that a deeper perusal of the match programme seemed like an attractive proposition. In his programme notes, the Annan chairman made the unusual point that “winning Scottish Cup ties is no longer a foregone conclusion”, which made me wonder if there was ever a time when winning Scottish Cup ties had been a foregone conclusion for Annan Athletic? I had checked the list of honours on their website and couldn’t remember any mention of them previously winning the Cup.
Looking at the respective squads, it struck me that, with a minor adjustment or two, a decent menu could be concocted from the Annan team. If I was in a posh restaurant, I would have no hesitation in ordering some Black Sinnamon Shark Fin Currie. I’d fancy a bit of that any day of the week. Apart from the players concerned being called Finnie and Sharkey, that is exactly how the names appeared in the programme. If, I thought, the player known as ‘Ryan Sinnamon’ pronounces his surname name Sinnamon, should we then pronounce the spice known as Cinnamon as ‘Chin-amon’, or maybe even ‘Kinnamon’?
It was still 0-0.
The Annan cognoscenti behind the town end goal were not entirely enamoured of manager Jim Chapman’s methods, believing him to be responsible for the lack of football being played. ‘Too much high stuff’ was the consensus view. Jim’s first win as manager of Annan came in March 2013, when his team beat the not-so-mighty-anymore Rangers 2-1. Upon reflection, maybe that set the bar a wee bit high. By half-time in this game, Annan had the look of a side that would struggle to get a goal within 90 minutes; in fact, I wouldn’t have bet on them scoring this side of Christmas.
But on the credit side, they definitely had the edge when it came to interesting names. The best that East Stirlingshire had to offer was David Grant (who looked good for his age, but very different from his time fronting 80s pop combo Linx) and Derek Ure, who may, or may not, have been the nephew of Midge Ure. Uncle Midge, the diminutive ‘this means nothing to me, Vienna’ hit-maker, once recorded a song with Dumbarton FC. It was called ‘The Sons … we’re the ones’. Dumbarton’s nickname is The Sons, as in ‘Sons of the Rock’, the rock in question being Dumbarton Rock, the plug of volcanic basalt which overlooks the town. If you do a bit of digging on the internets, you’ll be able to find this splendid ditty. I wondered if there were any other examples of 80s pop stars trying to help lower-league football teams break into the charts. Apart from Midge Ure with Dumbarton and the one that Boy George recorded with Queen of the South, I can’t think of any. Elsewhere in the East Stirlingshire squad, they would also have had defenders named Barclay, James and Harvest, but only if they had signed someone whose surname was James. And then signed another one whose surname was Harvest.   
Half-time arrived and it was still 0-0.
Annan’s average attendance at home games last season was 399. The crowd at this cup tie was 302. As I queued for some half time refreshment, I wondered how many pies the caterers had decided to put in the oven. As you wait to be served, there is always the dread that the fat guy in front of you might order the last two pies. There can be no greater disappointment in football than having to settle for an out-of-date Twix or, horror of horrors, a hot dog. Would the vendors have gambled on a big turnout from the ‘Shire support, reckoning that their marauding Ultras, marching on their stomach, would raid the pie stall? Would they have taken weather conditions into account? It was certainly cold enough for me to enjoy the life-affirming qualities of a hot pie and Bovril. My Bovril joy, incidentally, lasted for about 20 minutes, mainly because it had been heated to twice the temperature of freshly-spewed lava. In context, that made perfect sense, providing something to keep the bored and cold spectator alive until the rescue services arrived or until someone had a decent shot at goal. A few years ago, on a whim, I bought a jar of Bovril in a supermarket with a view to trying it at home. Imagine my disappointment when it tasted a bit rubbish; I guess you need to be bored and cold in order for the thing to work. Perhaps the product should carry a consumer warning: Only really works in situ.     
There were still some unanswered questions about the pies. What, for instance, happens to unsold pies after a game? Surely, I thought, they couldn’t be kept for a week (or a fortnight) until the next home game? Can you freeze a pie? Would it be wise to freeze a pie? If there was some kind of ‘Walking Dead’-style zombie apocalypse, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a haul of frozen pies (you could either eat them or use them as weapons), but I’m not sure that I would, under normal circumstances, readily accept a frozen pie. If, however, football in Scotland became a summer sport (and the summer was as hot as, say, Greece) vendors could perhaps offer frozen pies on a stick. This, to my mind, would be one of the possible upsides of global warming.    
It was still 0-0. 
East Stirlingshire coach John Sludden had East Stirlingshire coach John Sludden had observed in his programme notes that their away support this season had been “fantastic” and I counted around 20 travelling Ultras who made themselves heard about halfway through the second half. Given that their side had dominated the opening exchanges, it was perhaps surprising that they saved their singing until relatively late in the game; I am not in a position to speculate as to whether or not drink had been smuggled into the ground and subsequently imbibed.
I noted that the programme devoted a whole page to the SPFL’s regulations on ‘Unacceptable Conduct’. One bullet point in particular caught my eye. On no account were fans to be permitted to indulge in:  
“Conduct which stirs up or sustains, or is likely or is designed to stir up or sustain, hatred or ill will against or towards individuals or groups of people because of Transgender Identity”.
I was glad that, once again, the authorities had bravely tackled one of the key problems in the game; I’ve lost count over the years of the number of transgender footballers and officials who have been embarrassed, ridiculed or upset by cisgendered chanting. When I was at school (it was, in West of Scotland terminology, ‘Celtic-minded’), we had a song about the Rangers striker Colin Stein, which was sung to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar:
‘Colin Stein, superstar,
He walks like a wummin and he wears a bra.’      
Under today’s comprehensive guidelines for social intercourse, that would be classified as a hate crime and the public singing of it and /or electronic representation of same would probably lead to the parents being reported to social services and the miscreants being sent to some kind of correction camp. I reproduce the offending lyric here merely as an anecdotal detail; if Colin Stein did indeed walk like a woman and wear a bra, then I would have fully supported his right to do so.   
Further perusal of that regulations page revealed, surprisingly, that the person responsible for compiling the programme had simply scanned the whole thing from Motherwell’s policy documents. Talk about economy of effort! With this in mind, I reckon that any half-decent lawyer would have got an abusive fan off on a simple technicality.
“Your honour, if I may … my client, having read the match programme, believed that this policy on cisgendered abuse applied only to supporters of Motherwell Football Club. In that sense, his description of the assistant referee as a ‘fucking tranny wanker’ was made in the belief that the guidelines did not apply to his club.”
Glancing up from the programme with about fifteen minutes to go I noticed that Annan had finally decided that their best chance of scoring was to play the ball in the direction of the opponent’s goal, but the score remained 0-0. One or two of the home supporters around me were getting a bit more animated; advice was being offered to the players, the manager and his coaching staff. The authority and certainty with which this advice was delivered left me in little doubt that these guys were fully-qualified coaches with years of relevant experience of managing players.      
At all of the games I’ve attended so far in this campaign, there has been at least one other middle-aged man, scanning the surroundings, scouring the programme and snapping pictures of the action (and inaction). In the interests of science, I’d like to suggest an appropriate classification for this cultural phenomenon: The Tragic Football Tourist (or TFT) is invariably male and middle–aged, an obsessive who is more likely to remember the result of a UEFA Cup tie from 1979 than the birth dates of family members. Each time the TFT visits a new stadium, he will mentally tick a little box and nurture a brief sense of accomplishment before fixing his sights on his next target. As he anoints each venue, accumulating his own tragic kudos, he will ignore the weight of evidence provided by decades of spectating and will hope for some kind of ‘meaningful’ football-watching experience. He will not be inclined to think too deeply about how much time he has spent enduring turgid encounters which will have provided only a few meagre scraps of entertainment.

How many times, I wondered, does the watching of football (as opposed to the anticipation of watching) deliver a truly satisfying experience?  And what will my own football memories add up to? Perhaps, one day, when I’m deep into my demented dotage, they will provide a way for some care home assistant to ‘connect’ with me as I’m wheeled into a football reminiscence class. Perhaps the distant echoes of ancient cup ties will, for a short time, spark some brain cells to life and animate my bewildered, enfeebled husk.  
"Mais où sont les jeux ennuyeux d’antan? as Marcel Proust might have put it in his programme notes ... "But where are the boring games of yesteryear?"
It was still 0-0.
Not that it mattered.

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