Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Scottish Cup, Third Round: Busload of Faith

Several days of cold weather meant that the morning of the third round of the Scottish Cup was a time of anxiety for the roving fan with hopes of taking in a game. I had picked five possible venues within reasonable driving distance, but overnight frost meant that pitch inspections were taking place at most of them. As information about postponements started to filter through, I was relieved to discover that perhaps the most intriguing tie -Bonnyrigg Rose versus Dumbarton- was going ahead. The Bonnyrigg twitter feed posted this simple and joyous message shortly after completion of their pitch inspection:  

"We are ... ON!!!! To the bodies that were here yesterday and in darkness this morning - Legends."

Bonnyrigg Rose versus Dumbarton is the kind of tie which captures the romantic essence of the competition, featuring a non-league side at home to opponents from the giddy heights of the Championship. With a population of around 16,000, Bonnyrigg is located in Midlothian, about eight miles from Edinburgh city centre. The football club was founded in 1881 and has produced several famous players, with perhaps the most notable being Hibernian legend Pat Stanton and John White, who was part of Tottenham’s double-winning side of 1960/61. White, who won 22 caps for Scotland, was killed by lightning at the age of 27 while out playing golf (I’ve no idea why I know that, but I do). Some would argue that Bonnyrigg’s greatest claim to fame is the fact that perhaps the world’s best-known Scotsman, Sean Connery, once played for them. Sir 007 spent a couple of seasons with the Rose in the early fifties; he was, by all accounts, an average player but was -you won’t be surprised to learn- quite popular with the ladies. 

Although a modest part-time outfit, Dumbarton has a significant place in Scottish football history, having won both the League Championship and the Cup (admittedly back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth). Among the more esoteric items on their honours roll is a triumph in the ‘Festival of Britain St. Mungo Quaich’ in 1952. A quaich, for those who don’t know, is Scottish for 'a-drinking-cup-type-thing-with-several-handles-and-a-shallow-bowl-watch-out-or-you’ll-spill-that-whisky'. Dumbarton was also the first league club in Scotland to engage fully with its supporters’ trust, which now has a permanent place on the board. 

The venue -New Dundas Park- did not have floodlights, so the game was due to kick off at 1.30. After googling and then printing off the directions, I grabbed some provisions, a handful of CDs and set off in the winter sun in search of footballing entertainment. For no particular reason, my album of choice for the first part of the journey was Lou Reed’s splendid 'New York’. Released in 1989, it’s a collection of literate songs which, in parts, sound like short stories set to music. The basic arrangements suit Reed’s vocal delivery (I was going to type ‘singing style’ there, but that would be stretching it a bit) and his curmudgeonly wit is evident throughout. As Auld Reeky came into view, the song ‘Busload of Faith’ was playing and it occurred to me that the lyrics were somewhat apposite. It did, indeed, take a busload of faith to expect entertainment and enlightenment from an early-round Scottish Cup tie; it also took a busload of faith to support a team that plays in the lower echelons, with only modest hopes of success; it must surely take a busload of faith to attend a game in a competition which –outwith some kind of apocalyptic event- your team has no chance of winning. And, as I approached the point at which I had to exit the motorway and start negotiating some minor roads and roundabouts, I started to realise that it had taken a busload of faith (towed by a lorry load of stupidity) for me to have set off for the game without any kind of electronic navigational aid. 

The reason I don’t have Sat-Nav is half down to laziness, with the other half down to more laziness. In our house, my lack of navigational skills is the stuff of legend, although -in my defence- I would like to put this on the record: The AA route planner appeared to have imagined (or assumed the existence of) a minor road just off a certain roundabout on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I had either mis-read the instructions or there had been some kind of breach in the space-time continuum, causing a road to disappear. In all honesty, which do you think is the more likely explanation for me having to go through the roundabout to look for the minor road, then double back to go round it again and again (and again) to make absolutely sure that I hadn’t missed the cut-off? Had that minor road existed, I would have arrived at my destination within ten minutes of leaving the motorway; the fact that the road did not exist meant that my journey now involved not just gaily singing along with Lou Reed, but also: visiting some interesting housing estates; exploring various culs-de-sac; stopping to fumble for my reading glasses; reading (and re-reading) the directions; swearing at the top of my voice. Time was pressing and, after about half an hour of playing the ‘how-many-times-can-I-go-round-this-fucking-roundabout’ game, I had to modify my plans to have a leisurely stroll through the tree-lined avenues of Bonnyrigg’s bohemian quarter; instead of soaking up the pre-match ambience with a chai tea in a charming local bistro, I started to pray that I would at least arrive at the ground in time for kick-off.           
Eventually, more by chance than design, I found myself
on Bonnyrigg Main Street, following some people wearing football scarves. The 'David v Goliath' flavour of the tie -and the fact that several other third round games had succumbed to the weather- meant that New Dundas Park was heaving. And, as if things weren’t already exciting enough, just as the players completed their warm-up, the tannoy announcer uttered the magic phrase: “Kick-off will be delayed by ten minutes due to crowd congestion”. Jings, cribbens and, indeed, help ma boab

The early exchanges belonged to the underdogs, who came straight out of the traps and harried their illustrious opponents. At close quarters in tight little grounds, the spectator gets to hear the chat between players and officials; so sluggish were Dumbarton that their big centre-half Gregor Buchanan could be heard, ten minutes into the game, exhorting his colleagues to wake up, complaining that “we haven’t even started yet!” Referee Stephen Finnie was polite but firm, on first name terms with the players and comfortably in control of proceedings; he was able to tolerate a bit of lively dialogue, which is usually a good sign. Although Bonnyrigg were the better team, they were not creating much in the way of chances. Dumbarton’s Ryan Stevenson was the best-known player afield, having played for various professional clubs, including Hearts and Ipswich. He’s a nice striker of the ball and, naturally, was targeted by the Bonnyrigg Ultras, who booed every time he got a touch. I thought it a tad harsh to shout ‘you fat bastard!’ every time he took a throw in or a free kick, but Ryan is a bit of a unit and is tattooed up to the neck, so I guess he can look after himself. As the half wore on, I noted that Dumbarton’s tricky winger Andy Stirling had quite a burst of pace. Believing the underdogs likely to tire in the later stages, I fancied that he would probably run riot down the wings in the last twenty minutes and lay on a late goal or two. This level of insight explains why I am not, and never will be, either a betting man or a football manager.

Although it was goal-less at half-time, the game had provided a decent level of entertainment. The crowd was given as 1,552, which –according to the old guys behind me in the refreshments queue- would help pay for floodlights to be installed at the ground. Floodlights are important, but so are pies. Alas, there were none left by the time I got to the counter and, with a demeanour somewhere between ‘petted lip’ and ‘religious martyr’, I settled for a Bovril. Hot dogs were available, but I would only ever eat one of those if I was nominated for the Bush Tucker Challenge on ‘I’m a celebrity get me out of here’ and had to choose between a hot dog and the pig’s anus and termite stew. It would be a close call, but the hot dog would just edge it.

Because I’m planning to write and publish something about each round of the cup, I’ve been taking photos at every ground I visit. As the second half got underway, I wondered about the etiquette of taking photos at a game. I don’t want to seem like some tragic middle-aged ground-hopping loser just because I’m a tragic middle-aged ground-hopping loser. To use the modern parlance, I identify as a cultural historian; I think I knew that I was a cultural historian from a very early age, when my hobby was copying out TV schedules from the daily newspapers; in time, I graduated to making up my own schedules, which mostly featured American science fiction programmes and football highlights (stop sniggering at the back). Now that the identity cat has been let out of the self-realisation bag, I feel that I am entitled to a bit of respect, although the guy to my right probably didn’t have the word ‘respect’ in mind as I leaned across him, trying to capture the perfect snap of the packed ground. My photographic skills are only marginally better than my navigation skills, as you will see from the pictures accompanying this piece.
I expected Dumbarton to make some kind of declaration of quality and impose themselves on the game in the second half, but it was the home team that started to press for the glory goal. As their heroes started to carve out some genuine chances, the Ultras excelled themselves, when –for reasons that I suspect even Steven Hawking couldn’t fathom- they insisted on repeating (and repeating) their own version of a famous festive hit:

Last Christmas I gave you my heart,
But the very next day, you gave it away.
This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to Lewis Turner. 

Lewis was clearly the darling of the crowd. He had played at senior level, but had been released by Berwick Rangers; perhaps –like several of the Bonnyrigg lads- he felt that he had something to prove. Whatever his motivation, he had an excellent game, backed by some outstanding team-mates with great spirit and, by midway through the second half, the nervous Dumbarton support would happily have settled for the draw. 

There was a sense that something special was in the air, probably right up until the moment Dumbarton goalie Alan Martin pulled off a stupendous point blank save from a header. That was the point at which we all knew that Bonnyrigg were not going to score. The game ended 0-0, but gloriously so. It was a 'kids jumping about behind the goal' kind of 0-0; it was a 'young men chanting until they’re hoarse' kind of 0-0; it was a 'people walking home with smiles on their faces' kind of 0-0; it was a 'we’re in the draw for the next round' kind of 0-0.

I thought again about that ‘Busload of Faith’ song and wondered if I had misinterpreted the lyrics. What was it actually trying to say about faith?  

You can't depend on your family. 
You can’t depend on your friends. 
You can depend on the worst always happening.

This game was played because the good folk of Bonnyrigg had wanted it played. They had responded to a call from their club to turn up on a freezing night and lay protective covering on the pitch. Their club had needed them and they had delivered; they had prepared the stage for their heroes to go out and make a little bit of history. The words of that song weren’t right: You can depend on your family and friends. 

Lou Reed clearly knew nothing about the Scottish Cup.