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Monday, 30 January 2017

The Scottish Cup, Round 4: Living in the Past

For lovers of the old trophy, there can be no more romantic side to watch, surely, than Queen’s Park, the oldest association football club in Scotland and ten times winners of the Scottish Cup. As I drove to the coast to take in their fourth round tie at Ayr United, I was full of the joys of a crisp clear winter’s day and had high hopes for some raw footballing entertainment. 

Queen's Park dominated the early years of organised football in Scotland and it was only the advent of professionalism that signalled their demise.     
They have retained amateur status since forming in 1867 and are the only Scottish side to have appeared in the FA Cup final, having lost successive finals to Blackburn Rovers in the mid-eighties (that’s the 1880s, sports fans). I also know -because I looked it up- that in a second round FA Cup tie in 1884, they beat a team called ‘Manchester’ 15-0. If Jose Mourinho had been in charge of ‘Manchester’ back then, he would have considered it to have been only a 12-0 defeat, as two of the goals were offside and one was a dodgy penalty.

Ayr is picturesque and its town centre is very pretty in places but, rather like a beautiful face with several teeth missing, there is something that stops you short of falling in love with it. The something, in this case, being the number of charity shops and empty retail units. I’ve no big objection to charity shops per se, but it’s never a good sign for the local economy when there is a clutch of them on your local high street. You might as well stick up a sign saying: “Inept local council with no idea of how to support, let alone encourage, business development.” Is it really beyond the ken of officialdom to devise incentives that would encourage new businesses to locate in our town centres? Or perhaps these shops signal a deeper message about the vibrancy (or lack thereof) within Scottish entrepreneurialism. 

The town has a population of 47,000 and is home to a somewhat under-achieving football team, with just one domestic cup final to its name in 116 years. Since the arrival of Ian McCall as manager in January 2015, United have had something of a revival in fortunes. Having narrowly avoided relegation to the bottom tier of the Scottish League, they won promotion to the second tier in McCall’s first full season and, given his track record, he would appear to be someone capable of establishing the club in its natural constituency at the upper end of the second tier, with occasional sorties into the top flight.    
One of the charms of their home, Somerset Park, is that it looks exactly like you’d expect the ground of a second or third tier Scottish team to have looked like back in the day, consisting as it does of one stand, two covered terraces and an open terrace. The stand was designed by Archibald Leitch, celebrated for his distinguished work at Ibrox, White Hart Lane and Goodison Park, among many others. Somerset’s current capacity is just over 10,000, but as recently as 1969 it accommodated a scarcely believable 25,000 witnesses to a narrow home triumph over the mighty Rangers.  
In one of Scottish football’s most famous ‘what if’ scenarios, Ayr United came within an ace of being purchased by David Murray in 1988. Given that Murray went on to buy Rangers and lead them through their big-spending 9-in-a-row era, one wonders what would have happened had he taken control of the team he had supported as a boy. The science in these things is never exact, but I happen to own a time machine and recently took a trip to an ‘alternative’ 2016 in which the Scottish champions Ayr International Metals, managed by Jurgen Klopp, reached the Champions League semi-final, only to lose to a Harry Styles-inspired Barcelona. It was a funny old game.    
At various points in the last twenty years or so, the club has tried to re-locate, once going so far as to have had planning permission from South Ayrshire Council to build an all-seater stadium on the outskirts of town. But somewhere along the line, the Scottish Government got involved and the deal was banjaxed, reportedly because of concerns about the retail development aspects of the plan. Ten years ago, they appeared to have secured a deal to sell their land for housing but, once again, it came to nothing. On a purely selfish level, I’m glad that Ayr didn’t move to an out-of-town development. Standing on the open terracing at a cup tie in January feels like a quintessentially Scottish pleasure, a bit like eating a deep-fried Mars Bar or drunkenly dancing to Runrig’s version of ‘The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond’. I know that modern customers are supposed to want heated seats and vegetarian sushi on the menu at half-time, but to attend a game at Somerset Park is to consent to a visit to the past. In recent years, however, the club has attracted criticism by revisiting what some would view as a less wholesome aspect of our past. In an act of sexist folly (or publicity genius, depending on your view), they have promoted their new kit at the start of each season, not by featuring anything as mundane as a bunch of footballers actually wearing the kit; instead, they have opted to publicise these new designs by hiring topless models to pose with their bodies painted in the club colours. Progress, however we choose to measure it, still has certain realities to contend with.   

I arrived in plenty of time for kick-off, to find the ground bathed in a beautiful winter light. Had I the slightest clue about how to take a decent picture on my phone, I would have posted a few more with this article. 
Another thing I like about Somerset Park is that it still has a grass pitch. I have some sympathy for the clubs who have gone plastic and I understand the need to maximise income by capitalising on their assets; concerts, car boot sales and transgendered interpretive dance events can all take place on a plastic pitch in midweek without causing concern about wear and tear at the weekend. But I will admit to having cheered when Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers spoke up recently for the fuddy-duddy community when, apropos of a visit to Kilmarnock’s bouncy castle, he said: “I’ve never seen a good game on a plastic pitch.” It occurred to me that neither had I, although I’m not quite sure why that is the case. Maybe it’s the way the ball bounces; maybe it’s the way the players have to adjust how they move across the perfect surfaces; maybe it’s the feeling that the games often look like glorified training sessions; maybe it’s the soulless-ness of some of the modern out-of-town stadia, which invariably seem to favour synthetic surfaces; or maybe I’ve just been unlucky with the games I’ve attended. But I acknowledge my prejudices when I say that I cannot bring myself to love a plastic pitch. 

The cup-tie drama started even as the players were warming up, when I discovered that match programmes were not for sale inside the ground. Having already paid £12 to get in, I had to ask the stewards for permission to leave the stadium, buy a programme and return. Such are my powers of persuasion that I had to speak with three people before this request was granted. I must have looked quite dangerous in my middle-aged dad ‘cagoule and wooly hat’ combination, so it’s easy to understand why permission to nip outside had to be run past several links in the security chain of command. Upon consulting the prized publication, I realised that I was about to experience something new: for the first time ever, I could claim that I was personally acquainted with a match referee. In spite of his best efforts to remain inscrutable, I had occasionally managed to squeeze some football gossip out of Mr Barry Cook. However, in the interests of professionalism and confidentiality, the match official’s answers to my comprehensive ‘Good Guy or Wank?’ quiz on Scottish football managers will remain, for the moment, unpublished. I noted too, that Ayr’s Operations Manager was called Tracy McTrusty; in any world subject to the laws of nominative determinism, Tracy would surely have been appointed club accountant.
The programme also featured a nice article on previous Scottish Cup encounters between Ayr and Queen’s Park. The article recorded that attendances at previous games had declined from a bustling 17,200 in February 1938, to a reasonably vibrant 5,200 in 1975. If statistical trends were your thing, November 2013’s dismal scattering of 879 must have looked like a calling card from the four horseman of the apocalypse.  

I haven't started to talk about the actual game yet, mainly because there isn’t a huge amount to talk about. Queen’s Park played some tidy football and I was impressed by some of the moves they put together. Their manager, Gus MacPherson, was a cup-winner with Kilmarnock in his playing days and he obviously had them very well-drilled. From a set piece, their big centre-back had a header cleared off the line, but for all of their prodding and probing, they seemed to lack a bit of pace and, in truth, didn’t really look like scoring. They did, however, at least have an idea of where the opposing penalty area was and occasionally flirted with the notion of scoring. Ayr only flirted with the notion of scoring in the same way that I once flirted with the notion of going out with Kate Beckinsale after watching her in a vampire film. Ayr’s play might best be described as ‘sluggish’, although to convey the scale of their lassitude, the word ‘play’ should really be in inverted commas. Gary Harkins had a good run and shot, but it looked more like an individual act of defiance than part of any coherent strategy. There appeared to be about as much chance of them scoring as of Russell Howard saying something funny on television. If I were feeling generous, I would describe the second half as being ‘scrappy’ because, had I gone home at half-time, all I would have missed would have been a mediocre plate of chips, the sight of the sun going down behind the Leitch-designed stand and one ridiculous shout for a penalty, which even the Ayr Ultras looked embarrassed about.

As I departed this latest stop in my Scottish Cup trail, I was aware of the fact that, for the third successive round, I had managed to attend a game that ended without a goal being scored. The previous tie, at Bonnyrigg, had been entertaining at least, while this one had evoked a frisson of nostalgia. The first match my father ever took me to was a reserve game between Rangers and Ayr United, so perhaps I have some romantic attachment to this wee club from the coast; although, upon reflection, there is no ‘perhaps’ about it. It occurred to me that the things I was now taking pleasure from – the slightly ramshackle old ground, the peculiar winter light, the smell of the grass, the queue for hot food- were all echoes of previous experiences. Huddling against the cold with fans unaccustomed to success, investing dreams in the steaming heave of journeyman endeavour, signalled a desire to connect with a past that I wanted to exist -one way or another- in the present. 

Towards the end of the game, the guy on the PA informed us that the man of the match, “as selected by today’s match sponsors Johnston and Graham Contractors was Ayr’s number 8, Robbie Crawford. An old guy behind me rather summed up the mood of the crowd when he shouted:

“Don’t fuckin’ gie it tae any o’ the cunts!

I think he may have had a point.