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Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Scottish Cup Round 5: Performance Art

In his classic dystopian novel '1984', George Orwell famously had the party apparatchik O’Brien make the following assertion: "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.” 
 Watching Scottish Premier League football can be a bit like that. It was bad enough when the Old Firm routinely carved things up between them, but since Rangers had their liquidation event in 2012, watching Celtic demolish the opposition has become about as much fun as watching a big rich kid beating up a bunch of poor little kids. The Scottish Cup, at least, has managed to provide some welcome relief from that, with Hibernian, St Johnstone, Hearts and Inverness all winning the trophy in recent years. And this season, once again, the only game that matters is the tie at which one of the so-called provincial clubs will (hopefully) thwart Celtic’s pursuit of the domestic treble.

Although I was not exactly hopeful that Dunfermline Athletic or Hamilton Academical would be capable of stopping that big rich kid from getting what he wanted, their fifth round tie at East End Park appealed to me for a variety of reasons. Within my lifetime, Dunfermline have won the Scottish Cup, finished in third place in the league, come within an ace of reaching a European final and also flirted with extinction. Founded in 1885, the club reached peak achievement in the 1960s under three different managers, with Jock Stein rightly credited for kick-starting the glory years by leading them to a Scottish Cup triumph in 1961. His replacement, Willie Cunningham, took the club to another Scottish Cup Final (which they lost to Stein’s resurgent Celtic), the quarter finals of the European Fairs Cup and, remarkably, finished just one point behind the champions, Kilmarnock. That 1964-65 league table is a thing of rare beauty, representing the only time in the history of the Scottish League that both Rangers (5th) and Celtic (8th) finished outside the top four. I checked with Ladbrokes and can confirm that the odds against that happening again are currently 83 million trillion gazillion to one. In 1968, under the stewardship of George Farm, Dunfermline once again won the Cup and, in the following season, reached the semi-final of the European Cup Winners Cup, losing narrowly to the eventual winners, Slovan Bratislava.
As part of my elaborate pre-match preparations, I had surfed the youtube (as the young folk say) looking for footage from the glory days. The most remarkable clip featured a Fairs Cup tie against Valencia, when, having lost the first leg 4-0 in Spain, Dunfermline hosted the return at East End Park the week before Christmas in 1962. The Spaniards, I’d imagine, might have been somewhat bemused by the referee’s insistence that the frozen pitch was playable; twenty minutes into the game and already three goals down, they most certainly would have been bewildered by the scale of the thrashing being administered by the eager and skilful young Scottish forwards. You can see from the body language that the Valencia players didn’t really want to be there; by half time, they were 5-1 down and the tie was squared on aggregate. I don’t know what the Spanish is for ‘What the actual fuck?’ but I’m guessing that someone might have used words to that effect in their dressing room at half time. The clip I watched featured an interview with the TV commentator Bob Crampsey, who revealed that, for the last ten minutes of the first half, he could not hear himself speak, such was the noise from the crowd. Dunfermline eventually won the match 6-2 but, these being the days before the away goals rule and penalty shoot-outs, they went on to lose in a play-off.   

In 2013, facing a huge bill for unpaid tax, the club went into administration and made several high-earning players and their assistant manager redundant. They endured a 15-point deduction, a Scottish Cup ban and suffered eventual relegation. Allan Johnston was appointed as manager in May 2015 and, on the face of it, has appeared to turn the club around, restoring it to the second tier of the Scottish League on a modest budget. This is all a very long way from the late eighties, when Dunfermline bought the Hungarian international Istvan Kozma from Bordeaux for £540,000. I suspect that if I popped into Ladbrokes (other bookmakers are available) and asked for the odds on a Scottish provincial club signing an international player from the French first division for half a million big ones, I would be politely directed towards the ‘Elvis is still alive’ counter.

Hamilton Academical, established in 1874, is the only professional club in British football to have originated from a school team and was admitted to the Scottish League in 1897, after the resignation of the one-time world champions Renton. You may ask how Renton could legitimately be described as ‘World Champions’; the answer is that, as Scottish Cup holders, they played a challenge match in May 1888 against the FA Cup holders, West Bromwich Albion, to claim the coveted title. The word ‘insular’ doesn’t quite cover it, does it? The Accies have twice finished runners up in the Scottish Cup, the last occasion being in 1934/35. Readers of a certain vintage may recall the publicity they generated in the mid-seventies when they were taken over by Jan Stepek, a first-generation Polish immigrant who had built a considerable local business empire. Speculation was rife in the football world about just how many Polish internationals would soon be signing up and, no doubt, helping the Accies rocket  their way through the divisions. It seemed then like the most exotic and exciting idea imaginable, but how times have changed: in the run-up to this cup tie, nobody batted an eyelid when it was announced that Giannis Skondras, a former PAOK Salonica right-back, would be making his Hamilton debut. 

A banner on their website states that Hamilton is ‘More than a football club’, but strangely, the site features no information at all about their history. The club has, rightfully, earned a reputation for developing young talent. James McCarthy and James McArthur both came through the Hamilton ranks and earned moves to the English Premiership before forging international careers; their manager Alex Neil was also poached by Norwich in 2014. While some clubs will sign players and train them to sit on the bench, Hamilton have demonstrated a willingness to gamble on young talent by giving it game time. I understand why it must be tempting for a talented young player to sign for one of the big clubs, but there is, surely, more chance of getting games at a club like Hamilton? I’m no expert, but I do know that you can’t get better at playing the piano by not playing the piano.

The weather was pretty foul and I was thankful that East End Park -like all proper football grounds- was located within easy walking distance of the town centre.
It has a capacity of just under 11,500, with the vocal faction of the home support largely congregated in the Norrie McCathie stand at the town end. Although they are currently a division below Hamilton, Dunfermline had the weight of history on their side and there was a sense among the crowd that a cup upset was on the cards. It was almost possible to forget about the cold as the teams emerged to the rousing strains of ‘Into the Valley’ by local heroes, The Skids (although it was sobering for me to consider that that song is now 38 years old). I wondered if, somewhere else in the football world, another club’s PA might have been blasting out the b-side of ‘Into the Valley’ as its team took to the pitch. I was a bit of a fan back in the day and that b-side -‘TV Stars’- was often a highlight of the Skids live set, a ready-made football chant featuring the immortal, rousing, anyone-can-shout-along-with-this-one chorus of: “ALBERT TATLOCK!”  

The home team looked keen in the early stages and it was no surprise when they took the lead on the half hour. The Accies defence was dozing as Higginbotham sent a neat through ball to McMullan, who ran straight down the middle and finished with some aplomb. The Dunfermline Ultras, while not exactly in full voice, made encouraging noises as their team continued to press for the remainder of the half. They were well worth their one goal lead at the interval and I quite fancied their chances of progressing. By contrast, once I saw the size of the queue for hot food, I didn’t fancy my chances of acquiring either a life-restoring pie or (to take the local recommendation) a steak bridie. I was right to be pessimistic because, by the time the game had re-started, I had been forced to settle for a measly cup of Bovril to help ward off incipient frostbite.   

Dunfermline carried their energy into the early part of the second half and created another couple of good chances. McMullan, on the break, shot wide when he looked certain to score, then Moffat fired straight at the goalkeeper when he would have been better advised to find an unmarked colleague. Higginbotham then broke down the right and, torn between crossing and shooting, he saved the Hamilton goalie some work by opting to do both things, badly. The optimists in the home support might have been dreaming of another glorious cup run, but this wizened (and freezing) old observer began to suspect that Dunfermline would live to regret those missed chances. 

Hamilton started to look like a team from a higher division and were now tapping into greater resources of skill, composure and team work. They were finding unmarked men in wide positions, which may have been down to fatigue on the part of the home side, or it may just have been that Premier League players are better at seeing, finding and exploiting space. After a period of flirting with the home goal, Hamilton moved to the 'heavy petting' stage and only goalkeeper Murdoch’s awareness and athleticism preserved Dunfermline’s fragile dignity; Brophy looped in a good-looking effort which the goalie did well to get his fingertips to and, when Talbot was forced to head against his own crossbar, there was a growing sense that the equaliser was imminent. Redmond was whipping in some vicious corners and, when the ball wasn't cleared from one of these, he found himself in space before cutting inside on his left foot and curling a beauty past Murdoch in the home goal. Only two questions remained to be answered: one, could Dunfermline hang on for the draw and two, could my fingers avoid frostbite? Deep into stoppage time, a MacKinnon shot was heading for the net before Murdoch, diving to his right, tipped it around the post. The Hamilton Ultras behind the goal, having risen in anticipation of a last-gasp winner, had barely returned bums to seats when the final whistle blew.

During the match, I got chatting to Steve, a Dunfermline fan attending with his boys. When he asked why I had journeyed from darkest Weegieland to the Kingdom of Fife, I explained that I was trying to catch a game in each round of the cup and writing about the experience as I went along. We exchanged notes on the idiosyncratic charms of various lower league grounds and Steve briefed me on the strengths and weaknesses of the current Dunfermline squad; he was a lovely bloke and he spoke with passion about his club and about what it meant to the local community. When I mentioned that I had watched that Valencia clip before coming to the game, his eyes lit up; he then told me about an event that had taken place in September 2010, when -at half-time in a game against Cowdenbeath- the eight goals from that remarkable European tie had been re-enacted as part of a community initiative called ‘Celebrating Fife’. Young players took the roles of both teams (and the match officials), with their choreographed performance based upon footage of the original game. Dunfermline’s community coaches trained the youngsters to re-stage the original moves as faithfully as possible and some new match commentary for the piece was written by the local playwright, Gregory Burke.

What a brilliant illustration of football as living theatre, football as history, football as a vibrant expression of cultural pride. Visiting East End Park, you really get the sense of a club in touch with its roots, a club that knows it belongs in the town, belongs in the heart of its community. That sense of history pervades everything from their website to the match programme to the atmosphere within the ground, wherein the folklore reminds us that it is possible for a club –and a town- to punch above its weight. The players who pull on the black and white jerseys in 2017 may be actors working to a different script, but all of them will have dreamed that someday they will take part in something that grandparents will want to tell grandchildren about, something so astonishing that someone, somewhere, decades from now, will teach a group of kids to re-enact it, pass by pass, move by move, goal by goal.

But the inspiration for that particular piece of performance art will have to wait for at least another year: Hamilton won the replay on penalties.

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