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Saturday December 28th
Staveley Miners Welfare played host to high-flying Worksop Parramore in the Northern Counties League, and the visitors confirmed their promotion credentials with a comfortable victory. There was much to admire about the hosts, although not on the park, where they put in a pedestrian performance which confirmed their recent poor form. Their cause was not helped by the inclusion of 48 year old former England Internationalist Carlton Palmer, who was playing for Staveley in exchange for a donation to his charity from the club’s owner. In contrast, Inkersall Road is a large and very well appointed stadium which would comfortably accommodate the club’s ambitions much higher up the pyramid. A modern stand and behind-the-goal covering were dwarfed by the impressive clubhouse, and there was extensive concrete terracing on three sides of the ground (the main touchline had hard-standing only). The club’s owner and sponsor clearly had a hand in cladding every structure in the club colours of blue and white stripes.
Most impressive was the crowd, which amounted to 351. They were knowledgeable and familiar with the home players as befits the loyal support of a non-league club representing an isolated community. The attendance was larger than seven matches in the Northern Premier League top division (two steps higher) on the same afternoon, and all but two (at Darlington and LeekTown) in the two NPL regional leagues one step higher.
Earlier that morning was the Sheffield Programme Fair, staged for possibly the first time on a Saturday. With the Football League fixtures being played on Sunday, and Yorkshire being a Premier Division – free zone (apart from Hull City), it allowed fans of local clubs to attend without missing a fixture; and the early start (10.30am) and consequent early finish (1.30pm) allowed non-league fans to take in a match.
Most encouragingly, the attendance was up on the previous two years, which had shown an alarming fall. In contrast the previous day at the Great North West Fair at Altrincham saw the attendance was down by about 10%, at 240. This was the first significant fall at the Greater Manchester venue, which had for many years defied the trend of sharply reduced attendances at programme fairs across the country.
There may have been mitigating circumstances at Altrincham this year, not least the apocalyptic weather forecasts in the days preceding the fair. In the event the weather was dry and pleasant, if a little bit windy.
Thursday December 26th
The Boxing Day fixture of choice in the North West of England was the Runcorn derby in the North West Counties Premier Division. It was first against second in the League, and it remained that way at the final whistle, although Linnets’ 1-0 victory over Town allowed them to leapfrog their local rivals at the top of the table. They looked the stronger and more purposeful team in a hard-fought, but clean and sporting encounter refereed without fuss by an experienced official. Town’s Pavilions ground is rudimentary, with a collection of small coverings and a modern modular stand, and it is dominated by the oil refinery next door. The essential facilities were very good, however, with a pleasant pavilion and an additional Tea Hut on the opposite side of the ground.
For the first time in more than 50 years of watching football, I saw a football rebound from an overhead power cable, the line of pylons bisecting the pitch and well placed to interfere with a high clearance. The commendably large crowd of over 800 was comfortably accommodated around three sides of the ground, with the narrow strip of hard-standing behind one goal closed to spectators.
Saturday December 21st
Several Junior matches in the East of Scotland fell victim to the previous day’s heavy rain, and the preferred match, Hill of Beath Hawthorn v Bo’ness United, was switched to the other side of the Forth So it was Kelty Hearts v Tayport on a cold, raw, damp day which both sides overcame to serve up a thoroughly entertaining match. The visitors are some way short of their former power under manager Dave Baikie, back at Canniepairt for the third time, but they showed plenty of spirit and initiative in keeping within touch of Kelty. Tayport looked the likelier team to score in the closing stages, but lost 3-2. The match was well controlled by an experienced and undemonstrative referee, who kept 22 players on the field.
Tuesday December 17th
The only midweek match in Scotland was a relegation tussle at GlebePark, where BrechinCity met the recently re-named Airdrieonians. Visits to this unique ground are always a delight, although it was one shared with few enthusiasts; not many braved the cold wind. It was an excellent game, Brechin going 3-1 ahead against an inept looking visiting team early in the second half. The match turned on yet another sending off, and Airdrie capitalised by scoring twice, the equaliser coming with just a couple of minutes to go. To everyone’s surprise, Brechin scored the winner in the final minute from one of their few attacks of the second half. If Airdrie continue to play with the spirit they showed in the latter stages of the game, they could yet haul themselves off the bottom of the division.
Saturday December 14th
It was a good day for Raith Rovers in the promotion race in the First Division. Results elsewhere went their way, and they beat Dumbarton 2-1 at Stark’s Park despite having a player sent off, and being second best to an impressive visiting team whose only failing was an inability to finish their good play with shots on target. On the two occasions I have watched Rovers this season, they have been second best at home, but won both games by a single goal. It could be the form of a promotion winning team – or they might just be short of what it takes.Saturday
Norwich United, the cinderella team of the Fine City, played host to Erith Town, with a place in the 4th round of the FA Vase at stake, and the unusual experience of involvement in a national cup competition in the New Year. Norwich City were at West Brom, so a better-than-usual crowd might have been expected, but as so often happens in a town or city with only one prominent League club, there seems to be little or no appetite or appreciation of non-league football. A feature-less, and mostly skill-free first half seemed to support the apathy of the stay-away fans. One of the few attacking moves of the half led to the referee awarding United a penalty just before half-time. He seemed to be the only one in the ground to spot the infringement - which went unclaimed by the home team - but the resultant opening goal provoked a more open game in the second half, which Norwich won comfortably.
Saturday November 30th
Bury Town v Eastleigh appeared to be a tasty FA Trophy tie, and a potential banana-skin for the Conference South side. I noted a few weeks earlier, in the previous round, that Bury, the higher league team, looked bigger and stronger than Dereham Town. The same applied a round later, but with Bury appearing puny in comparison with the impressively proportioned Eastleigh team. The visitors took an early grip on the game, never relinquished it, and were comfortable winners. Bury, who have had an up-and-down season, put in a poor performance which did nothing to restore one’s belief in the glory of national cup competitions.
Thursday November 28th
A bonus from a short pre-Christmas visit to Vienna was a home tie for Rapid Vienna in the Europa League. The opponents were FC Thun, from neighbouring Switzerland, and the match was keenly contested, although the standard was no higher than the Scottish Premiership (i.e. not very high). The first two goals resulted from goalkeeping howlers, of the type rarely seen at any level, and Rapid scored a deserved winner in the second half. Their tactics of finding wide men at every opportunity and have them head for the goal-line deserved success. The match was switched to the national stadium, formerly known as the Prater, and now named after the distinguished former Austrian manager Ernst Happel. The stadium has been completely rebuilt, and while is lacks charm and warmth, the spectating facilities are good, with excellent sight-lines for more than 50,000 spectators.
The switch was made from Rapid’s own ground (named after a former player) in anticipation of a crowd of 35,000, getting on for twice the capacity of their own ground. The following morning’s newspaper reported a crowd of “34,000”, although that looked to be a bit of an over-estimation, as the ground looked only just over half full.
The programme situation was interesting, with the club’s magazine (ie souvenir catalogue) and a sports supplement to a newspaper distributed free around the perimeter of the ground. If you wanted one of the 24 page match programmes, you had to help yourself from the piled stacked just inside the turnstiles.
Transport to and from the stadium, by underground, was excellent, and this added to the very positive impression given of central Vienna, which is very civilised and quite stunning to look at.
Saturday November 23rd
There was a choice of two local matches ; Dereham Town against bottom of the League Waltham Forest, or what seemed to be a better contest between Lowestoft Town and Margate. It was, although Lowestoft were very comfortable winners by 3-0 over a disappointing Margate side. Dereham won 10-1; the match reporter in the Non League paper gave the latter a 5 (out of 5) star rating for entertainment. Not for the visitors, or neutrals, I suspect.
Saturday November 16th
Another one bites the dust with a first visit to VCD Athletic, newly promoted to the Ryman League. They play in Crayford, the V stands for Vickers, the defence manufacturers, and there is no explanation in the glossy, but quickly-read programme of what the D stands for (Dartford ?). It’s first against second in Division One North, and a fiercely contested match sees the home side lose their first League game of the season. Heybridge Swifts owed their victory to a harsh sending off of a home defender midway through the first half - the urge of referees to reduce the playing numbers seems not to be confined to Scotland - and a VCD missed penalty late in the game. It was an excellent match, between two good teams, and the ground is pleasantly located, if a little basic in its facilities.
Thursday November 14th
It has taken five-and-a-half months, but I have finally sent my new book 50 YEARS OF SCOTTISH FOOTBALL to the printers. It amounts to 308 pages, plus a cover, and for a flavour of its contents I suggest you read the previous entry for October 18th. Chosing a title and sub-title is tricky; you want something that can be picked up on internet searches, but at the same time a bit humourous and stylish. For a front cover sub-title, I have settled on “From Baxter to Balde, from The Beatles to Bankruptcy.” My mate Charlie came up with the best suggestion, but I’m not sure “50 Shades of Green and White” would have given the correct impression of its contents. May I suggest you buy it and see ?
Saturday November 9th
A long detour on the road from Kirkcaldy to Norwich, to re-instate my complete set of Northern Premier League grounds, with a visit to Bridlington, where Scarborough Athletic are the lodgers. They were playing Chasetown, and after a slow start the match developed into an interesting encounter. Bridlington Town’s ground must be one of the best in the Northern Counties East, with a pitch-long grandstand, one third of which is covered terracing, a small cover behind one goal, and a curious plastic-topped cover in the middle of the main terracing. It looked like a supermarket trolley shelter. There was a good crowd, the majority desperate to see their club back in Scarborough. Sadly, my main memory from the visit to this very pleasant ground is that someone nicked a cover from one of the wing mirrors of my car, parked in the club car park.
Saturday November 2nd
Spoiled for choice in Junior matches in Fife this afternoon, and after much debate settled for Ballingry Rovers v Sauchie. I was at the Scottish Junior Cup tie between the sides last season, and according to the excellent match programme Ballingry have only one player still at the club. That’s what happens when someone throws a bit of money at a club, then, when the results don’t come, walks away. The half-time scoreline was 3-0 to Sauchie; on chances, it should have been 6-3 to Ballingry. I decide that the match is over, and drive to Kelty for the second half of their game against Lochee United. It was the right decision - the final score at Ballingry was 8-0. Kelty Hearts were 1-0 up when I arrived, and ended comfortable winners by 3-0. They looked like a decent, settled team.
Friday November 1st
The Queen’s Park Football Club Society is 100 years old, and had a Dinner to celebrate. I was a substitute speaker, and had the pleasure of talking about the Society’s history. I’ll write something about it in a forthcoming edition of Scottish Football Historian; it’s a fascinating story. It was a lovely evening, in the company of real football fans and several famous names from Queen’s Park’s past, all of them extremely warm, friendly and courteous. In many ways, it was a reminder of what football used to be like.
Wednesday October 30th
Motherwell v Aberdeen, League Cup quarter final at Fir Park, and an excellent turnout from both sets of supporters, helped by the sensible admission prices of £12 and £6. The match was dire ; correction, both teams were dire. Ball control and passing were awful, tactics went out the window and the ball was hoofed up the park, and the players didn’t look fit. This was second against third in the top division in Scotland! I was not looking forward to extra time when Aberdeen scored two late goals. Another first half sending off - see below.
Tuesday October 29th
Stirling Albion v Albion Rovers in a ??? Division match (fourth, I think, but it’s called League Two). A cracking match between two keen, fit and enterprising teams, spoiled for a while by a first half sending off. By the letter of the law, the referee got it right, but the dangerous tackle seemed to be more clumsy than malicious, and it was not a dirty match. The visitors changed their tactics to try to hang on to a point and only came out again after Stirling eventually scored a second goal. Referees should do everything they can to keep 22 players on the field, to ensure an even contest for the paying spectators. Do you think they are told this by the growing ranks of their administrators and coaches ?
Saturday October 26th
Fifty years to the day after my grandfather took me to my first football match (Raith Rovers 1 Alloa 2 on 26th October 1963), I took my two grandchildren to Raith Rovers 2 Morton 1. Rovers have started the season well, in League and Cup, but have yet to convince that they are set for honours. Morton have hardly kicked a ball since they put Celtic out of the League Cup, and looked to have earned a point with a battling performance, until Rovers’ scored a slightly undeserved winner in the third minute of injury time. It spoke volumes for their grit and determination, but it was a cruel blow to Morton. Apart from the main stand, the ground is much-changed from my first visit half-a-century before, but the attendance hasn’t - 40 less than in 1963. Then, the club was part-time. Now, it has to fund full-time players on gates hovering around 1,500.
Friday October 25th
The journey north was broken by a stop-off at Shildon, where Ashington were the visitors. I have been to Dean Street before, and recall a match as competitive and entertaining as this one. Those who follow the Northern League are truly blessed in the standard of football they can watch, and the no-nonsense manner in which the game is played.
Friday October 18th
Today I finished writing a book, which I started in early June. When I discovered that the last Saturday in October was the 26th, it occurred to me that it would be 50 years, to the day, since I attended my first football match, and that I would like to write about my experiences of working in, watching, and following Scottish football over the intervening five decades. 50 YEARS OF SCOTTISH FOOTBALL will be published, all being well, by the end of November, and it will contain some of my footballing experiences, interwoven with a history of Scottish football, season by season, over the past half century, some untold stories from my years working in football, plenty of observations, and analysis of the changes that have taken place. I commend it to you all (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I ....)
Saturday October 12th
In my quest to visit every League, and non-league, football ground in England down to and including Step 4, I have a bit of work to do this season, with quite a lot of new entrants to the lowest level, which I have not visited when they were at Step 5 or lower (plus a couple of ground changes). On a weekend break to Brighton, the rain relented as I made my way to Peacehaven & Telecombe, newly promoted from the Sussex County League. The ground is modestly proportioned, with a low, metal (but not brand new) grandstand on one side, opposite the pavilion which affords a measure of shelter within its overhang. The ground is on the edge of the town, and affords a nice view of the Sussex Downs. The match, against Burgess Hill Town, was excellent, end-to-end, with plenty of goals and enlivened by a very poor performance by the referee, who denied the home team a stonewall penalty in the second half.
September and October
Please forgive the lack of match-by-match coverage, but I have been preoccupied with writing my book, and in any case my football travels have been confined to non-league matches around Norwich (in this part of the world “around” means within an hour’s travel). I will summarise. Bury Town haven’t got off to the best start this season, and I wondered if Dereham Town, newly promoted to the Isthmian League, might give them a decent game in the Cup. They did, and a missed penalty near the end prevented an exciting finish. Bury won 2-0 and looked the stronger, bigger and better team, although Dereham’s bright young attackers presented them with plenty of problems. Their own difficulties are plain to see ; the young goalkeeper is an excellent shot-stopper, but won’t leave his line for crosses, and there was no command in the centre of defence. Bury got their goals easily in the six yard box.
Wroxham are under new management (the old one, which achieved a lot of success in League and Cup have gone off to AFC Sudbury) and their play this season is less regimented and more entertaining. They are an strange team, capable of excellent, flowing, attacking football, and in the same match some quite awful passing. They are also in sore need of a decent goalkeeper. I have seen them twice so far, weathering a storming performance from Burgess Hill Town in a Cup replay, to out-score them in the second half, and earlier racing into an impressive lead against AFC Sudbury, only to be beaten in another second half shoot-out. They may not have a successful season, but it might be quite entertaining to watch, and will hopefully attract the crowds back to Trafford Park. A few more through the gate might improve the awfully inadequate catering.
Kings Lynn Town are another club capable of patchy form, and I saw them comfortably beat a poor looking Whitby Town at The Walks. This could be a good test for the coaching and management team, as the players look capable of achieving more. After a few disappointing results, the crowd was sparse (about 500) on a day when Norwich City weren’t playing.
A cup tie drew me to Needham Market, which I last visited about five or six years ago when they were still in the Eastern Counties League. They looked to be in difficulty early on against a confident looking Dunstable Town in an FA Cup tie, but made good use of some breaks in the second half to win the tie. The ground hasn’t changed since its ECL days, and didn’t need to, with its well-appointed stand and pavilion, and a few bits of covering around the compact arena.
Tuesday September 3rd
I have left the best until the last match of my four games in Northern Ireland, at least in terms of the ground. Glentoran’s The Oval is a “must visit” for any football fan, a vast bowl of a ground whose continuous rough concrete terraces are reminiscent of Love Street, Firhill and CathkinPark in their heyday. The Railway Stand, now seated, is as large as the coverings of any of these old grounds. Then there is the main stand, which is a remarkable edifice. The club have done well to keep such a large ground so neat and tidy, although inevitably there are parts of it which are sectioned off, and the grass embankment at the back of the terracing behind one goal is now overgrown. As for the match, Glentoran took an early lead but Ards made a game of it until half time. In the second half, the goals flowed easily for the home team, particularly towards the end, and they won 5-0.
The overall impression of my four Irish League matches is that the standard of entertainment was excellent. There was no evidence of the over-coaching which has stifled good football in the upper reaches of Scottish football, and lower divisions of the English League. The default attitude is to attack and to try to score goals, and as a consequence the games were exciting, open and competitive. The grounds are in the process of being done up, thus presenting a mixture of good, modern facilities, and the remaining evidence of their particular charm and history. The whole experience reminded me of Scottish football twenty or more years ago, before the influx of foreign players, stultifying coaching and anticeptic grounds ; in other words the good old days. One discordant note : the catering was, with the singular exception of Glentoran’s Milk Bar, quite awful, hopefully not an indication of the Ulster diet, but perhaps that this aspect of the matchday experience is simply low in the list of priorities of things to do.
Monday September 2nd
Solitude. Not the state of mind or physical isolation, but the name of Cliftonville’s ground. They are the oldest club in Northern Ireland, and their main stand seeks to prove it, an ancient edifice clad in rusting corrugated iron, with grass growing behind the roof fascia. Opposite is a narrow abandoned grassed embankment, the sole occupants of which are the dugouts, and a huge scaffolding for the television cameras (the match against Coleraine is live on Sky). In complete contrast, there are modern grandstands behind both goals, new floodlights, and the pitch is artificial. A great deal of money has been spent on this small and ancient ground, the pity is that there is no room for sentiment. The most delightful feature of the ground should be the old corner pavilion, a two storey house with a balcony, which looks as if it has been abandoned to an inevitable decay. A small fraction of the money spent on the rest of the ground could have refurbished this into a lovely feature.
The football match was excellent. Cliftonville are reigning League champions, got off to a flier this season, then lost on Friday at home to Portadown (the glossy, colourful programme is a double-issue). They lost again tonight, to a well organised Coleraine team who went 3-0 ahead midway through the second half. The home team had their chances, but lacked conviction and commitment. They got a goal back with ten minutes to go, but deserved no more.
Saturday August 31st
The main purpose of this four match, five day visit to Northern Ireland was to see WindsorPark for the first time, before the imminent demolition the last of the old structures, the South Stand. One look at it and you have to say, no wonder it’s going. There may be older grandstands still in use in British senior football, but they won’t look much older than WindsorPark’s ancient monument to a bygone football era. It is remarkably small, with about twenty rows of seats, although it does stretch the entire length of the pitch, and the sides and roof have been re-clad. In front is an out-of-bounds old fashioned enclosure or paddock, with shallow terracing steps (the sightlines must have been terrible). The back of the stand is similar in style to a few of the older stands in England, with later porches and lounges tacked on to the corrugated iron back wall. A stairway leading up the ugly scaffolded television platform on the roof has been boxed in, and looks like a pigeon loft. At one corner of the South Stand, a glazed lounge had been built with a pitched roof, and at the other corner is a tarmacadamed ramp which leads to the dressing rooms. The small temporary stand behind one goal is not in use today, and the younger, vociferous section of the home support is housed in the substantial, modern Kop stand behind the opposite goal. Across from the main stand is the huge two-tier North Stand, which houses the Glentoran support. Very 1980s in style, it has aged well.
Traditionally, the Linfield v Glentoran match is between the Irish League’s “Big Two”, but Linfield went into this match at the bottom of the League after a win-less start to the season. Glentoran were mid-table, and played like it, showing little invention or imagination. They failed to take advantage of a Linfield player being sent off for stupidity midway through the first half, but evened things up after the interval when one of their players was sent off after his second caution. Linfield looked the better team, but simply couldn’t score. A decent forward is all they need to get back on track. The game was the poorest of the four watched on this trip, but at 0-0 with both teams striving for a goal, it held the interest to the end.
WindsorPark must be a source of bemusement to visiting international fans. Hemmed in on all four sides, on two of them by traditional terraced housing, the ground is from an era in which spectators either walked to the game, or were bussed in. In due course, new stands will rise to the South and East, and from within it will look like any other smallish all-seated ground, but in an old fashioned location.
Friday August 30th
My first ever match in Northern Ireland, Coleraine v Crusaders, reached by a long-ish train journey from Belfast. The ground was delightful, a mixture of old, new, and in between. The only seating was in the shallow-rake main stand which has had a make-over. The rear view, as you approach the ground, is of a good, old fashioned football grandstand. There were substantial covers behind both goals, with a very good standard of concrete terracing, as there was along the main, uncovered terracing. The match was excellent, played in a positive attacking manner by both teams, to a decent standard. Coleraine had a player sent off early in the second half, and the visitors took advantage, opening the scoring and looking like adding more. Late on, Coleraine equalised, and with a minute to go, scored what looked to be an unlikely winner from a free kick. In time added on, Crusaders scored an equaliser, which was the least they deserved. The main feature of the matchday experience was the enthusiasm of the crowd, which was well behaved, knowledgeable and committed in a way that is typical of small town teams. The passion of the fans, and enthusiasm of the players, combined to restore my faith in football.
Wednesday August 28th
On the night Celtic’s European Cup tie was televised live, there was a decent crowd for the 6.30pm kick off at Newlandsfield for Pollok’s League Cup semi final against Lesmahagow. The home team scored early on, and there were fears that this was going to be a one-sided affair, but full marks to the Lanarkshire club for clawing their way back into the match, and equalising. In the last third of the match Pollok moved up a gear, and won comfortably.
Tuesday August 27th
After a day working at Hampden, I had planned to go to Partick Thistle v Cowdenbeath in the League Cup, but it occurred to me that it would take me no longer to drive to Kilmarnock, for their match against Hamilton. Killie had started the season badly, Accies had started well a League below, and an upset was on the cards. So it proved. Accies were the better team, and could have scored more than the one goal they got to win the tie. If they can keep things together, they could do very well in the League this season. They have height in the right areas, a few bright youngsters in the team, and the under-rated Kevin Cuthbert in goal. Killie do not have their problems to seek. The youngsters who injected such energy into the team at the end of last season have gone back to the reserves, and the summer recruits, as is the norm in the Premier Division from England and abroad, looked to be sub-standard. The fans are not fooled ; there was a terribly small attendance, and there is an air of neglect about the whole club.
Saturday August 24th
Kennoway Star Hearts have joined the East of Scotland Junior League, and are at home to Thornton Hibs. I last visited Trenton Park in the small village of Star of Markinch about twenty five years ago, for a Raith Rovers youth match, and a lot has been done to it in the meantime. There is now a car park at the opposite end of the farm track which leads to the extremely rural ground, the pavilion has been extended to include a snack bar, and floodlights have been installed. The views are spectacular, as befits the open, elevated, isolated location. If you are visiting in the winter, wrap up well. There was a programme too, simply produced but informative, and bizarrely priced at 90p. The match was a typical blood-and-thunder Junior match, which the referee just about managed to keep under control. Yet another hugely enjoyable, and extremely civilised, afternoon at the Juniors.
Wednesday August 21st
The timing of this visit to Scotland was designed to coincide with Tuesday/Wednesday matches in the cup competitions ; the only Challenge Cup match tonight is at Formartine, so, instead, it was off to Adamslie Park for Kirkintilloch Rob Roy’s League Cup quarter final against Pollok. My last visit was about thirty years ago, since when Rob Roy have sold off some land for house building. It has reduced the size, and look, of two sides of the ground, but this remains one of the better appointed junior grounds, and the view from the main terracing, over the pavilion, is of the Campsie Hills. It was an excellent match, archetypally of two halves. Rob Roy took a two goal lead against an extremely lack-lustre Pollok side, who had rested their star players in anticipation of a League match on Saturday against Auchinleck Talbot. They came on as substitutes at half time, and it was immediately apparent that there was a transformation in Pollok’s attitude. Three goals were scored, and there could have been more, but chances were missed, even after the Rob Roy goalkeeper was sent off for a last-man foul.
Tuesday August 20th
Dunfermline Athletic v Raith Rovers in the Challenge Cup (sponsored by Ramsdens), the first Fife derby since Dunfermline’s financial collapse. The talk amongst the Rovers fans was that the Pars had “got away with it”, emerging relatively unscathed after many years of spending other people’s money, with no prospect of ever repaying it. On the evidence of the 90 minutes, this was not a victimless Administration. With their playing budget scrapped, and restrictions on who they can sign, Dunfermline looked in poor shape on the field. This team was as bad as I can remember in 46 years of watching them. Rovers won comfortably, and had their tactics been more progressive, could have really given their fans something to shout about by humiliating their local rivals.
Saturday August 17th
The journey north afforded the opportunity to see Willington’s return to Northern League football, against Chester-le-Street. The simple programme, underpriced at 50p, recalled that the ground had held 10,000 for an Amateur Cup quarter final against Bromley in 1950, and 5,000 when Blackburn Rovers visited in the FA Cup in the 1970s. This afternoon, around 100 were dotted round the substantial and well appointed ground, given a lick of paint and a tidy up for its restoration to its former status. An old-fashioned, solid grandstand has been re-clad and repainted, and there is a modern, modular cover behind one goal. It does not take a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage this ground in its glory days, packed with fans watching an Amateur Cup tie, or the visit of Bishop Auckland, Crook Town etc. in a North East League match. An excellent game was won by the home side, who look as if they will be able to compete at this higher level.
Tuesday August 13th
The first midweek competitive matches of the non-league season were being played, and I thought I should get into gear for the season ahead by going to a local game. Colin Boulter had rung to say that he was in the area, and would be at Norwich United v Kirkley & Pakefield, so I went to PlantationPark in preference to Wroxham. It was a pleasant evening in the company of Colin, with football reminiscences taking our minds off a very poor game, in which neither goalkeeper got much practice. The home team, containing a few familiar faces from former Wroxham teams, scored from the only concerted attack of the evening. The most notable aspect of the visitors was that they wore Sheffield Wednesday kit, complete with sponsors name and Wednesday’s club badge. I saw nothing to change my well-entrenched opinion that this League has been stripped of its quality by a steady succession of its better clubs accepting promotion to Step 4 over the past decade (the latest is DerehamTown).
Saturday August 10th
For some years, I have vowed to avoid pre-season friendlies, and have therefore found other things to do over the previous month than attend meaningless, largely pedestrian games disrupted by incessant substitutions. A short break in West London persuaded me to make an exception for the Fulham v Parma match ; it was a welcome excuse to return to Craven Cottage for the first time in more than 25 years. There have, of course, been major changes to the ground as Fulham have embraced the new Premiership era, but it has, quite remarkably, retained its former charm. An exception to this is the cottage itself, the view of which inside the ground has been spoiled by intrusive commercial banners, and outside you have to peer through a security gate to see it. Alongside, the previously open terracing has been covered and seats installed, and at the opposite end a new seating deck has been installed underneath the old cover. The Riverside Stand remains unscathed, with its lovely terrace at the rear overlooking the Thames. The crowing glory of this ground is the Stevenage Road Stand, the wonderful frontage of which has been cleaned up and maintained to show off its ornate, and original, features. Admission prices were pegged back to very reasonable rates ; £10 if you bought in advance, £15 on the day. That’s more than can be said for the programme, which cost £3, and failed to give squad numbers on the team page. A look down the squad lists suggested that Fulham may struggle this season, and the 2-1 defeat to Parma underlined that. Berbatov looked a class apart, but we only saw 45 minutes of him.
Sometime in July
The SPFL have announced that their four divisions will be called Premiership, Championship, League One and League Two. Now where did they get that idea ? From the same place they got their Chief Executive and the bulk of the new signings for clubs in their top division ; other clubs’ cast-offs. The bright new tomorrow of Scottish football sees its fourth Division called League Two. Oh dear.
Wednesday June 12th
Today began the process of winding up the Scottish Football League after 123 years. Only 6 of the 29 clubs at the Special General Meeting in Glasgow voted against the proposal to wind up the League and be swallowed by the 12 club Scottish Premier League. There is not only extreme sadness at the extinction of so much history, and achievement, but also bemusement at the decision, and the process which lead to it.
The necessary majority was achieved by many of the smaller clubs, otherwise content with their membership of the SFL and the way it was run, having a gun put to their heads by the majority of First Division clubs. The root cause of that is their insistence on remaining full time, despite every economic, financial and statistical argument to the contrary. How football clubs who can count on barely 2,000 fans, can think they can continue to pay full time wages, beggars belief.
The second unsound premise which underlies the migration to the hugely expanded SPL is the question of governance. For all its faults, the SFL was competently run, and democratic. The same could not be said for the SPL. Thirty more football clubs are now part of an organisation which has spectacularly failed to achieve its stated ambitions throughout its short history. The SPL consists of several near-bankrupt clubs ; assisted Dunfermline Athletic and Rangers towards bankruptcy ; made a complete botch of the Rangers succession last year, and advocated a lunatic reorganisation of the Leagues just a few months ago. Moreover, the two-club veto still applies in its voting structure.
No-one could argue that Scottish Football needed one League organisation (indeed it has been forgotten that for many years there was criticism of there being two organisations, the SFA and SFL, far less the recent triumvirate) but surely this was not the way to achieve a concensus.
The Scottish Football League had simply run out of leadership, those in positions of power proving to be either compromised or not up to the task when the final battle was fought. There are echoes of history in this. In 1707, the majority of Scots were against the Union of the Parliaments, but without leadership (from the aristocracy, who had been bought off) there was no resistance. How many of those clubs who made such a profound and far-reaching decision at Hampden today, did so with a heavy heart and a nagging doubt that this was not the right outcome ?
The Chancellor of Scotland, the Earl of Seafield, in 1707 signed away Scotland’s independence saying “Here’s ane end of ane auld sang.” For many in Scottish football, the singing stopped today at Hampden.
Monday June 10th
For this spectator, the 2012-13 football season came to an end at Newlandsfield, the well-appointed (and well filled) home of Pollok, where the home team beat Ashfield in the Central League Cup Final. Both teams looked tired and ready for the beach, and there was none of the spark shown in earlier games by Ashfield. Pollok are very well supported, and their ground is quaintly located and proportioned, giving a friendly and welcoming ambience. There looked to be more than the reported 800 at the match, and there was the disappointment of no programme being produced. Another discordant note was the quality of the pies ; something really has to be done about the standard of Scotch Pies at many of our football grounds. They may be cheap, but they are practically inedible.
Saturday June 8th
Linlithgow Rose showed their class in inflicting a heavy defeat on Camelon in the final of the Fife and Lothians Cup, at sun-drenched Bathgate. CreameryPark is looking very spick and span these days, with an impressively rebuilt covered enclosure providing arguably the best standing accommodation in Junior football.
Friday June 7th
At the Kirkcaldy Galleries for its official re-opening, following the refurbishment of the old Library, ArtGallery and Museum. Several football history books are testament to the long hours I have spent in this building over the previous four decades. The most impressive speaker was the crime writer Val McDermid, whose father served Raith Rovers for many years as head checker and Fife scout (the latter ironic as he was one of a horde of Boys Brigade officers who held positions at the club). Main speaker was Gordon Brown, who predictably made no reference to the source of so many of the ArtGallery’s superb collection of Scottish paintings – Michael Portillo’s grandfather. The jury is out on whether the changes are to the benefit of users, but one is left to reflect that the Royal Burgh’s bailies who decided to spent John Nairn’s donation on that site, showed remarkable foresight. They could scarcely have thought, nearly 90 years later, that the good people of Kirkcaldy could borrow a book, look at a painting, or admire an item in the museum, while they waited for the traffic lights to change outside the Adam Smith Centre.
Wednesday June 5th
A little bit of a bonus from the search for an interesting match at the fag end of the season. Pumpherston had promotion to win as they journeyed to Blackburn, but it was a notable day for the local United, who opened NewMurrayfieldPark, an impressive ground next door to the old one. Sensibly proportioned, with the covered enclosure transported from the old ground, this will do the club nicely. A little surprising was the grass pitch ; even more surprising, and disappointing, the lack of a programme for this special occasion.
Monday June 3rd
A cracking League game from Pumpherston and Whitburn, the former winning a fiercely contested, and very entertaining, match to sustain their long end of season push for promotion. Little has changed at the big bowl of a ground since my last visit about 15 years ago, apart from the banner on the pavilion proclaiming the club sponsors to be The Rising Sons of Carson, a reminder that parts of West Lothian remain a hot-bed of Orange activity. They had a meeting in the upstairs club room during the match, and came downstairs when it ended to watch the last half hour, besuited.
Sunday June 2nd
At KelvingroveMuseum and ArtGalleries for a Meet The Experts afternoon, in conjunction with the football exhibition currently running. A hot and sunny afternoon greatly affected the attendance.
Saturday June 1st
The annual gathering of the great and the good in football programme and memorabilia collecting at the Premier Programme Fair in central London saw a modest increase in attendance, which is against the trend, but there remains a torpor and flatness about the hobby. Buffeted from all sides, and caught in a perfect storm of lowered disposable income, the effects of eBay, ageing personnel and the uncollectability of modern programmes, the hobby is going through a hard time.
Tuesday May 28th
Delivery of my latest book. In 2000, I was approached by Tempus Publishing to compile “The Football Programme : A History and Guide”. This was reprinted twice, but is now well-and-truly out of print, and the publishers are long-since defunct, so I decided to publish a new version, entitled “A History and Guide to Football Programmes”. The narrative content has been updated and augmented to include coverage of the subsequent impact of eBay, and the majority of the 140 illustrations have been replaced by different ones, to give owners of the original work an excuse to buy the new one. Text has been brought down a size, and space-wasting eliminated to reduce the size of the book down to 132 pages, and therefore compliant with a reasonable level of Royal Mail’s Pricing in Proportion. As a result, you can buy it for £11.20 UK postage inclusive – see www.pmfc.co.uk for details.
Monday May 27th
A significant day in the history of Kirkcaldy YM Juniors – they won their first ever promotion with a comprehensive victory at Steelend Vics in their final match of the season. After a nervous opening – despite an early goal – YM overcame a game and in-form Steelend team to finish above Dundonald Bluebell, and await the outcome of Kinnoull’s final match at Rosyth to see if they could add the championship. There was also the bonus of the usual informative programme.
Sunday May 26th
Another Scottish Cup Final, (my forty-somethingth) and another defeat at that stage for Hibs, who at least “turned up” this year. Celtic won without unduly exerting themselves, to complete the double, and they certainly looked like a decent team. The £5 programme was sold with a set of cardboard sun glasses, the main feature of the perfect-bound production being several 3D photographs. To this cynic, it was a gimmick which did not compensate for a short fall in reading material.
Before the game, I finally (after many years of promising) found the time to take a book for a walk. I took my Third Lanark history, complete with 19th century street map, and identified the site of the first CathkinPark, with many of the landmark buildings still in existence. The area is now completely covered with housing, but you can still envisage the site as a first class football stadium. I spent so long doing that, I didn’t leave enough time for a long look around the second CathkinPark (once again comparing its present state to the photographs and diagrams in the book). Another time.
Saturday May 25th
Faced with a quite a bit of travel in the next two days, I opted for a local match, Dundonald Bluebell v Rosyth, with Moorside Park benign in the sunshine. Bluebell were just far too good for the visitors and underlined the gap between the top three in this division, and the rest. Unfortunately, only two are to be promoted, and Dundonald’s efficient and comprehensive victory was insufficient to dent Kirkcaldy YM’s progress, despite a nervous performance in a 4-3 victory at Scone Thistle
Wednesday May 22nd
Port Glasgow Juniors have moved into a new ground, the clumsily titled Port Glasgow Community Stadium. It is not far from their old Woodhall ground, but tonight, it is their tenants, Greenock Juniors, who are at home to Auchinleck Talbot in the Evening Times Trophy. Greenock, who intend moving back to Ravenscraig Stadium next season, have won their league – a rare success – and took a deserved lead in the first few minutes against the Junior Cup finalists. Talbot equalised, and late in the game took the lead, but only after Greenock had missed a succession of very good chances. The ground is very modern, with a 3G artificial surface, but there is plenty of cover on one side, with terracing steps underneath. For the first time in a week of Junior matches, there was a programme on sale, a tidy, if brief, inkjet-printed production. A few minutes into the journey home, the car thermometer showed it was 5 degrees outside. Roll on summer ? How about spring first ?
Tuesday May 21st
Another trip down memory lane, a first visit to Camelon in over 30 years. It’s a smashing, old fashioned ground, with well maintained facilities. A good game too, against Musselburgh in a local cup tie. Junior football at its best.
Monday May 20th
The last time I was at SaracenPark, Ashfield, it was a Greyhound Stadium. Now it is a Speedway Stadium, and it has to be said that the current tenants have made a good impression on the old ground, which is looking a lot tidier than I remembered it from about 35 years ago. The 1920’s grandstand is still in use (a 300 seater), and there are good sightlines on both sides of the ground, with crush barriers retained from the days when 20,000 would pack in. Ashfield beat local rivals Petershill 1-0 in a tense and hard-fought cup tie. In reflective moments of a visit to historic grounds such as this, I try to imagine some of the famous players playing there in the glory years. It takes a huge leap of imagination to envisage Alex James playing for Ashfield.
Sunday May 19th
A dilemma for Raith Rovers fans. Do they want their bitter rivals Dunfermline Athletic to suffer relegation, or do they want them to stay in the First Division, and contribute about £100,000 to the budget for next season. Alloa make the decision for them in the Play off Final second leg, conceding only one goal of the three goal lead they brought from the first leg. The young Dunfermline team fought hard, but lacked the guile and class to claw back the deficit. Full marks to the administrator for charging just £10 admission (half that for concessions), although £3 for a programme was a bit steep.
Saturday May 18th
A thoroughly wet, miserable and dull day did not deter the footballers of Kirkcaldy YM and Bankfoot from serving up a goal-laden, and entertaining League match, another step in YM’s quest for their first-ever promotion. A couple of YM’s goals, scored at a vital time to thwart any comeback from a lively and enterprising visiting team, looked decidedly offside ; a reminder of the difficulties for referees operating without the benefit of neutral linesmen.
Friday May 17th
The plan was to call in at Spennymoor, for the final Northern League match of the season, on the journey north, but a toilet stop at Scotch Corner services, and a quick scan of the sports pages of the Northern Echo, discovered a Wearside League match at Annfield Plain, further north and with an earlier kick off. Not only was this the opportunity to arrive in Kirkcaldy earlier, but a new ground, albeit one that hosted Northern League football some decades earlier. The ground, with a bit of tidying up, could serve as a level 5 or 6 venue, fully enclosed (although the side fence adjoining the public park was distinctly see-through), hard standing all round, and a covering-come-stand. Somewhat predictably, and certainly ironically, there was a “This is Annfield” sign on the side of the pavilion. A full blooded and entertaining match against Seaton Carew (who sported Celtic tops) was a reminder of the skills still evident in amateur football throughout the country.
Thursday 16th May
II will continue to turn a blind eye to the ongoing farce of Scottish League reconstruction. There are enough idiots pontificating about it without this one adding to the lunacy. Instead, you are invited to arrange the following phrases into a coherent paragraph ; protecting excessively paid jobs and positions ; no leadership or vision ; entire process founded on a ruinous premise (that Scotland can afford to have more than a dozen full time clubs) ; indecent haste ; etc.etc.
Nor will time be spent on the long-anticipated demise of Dunfermline Athletic. If and when a detailed account is written of the last decade of that club’s finances, it will be mind-blowing, and the tentacles of this particular giant squid will draw in many other parts of Scottish football (and the country’s already disgraced financial sector).
The last month’s football spectating in and around Norfolk has not been without some excitement. In brief, you read it here first that Dereham Town would enjoy a successful season, and they won the Eastern Counties League championship and promotion to Step 4. Their proposed championship-cljnching match was a bit of a damp squib, with second place Wisbech delaying the celebrations by winning at Aldiss Park, but it was a cracking game.
Not so successful were Lowestoft Town, who failed to gain promotion via the play offs for the third successive season. Nonetheless, both they, and Concord Rangers (who beat them in the final) have made remarkable progress in a short space of time since they met each other in the later stages of the FA Vase a few years ago.
Norwich City managed to avoid relegation, no mean feat in their second season up, and the huge sum of money to be earned in the Premier League next season will wipe out the debts accumulated during the reign of man now engaged in ruining Scottish League football. City were lucky, winning the final, vital three points thanks to West Brom’s worst display of the season, while a far superior team in Wigan Athletic make the drop instead.
More good news for City was the capture of the FA Youth Cup, with home and away victories over holders Chelsea in the final. Many commentators point to Chelsea’s superior football and possession, but in terms of chances created - and certainly goals scored - Norwich were ahead. Their simple, direct, tactics were perfect for the particular talent at their disposal, and several members of the team promise to have a useful career in first team League football.
Saturday 13th April
Aldiss Park was a favoured destination when Dereham Town were on a long FA Cup run at the start of the season. Since then, they stumbled a little in the League, but are now back on top, following a long unbeaten run. It’s not just a championship at stake – they have applied for promotion to a Step Four Division, and towards that end, a mobile stand has appeared at the ground, presumably to provide the requisite number of seats. The stand was folded out of a trailer by hydraulics, of the type last seen at Tadcaster. On the field, Dereham were very impressive 5-0 winners over fifth placed Walsham le Willows, with some new faces in the team from earlier in the season, further reducing its age profile. This would appear to be a club that knows what it is doing, although I’m not sure about the wisdom of promotion. Wroxham made the same move last year, and appear to be missing their old diet of local derbies, with crowd down. The major problem is that the former members of the Eastern Counties League are scattered across different Leagues, Southern, Isthmian and Northern (in the case of King’s Lynn). Putting them all in the same League would be a major boost to the clubs involved.
Saturday 6th April
The use of a season ticket led me to Carrow Road for visit of the season for a League match, against Swansea City, who looked in a different League to a home club struggling for confidence. Two goals apiece rescued the match as a spectacle ; Norwich will take heart from a better second half, and Swansea will wonder why they didn’t score six or seven. Most of them were missed by Michu, who looks a good player, comfortable on the ball and difficult to dislodge, and despite his height he plays it all on the ground.
Tuesday 2nd April
On the journey south, it was Newton Aycliffe v South Shields, as the Northern League clubs try to make inroads into a severe, weather-induced, fixture backlog. The pitch at the neat, tidy Moore Lane Sports Ground (a comparatively recent addition to the League) was in superb condition, but the biting wind still chilled the spectators to the marrow. In common with most matches at this level, it was a good game, and in common with most Northern League matches I have attended, League chairman Mike Amos was there too. Just one ground to visit (Celtic Nation, thwarted by a late postponement on Boxing Day), and I will have been to them all in both Divisions. I doubt if I will be there this season, so the “complete set” will be carried over to yet another season, with the likely addition of a couple of promoted clubs to swell the number “to do”.
Monday 1st April
Easter Monday, and while the football fans in England and Wales spend the afternoon (or late morning) at a match, their counterparts in Scotland stay at home (probably watching it on TV). It’s the same at New Year and Christmas, and on Bank Holidays. It seems that those who run Scottish football, and its clubs, have run up the white flag when it comes to trying to attract paying spectators to matches. Instead, all their energies are concentrated on grabbing a share of the television contract. No wonder the game is in the state it is in. Ironically, there is a decent attendance at the St Johnstone v Dundee United, the only match in Scotland, played that evening for the benefit of live TV. It’s a good game too, with United in command during the first half, but Saints deserving their late equaliser with a rousing last half hour.
Saturday 30th March
The pick of the junior matches this weekend is unquestionably the Scottish Junior Cup quarter final between those fierce local rivals, Linlithgow Rose and Bo’ness United. Prestonfield was packed for the match, on a nice warm, sunny afternoon, but unfortunately the game was a bit of a non-contest. The very impressive home side raced into a three goal lead before half time. It will take a very good team indeed to get the better of this side. The opening goal, scored by ex Clyde winger Roddy MacLennan, was one of the best seen this season, a lengthy slalom through the heart of the visiting defence which belied his slight frame.
Wednesday 27th March
“More Than A Game : How Scotland shaped world football” has its official opening at Kelvingrove, and this is a must-visit for any football fan. It is quite astonishing that it has taken this long for this particular (otherwise superb) museum to feature a sport which has dominated the life of this great city for the past century and a half. There are enough new things to interest those who have already been to the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park, and for those who haven’t, it is an appetizer for a longer visit to the larger, permanent facility.
Tuesday 26th March
Against hopes and expectations, it is a football free midweek for this spectator. Due to the Serbia v Scotland match live on TV, all the midweek football has been moved to Wednesday evening, when I will be otherwise engaged (see above). The best that can be said about the international is that Scotland weren’t as bad as on Friday, but it is yet another defeat, against yet another much smaller nation.
Saturday 23rd March
More snow and ice meant the junior card was practically wiped out, so it was a case of playing safe in travelling to Alloa, where it was first against second in Division Two on the plastic pitch. Queen’s, runaway leaders, were fortunate to get the verdict against a very keen and enterprising home side, hoping (now via the play-offs) for a second successive promotion. One wonders why their manager, Paul Hartley, and Colin Cameron, who has done so well at Cowdenbeath, are never quoted when it comes to SPL club jobs. It would appear that SPL chairmen have an aversion to taking a chance on young, up-and-coming Scots managers, as they have with players of that ilk.
Friday 22nd March
My first Scotland international for many years, and I am unlikely to be hurrying back again. The expensive ticket was bought primarily to have another look at Gareth Bale, but one of the few genuine world class players in UK football was obviously carrying an injury, and did not appear for the second half. If anything, Wales played better without him. Scotland would have struggled to beat a pub team on their performance of the first 30 minutes, with basic ball control and passing foreign concepts. They finished the half strongly, however, and scored a well taken goal. The match turned when Robert Snodgrass conceded a penalty, and Scotland fell apart, conceding a second goal shortly afterwards, and finished the game poorly. Somewhat predictably, the SFA PR machine swung into action in the days which followed, insisting that that the reforms to youth football coaching being undertaken by Marc Wotte will lead to a brighter future ; only if they get a regular first team game at their clubs, and no amount of coaching can change that ruinous mentality.
Tuesday 19th March
This time last year, Scotland was basking in temperatures in the mid 20’s. Today it is about 30 degrees colder, and there were blizzard conditions on the M8 on the way to Cliftonhill to see Albion Rovers play East Fife. There is no praise high enough for the players who produced a competitive and entertaining contest in conditions which were just about the most unpleasant endured in nearly 50 years of watching football in Scotland. Driving rain and a biting cold wind resulted in a very small attendance, rescued from record (low) proportions by a surprisingly large number of travellers from Fife. As this was the only surviving fixture in Scotland, it was a little surprising there were few neutrals at the match, and a distinct absence of representatives from other clubs. Perhaps they were the smart ones after all.
Sunday 17th March
The Scottish League Cup Final was one of the most entertaining in years, and St Mirren just about deserved their win over a Hearts side which had back luck with the woodwork, and contributed to an exciting finish with a late goal which pegged the scoreline back to 3-2. What was particularly pleasing about Saints’ victory was that it provided overdue consolation for their undeserved defeat against a 9-man Rangers team the last time they reached this stage. It was also nice to see manager Danny Lennon earning a League Cup winner’s medal, having been cruelly denied by injury from captaining Raith Rovers in 1994. A good game, in a civilised atmosphere, in front of an impressive attendance – proof that Scottish football can exist without the Old Firm.
Saturday 16th March
The journey from Norwich to Kirkcaldy was broken at Washington (Tyne & Wear, not D.C.) whose Northern League match against Tow Law Town was a late switch from the still-snowbound Ironworks Road. The sun shone occasionally on the hill-top ground, located within Nissan’s car works, and in full view of the plant’s array of wind turbines. In the distance, on another County Durham hill, was the curious Grecian monument which can be seen from the A1, and which also forms part of Sunderland AFC’s crest. The sun may have been out, but it was still a biting cold wind, which did nothing to alleviate the poor standard of play. The winning goal, however, was worth the £5 admission money alone, an acrobatic mid-air manoeuvre to volley the ball home which could only be achieved by a supple young athlete. The programme, ink-jet printed, was a good read for £1, but contained two incongruous articles – “A Brief History of the Southern League” and “Southern League News”
Saturday February 16th
One of the reasons for the paucity of football spectating in recent months - apart from the weather - is the bizarre situation in Norfolk where all the senior non league teams are at home on the same Saturday, and all are away the following week. Usually, the latter also coincides with Norwich City being away from home. This situation is caused by the clubs belonging to different Leagues (Kings Lynn in the Northern Premier, Lowestoft and Bury Town in the Isthmian Premier, Wroxham in a lower division, Norwich United and Dereham Town in the Eastern Counties, and so on.) Fixture co-ordination would probably be impossible to achieve across these disparate bodies, but it is ironic that the richly funded Norfolk FA, on a significant number of Saturdays during the football season, has none of its major clubs at home providing entertainment for the county’s footballing public.
Today is one of those Saturdays, but a “get out of jail / house” card has been dealt by the aforementioned Norfolk FA. Wroxham are in the semi final of the Norfolk Senior Cup, and they are away to Spixworth of the Anglian Combination, the clubs just a few miles apart. So it is off to the satellite village to the North of Norwich, where a large field has been pressed into service as a car-park, opposite the village football ground. The large crowd (possibly in excess of 500 - roughly as many as turned out at Lowestoft last Saturday) was treated to a mild, pleasant, bright afternoon. Spixworth issued a special 32 page programme for one of the biggest games in their history, and charged £2. There was no admission charge, not even a hat passed round for the roped-off pitch. Instead, the club made do with their programme revenue, a much better than usual half-time draw, and bumper takings for the tea stall and take-away pints from the Social Club.
The programme opened with a Welcome from Danny Brown, the football club secretary, who provided some flavour of the quaint, if not quite rustic, background to the match. He wrote : “A lot of you will know that this football fixture is not the only performance being played out at Spixworth today. The Spixworth Amateur Players are hosting a matinee as you read this in the Village Hall [which adjoins the Football Club Social Club and pavilion] and have an evening production also.
“In order for these two events to run smoothly alongside each other, Spixworth Football Club would like to thank the Spixworth Amateur Players, the Spixworth Parish Council, The Village Hall Committee, and the Social Club. All of these parties have worked tiresley [sic] behind the scenes to make this happen and it has not gone unnoticed.”
There are 48 places between the clubs in the Non League Pyramid, but there was no sign of that in the first 20 minutes as Spixworth “got stuck in”. Wroxham opened the scoring however, and shortly afterwards got another from a penalty award which also saw a home player sent off. The tie was effectively won and lost in that moment, and Wroxham scored a third goal two minutes from time. They fielded a number of fringe players, and their third choice goalkeeper - former Clyde and Scotland Under 21 goalkeeper Scott Howie, who has retired more times than Frank Sinatra. It was a lovely afternoon out, and a real taste of grass-roots football.
Saturday February 9th
A winter-free Saturday at last, but the footballers of Lowestoft Town and East Thurrock United looked as if they hadn’t played for some weeks. The result was an unsatisfying 0-0 draw, although there was plenty of goal-mouth action towards the end as the home side threw everything forward. The visitors probably deserved a point for a very disciplined, defensive performance.
Saturday January 19th
Thick snow and freezing conditions in Norfolk mean a football-free afternoon, and a chance to catch up on the backlog of work left over from the busy holiday period. My apologies to the loyal readers (yes, both of you !) for the failure to keep this blog up to date. One of several New Year’s resolutions is to push this up the priorities list. Now that I have done that, the next big task is to update the Programmes For Sale pages, with several thousands of programmes to be added.
The Premier League in Scotland is playing again today, after a fortnight off ; two weeks of mild weather in which football fans would have been quite happy to attend their local grounds but the players, poor souls, needed a break. Your heart goes out to them, and their bank balances. Every day, in every newspaper, several sports pages need to be filled, and the chosen theme has been League reconstruction, for which every crackpot scheme has been aired. On a daily basis, at least one club official, owner, or chairman, was given an entire tabloid page to express his support for some scheme or other, with the words “I’m voting for this because my club should obtain more desperately needed next season at least” strangely omitted.
The simple fact of the matter is that none of the proposals, 14-14-14, 12-12-18, 16-10-16 or whatever (where’s Alan Turing when you need him ?) is remotely workable. The one that is most touted, 12-12-18, has been concocted by the SPL, and backed by the SFA and SFL, the latter beating the hastiest retreat since the Greeks at Troy after having purportedly obtained “unanimous backing” from the member clubs for a 16 club top division (er, that’s only 30 League games ....). 12-12-18 was used by both Switzerland and Austria in the 1980s and 1990s, and abandoned after a few seasons to universal acclaim, and immediate vast improvement in gates and commercial revenue. That scheme, in Scotland, would be a disaster. The focus of attention in Scottish newspapers’ sports coverage should not be in giving publicity to these crackpot schemes, and their architects and supporters, but to ask the very serious question as to why the game is being run by people who haven’t a clue about what they are doing, to a dangerous extent.
Instead of tinkering with league sizes, with dangerous consequences in a few years time, those in authority, and in control of clubs, should be addressing the real problems of league football in Scotland. They are : the quality of entertainment and standard of football ; the scandalously inequitable distribution of central funding ; the uncertainty for fans in the dating and timing of fixtures ; the high price of admission with the cost of a Premier League match two-and-a-half times the price of admission to see an Oscar-laden film ; the continued importation and fielding of foreign players of ordinary talent. All of these are much more relevant to the dire state of Scottish football than clubs playing each other four times a season in the League.
Solutions to major problems are best kept simple, and this is no exception. There should be Leagues of 10, 10, 10, 12, leading ultimately to four leagues of ten, with clubs told that the next two to go into liquidation will not be automatically re-admitted to League football. Champions to be promoted, with a second promotion place available via the play-off system which has proved to be such a success for the Scottish League. Radical transformation of the central funding model, to spread commercial income more equitably across the top two divisions, thus providing a softer landing for clubs relegated from the top division. This money to come from the top two, who presently receive 33% between them of total SPL central funding. The losers will therefore be Celtic, who with the size of their crowds can afford it, and, in the fullness of time, Rangers, who for the next few years do not even have a vote in the decision making process to shape the future of Scottish football.
Friday January 18th
It’s been a bad week for business failures. HMV, Blockbusters and Jessops look set to follow Comet and Woolworths out of the High Street. The latest three in particular were fairly predictable. They are victims of modern technology, in that we now download our music, and our movies (mostly illegally), and take our photographs digitally or from our mobile telephones. It’s all part of the process which has been experienced in the football memorabilia business, which is now utterly dominated by eBay. The repercussions of this were felt at the two big fairs in the North of England between Christmas and New Year. The attendance at Sheffield was down for the second year in a row, and stallholders suffered an even bigger drop in their takings. Manchester, by complete contrast, saw an increase in attendance, and there was an encouraging buzz around the room. However, a lot of those who attended were even more selective in their purchases than before, and a lot of them kept their hands in their pockets.
Saturday January 12th
First visit for quite a while to Kjng’s Lynn Town, who are slowly crawling back up the pyramid after a bizarre multi-demotion a few years ago. This season, they created waves in the FA Trophy, and today they sought to make Southport (of the Conference) the sixth team from a higher league to have fallen to the Linnets in that competition this season. Alas, it was not to be, although the home team were arguably the better side, and had the better chances. Southport won 2-0, their first goal a long range effort from a defender which sat up perfectly for him to strike. The second, in the dying minutes, was a complete cock up between defender and goalkeeper. The Southport manager was effusive in his praise of King’s Lynn in the following day’s Non League Paper, and rightly so. A lovely day out, with no evidence of the bad element in the home support which saw a heavy police presence for a crowd of 1,500.
At the risk of being mistaken for Victor Meldrew, I do despair about the standard of behaviour in Britain today. You now have to keep your wits about you when you deal with practically any company because, as part of their desperate efforts to survive, most of them will willfully mislead their customers in the hope that they don’t realise they are being ripped off, or at least could get a better deal either elsewhere, or by asking questions. This behaviour is widespread throughout organisations, and increasingly, across the general population. For over 20 years, I have offered series of articles on programmes and collecting to programme editors. The only payment is in kind ; they have to agree to send a copy of each of their club’s programmes throughout the season. Over the many years I have done this, some clubs have been a joy to deal with, and still are. Each programme turns up without fail. Other clubs have not been so efficient, but usually respond by sending on the missing programmes once they have been notified. In the last few seasons, however, there has been a new form of behaviour, the reluctance to send programmes at all, in breach of the agreement. By sending out the articles in three batches during the season, I have some “clout”, but a few clubs, notably non league, just do not bother in the last few months, secure in the knowledge that they have enough articles to see out the season.
Some of these clubs can be spotted a mile off ; the ones that ask for an entire season’s worth at the start, and then protest when I send them the first batch only. The correspondence ends with them pulling the plug on a deal that they never intended to honour. Whitley Bay last season and Stalybridge Celtic this season were the two most blatant examples, but none so bad as Barnet this season. I have so far resisted the temptation to send copies of the emailed correspondence with David Bloomfield to his Club Chairman, but it does nothing to promote the club’s image. It’s all quite dispiriting.
Tuesday January 8th
The journey from Kirkcaldy to Norwich was broken, quite far north, at Hebburn Town, one of a handful of Northern League grounds I had not previously visited. It was for a Durham Senior Cup match against Durham City, which explains why there was no programme or even teamsheet. There were no pies either, so the need for a hot meal on a cold night was satisfied to a degree by home made chicken curry and chips. Durham won the match fairly comfortably, aided and abetted by an awful performance from the match referee, who did his best to ruin the game as a spectacle. The home bench made the mistake of falling out with him early in the first half, and there was more than a hint of malice in many of his subsequent decisions, including a very debatable ordering off. The ground was neat and tidy, with a modern covering over a well terraced mixture of bench seating and standing. The other touchline was shared with the cricket field.
Saturday January 5th
Arguably the highlight of my recent football spectating was my first sight of Kirkcaldy YM Juniors this season, who thumped league leaders Lochore Welfare in Crosshill. It was a tremendous performance by a team that has been transformed by a new manager since the end of last season. A slight disappointment was the lack of a programme from a club which has, in the (distant ?) past issued.
Wednesday January 2nd
Times have truly changed in Scotland, and in Scottish football. In years gone by, the two-day New Year public holiday was an opportunity for clubs to enjoy much bigger crowds, with fans eager to escape the house (and get some fresh air to help work off the hangover) after the excesses of the Christmas and New Year festivities. The tradition was that the clubs would play one home match and one away match on 1st and 2nd January, if they fell in midweek. If one or both of these dates fell on a weekend, matches would be played on the ensuing public holiday on the Monday or Tuesday. There have even been times, deep in the history of Scottish football, when 1st January was on a Thursday, which meant that clubs would play League matches on three successive days, 1st, 2nd and Saturday 3rd.
The New Year’s match was traditionally attended en famille, with the only appearance of the season of the uncles who had watched the club in their youth, but had long since given up on regular attendance. An illustration of the drawing power of the New Year fixture can be drawn from Raith Rovers’ history. On 1st January 1971, they played host to East Fife, admittedly Second Division leaders, and the crowd was 8,737, at a time when Rovers were struggling to attract 2,500 for League matches.
Playing on these public holidays was a long established practice which recognised that football matches had to be staged when it suited the public to attend them. That appears to be no longer the case, as Scotland (unlike England) was a football-free zone on 1st January. The principal reason appears to be that the players could enjoy their Hogmanay. Judging by the standard of play in the Alloa Athletic v Stenhousemuir local derby, the majority of the players were still nursing hangovers. It was a poor game, in both quality and effort, settled by a single goal from a rare flash of class by the goalscorer. The overall impression of a slightly dispiriting experience was that, in this and in many other ways, Scottish football needs to get its priorities right.
Saturday December 29th
On the journey back to Scotland from the Sheffield and Manchester programme fairs, I completed “The 92” for the umpteenth time, at Rotherham United’s new New York Stadium. Some years ago, in Programme Monthly, I marked a previous occasion by counting up the number of grounds on which I had seen English League football played, including clubs relegated from the League, and ground moves. The figure was about 130 then, and it must be closer to 150 now. I must add it all up again, presumably in an idle moment (!)
The new Rotherham ground is very impressive, with a sensible number of seats, quite steeply raked, which provides a good atmosphere even when half-full. Also impressive was Rotherham’s performance in brushing aside Accrington Stanley, and the programme turned out to be an excellent read, beautifully produced.
Wednesday December 26th
With the programme fair at Sheffield starting at 11am the following morning, I decided to travel down the previous day, with the intention of ticking off a new ground in the Northern League. The only one I hadn’t been to was Celtic Nation, the Carlisle-based club previously known as Gillford Park. I arrived at their ground an hour before the 12 noon kick off, to find it padlocked and deserted. Match presumably postponed, despite there being no evidence of any standing water on the pitch, and no prior indication of the match being in doubt. I have no peers in my admiration of the Northern League and the superb work of the many individuals who give their time, free of charge, in its administration. That includes the excellent website, which I fully appreciate is done as a labour of love by people who have their own lives to lead, and paid employment to take priority. It would be nice, however, if the website could be a bit more pro-active in the matter of late postponements. Nicer still if referees were a bit more pragmatic in their pitch inspections.
The early non-kick off gave me time to find an alternative, as I continued my journey southwards, and I decided to go to Chorley v Marine. My previous visit to Chorley had amounted to little more than half-an-hour’s football, following a diversion from another postponed match (at Southport, in July ! Flooding again). This time, I saw a full 90 minutes, in a torrential downpour, and the pitch stood up well. The players, to their great credit, ignored the conditions and got on with a full blooded match, which Chorley won with a lovely goal. The crowd, entirely under cover, was about 500, and it didn’t stretch the imagination too much to envisage this fixture, on a Boxing Day in the 1950’s or 1960’s, with ten times that number watching in this well-appointed, spacious and atmospheric old stadium.
Last fortnight before Christmas
At this late stage of writing, it makes little sense to share my experiences of the succession of Scottish League and Cup matches I attended. The proximity of the majority of Scottish League grounds to Kirkcaldy, in stark contrast to the long journeys required in Norfolk, means that I tend to go daft when I come back to Fife, and so it proved again with Cowdenbeath v Livingston in a downpour (two layers of waterproof clothing and a golf umbrella meant that I was one of about a dozen who watched the second half from the main terracing), East Fife v Stranraer featuring the biggest player I have ever seen in a senior football game, Amand One, the Stranraer striker, East Stirling v Montrose confirming my prejudice that Third Division football is the most open and entertaining in Scotland, and Cowdenbeath v St Johnstone, a much postponed Scottish Cup tie, in which Cowden gave a typically game performance, but lost the match. The last mentioned match was notable for two things ; obviously, the fanastic match programme, certainly the best read in Scotland, if not in Britain, and rather less well known, the excellent catering at Central Park. The home made lentil soup was quite superb, and the locally produced steak pie not far behind.
Saturday December 15th
The journey north from Norwich to Kirkcaldy was broken at the latest newcomers to the Northern League, Ryhope Colliery Welfare. It was first against second in Division Two, and the match more than lived up to its billing, with a 5-2 win for Crook Town which took them to within two points (and a game in hand) of the leaders. Apart from the goals, there were missed penalties, near things and goalmouth action aplenty - not bad for a fiver. The well established ground looked fit for Northern League football, and there was a neat little programme. The attendance of 154 was about twice the next highest crowd in the Second Division that afternoon, when Birtley Town had 32, Thornaby 37, and Washington 32. You didn’t have to go far for an explanation. Every pub in this suburb of Sunderland was showing a live foreign broadcast of the Manchester United v Sunderland match.
Saturday December 1st
The first Saturday in December was, for many years, the worst of the winter in Scotland, with the onset if frost or snow wiping out most of the football fixture list. This accursed date has followed me south, as today is practically a football free zone for much of Norfolk. Wroxham, Norwich United, Dereham Town, Bury Town, Lowestoft Town, King’s Lynn, all either away or not playing ; Norwich at home to Sunderland tomorrow (that should sell a few more Sky Sports packages !) and not a local cup tie in sight. Gorleston against League leaders Mildenhall looked a good bet, but it was postponed, as was the Great Yarmouth Town match. Still, it’s an ill-wind that blows no good, and I spent the afternoon making up for lost time on the blog. Apologies for not keeping this up to date recently ; but the Players’ Databases have dominated my waking hours in recent weeks (months), and now that they are finished I am spending a lot of hours bringing the Quick Guide to Football Programme Prices up to date, in time for selling the new version (No.10) at the Sheffield and Manchester Programme Fairs. So what’s been happening .....
Plans for League reconstruction tend to be like buses ; you wait ages for one, and then two (or more) turn up at the same time. The response of the SPL to the SFL’s proposals was to announce a counter proposal. Before we get into the merits of the respective plans, a brief summary of the history of League reconstruction may be instructive.
The Scottish League was formed in 1890, with ten clubs. It was formed for three reasons ; the example shown in England two years earlier ; the lack of Saturday fixtures for clubs after they had exited the Scottish Cup ; and the need to provide competitive football which would attract attendances now that the bigger clubs faced the prospect of weekly wage bills.
The single division was increased by two the following season, and then reduced to ten again the following year. A year after that, in 1893, a Second Division of ten clubs was formed, largely because those clubs had quickly formed themselves into alternative Leagues, and the SFL thought it best to bring the ambitious onboard, safe in the knowledge that promotion to the top division was by their invitation, rather than playing merit.
There followed seven years of stability, until Queen’s Park were finally persuaded out of their sulk, and put straight into the top division, which ran with 11 clubs in 1900-01. It was back down to 10 the following season, and the additional member of the Second Division was joined by a further recruit, to take its numbers up to 12.
The League then embarked on a period of notable expansion. In 1902-03 it was 12 clubs in the First Division and 12 in the Second ; then 14-12 for two seasons ; then 16-12 in 1905-06, and 18-12 the following year. In the wake of the Ibrox Disaster, more clubs were turned into Limited Liability Companies, and with this one-off injection of new funds, they improved facilities and employed more (and better) players.
The 16-12 formation lasted for six seasons, until 1912-13 when two clubs were added to the Second Division, in preparation for an 18-12 set up in 1913-14. The League had adopted the principle of getting as many clubs as possible into the top division, a practice continued to this day by the Football League in England.
The First World War gave clubs an opportunity for a complete re-think at its conclusion, and rather than revert to a two divisional structure, 1919-20 saw a single division with 22 clubs. It is quite possible that the majority of those clubs would have been content with such a structure, but for the exclusion of several ambitious clubs who took advantage of the separation of registrations between the SFA and SFL, and signed internationalists in dispute with their League clubs, with impunity.
The League clubs were therefore forced to concede the reformation of a Second Division, and the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation. Season 1921-22 saw two large leagues, of 22 and 20 clubs. In pre floodlight days, there weren’t enough Saturdays for a 42 match programme, so the following season saw two clubs leave the League, and divisions of 20 and 20 were formed in 1922-23.
Apart from the peripheral aberration of a Third Division for three seasons, there followed the longest enduring period of stability-in-numbers for the League, with the minor caveat of the Second Division falling to 18 clubs in 1932-33, through to the Second World War.
The arguments which surrounded League reconstruction over the last few decades were nothing compared with the rancour which erupted after the Second World War. The top clubs wanted to form a single division, of 16 clubs, by invitation, from the centres of large populations. It took two transitional seasons before the League settled on a 16-16 set up for 1947-48, with the handful of excluded clubs, and some up-and-coming ones, accommodated alongside Reserve Teams in two regionalised third divisions.
On the evidence of attendances, and the spread of major honours amongst many clubs (ie not just the Old Firm), it has to be said that the 16 club top division was a big success. There were, however a couple of major anomalies. From below, there was the continued exclusion of ambitious ‘C’ Division clubs ; from above, the threat of relegation for big clubs. With most clubs enjoying huge crowds, thus allowing them to pay their better players as much as they could earn with the Old Firm or in the English First Division (where the maximum wage restricted wages), the 16 club division was hugely competitive, the relegation battle each season involving one whipping boy, and a fraught battle between six to eight other clubs to avoid the second bottom place.
Recent Scottish Cup finalists Clyde, Morton and Motherwell were all forced to endure a season in ‘B’ Division, having narrowly finished in 15th place, and in 1954-55, Motherwell (League Cup winners in 1950, Scottish Cup finalists in 1951, Scottish Cup winners in 1952 and League Cup runners up in 1954) were relegated again.
Both anomalies, and Motherwell’s despair, were alleviated by the change to 18 and 19 club divisions in 1955-56, and that is how things remained for nearly two decades, the ridiculous situation of an odd-club-out each Saturday in the re-named Second Division being resolved, briefly, in 1966-67 when Clydebank were admitted, following the ES Clydebank episode. Third Lanark spoiled the symmetry within a year by going out of business. Tellingly, there was no mood to replace them.
By the early 1970s, society’s changing habits had caught up with Scottish League football. There was more emphasis on European competitions ; an increase in the number of competitive international matches ; a stronger League south of the border which was draining the talent from Scottish football, a decade after the abolition of the maximum wage ; and an increasing number of alternative ways for men to spend their time, and disposable income, on a Saturday afternoon.
Gates were falling to an alarming extent, and clubs were frustrated at losing their better players to English clubs, being unable to compete in financial terms. Moreover, it was perceived that the bulk of League matches, in a long division, were fairly meaningless and boring. The general consensus was that more competition has to be introduced to Scottish football. Crucially, the driving force of change was an alliance of the top six clubs.
The press got behind the proposals. Alex Cameron in the Daily Record (March 15th 1974) wrote : “The current two-league system is a flop – even for Celtic as they head for their ninth title in a row. The customers have shown clearly they want matches to be more competitive.” In the Glasgow Herald (March 16th), Ian Archer wrote : “Scotland has needed smaller and more competitive leagues for a long time – but there should not be the temptation to see this numbers game as a complete panacea to the problem of falling gates – the factor which led to yesterday’s vote for acceptance. If the plan can be allied to a greater desire among clubs to play more positive and enterprising football, then it will be a success. If quantity was rationalised yesterday, then quality has still be to be assessed.”
The solution, accepted by all in the game apart from the half-dozen or so clubs ejected from the top division, was a 10-club top division (renamed the Premier Division), with clubs playing each other four times a season. For the remaining clubs, two divisions of 14 were formed, the initial home-and-away format (with a Spring Cup filling in the last two months of the season) lasting only for the inaugural 1975-76 season, to be replaced by each club playing the others three times. In conjunction with these changes to the League schedule, the League Cup was eventually reorganised into a swift, knock-out tournament.
It is fair to say that the reorganisation of the Scottish League in 1975, the most radical in its long history, halted the decline in the sport’s popularity. The top division was indeed competitive, with Dundee United and Aberdeen emerging as rivals (and indeed betters) to the Old Firm. Both of those clubs reached European finals, Scottish clubs continued to be involved in European competitions after Christmas, and the Scottish international team continued a prolonged spell of qualifying for World Cup and European Championship finals.
Scottish clubs playing in European competitions reported that the 10 club top division was the envy of many Leagues on the continent, and the obvious objection to clubs playing each other too often each season was met with the response from those with experience of North American sport, where teams meet several times a season, that fans “can’t get too much of a good thing.”
As before, there were two major anomalies within the new Divisions, this time both came from below. A 10 club top division left a large number of ambitious clubs frustrated by their exclusion, although the two-up, two-down promotion and relegation gave clubs who were prepared to do their complaining on the pitch, a fair opportunity to put that right. Those clubs reinforced their case by asking the top ten “how would you like it to have the venue of a third of your league matches decided at random ?” There may not have been much substance to the latter complaint, as those of us involved in First and Second Division clubs at the time found the arrangement quite painless.
Pressure for change caused an expansion to a 12 club Premier Division in 1986/87, but it was unpopular with the top clubs – not least for the 44 League games it entailed – and it lasted only two seasons, before it was reintroduced again in 1991/92. The big clubs had had enough, and got together to form a putative Scottish Super League of 10 clubs. Faced with this threat, the smaller clubs backed down, and in 1994-95, the Divisions were changed again, into four of ten clubs, with two clubs added to the membership. Space constraints, and your continued patience, prevent a listing of the various changes to the composition of, and number of games played in, the lower divisions, and the various transitional arrangements.
The next convulsion in the Scottish League came from the top, and for very different reasons to those which had provoked earlier changes. Rangers had changed the face of Scottish football in 1986 when they appointed Graeme Souness as manager, and backed him with apparently limitless resources. (It should be noted that this was initiated by the club’s owner Lawrence Marlborough, and not David Murray, to whom Marlborough later sold the club).
The other big clubs, Celtic, Hibs, Hearts, Aberdeen and Dundee United, decided to attempt to compete with Rangers, only Celtic (eventually, following the reconstruction of the club by Fergus McCann) succeeding. The others, along with the Old Firm, simply accumulated financial losses as their wage bills soared.
Those clubs, and whoever joined them in the Premier Division, became frantic in their attempts to balance their budgets, and decided that they were sharing too much of the increasingly important centrally-earned funding (television, League sponsorship contracts etc) with their fellow League members in the lower divisions. So they broke away, forming the Scottish Premier League in 2000.
Unfortunately, to do so quickly and without the need for protracted and expensive legal battles, they needed the support of two more clubs, and so the SPL was formed with 12 clubs, the age-old problem of the number of League matches being addressed by the awkward spring “split”, reducing the last quarter to an eighth.
In the meantime, the top two clubs got bigger, and the rest got smaller. Gates fell quicker than salaries, hence the mess the game is in at present. The solution, once again, is perceived to be another reorganisation of League football in Scotland.
The organisation which escaped with least damage to its reputation from the shambles of Rangers’ collapse over the summer months was the Scottish Football League. Thus encouraged, they have come up with a reorganisation plan headed by a 16 club top division. This has two major problems ; the lack of fixtures (30), and the danger of sliding back into the situation which saw the 18 club division abandoned in 1975, namely insufficient competition to hold the interest of spectators, due to meaningless matches.
The increase in the size of the top division will inevitably encourage smaller clubs to continue with the financial folly of full time football. As it is, too many of them are paying out more in wages than they are earning in income, in the hope of gaining the one promotion place to the top division.
The reaction from the Scottish Premier League is a counter-proposal of two divisions of 12. Where does one start to pick this apart ? Two divisions with a spring split instead of one ? What happens to the other 18 clubs ? Is there to be no relegation from the bottom 12 ? Are they seriously suggesting 24 full time clubs in Scotland ? If the problem is perceived to be in the top division, why does it remain unchanged ? Would you want to be run by an organisation which presided over the Rangers shambles, and made a fool of itself in the process ?
This smacks of people trying to hang on to their well-paid jobs, which brings us back to perhaps the root of the major problem with Scottish football, the existence of three ruling bodies, jostling for positions in presiding over a shrinking product. Would they not be better employed in solving this problem, than in shuffling the Leagues around ?
Public opinion is hugely in favour of teams meeting only twice a season, once at home and once away, and that is a sentiment that commands easy understanding and sympathy. However, is it the frequency of opposition that the fans are bored with, or the standard of entertainment, skills and excitement that is being served up each Saturday ?
To save Scottish football, there are bigger issues to be addressed than the size of the Leagues, including clubs living within their means, a better standard of entertainment on the pitch, a fairer distribution of central funds to encourage competition and indigenous growth, and a halt to the mass importation of very ordinary foreign players. Neither of the plans for League reorganisation currently on the table come close to addressing these fundamental problems ; instead, they may further exacerbate these difficulties. Change for change sake is a dangerous move, as is change motivated by personal gain. What Scottish football desperately needs is new, and effective, leadership.
Wednesday 21st November
What’s a delay of a fortnight on a seven year project ? The promise to have the Pre-War Record of Scottish League Players ready by “early November” was postponed by two weeks. The cause of the delay was the amount of work needed to complete the latest version of the Post-War Record of Scottish League Players, which once again incorporates the last two seasons, but also to add in several new features (the long promised Junior Cup finalists, Amateur Internationals, Managers, and several others). I have also tackled most (but not all) of the careers of the increasing number of foreign players in Scottish football. This information is readily available online, not least on Wikipedia, but over-and-above the question marks over that website’s accuracy, there is the feeling that internet-based information may prove to be of a temporary nature.
We greatly benefit from this information being available free of charge, but it is not free of cost. People require to be paid to run websites, as do the companies who store and disseminate the information from the host computer servers. Those of us who run websites are charged for the amount of computer space we take up, plus VAT, and it is already noticeable that archived material is being deleted from websites, to save money. Unless this information is stored, and made available off-line, it may be lost for ever.
Work on both CD’s has now been completed and they are being sent out to purchasers. The amount of work that goes in to updating the Post War Records, every two years cannot be justified by the number of sales generated, and the next update, in two years time, may well be the last.
The Pre War Database has no such open-end, of course, and it is a huge relief to finally publish this after seven years of work. It was done in three phases. The longest was in researching the data, mostly from newspaper archives. That took five years. The second and third phases were quicker, over the last two years, but more intense. The second was to turn the collected data into summary statistics (appearances and goal scored per player per season), which was a huge and boring task. The third was to sort the information into player order, which was done over the summer months of this year. There were more than 90,000 rows of data on the spreadsheets, and the target was to sort 3,000 of them per day. At a rate of 500 lines per hour, that was a lot of time spent staring at a computer screen.
Saturday 10th November
It has taken me more than 30 years, but I have finally seen a Maidstone United match in Maidstone. On 1st January 1981, while visiting friends who lived in Crayford, I arrived at the club’s former London Road ground to discover that their New Year’s Day fixture had suffered a late call off. I subsequently saw them in the Fourth Division at Dartford, and in the Southern League at Sittingbourne. This afternoon, I visit their new ground to see an FA Trophy match against Whitehawk, a division above Maidstone, with both clubs at or near the top of their respective divisions. The match was a cracker, Maidstone coming from behind to win 3-2, in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 1,571. The new ground is very impressive, located near the town centre, with a backdrop of woodland, and an attractive grandstand built into a natural embankment. This could be a club going places. The programme looked impressive, attractively designed and printed in full colour. It was surprisingly quick to read, however, at the £2 bought mostly adverts.
Friday November 9th
Apologies for the delay in updating this blog - I am still very much preoccupied with finishing the Pre War and Post War Scottish League databases. Ironically, it is the Post War one which is taking up most of my time (the major Pre War exercise is now in publishable order) as there have been many improvements and additions to incorporate, over and above the last two seasons. It will be a huge relief when both databases are ready for publication, in around a week, when there will be time for more blogging, and something resembling a normal life.
Thursday November 8th
Sympathy for the SFA does not come naturally, but they don’t deserve all of the approbation which has fallen on them for the clumsy, and some would say belated, sacking of Craig Levein. Their major problem is that their top officials are “holed below the water line” ; Chief Executive Stewart Regan for his appalling handling of the Rangers debacle during the summer, and President Campbell Ogilvie for his prolonged and central position at Ibrox. Anything emanating from the Board is automatically criticised.
It would appear that Levein needed a couple of miracles to keep him in a job - a result in Belgium against a team filled with players who are the stars of this season’s English Premier League, and a lot more luck than that which patently deserted him in Cardiff. Public opinion - and the fear of fans not turning up at forthcoming home matches - demanded that the SFA Board sack him, but will any other manager fare better ? Those harking back to the results gained under Alex McLeish and Walter Smith should consider that they were ground out of the same sort of defensive tactics for which Levein has been criticised. Regan and Ogilvie limp on, hoping that the fans will turn up for the next home match which will help pay the new team manager’s salary - and Levein’s for the 20 months which remain on his contract.
Wednesday October 31st
The headlines on the newspaper billboards the following day were “City Beat Spurs in Thriller”. The writer must have turned up for the last ten minutes, because much of the Norwich City v Tottenham Hotspur League Cup tie was very pedestrian. Both teams were some way short of full strength, an expectation which explains the modest attendance of 16,645 (another reason may have been the £30 charge for adults). Spurs lined up without a recognised striker, while for City the out-of-touch Steve Morison ploughed a lone furrow up front. As a consequence, most of the play comprised short passes in midfield. Making up for this was the chance to see Gareth Bale. It is fair to say that he failed to exert himself on the wing, but when he did burst into life, he was in a different class to the other 21 players. In the first half, he controlled a difficult high ball on the turn, and unleashed a vicious dipping shot which lacked only the precise range to elude Norwich’s top man on the night, third choice goalkeeper Mark Bunn.
Predictably, Bale opened the scoring in 66 minutes with another long-range effort, and Spurs looked like hanging on to a lead which their marginally better play just deserved. Then came the final ten minutes. Jan Vertonghen maintained my run of own-goals in 83 minutes, followed by another goal for Norwich three minutes later. Within two minutes, City had conceded a penalty, but Bunn saved Clint Dempsey’s spot-kick. The American looked a different player from the prolific Fulham goalscorer of recent seasons. Bad move for both parties ?
Tuesday October 30th
On the journey south from Kirkcaldy, I was spoiled for choice for a match to break the trip. There were League Cup ties at Leeds and Sunderland, but I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of finding somewhere to park, and having to buy a ticket, so I chose to visit Tadcaster Albion, who were playing Eccleshill United in the West Riding County Cup. The North East Counties League is a step below the grounds I am “collecting”, but I hadn’t been there, and it was just a few miles off the A1. It’s the first time I have had to drive through a brewery to get to a football ground, although there was something clinical about the faint smells which emanated from Heinecken’s brewery ; a far cry from the old days of brewing proper beer in the town. The ground epitomised non-league football, with a well appointed club house overlooking the pitch, some rudimentary bench seating in front of it, and the most amazing “grandstand” behjnd one of the goals.
This was an ancient mobile stand, which unfolded from a trailer and was constructed from a bewildering array of struts, hydraulics and a battered fabric roof. The bench seats were padded, the capacity far larger than the ubiquitous modern Atcost prefabricated stands, and the height of the back row was quite impressive, but it had seen better days. It is the most incredible stand I have seen at any of the hundreds of football grounds I have visited. Go and see it before it gets towed away. The home team looked to have the game won until they conceded a bizarre own goal, the goalkeeper hitting the ball against a defender in the goalmouth, but they eventually prevailed against a team which has more than a sprinkling of players of Chinese descent in it. I would have liked to have learned more about both clubs, but their respective website were either inadequate or hopelessly out of date (in Eccleshill’s case). The programme wasn’t any help either, but there could be no criticism of the photocopied four pager which was handed out free on entry.
Saturday October 27th
The sports pages of today’s Scottish daily newspapers were dominated by £ signs ; Hearts in trouble with the tax man, and asking their fans to buy shares that will do no more than go to the Inland Revenue should they lose their case ; a mass resignation of Dunfermline Athletic directors, that news accompanied by details of the Pars catastrophic financial situation ; and Charles Green rubbing his hands the prospect of yet another Rangers share issue (why do their need more share capital when they are playing in front of 40,000 in the Third Division, and next season the Second, and the First the season after that ?) Then there’s the rolling speculation as to the future of the international team manager. This is the current state of Scottish football. Occasionally, a ball gets kicked.
Off to a proper game in the afternoon, the Junior Cup tie between Lochgelly Albert and Johnstone Burgh postponed from the previous Saturday. Burgh, Junior Cup finalists 12 years ago, are at a low ebb, and are effectively amateur. They should have been several goals in arrears by half-time, at least one of Lochgelly’s goal-mouth misses being in the “I do not believe it !” class. The Albert paid for their profligacy in the second half, as Burgh got their tactics right and scored with their first shot on target, a direct free kick. The home team tried hard, but lacked the guile and good fortune to score an equaliser, while at the other end, the Albert goalkeeper kicked the ball against a Burgh forward and its rebounded into the net for a second goal.
The 24 page programme was quite superb, glossy, full coloured and packed with information, including the little nugget that on 13th March 1948, 11,645 packed into Gardiners Park to see a Scottish Junior Cup tie against Bo’ness United. There were around 11,500 fewer to see the Fife team take their leave of this season’s competition.
Saturday October 20th
It’s Junior Cup second round day, and the most attractive tie in Fife - on paper - was between Ballingry Rovers and Sauchie. It was certainly keenly fought, but the 0-0 scoreline came as little surprise, and the overall experience was a little bit disappointing. Ballingry are the talk of Fife junior football this season, with a squad of ex seniors assembled thanks to a Sugar Daddy. Sauchie, too, were full of familiar names from the Scottish League, and most of the players on view, still in the prime of their playing lives, would be earning more money (between signing on fees and wages) than they would get in the Second and Third Divisions of the Scottish League.
The consequence of this was that both teams were well-drilled, and intent upon not losing goals, rather than scoring them. There was little evidence of the youthful enthusiasm, and craft and guile of experienced Juniors, which normally characterises this level of Scottish football. There are times when people with money to waste would be doing football a service by keeping their hands in their pockets, rather than fuelling their egos.
Sunday October 14th
Cowdenbeath v Partick Thistle in the semi final of the Ramsdens Cup. Cowden gave a stirring performance against the League winners, but Thistle were worthy of their 1-0 win. The progamme sold out quarter of an hour before kick off, and no wonder. The “Blue Brasilian” remains the best read in Scottish football, a bargain at £2.
There was an impressive turn out from Thistle, considering the game was broadcast live on television, albeit on BBC Alba (best watched with the volume turned down). Central Park is never the best place to have an uninterrupted view of the pitch, thanks to the floodlight poles and Stock Car safety fence, but there was further proof that the television people are now the most important part of Scottish football with the construction of a camera gantry IN FRONT OF the terracing, rendering an unimpeded view of the pitch impossible other than at the corner flags.
Saturday October 13th
The journey north was broken at Ramsbottom, where the local United, newly promoted to the Northern Premier League, played host to Prescot Cables. The “Harry Williams Riverside Stadium” was delightful, and must have been one of the best in the North West Counties League. On a lovely sunny afternoon, the views from the ground, which sits in the valley across the river from the town centre, were the tree-lined rise up a Penine hill, with the spires of the Town Hall and various churches peeping above the foliage; behind the opposite goal another Penine ; along one touchline the river ; and across the boundary wall from the other touchline the local cricket ground, which looked capable of staging county matches. On the opposite side of the cricket field was the shared boundary wall with the paper mill, which is in the process of being demolished, ending the visible link with Ramsbottom’s industrial heritage, and reason for existing. Still in use was the railway line which was a matter of yards behind the town-end goal, now purely for tourist purposes, with scores of railway enthusiasts trundling back and forward in ancient carriages pulled by old and noisy diesel units. The game was a cracker too, and those in the crowd of over 300 who were encouraged to visit their local ground on Non League Day, would have received good value for their modest admission charge. Topping it all was an attractive, informative and colourful programme.
Wednesday October 10th
Dereham Town’s FA Cup run came to an end this evening with a 2-0 defeat at Metropolitan Police in the replayed 3rd Qualifying Round tie. On Saturday, the young Dereham side had come from behind to draw 1-1 with a team two levels above them. They seemed overawed by the occasion, and the physical challenge of the visitors, and rarely showed the skillful passing game that has been the foundation of their unbeaten start to the season. It was a pity, because in the second half in particular, they showed that they were at least a match, in terms of skill, for their larger opponents. The attendance at Dereham, on a pleasant sunny afternoon, was no more than respectable - 328 (twice the size of the crowd at the immaculate, but sparsely populated Imber Court for the replay). With Norwich City at Chelsea that afternoon - and struggling to sell their allocation of the over-priced tickets - a much larger attendance would have been more fitting for the occasion. Perhaps the problem is the prevalance of “dodgy dishes” in pubs, who somehow manage to get away with showing live coverage of Premier League games at 3pm on a Saturday.
It has always been a bit of a mystery to this poorly informed observer, but just how many of the Met Police football team are serving police officers ? The centre half’s language throughout the match would have got him arrested if he had used it on the street.
Saturday 22nd September
A friend, having broken his lifelong habit of supporting his senior club, home and away, spends his Saturdays watching cup ties, starting with the Scottish Cup in its early, non-league rounds, and then picking up on the Junior Cup. I needed no convincing of his logic, and thought of him during and after today’s cracking FA Cup tie. Keen readers of this blog may recall my praise for Dereham Town’s young team earlier this season. This afternoon, they entertained Chasetown in the second qualifying round of the FA Cup, one step above them in the English non-league pyramid, and with a recent record of significant advancement in the FA Cup.
Playing their skillful, passing game, Dereham built a merited 2-0 lead, and were comfortably holding off a fight-back when they were awarded a very soft penalty, which the Chasetown goalkeeper saved. The home team then lost their nerve a little, ceded possession and tried to defend their lead. With more than 10 minutes to go, Chasetown’s relentless attack finally made a breakthrough. The final nail-biting minutes saw Dereham hold on and move into the unchartered territory of the 3rd Qualifying round, just two stages before the League clubs are brought in.
It was a good old fashioned cup tie, designed to revive the jaded palate of any ground-down football fan. It cost £5.50 to get in ; not much more than a pie and a bovril at a Premier League match. The only disappointment was the size of the crowd. With Norwich at Newcastle tomorrow, and all the major non-league teams in the locality away from home, a bigger turnout would have been expected. Those who stayed away were the losers.
Wednesday 19th September
Just as the the first cuckoo heralds the dawn of spring, so the first edition each season of “Northern Ventures, Northern Gains”, the superb magazine of the Northern Football League, reminds us that all is well in the world of football. The editor, and League chairman, Mike Amos, is one of my football heroes, and if you want your faith restored in all that is good about the sport, read this monthly magazine.
Monday 17th September
The autumn edition of the splendid Groundtastic magazine reproduced an article by Nick Pigott of ‘The Railway Magazine’ in which he described the proximity of football grounds (specifically in England) to railways.
The article opened : “The oldest football club in the world - Sheffield FC - was established in 1857, which means that soccer and railways have developed roughly in parallel for a century and a half or so. “In parallel’ could also refer to the juxtaposition of many of the clubs in relation to railways, for a remarkable 72 Football League grounds in England and Wales are, or were, located alongside rail tracks.”
This should come as no surprise when one considers the history of development of urban Britain. When the railways were being built, they took the most direct route possible towards towns without demolishing existing buildings (which would have substantially added to the expense). That meant that they either came along the flood plains, where the ancient Britons sensibly knew not to build (unlike the modern Britons), or they came round the edge of the town, and established the station as close to the centre of the town as the nearest vacant fields allowed.
Today, we think of stations as being in or near the town centres, but when they were built, they were on the edge of town. Once built, they encouraged industry to be established around them, houses for the workers were then built, and so the town was expanded beyond the railway. It should also be remembered that the population of this country has almost trebled since the railways were built ; the urban population even more so.
Football grounds too were established on the edge of urban settlements. Most “parks” were former grazing areas, marking the point where the town finished and countryside started. When football first started in towns, the prime requirement was for a patch of flat grass, with no thought to access, terraces etc.
Both the demand and supply of suitable land for football and railway pioneers in the second half of the 19th century were therefore identical, so it is little surprise that rail tracks border the majority of football grounds.
The article in Groundtastic omitted any mention of Scottish grounds, and there would be an interesting debate on which of these was closest to a railway. Stark’s Park would take some beating. The West terracing was formed from the railway embankment, and the north-west corner flag can be no more than 20 yards from the East Coast mainline. Paul Gascoigne, in describing his days as a Rangers player, recalled taking a corner kick and looking up to see a train coming towards him.
Sunday 16th September
The Sunday papers make uncomfortable reading for fans of clubs who have lost the previous day, but today’s sports pages would have brought a chill to the heart of those in Scottish football. The biggest crowd in the Premier League was at Hibs, who are vying with Motherwell for the top of the table - but it was less than 10,000. The empty Ormond Stand on television coverage of the early kick-off was explained by the reported 6,700 at the St Johnstone v Celtic match.
The figures in the First Division were even more worrying. The top two teams, away from home, attracted 1,745 and 1,021 to Livingston and Dumbarton respectively ; there were 1,174 at Hamilton v Falkirk and 1,481 at Raith Rovers v Airdrie United. Cowdenbeath, alone, would have been pleased at the 611 attendance for the visit of Morton. Seven of those clubs are full time.
The response to the game’s current difficulties from those who run the clubs in the top two divisions - those clubs attempting to sustain full time employment of players - is to blame the football authorities for not attracting enough sponsorship, and for the structure of the leagues. The collapse of Rangers this summer disproved the popular misconception that football clubs were exempt from the normal consequences of failing businesses, and while it may be too late to save some clubs, this season’s attendance figures should surely propel the football authorities into meaningful action.
That doesn’t mean re-arranging the deckchairs as the ship heads towards the iceberg. Changing the format of the leagues will only tinker around the edges of the problems confronting the Scottish game, which are :
Live television, of both Scottish and English matches, is decimating attendances
The product isn’t good enough ; the football isn’t entertaining enough ; fans want a lot more than a grim 1-0 win or 0-0 draw on a Saturday afternoon
In the current - and likely prolonged - economic climate, admission prices are too high
There is probably no solution to the first problem. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle regarding televised football, as predicted by people in the game several decades ago. Successive legislators were castigated for their resolute opposition to the live broadcast of matches, and I recall hearing Jock Stein, while manager of Celtic, criticising Radio Clyde for its pioneering coverage of Saturday afternoons, accusing them of providing football fans with coverage of their club’s games without the need to attend them.
The quality of entertainment can be addressed by club owners instructing their managers and coaches to put out attacking teams, irrespective of the consequences in results ; and admission charges have to be reduced. For about a century, football was very skillfully priced at a level where the ordinary working man did not have to think about whether he could afford to go to a match on a Saturday. With little change out of a £20 note in the First Division, and the need to hand over two large banknotes in the Premier League, this is no longer the case.
How do you fund this ? You pay the players less ; you employ fewer of them, and the First Division players should be part-timers. The alternative is extinction. The clubs would be best served by their national legislators if they sat them all down and led them through a collective solution to their economic suicide mission.
Saturday 15th September
Three Bridges FC are newcomers to the Isthmian League, having been a force in the Sussex County League for some years. They are at home to Ramsgate on a very pleasant warm, sunny afternoon, at their neat, tidy Jubilee ground which, although situated in the eponymous area of Crawley, is very close indeed to the town centre. Despite that, and the main road and light industrial areas on one side of the ground, it has a semi-rural aspect, tree-lined with parkland on two sides. There are a couple of small, modern prefabricated grandstands on opposite sides of the pitch, one alongside an imposing pavilion.
The match was a cracker with four (top quality) goals in the first 19 minutes, and end to end action thereafter. Three Bridges had the better of the second half, but it was Ramsgate who scored the winner near the end. It was a lovely afternoon, a real reminder of the delights of (proper) non-league football, much more enjoyable and half the price of the previous Saturday at Newport (see below). The match programme was thick, glossy and colourful ; at least the pre-printed advertising pages were. They were joined by a few sheets of duplicated black and white pages containing match specific information, which was a bit limited. It was good value for £1, however.
On the way to the ground, spectators walk past the Arthur Hopcraft Gymnasium, home of Crawley Amateur Boxing Club. Investigations on the day - confirmed by the less-than-infallible Wikipedia - show that this was a different Arthur Hopcraft to the former sports journalist who wrote the best football book of all time, The Football Man.
Thursday 13th September
After 23 years, the truth has finally emerged about the Hillsborough Disaster. This has come about not through investigative journalism, the social media movement, film or television documentaries, but an independent report ordered by the government, which gave access to official documentation which would otherwise have remain buried. Dogged and relentless determination over two decades by the bereaved families finally persuaded the authorities to investigate, and this was one official report which was not a waste of time, effort and resources.
The findings confirmed, and put on record, what we have known all along - that the fans’ behaviour was not the root cause of the disaster. This vindicates the campaign by the bereaved families, but of course it will hardly satisfy them, as their loss is inconsolable. It will also be of no consolation that their loved ones did not die in vain. The enforced changes made to football grounds in this country, and beyond, as a consequence of Hillsborough, Bradford and Heysel, have unquestionably prevented further loss of life.
The tragedy, and this report a generation afterwards, can have further lasting, beneficial consequences. What the report unearthed was a comprehensive and systematic cover up by public agencies ; police, ambulance service, and local and national government. The very bodies whose purpose is to serve the public, colluded in a cover up to disguise their failure. Worse still, some of them invented lies to deflect the blame.
The report has broken the surface of the cesspit of public service and, sure enough, what comes to the surface stinks. One doubts that the bereaved familities will see the report as an end in itself, and will continue to work towards bringing to account those responsible for the tragedy, and its shameful aftermath. There are many lessons that can be learned about the accountability of the police service, and its relationship to the government. That too would be a positive legacy from the Hillsborough Tragedy.
Saturday 8th September
To Rodney Parade, the third stadium in which I have seen Newport County play in their home town (I didn’t see them at Moreton-in-the-Marsh during their years in exile). Like so many fixtures in the Conference National division, this was a meeting between two ex-League teams, the visitors being Stockport County, and in terms of playing standards, I could have been watching a Third or Fourth Division match. There are quite a few non-league fanatics who regard this level as being a Fifth Division of the Football League/Premiership, bearing none of the hallmarks of traditional non-league football, and this prejudice was reinforced by the match at the home of Newport Gwent Dragons rugby union team.
The players looked big and muscular, and they were well drilled and organised, leading to a pretty sterile match after some early enterprising Newport attacks. Stockport spent much of the match thumping the ball down the field to their forwards, although in the closing stages of the game, they looked the likeliest side to break the deadlock, and hit the woodwork in the closing minutes. It finishing 0-0 ; not much entertainment for £15. The programme looked (and at £3 was priced) like a Football League product too.
The upside of the experience was the ground, which was an excellent venue for a match at this level, and would be an welcome addition to the Football League should Newport win promotion. A modern stand extends along one touchline, opposite an old, traditional stand, which was not used, but the standing paddock in front was. There was a little bit of uncovered terracing alongside the older structure, and modern terracing behind one of the goals. Behind the other goal was a familiar sight in Rugby Grounds, a stack of portacabins serving as corporate hospitality boxes, which were not in use at the football match.
The ground was well maintained, the approach to it, past some sports pavilions and an enclosed grass training area, quite pleasant, and the atmosphere inside was very good, giving the impression of a larger crowd than the reported 2,300. County have done very well to recover from their exiled days in the Hellenic League, and even better to move from the Athletics Stadium at Spytty Park. As for the third ground on which I saw them play, the aged Somerton Park, I doubt many mourn its passing. Rodney Parade, on the other hand, is well worth a visit.
Monday 27th August
Following the nightmare journey on Saturday afternoon, I was dreading going back on the M25 on Bank Holiday Monday, but the trip to Brighton went extremely smoothly. I was headed for Whitehawk, who have enjoyed uninterrupted success over recent seasons. For much of last season, I made no effort to visit them, because I had read somewhere that they were moving into Withdean Stadium, following Brighton’s withdrawal, while their own ground was being upgraded. To my surprise, I discovered late in the season that this had not happened, and I ran out of opportunities to visit.
It appears that Withdean has come to Whitehawk, because on two sides of the ground are stored the superstructure, and seats, of temporary grandstands. Nothing appears to have been done to improve the ground, however, as the facilities are extremely basic (although there is a big social club) and an entire side of the ground, opposite the small stand, has been fenced off. The visitors were Hendon, not without ground troubles of their own, and the thought occurred that any Hendon fans of a certain age, who had been brought up to see top grade amateur football, and home matches at their well appointed Claremont Road ground, must scratch their heads in bewilderment when they come to grounds like East Brighton Park.
The upside was that it was pleasantly rural, with the aforementioned closed side at the bottom of one of the South Downs. It was a marked contrast to the approach to the ground, which is from urban Brighton, but there is a lengthy drive through a public park, past several sports facilities, and finally past a holiday caravan park to the ground, which nestles at the end of the meandering road. A warning to those on foot ; it would be quite a hike from the nearest bus stop.
The match was dire, with no prospect of a goal. Whitehawk have had to taste regular defeat for the first time for several seasons, and have tightened things up while they find their feet in their latest exhalted division. Hendon just frustrated their travelling fans, and didn’t even sport their famous green jerseys, inexplicably wearing their change strip against the red-clad home side. Another £2 programme, impressively produced in full colour on glossy paper, but it amounted to just 16 pages, contained a lot of adverts, and not a lot of information.
Saturday 25th August
It’s August bank holiday, there are matches on Saturday, Monday, so I have booked myself a mini-break (although the laptop has come with me) to tick off a couple of new grounds. The journey to Guildford was a nightmare ; held up for nearly an hour on the M25, with the prospect of another hour’s delay, so I took a circuitous route, the last part of it a demanding drive through the towns and villages of Surrey.
The reward at the end of it was a match in an Athletics stadium. Senior non league football has come back to Guildford for the first time since 1974. and Guildford City are at home to East Preston in the Preliminary round of the FA Cup. They have bolted a stand onto the terracing steps of a sports stadium, so all the boxes are ticked regarding the grade / status of the facilities, but it certainly lacks charm and the pitch is in unexpectedly poor condition (the arena, and the sports centre next door, has been heavily used for Olympics training.
The compensation was in the match itself, a goal feast, won 5-3 by the home side. If there was a defender on the pitch, I didn’t see him, but the home team’s goals, in particular, were top quality. East Preston missed a penalty which would have tied the game at 4-4, and it was Guildford who got the next goal, but it was far from comfortable for them. Nice programme, plenty of interesting features and very attractively put together, the cost of this being an inevitable £2.
Because of the unscheduled length of the journey to the match, I didn’t have a chance to see anything of Guildford before the match, and I was too knackered to hang around afterwards. I had only been in Guildford once before, in the autumn of 1980, when Pete Butcher and I arranged to meet halfway between our homes in Worthing and Princes Risborough respectively, to plan the birth of Programme Monthly.
Saturday 18th August.
The sun is out, there isn’t much to inspire on the local fixture list, so I decide to spend the afternoon in the garden - working. After 8 years’ fairly steady toil, I am determined to complete the Pre War Database of Scottish League Players. In October 2007, I produced an interim version, detailing registrations. Since then, I have added the appearances and goalscoring records. The actual research ended about a year ago, but collating the data has consumed much of the last 12 months. Now, it has to be put into sensible - and publishable, order. A fortnight ago, I set myself a target of finishing this within 30 days. There are 90,000 lines on three separate spreadsheets, and I can just about manage to do 3,000 lines a day, amounting to at least 6 hours work each day. It is taxing on the concentration, the eyesight, and my will to live. Hence the lack of enthusiasm, and energy, for a long trip to a football match. Those who jib at the price of £19 may wish to consider that it probably equates to 1p per hour of work which has gone into completing it.
Saturday 11th August
The Road to Wembley started with the Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, at least a week earlier than usual, and the explanation for the uncharacteristically early start to the League season the previous week. Another local tie, this time at Dereham Town, where Stewarts & Lloyds from Corby were the visitors. As always when a Corby club plays, mine was not the only Scots accent at the game. The visitors looked the better of two lively teams in the first half, but Dereham, who had a few bright youngsters in their side, went up a few gears in the second half and finished emphatic and impressive winners. They could be the team to watch in the Eastern Counties League this season. Another informative programme, although swamped by advertising, which presumably allows the price to be kept at a most commendable £1. Dereham have, however, upped the price of admission - by 50p.
Saturday 4th August
The start of non-league football in England has taken me by surprise ! I suspect the Non League Paper has also been taken unawares, as there was no listing of League fixtures in the previous Sunday’s edition. Instead, a bit of casual web surfing disclosed a programme of fixtures in the Eastern Counties League, so it was a short trip to Plantation Park, home of Norwich United, who were at home to Hadleigh United.
This fairly modern, but nicely laid out stadium would be pleasantly rural but for the noise of the speeding traffic on the adjacent A47 dual carriageway. The match was no better than okay, underling my fears that the standard of this League has been steadily eroded by the migration of its better clubs to the Southern and Isthmian Leagues over the last five years. There was the usual neat little programme, which was reasonably informative without exerting itself.
Sunday July 29th
New Rangers made their debut at Brechin today in the Ramsdens Cup. Hopes that a new era, of realism and altruism, was about to dawn in Scottish football were somewhat dashed by the pre-match interview given by Charles Green to BBC Scotland, when he described the opposition he has encountered.
"Some of it has been driven by bigotry, some of its been driven by jealousy and some of its been driven by all the wrong motives," he said. "My frustration's been, after 30 years of business, I have never experienced anything like the last three months. Some of the business decisions that have been made really have been nonsensical from a business point of view.”
The new, humble, contrite Rangers didn’t last very long, did it ? It would appear that Mr Green has not been listening, or paying attention, to what has been happening across Scotland over the last few weeks. It hasn’t been bigotry, jealousy or business reasons that have been behind Rangers so-called punishment, it has been fairness. People were appalled at the revelations that Rangers have been cheating over several years ; in illegal side-payments, and in not paying their debts, not least to HMRC (ie you and me). Of course Rangers, like every other club, has to be run in a business-like manner, but the belief that it is “all about business” is what got Rangers into this mess in the first place. First and foremost, it is a sport, and the sooner Mr Green realises this, the better for all of us.
I have just finished reading an autobiography by journalist and broadcaster Alan Biggs, who has reported on sport, principally football, in the Sheffield area over several decades. He makes no mention of Charles Green, but does refer to his spell at the club, when it was owned by Mike McDonald. He recalls that it was an unhappy, joyless spell at Bramall Lane, when the club lost its soul and didn’t look and act much like a football club. Rangers fans, you have been warned !
Incidentally, did you notice, a couple of weeks ago, the side-bar story in several daily newspapers headed “Ten things you should know about Rangers in the Third Division” ? I saw this in at least two of the nationals, so it was presumably contributed by an agency. One of the “facts” was that only two of the Third Division clubs had previously played Rangers in League football, Clyde (last played in the early 1970s) and Queen’s Park (last played in 1946/7). Hold on, didn’t Queen’s have a couple of seasons in the First Division in the mid 1950’s ? What about East Stirling in 1963/64 ? (and at least once pre-war). And what about Stirling Albion, every other season during the 50s and early 60s ? Sadly, this kind of sloppy research is often what passes for Scottish football history in the modern media.
Saturday July 28th
The last Saturday in July and, consistent with recent practice, the start of competitive football in Scotland. In my early years as a compulsive football match attender, this was the first day on which pre-season friendlies were permitted, the real thing waiting until late August, when everyone was back from holiday. Indeed, matches were few and far between on the last Saturday of July, which is why I found myself, thirty-odd years ago, in the company of fellow nut-cases, at the only match in the country, Queen of the South v Preston North End. None of us had a car - or a driving license for that matter - between us, so it a lengthy train journey from Glasgow to Dumfries. It was my first visit to Palmerston Park, and two memories stand out. Preston fielded their new signing Francis Burns, from Manchester United, and to this day I have never seen a more immaculate playing surface than the pristine pitch at Palmerston that afternoon.
In a telephone conversation with another veteran football follower this week, we bemoaned the long, and early, diet of pre-season matches, and reminisced about the old fashioned way of clubs limbering up for the new season. They played six matches in four team sections in the League Cup, twice a week for three weeks, starting on the third Saturday in August.
Neither of us could summon up much enthusiasm for today’s matches ; his team was playing north of Aberdeen, and the only match within an hour’s travel of Norwich for me was Dereham Town v Deeping Rangers. On a largely sunny day, I chose instead to read a book in the garden (the latest Ian Rankin, highly recommended, with Malcolm Fox shaping up nicely as a long-term substitute for John Rebus).
Friday July 27th
For the first time ever, I watched the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on TV, mostly out of curiosity following the media speculation of the top-secret contents. It deserves all the praise it has received, and the largely unchoreographed bit, the lengthy parade of all the competing countries, while a wee bit boring, was quite charming and uplifting with television pictures of happy, healthy and attractive young people.
A couple of gripes, however (how does that surprise you ?). The beaming smiles were a testament to good health and orthodontics the world over, a timely reminder that Danny Boyle’s centrepiece salute to the NHS could not have included its fast disappearing provision of dentistry.
At the start of the ceremony, there were recordings of national songs from the other parts of the United Kingdom, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Each was accompanied by television pictures of a rugby try by the respective home nation. Rugby ?!?! As the schoolchildren carried on singing “Flower of Scotland” I kept thinking “now for Archie Gemmell’s goal against Holland”, or “now for Kenny Daglish’s goal against Wales at Anfield,” or “now for the one where Ray Clemence lets it through his legs at Wembley.” But no. Rugby ?!?!
Saturday July 21st
The journey south was broken in the North East, as I tick off another ground in the Northern League (just five to go). Marske United’s GER Stadium proved to be an unexpected pleasure. I had envisaged a modern, soul-less, out of town ground, with a backdrop of Cleveland’s petro-chemical (or steel) industry. Instead, Marske is a pleasant sea-side town, with an impressive beach, and the football ground is in the middle of a housing scheme, not far from the town centre. The ground is neatly kept, and has a great deal of charm with an odd mixture of coverings, terracings and other facilities added over the years. It is too well maintained to be called ramshackle, perhaps chaotic would be a better description, exemplified by the colour scheme. Clubs colours would appear to be blue and yellow, but the pitch surrounds and floodlights were green, and the team wore red !
Visitors were Glossop North End, and the match was absolutely dire. I had vowed earlier this summer to give pre-season friendlies a miss, and only the unexpected trip north provoked a change of heart. This poor game reinforced the good sense of my broken promise. In fairness, the only admission charge was £1 for a programme, which was an excellent example of pre-season production, 8 informative pages inside a full colour standard cover. The Marske programme, edited by Moss Holtby, as been a serial winner of non-league programme of the year awards in recent years, and this excellent issue proves that the accolades are justified.
Thursday July 19th
Proof, once again, that I have a good face for the radio. BBC filmed me for a piece on Raith Rovers’ connection with the 2012 Olympics. Reigning Olympic ladies football champions USA are captained by Christie Rampone, whose great grandfather was Bill Dowie, a Raith Rovers goalkeeper before the First World War. He was a local boy, playing juvenile for Heatherbell and junior for Dunnikier Athletic before signing for Second Division Rovers in 1905. For three seasons he was the first team goalie at Stark’s Park, and played in two Scottish Qualifying Cup finals, winning the first in 1906, and losing the second in 1907. Thereafter, he played in the reserves, with the occasional first team appearance which included the second of two Fife Cup finals. After a spell with East Fife, he emigrated to America after the First World War.
Bill Dowie lived at 144 High Street, Kirkcaldy, and I entertained hopes that the building had survived. No. 148 is still there (it’s now Costa Coffee) and the less impressive but equally old No. 142 still stands (until recently occupied by Clinton Cards) but No. 144 is now a flat-roofed, post-war British Home Stores. The BBC cameraman was able to take some stills of team groups featuring the bunneted Dowie from a couple of my books on the club.
I was filmed beside the Fife Cup, which Rovers currently hold, providing a link (if somewhat removed and tenuous) between the club and the current Olympics. For Bill’s great grandaughter, an Olympic gold medal is in prospect - for me, I suspect, the cutting room floor.
Saturday July 14th
Stark’s Park, for Laurie Ellis’s Testimonial. You don’t see many of these nowadays given the ease with which players can move from club to club, and indeed the beneficiary’s 14 years with Raith Rovers has been broken by two seasons at St Mirren, and single seasons at Cowdenbeath and Stirling Albion. Rovers looked the better team in the first half, but Hearts dominated the second, and scored at will. There was a decent turnout, and a very impressive brochure-sized programme.
Friday July 13th
After a week of frantic (and at times hysterical and histrionic) activity in the corridors of power, the fate of Rangers is finally sealed. The buck had been comprehensively passed by the SFA and SPL to the SFL, and the poor cousins of Scottish football’s bewildering array of administrations exhibited the first sign of moral fibre in the whole sorry saga. In defiance of the wishes, blandishments and threats of the SFA and SPL and their own Board, the Scottish League clubs stood by precedent and their rule book, and voted to admit Rangers to the Third Division. This has been seen by many to be a triumph for ‘fan power’, with the media (new and old) venting the outrage of fans of other clubs at Rangers’ corporate failure. I would prefer to think that the Scottish League club owners and chairmen have taken a principled stance that rules are rules and they should be followed. I also think that many of them have resented the pressure they have been put under by the football hierarchy over the previous week. At a meeting of League clubs earlier that week, addressed by the Chief Executives of the three bodies, one club owner said something along the lines of “Having put all my money into my club, I won’t be told what to do by overpaid administrators like you.”
It is to be hoped that some good will come from all this, with more responsible economics in Scottish football and perhaps an overdue appraisal of the suitability of the game’s upper management. All previous reviews and reports on the game (Ernie Walker’s Think Tank and Henry McLeish’s Report spring instantly to mind) have been poorly targeted, and failed to address the fundamental structural problems which blight the sport in this small nation, but then, turkey’s won’t vote for Christmas.
Saturday July 7th
An unscheduled trip to Scotland had me searching for a football match to break the journey northwards. The preference was - as ever - a new ground, so Rhyl was chosen ahead of Lancaster where Dundee were visiting. I had been to Giant Axe before, although not in daylight, so it was Belle Vue, Rhyl. The ground retains some charm, and the look of a good old fashioned football ground, despite the many gestures to modernity, not least an attempt to make turn it into an all-seated stadium. The match wasn’t at all bad considering it would have been the first try-out of the season for both teams (the visitors were Hyde). I very much regret not having visited another famous old Welsh ground, Farrar Road in Bangor, so if Rhyl ever decided to sell up and ship out to some soul-less modern stadium, at least I will have memories of Belle Vue. Perhaps understandably, there was no programme, and teamsheets were at a premium.
Wednesday July 4th
At last, some decisive action in the Rangers saga. They will not be playing in the SPL next season, thanks to the collective actions of all-but-one of the other SPL clubs – and to think their chief executive was advocating further prevarication, to pass the buck to clubs from another association.
At the time of posting this, we still don’t know where Rangers will be playing their League football next season, and adding to the confusion is the somewhat worrying utterings of the Chief Executive of the SFA. Quite what he has got to do with the composition of League football in Scotland is beyond me, and if he argues that it is part of his remit to regenerate Scottish football, then in my opinion he is going in completely the wrong direction.
The biggest objection to including Rangers in the First Division next season (and there are many others) is that there is simply no provision for it in the SFL rule book, nor is there any precedent. My understanding was that the SFA, as the court of final appeal, was there to make sure that the SFL, as with any other affiliated organisation, was always acting within the terms of its rules. Now we have the SFA advocating the exact opposite.
Hopefully, the SFL member clubs will have enough sense to question some of the extremely dubious assertions made by the Chief Executive. A three year absence of Rangers from the SPL (in reality the collapse of the next Sky TV deal) would cost all Scottish clubs £16 million. Not if they cut their wage bills – and how can the majority of SFL clubs lose money, when they will all have a turn of two home League games against Rangers ? The game will suffer a slow, lingering death if Rangers are absent from the top division for three years. Just what has it been doing for the last 20 or 30 years ?
It is my belief that the game would benefit from Rangers’ absence for a few years. Even before Rangers’ collapse, SPL revenues have failed to generate sufficient income to improve playing resources, far less begin to pay back the vast historic debts run up by virtually every club.
No amount of PR spin can disguise the downward trend of turnstile and season ticket income, as supporters react to the falling standard of (over-priced) entertainment, exemplified and exacerbated by the continued failure of clubs to develop young Scottish talent, preferring instead to import increasingly inferior borrowed and foreign players.
The SPL’s chosen measure of success is not the progress of its teams in European competition, or its contribution to a successful Scotland international team, or its ability to attract customers (ie spectators). Instead, it congratulates itself for negotiating an improved satellite television contract – thereby applying a sticking plaster over the gaping wound from which Scottish football’s lifeblood continues to seep. Is more of the same really what the owners of Scotland’s major football clubs want ?
They may benefit from considering an alternative. An SPL without Rangers for a number of years would certainly cause short-term financial problems for most, if not all, clubs, but it could prove to be the noxious potion which can purge from the body of the sport that which is slowly killing it.
It could also be the stone which could kill two, big, birds. The term “Old Firm” was coined over 100 years ago when the two largest clubs were accused of conspiring in unison to draw cup ties in order to benefit from the turnstile income from replays), and their mutually beneficial antagonism persists to this day.
Celtic’s multi national team would surely romp to an easy victory in a Rangers-less SPL next season, but with consequently diminishing revenue, they, like the other clubs in the League, would inevitably be forced to rely on cheaper, home-reared talent in following years.
Reliance on indigenous playing strength would produce a more level playing field, which would in turn lead to closer competition. The lesson of history is that any club mounting a meaningful challenge to the Old Firm will reap the rewards through the turnstiles, and consequently increase other commercial revenue.
Teams filled with hungry young Scots would be better motivated to compete in European competition (Scotland’s only two European cup winners, Celtic and Aberdeen, fielded only Scots), and a more realistic wage structure would allow clubs to operate in a more rational, stable fashion without the monthly frantic scramble to gather funds for a bloated wage bill. In the fullness of time, the Scotland team manager would be able to call on young players emerging from the SPL, rather than Championship players with English accents.
A radical financial restructuring could also provide a life-saver for First Division clubs in the SFL, most of which continue to haemorrhage cash by employing full time footballers despite hopelessly inadequate income.
This is a glorious opportunity to change the balance of power within the SPL, and re-arrange the distribution of SPL funds, which has ruinously seen 34% of the income given to the “top two” clubs. In major sport in the USA – the land of free enterprise – it would be the bottom two clubs who would be receiving such largesse, to try to encourage genuine sporting competition. It is also a surprise that there has been no talk of turning the clock back thirty years and sharing gate revenue with visiting teams.
The choice which confronts the SFL club owners is : more of the same suffering, or a lot worse to get a lot better. This is a seminal moment for Scottish football, and there is an argument that Rangers’ demise is the biggest single event in the game since another collapse at Ibrox, 110 years ago.
Then, it was a vast wooden terracing, during the Scotland v England match. Twenty-five died and hundreds were injured. The consequences were two-fold. Football grounds were thereafter constructed on solid banking, or by using concrete and steel, and the national associations and most clubs were formed into Limited Liability Companies, to prevent committee men from being personally liable for the consequences of their decisions.
Today, most clubs play in modern, safe stadia, but many are now less than half full on a matchday. A full circle has been turned on the matter of personal liability, however, as many clubs are hugely in debt to the individuals who will deliberate on Rangers’ future, and as a consequence their own.
Will they have the foresight and resolve to decide on short term pain, for long term gain ? Will this be just a seismic shock, or a turning point in the history of Scottish football ?
Tuesday July 3rd
The Chief Executive of Barclays Bank has quit. The only surprise to me is that there is surprise at the latest example of cut-throat behaviour by the banks. It has been obvious for many years that the old image of banks as being steady, reliable bastions of integrity is as outmoded as a ten bob note.
The examples of their atrocious business practices are more widespread than rate fixing, sub-prime lending and reckless betting. Just about every one of us has been on the receiving end, from excessive and cumulative bank charges, to the universal practice of attracting savings by offering bonus rates of interest, in the hope and expectation that when the bonus period expires, the saver will be too busy / ignorant / negligent to do anything about it, permitting the bank to quietly pull the savings rate down to 0.5%, or lower.
The politicians say they will do something about it, but how can they ? If they want to wipe out unethical behaviour by the banks, they will have to shut down every single one of them, such is the widespread deceit right across their normal operations.
Frankly, I can’t understand what the fuss is about, following the latest revelations about manipulation of the Libor rate. They did it because they could, and because it is now in the nature of banking and bankers. The only lesson we can learn is that the rest of us have to be more careful in our banking practices, always conscious that the people with whom we have entrusted our savings simply can’t be trusted.
Sunday July 1st
Spain win their third successive tournament, and are being hailed by some as the greatest ever team, while others (before their exhilarating performance against Italy in the final) have been complaining about them being boring. On the latter point, there are times when their critics have a case, not least during the last World Cup finals, when they won the tournament while barely scoring a goal per game. Their philosophy seemed to be “the opposition won’t score while we have the ball, so there’s no point in us losing possession by trying anything as reckless as a shot at goal.”
Against Italy, however, and apparently when it suits them, they can add sparkling attacking play to their remarkable skill at keeping possession, and when that happens, no criticism is valid. One of the most heartening football quotes came from the Italian manager Cesare Prandelli during the tournament, when he explained his tactics against England : “We decided we were going to take on our opponents and take the game to them. That is the way football in going.” If he is right, then that is seriously good news for the short term future of the sport.
The Spaniards’ style, in particular in their heavily manned midfield, was of particular interest as I have been reading the excellent biography of John White, the Scotland and Spurs inside forward tragically killed by lightning. His playing style was likened in the book to that of Iniesta and Xavi, which gives those of us who were not privileged to see White play, an measure with which to appreciate his huge talent.
Are the Spaniards the best team ever ? Comparisons across decades are impossible, and few are alive today who saw the great teams of the pre-war era, or the Austrians and Hungarians of the immediate post-war era. The oft quoted contender for the contentious title is the Brazil team of 1970, but what about their 1958 team which won the World Cup, so convincingly, on another continent ? Then there are the club sides, who could recruit across nationalities. Real Madrid of the late 1950s ; AC Milan of the Van Basten era, and what about the great British sides, such as the Spurs double team, and the Lisbon Lions ?
It’s an argument that can never be settled, which will not be bothering the Spaniards right now.
Saturday June 22nd
Great excitement in Litster Towers - and it’s not the Spain v France match. I have received an email in reply to John’s Blog - the first proof that this is actually being read. It comes from Sandy Plant, and reads as follows :
“Your comments of 14thJune are just typical of the frenzied hysteria among supporters of other clubs who have a “ now is our chance to get them “ attitude to the situation. What about the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Rangers supporters who have loyally supported their club for many years and had no part to play in this disastrous situation caused by a handful of, as it would appear, crooked individuals. Do you care one hoot for them ?
The “newco” who are trying to ensure that we have a club to support have no association with the previous regime so why do you think that they should pay for past faults. Does this happen in any other walk of life with a company going into liquidation and being rescued, I think not.
As a lifelong supporter of the club I do not care what division we play in as long as we have a team to watch. We have had many critical periods in our existence and have come through them all, this will be no different.”
The email is a reminder that the innocent victims of this saga are the tens of thousands of Rangers supporters who support their team by buying match tickets and season tickets out of their taxed income. I recall asking an Airdrieonians fan of his thoughts when that club was in the process of dying. He replied : “You expect your mother and father to die before you, but not your football club.”
Football clubs rarely die, of course. Airdrieonians immediately metamorphised into Airdrie United ; Clydebank came back as a junior club, Gretna as a non-league club - all three in greatly reduced circumstances due to the manner of their earlier demise. Rangers, irrespective of what League they will be in next season, will still be playing at Ibrox, but the scenario of a newco continuing to play in the SPL provokes anger amongst many football fans.
Sandy Plant believes that this arises from a “now is our chance to get them” attitude. Not in my case, I can assure him. If Rangers emerge from this situation comparatively unscathed, it will set a precedent for any other Scottish football club to do the same in future - walk away from their debts and carry on as if nothing has happened. The consequence of that will be that no-one will ever again lend money, or extend credit, to a football club, and players’ and employees contracts of employment will be meaningless documents, providing a problem to every football authority, and the Players Union.
Sandy argues that this is what happens in other walks of life. Thanks to the ruinously reckless manner in which the Companies Acts have been amended over the last two decades, he is correct in saying that, but it doesn’t make it right. Secondly, he is comparing a virtually unregulated free market economy with football, which, by its nature, is a closed association of members. That is a crucial difference.
Aside from that distinction, if a trading company goes bust, and starts up again the following day with the same staff, premises, assets and trading style, its suppliers, customers and fellow traders have a choice as to whether they trade with this phoenix company, either on moral or practical grounds. That is precisely the debate which will be taking place round the SPL boardroom table.
That moral debate is also taking place in the minds of supporters of other clubs, who pay to see their favourites play Rangers four times each season, which entitles them to express a view on the matter. Few, if any, would deny Rangers, and their supporters, the right and opportunity to start up a new company, and continue playing, but most, if not all, would expect the same rules to apply to Rangers, as they did to Gretna, Airdrie United, Clydebank and, in slightly different terms, Livingston.
The suggestion in my Blog of 14th July was an attempt at a pragmatic solution which would satisfy those at both ends of the debate : the ones who want Rangers to remain in the top division, and those who are outraged at the unfair advantage obtained by Rangers over the past decade thanks to the policy of successive owners on debt and taxation. In twelve years of self employment I have never thought about Rangers when I write the bi-annual cheque to HMRC, but I certainly will be at the end of next month.
Friday June 15th
Quite a few dealers and collectors at the Premier Programme Fair (see 2nd June) asked me what I thought of the recent Royal Mail price hike. I have been criticised in the past for ranting about that organisation, and its performance, so I will reprint the following article, from the Eastern Daily Press, without comment.
NO POST. A number of businesses have been told they will not have mail delivered on rainy days after a postman slipped and injured himself on a wet pavement. Royal Mail said it had been forced to suspend deliveries during “adverse wet weather conditions” after a postman slipped on algae and moss on the pavement and broke his shoulder. Instead, customers in South Parade, Doncaster, have been told to collect their post from the town’s main sorting office during bad weather. Royal Mail spokesman Morag Turnbull said the safety of staff was paramount.
Thursday June 14th
Rangers will be liquidated, following the formal rejection of the CVA by the major creditor, HM Revenue and Customs. There is, of course, much more to come in this saga, including from this commentator. In the meantime, a suggestion for the owners of the SPL clubs who will decide Rangers fate over the coming weeks. Morally, and probably legally, Rangers should be expelled from the SPL and the SFA, but in the likely event of SKY pulling the plug on the television deal next season, in the absence of the contracted four Old Firm matches, the clubs would be faced with a reduction in revenue. Consequently, they are liable to ignore moral considerations, and vote to keep Rangers in their gang. Their biggest task is to find an alternative form of punishment for Rangers, which would provide a fig leaf of respectability.
Here’s a suggestion. Tell Rangers that their share of the SPL central funds will be given to their Creditors, until such time as all debts have been paid. That may also send a signal to any other club who may in the future pull the same stunt as Rangers, safe in the knowledge that the precedent of continuous membership of the SPL has been set.
Sunday June 10th
The European Championship Finals are well under way, and the matches have been extremely enjoyable so far. Those which started as cat-and-mouse affairs ended in thrilling climaxes, and it is to be hoped that managers and coaches in domestic football will take note, and set their teams out to score goals, rather than to prevent their loss. We can but hope.
Saturday June 2nd
Over 700 collectors attended the Premier Programme Fair in Bloomsbury, central London, where they had the opportunity to purchase programmes and other football memorabilia from 35 dealers who between them displayed what was arguably the biggest selection to be assembled under one roof. To the relief of the organisers - and those traders who view the event as a weather-vane for the hobby - the attendance was around the same number as the previous year, which given the economic circumstances, and the onward march of eBay, projects a blink of sunshine into the gloom of a hobby in recession. The quantity and quality of items available to buy should have satisfied any collector who attended - with the added bonus that they didn’t have to pay the new postal charges for their purchases.
The instant feedback from the stallholders was, as usual, mixed. Some reported an excellent day’s trading, others commented on the “good attendance, but a reluctance to spend.” There are several reasons for the parsimony of an increasing number of collectors - lack of personal funds through inflation and loss of work, the belief/hope that rare items might be bought for 99p on eBay, collections nearing completion to name but three - and it will come as little consolation to those who had a disappointing day’s trading to learn that the organisers suffered a little too.
There was an unprecedented number of collectors who attempted (and in some cases succeeded) to avoid paying the £1 admission charge. There is of course an argument that there should be no charge to such events ; after all you, you don’t pay to get into Tesco. The counter argument is that the hire of a large Central London hotel is not getting any cheaper, and the modest admission charge makes up the deficit on the room hire / stall fees, and pays for the publicity. Next year, if a stallholder wants to sell an old football turnstile, the organisers may offer to demonstrate its working order for a few hours before the sale is concluded. Lessons have been learned, and next year entry will owe a lot less to trust in the ability of collectors to read the large and unmissable sign at the entrance which said “Admission £1”. As for this year’s event, it is not surprising that some stallholders found that customers were reluctant to part with their money, when several of them didn’t want to spend a pound to get it.
Wednesday May 29th
Yesterday, the administrators of Rangers were successful in the Court of Session in Edinburgh in overturning the club’s punishment at the hands of the SFA. I have tried not to dwell over-much on this saga, simply because there is no end to the comments that can be made about this soap opera, which has more twists, turns and unexpected events than the most improbable work of fiction.
However, I am firmly of the belief that Rangers administration is the biggest single event to hit Scottish football since the Ibrox Disaster in 1901, which resulted in the widespread adoption of Limited Liability Companies by the country’s football clubs and authorities, and a revolution in the design of sports stadia.
This time round, the lessons have to be financial and economical, and no matter how smart, duplicitous, crafty or conniving the people involved in this modern saga may be, its repercussions will be deep and long lasting.
The other lesson that will be learned, repeatedly thoughout the life of this event, is that the “Law of Unintended Consequences” is always present.
There was something “not quite right” about the SFA’s belated, and heavy handed, intervention in this matter, but there is also something vague about the decision of the Court of Session to refer it back to the Appeals Tribunal. The SFA has an unhappy history of clubs taking it to court. Despite the catch-all “we can do anything we like to anyone in football” clause in its rule book, the Court of Session found in favour of St Johnstone in December 1964, when they challenged what they considered to be an unjust fine (of £25). It is usual in describing Law Cases to refer to the appropriate reference in the Scots Law Times ; instead, I will refer you to page 26 of issue 83 (Autumn 2002) of Scottish Football Historian.
So much for the precedent ; what of the consequences of this case, and in particular the unintended ones. The newspapers have been full of FIFA’s dire warnings against dragging national associations into the court room, but the Rangers administrators may have to fear retribution from closer to home. Not only have they alienated several of the SPL club chairmen who will shortly decide the club’s fate, but they have also pulled the beard of the SFA.
The spectrum of sanctions which the ruling body can apply to Rangers is wide, one extremity imaginable by asking the question : “What would the SFA do if a First, Second or Third Division club was guilty of the misdemeanours perpetrated by Rangers ?” Expulsion.
It will be fascinating to see what the SFA do, given the personalities involved. Its Board is dominated by representatives of the SPL, who have a vested interest. Its President is heavily implicated in Rangers’ long term Income Tax problems, and its Chief Executive is a newcomer to Scottish football (as is his counterpart in the SPL). You couldn’t make it up.
Tuesday May 28th
Spent a couple of hours emailing Southern England’s daily and evening newspapers, in the last part of the publicity campaign for the Premier Programme Fair this coming Saturday (see the Home Page, or Fairs, Auctions etc opposite, for full details). For the first time, not a single letter was sent to programme editors, magazine and newspaper sports editors, and radio stations, everything was done by email. Hopefully, these will get to their intended destinations in a way that can no longer be guaranteed by an old fashioned letter, and the digital nature of the message also makes it easier for any sports editor to “cut and paste” the text for inclusion in his periodical. The downside is that the soul-destroying task of sending hundreds of individual emails takes a lot longer than stuffing a photocopied letter into a pre-addressed envelope. Hopefully, these long hours of repetitive key strokes will be rewarded with a bumper crowd on Saturday.
Saturday May 26th
Almost certainly my last game of the season, although there will be plenty of junior fixtures over the next fortnight in Scotland. Linlithgow Rose beat Broxburn Athletic in the final of the Fife & Lothians Cup at Bo’ness, in brilliant sunshine, which caused the terracing discussion with four fans of senior clubs to include the topic of summer football. In these days of comfortable, indeed pampered, living, central heating etc., I’m all in favour. A pleasantly journey back to Norfolk ; late evening is the time to travel on Britain’s roads.
Wednesday May 23rd
Having set the digi-box to tape the Rangers documentary at 8pm, it was off to Kelty Hearts v Broxburn Athletic in the semi final of the Fife and Lothians Cup. As expected, a full sized, informative programme was on sale at £1. Broxburn just about deserved their 3-2 win. At about 11 o’clock, I settled down to watch the BBC Scotland documentary, uninterrupted. These programmes usually promise more than they deliver, but not this one. It was superbly researched and presented, and will arguably be a decisive event in the convoluted, protracted saga of Rangers’ gargantuan debt. No-one can have any sympathy for the club’s self-inflicted plight after watching this excellent exposure of some of its practices, the extent of which was quantified and illustrated in easily understood terms. This was investigative journalism at its best – and a stark contrast to the prevarication of the SFA and, in particular, the SPL. Entertaining too – particularly Craig Whyte’s claim that Prince Albert of Monaco was lined up to invest in Rangers, and the involvement of a porn star in Rangers’ tax planning process.
Tuesday May 22nd
They don’t get much lower than Steelend Vics in the pecking order of East of Scotland Junior football With only the perennial cannon fodder of Luncarty below them in the basement division, the Vics don’t have much going for them, but they served up a smashing game against Bankfoot, coming very close to getting a deserved draw. Not only was there a programme, but it came with an updating wraparound covering the issue from the postponed match the previous Saturday. From the informative contents, I discovered several scheduled fixtures which were omitted from the East Region website – so-called old technology proving to be more useful than the information super-highway.
Monday May 21st
First visit to The Show Park, East Kilbride, for more than thirty years. The visitors are Shotts Bon Accord, still catching up on their backlog of fixtures. There are strong rumours that the ground is going to be re-developed and Clyde will move in to share with East Kilbride Thistle. They’ve moved the pitch, and enclosed it since my last visit, which has helped with the atmosphere, but the place is looking very dilapidated. The covered enclosure, however, is now so far from the pitch it might be in Ayrshire. A good sized crowd sees an unexpected 1-0 home win, but there is no programme, to the surprise of Alan Dick and Scott Struthers.
Saturday May 19th
I’ve been at every Scottish Cup final since 1968 bar one (the following year’s Old Firm match when I was but a lad) and by some distance Hibs are the worst side I have ever seen in the fixture. To call them a pub side would be a disservice to the nation’s footballing boozers.
Parked very early and walked to the ground to buy a programme, to take it safely back to the car. When I returned to the stadium, half an hour before kick off, the programmes had sold out. When are the SFA (or their programme producers) going to learn that there are two different types of Scottish Cup final programme buyers – the Old Firm (who largely don’t buy), and the rest (who will buy, if they can get a hold of a copy) ?
Wednesday May 16th
A packed **** Stadium (sorry, I don’t believe the ground has ever had a proper, non sponsored name) as Dumbarton beat Airdrie United 2-1 in the first leg of the Second Division play off. Another compelling match, this time with goals, as the Sons’ high endeavour gains reward against an Airdrie side which looked capable of over-turning the deficit at their place (see below).
In anticipation of a potential lock-out, I arrived early ; the guy sitting next to me didn’t, and complained that the programmes had sold out half an hour before kick off.
Tuesday May 15th
Junior Cup finalists Shotts Bon Accord have a huge backlog of League matches to fit in over the next three weeks, plus a few Cup ties, including the Junior Cup Final. Tonight they were at home to Cumbernauld United in the League, and they made heavy weather of a 1-0 win, to keep them on track for a League title. They missed a penalty, and a succession of chances, but the vital statistic may be the two injury-induced substitutions they had to make before half time. Fielding eleven fit players may be their biggest challenge.
No programme, perhaps understandably, although a several spectators were clutching copies of the special edition issues for the home leg of their semi final. The vast and impressive Hannah Park has been kept tidy, and the large social club appeared to be the hub of that evening’s community activities in Shotts. The cloudless sky was a rare treat, not so the biting cold wind, which was little surprise as the ground is at the highest point of the town, which in turn sits atop a windswept Lanarkshire moor.
Saturday May 12th
To Arbroath, for the League play off match against Dumbarton. It is always a pleasure to visit Gayfield, so neat and well kept, particularly when it isn’t blowing a gale. The Lichties had 90% of the game, but couldn’t make inroads on Dumbarton’s 2-1 first leg lead, largely thanks to a superb performance by Steven Grindlay in goal. The play-off games, determining which standard of football the competing clubs will be playing at next season, are compelling viewing for the neutral, and torture for the fans of both sides. There was no pleasure in watching the agonies endured by Dumbarton die-hards Jim McAllister and Graeme Robertson, as their side somehow survived to draw 0-0.
Apart from the lack of goals, the other disappointment of the afternoon was the match programme, which was a poor effort for the four-figure crowd, and contained no mention of the previous Wednesday’s first leg.
Listened to Sportsound on Radio Scotland on the way there and on the way back. Rangers completely dominated the airwaves in a way that their youth team won’t on Premier League pitches next season.
Friday May 11th
The SFA have released the document which details the findings of the Judicial Review into the actions of Craig Whyte and Rangers, which resulted in hefty fines and various bans. Downloaded, it is the equivalent of 56 A4 pages, and is written in a somewhat unpolished legal style. Towards the very end, in justification of the panel’s judgement, the style changes into a subjective vocabulary, and a wee bit of a rant.
Life is too short to comment on the details, or indeed the whole sorry scandal surrounding Rangers Despite having no sympathy with their self-induced plight, I can summon little support for the SFA’s actions.
It smacks of kicking a corpse, and if the SFA was so concerned about the image of the game and the damage done to a “proud club”, why didn’t they intervene in the immediate aftermath of Whyte’s takeover, when every rumour indicated that he was not a “fit and proper person” to be a director of a football club ? A few clicks of a mouse would have discovered that he had served a period of disqualification from being a company di