Echoes from the past at Stark’s Park

The ghosts of the 1960s and 70s, when the ground was always full, the floodlights always on and the rain was always falling, can still be felt at the home of Raith Rovers.

By Willie Paul

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

The enclosure at Stark’s Park is hard up against the tunnel where players ascend over the last few rising steps to sprint from the corner to the centre of the pitch. As the 1960s flowed into the 1970s I stood there regularly, mostly for mid-week matches, as Raith drifted between the divisions.

I was convinced that on those nights big centre half Willie Polland nodded to me every time he emerged to lead the team. Bobby Reid, pound for pound probably the best goalkeeper in the land, was always behind big Willie in his roll-neck goalie’s jersey. I watched the heirs to the Lisbon Lions trot out in seeming slow motion, superstar Jimmy Johnston with socks round his ankles like a naughty boy among serious-faced men. Slim Jim Baxter was before my time but I imagined I saw him too, his beautifully barbered head popping above ground at the end of the tunnel to take his place in the never-ending procession of players.

It was my cousin Margaret’s husband Willie who took me to games at Stark’s Park. We drove south from Kettle to Kirkcaldy in his racing green Mini. We drove along narrow, hedge-lined roads, solemnly discussing the night’s tactics and team selection before parking somewhere near Beveridge Park and passing under the railway bridge to walk down Pratt Street. We paid to negotiate the clanking turnstiles and then a wee bit extra to get into the enclosure and our customary places beside the tunnel.

In my mind, Stark’s is always full, the floodlights always on, with streaks of rain slashing across the white beams. The wrap-around crowd is made up of a seething mass of indistinct faces. Its intermittent roar ripples out and over the white-flecked surface of the not-so-faraway sea behind. Opposite, the simple stand runs the length of the pitch all but obscuring trains as they flash past, tickets buying passengers only fleeting glimpses of the action before they hurry on. The steep terracing at either end is covered by rudimentary corrugated iron roofs. Steel crush barriers are rocks in the stream of heads and faces with individuals leaning against them like neighbours gossiping over a garden wall.

The quirky main stand behind us is like no other in Scottish football. It hooks onto the corner and extends only to the halfway line. It is full of posh folk who eat their pies from plates and then politely wipe their fingers.

Nowadays, at this distance in time, memory has blended the trips and the games into one Rovers hybrid where Bobby Reid is unbeatable, Willie Polland unflappable at the back, Ralph Brand in everybody’s face. The prematurely balding Davie Sneddon is in control in midfield, Gordon Wallace supreme up front, George Farm is the manager who shepherds the team up and out of the tunnel.

I relish reliving the moments when the ball hits the back of the net, sparking an instant reaction as the crowd acknowledges the kill at the culmination of the hunt. It begins with spittle-strewn inarticulate outbursts, an involuntary surge of bodies, bulging eyes, raised arms, clenched fists, a shower of burning fag ends knocked from gaping mouths to litter the ground. The upheaval subsides as quickly as it arises and bodies re-arrange themselves while the game gets under way again.

Every re-run is in black and white. Colour hadn’t been invented in those days. Even my fevered imagination does not pretend Raith always won, but when they didn’t the consoling alternative was the concept of heroic losers. When the opposition scored, as they must have done though I don’t actually recall any goals, it triggered a sense of sadness like a deflating balloon settling on the crowd. People shoved their hands deep into their pockets, looked down at their shoes and cursed the fates that had made us disciples of the hopeless Rovers. Then we were off again and hope persisted until the end when the players disappeared down the tunnel.

When the game was won we travelled home optimistically, shouting over the noise of the Mini’s grinding engine to explain to each other how it had happened and what the players had done right. When the game was lost we simply sat in sullen silence only too well aware of what had gone wrong.

One particular rainy night, a Thursday in February I fancy, we beat Rangers by the odd goal in five and my mum told me I must be making it up, triggering an overnight existential crisis resolved only by reference to the next day’s newspaper confirming the unlikely result.

Stark’s Park in the late-60s and early70s was a rite of passage for me. Each generation has its own. History has a habit of accumulating stuff that defines a period in time. For me it was being part of a growling crowd for routine derby victories over the Dunfermlines and East Fifes, the occasional cup run and success over one of the Old Firm. Raith’s great Coca Cola Cup smash and grab of 1994 and subsequent Bayern Munich adventure was more than 20 years in the future when I was a lad. The next generation will look back on memories, good and bad, that haven’t even happened yet.

When I go to Stark’s Park these days it’s not the same. It can’t be. It is changed out of all recognition. I sit in the stand with the posh folk, eating my pie from a paper plate. Sometimes I go behind the goal with the more boisterous fans and eat my pie from my hand. The enclosure lies empty, forbidden ground in a modern all-seater stadium where awkward corners are swept clean of fag ends and human clutter. It is visited only by an occasional ball boy jumping the dyke to retrieve a wayward clearance. People are rightly safer now, but it means they are arranged like ornaments on a shelf.

The tunnel is still there though and the players still rise out of it to reach the pitch. As I watch them emerge to face the applause, or the abuse, of the present day some may hear tiny echoes stretching back across the decades in an unbroken line of those who have gone up the steps before them. And sometimes, just sometimes, when the game is in play and the ball hits the back of the net those tiny echoes will swell mightily and reverberate for a few seconds before lapsing back into silence.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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