“Montrose born and bred,” is how Graham Christieson introduces himself to me over the phone.
By the time we’ve established that he’s been going to Links Park for 34 years, I’m hooked. I’m about to get the answer to a question I’ve been dying to ask. When you’ve been in Scotland’s bottom tier since John Major was running the country, just what keeps you going? Whatever it is, it’s to be commended. If it is true that fans are the lifeblood of the game, the Gable Endies have spent so long in the basement of Scotland’s senior ranks that their dedicated fans could surely set up their own blood bank.
The last time Montrose played a league match outside of Scotland’s lowest tier, some of their current players weren’t even born. The late George Michael was at number one with Fastlove in the UK singles chart while the not-long split Take That still topped the album rankings with their Greatest Hits. We still had almost a year of Major’s tenure as UK Prime Minister to come while the Scottish Parliament was merely words on a sheet of paper that would form part of New Labour’s manifesto.
The date was Saturday, May 4, 1996, the fixture in question a 1-0 defeat at home to Stranraer in the old Second Division. After only a season at that level, relegation had long been confirmed for a Gable Endies side who from the start had looked out of their depth. They had to wait three months for their first victory of any description (a 1-0 win at home to Forfar Athletic), while in February, two consecutive matches saw them ship 13 unanswered goals (7-0 at East Fife in midweek and 6-0 on the Saturday at home to Queen of the South). About the only bright spot also came in February, in the Scottish Cup, when First Division Morton were dispatched in a 3-2 fourth round replay victory. The other interesting fact about that game was that the first tie took place the previous night.
Was there to be a swift return? More than 700 league matches later, they are still trying.
Montrose played East Stirlingshire four times every season for twenty years until the Shire were relegated into the Lowland League in 2016. They’ve faced Elgin City in every one of the Borough Briggs club’s 17 seasons as part of the SFL and SPFL. The 208-mile round trip to Morayshire has, occasionally, been their local derby fixture. During that time, they’ve only looked like winning promotion once, during season 2007/08, when they reached the promotion play-offs only to lose to Stranraer in the semi-final.
“Apart from that,” admits Graham, “it’s been slim pickings. We are all aware we want out of this division, the manager wants to get us out of the division, and it’s just about getting the players on the pitch.”
So what does keep the fans going after 21 seasons in Scotland’s basement division? Especially when away matches are such a slog: quite apart from Elgin, trips to Annan and Berwick have become fixtures on the itinerary.
“Love of the club,” is Graham’s simple answer. “It’s hard to explain to some people who support a bigger team. When I grew up you had to support Rangers or Celtic, or Aberdeen or Dundee United, who are closer to us geographically. In the early 1980s my Dad took me along to Links Park and straight away we just felt like we were part of it. There are guys who have been going there for more than 60 years. It’s like a drug: once you are addicted you can’t shake it off.
“The worst time of the year is the close season. It impacts on your social life, as you spend the rest of the year with the same people going to places like Annan, Berwick or Elgin, and that all stops for a few weeks.”
During their somewhat extended stay in the bottom of Scotland’s four top divisions, Montrose have finished with the wooden spoon three times. The last one of those, in season 2014/15, brought about a frightening scenario. The club did have a route out of the division – downwards, as the first club to face a play-off with the winners of the Highland or Lowland League.
Highlanders Brora Rangers were the opponents, having defeated Edinburgh City for the right to challenge Montrose over two legs for a place in the 2015/16 Third Division. With Brora winning the first leg 1-0 at Dudgeon Park, the Gable Endies were 90 minutes away from bowing out of Scottish league football, which they originally joined in 1923, on their own pitch.
A crowd of more than 2,000 squeezed into Links Park to witness a 3-1 victory, with two of the hosts’ goals coming in the final 15 minutes, to ensure Montrose survived by the skin of their teeth.
Graham recalls “That was a scary time. The real fear among the supporters was that if we were to drop into the Highland League we might not be able to continue. We would carry on in some guise but for us we wouldn’t feel it as much, as the Highland League, or Lowland League, is not easy to get out of. East Stirlingshire have already found that out after being relegated last season and I feel sorry for their fans.
“It was a massive fixture for us to continue at the current level after so long and we were just relieved that it worked out for us.”
To their own fans, and many others, Montrose have their own place in Scottish football. Even allowing for its artificial surface, Links Park is one of the remaining traditional grounds, where you can stand on terracing, mix with rival fans and generally enjoy the game as you would have done decades ago. Players have symbolised the club over the years as well. You don’t have to be that old to remember the likes of goalkeeper David Larter and goal-grabber Colin McGlashan, wearers of the club’s colours for many years. Further back in history the likes of Les Barr and Dennis D’Arcy are still revered by the club. Even during their time in the Third Division, the club has nurtured the likes of Aaron Taylor Sinclair, John Baird and Martin Boyle, who have gone on to further themselves at a higher level.
Instead of seeing players ascend up the leagues with other clubs, supporters would much rather see the club become upwardly mobile.
“It’s very much the aim to win promotion,” continues Graham. “We had a meet-the-manager event with Stewart Petrie and his first aim is to make sure the club is stable and not fighting at the wrong end of the table. But the long-term goal is to get out of the bottom league. Brechin City are only nine miles away from us and have been up there in League One – that’s where we want to be, if anything just to have different away days. As much as we enjoy the likes of Elgin, Berwick and Annan, and this season, Edinburgh City, after 20 years in the same division it gets a bit boring.
“There’d be a major hangover from celebrating if we did win promotion. There’d be some fear as well, because we don’t want to go up and come straight back down as we did last time. But we’d be in a better league and be able to bring in better players. You never know what can happen, but the main aspect for us would be just to get out of our current league.
“I met Aaron [Taylor Sinclair]’s dad in Aberdeen recently and he still speaks very highly of the club. Martin [Boyle] came through our youth development system and his gran and granddad have stuck with the supporters’ club even since he left. It’s been a pleasure to see how well he’s done for himself. When younger players go on to bigger and better things it gives you a bit of pride.”
Being in the Third Division and League Two for so long hasn’t always meant time out of the spotlight for Montrose. Not when, in season 2012/13, they took points off Rangers twice. This was remarkable considering that one of those occasions was at Ibrox, with David Gray scoring in the 89th minute to take a 1-1 draw. It may not even be the most dramatic late goal scored by a player called David Gray against Rangers in recent history, but it was something that meant a lot to the fans.
Graham adds: “When the equaliser went in it was as though we had won the game – even as if we had won the Champions League – going by the celebrations in our corner of Ibrox. Martin Boyle played in that game for us as well. We still had to play them at Links Park and we thought that if we could take a point off them at their ground, how good would it be to do that at our place?
“In the end we were really unlucky not to even beat them [the game ended 0-0). We had a perfectly good goal chalked off and although they won the league that day, we gave them a very good game. Some people say we got the ‘blue coin’ with all the fans who travelled to watch them, but the money we got from that and the TV coverage went towards improving the ground. Many clubs would spend it on players, but we’ve brought the ground up to standard and it will benefit us.”
And the loyal fans remain optimistic that the benefit will result in promotion, just four UK prime ministers, four Scottish first ministers and three US presidents since Montrose last played outside Scotland’s bottom division.