Time rich and money poor; they say it only takes seven seconds to form a first impression, which was almost exactly how long it took Hawick Royal Albert to ship the opening goal in my first ever Borders derby, and for me to fall, if not madly in love, then certainly into that kind of semi-compulsive behaviour which passes for it sometimes, when the light strikes something new at just the perfect angle, and the moon above is in its proper phase.
Duns, a market town of some 2,500 souls (plus Pat Nevin) a couple of miles north of the English border. Hawick, a self-declared municipality of textile mills which, like all towns in the Borders, is more celebrated for its rugby accomplishments than its footballing ones. At stake: a place in the second round, or second qualifying round, or regional round-robin of some local diddy cup or another. Duns might even have went on to win it that year, or get to the final at any rate, but who’s kidding who? I don’t remember, and neither does anybody else.
Because Duns FC, you see, are what we have come euphemistically to refer to as a phoenix club, rising over and over again from the ashes of their various previous incarnations. Reheated more times than a microwave kebab, Duns has built for itself a local reputation as a kind of football Punxsutawney Phil, continually re-emerging from self-imposed dormancy to stick its nose in the air, smell the winds, and declare them to be no good. This dead autumn, so recently have the club convulsed back to life that they don’t even have a ground to play at, and today’s game is taking place at the local high school, on one of a miscellany of pitches shoehorned in behind a car park. There’s tea and biscuits for the committee members in the poky staff room; changing rooms have been allocated in P.E.; and at the vacant desks of a maths class, the gaffers hunch laboriously over their teamsheets, pencils in hand.
For Mick Murphy, the manager of Hawick Royal Albert, the numbers are easy enough. Only 12 players have made the 37-mile journey, and two of them, predictably, are goalkeepers. Murphy, an amiable local enjoying (if that is the word) his second spell in charge, has taken over the reins at the bleakest point in the club’s long history, a series of double-digit reverses and a Scottish Cup match-rigging scandal (nothing was proven) which have long established HRA as a byword for laughing stock. On a hiding to nothing, Murphy has brought into the side a clutch of Hawick-based players, a move which has been well-received locally but yielded only fitful dividends. It is rumoured another bad game will see him pack his bags – voluntarily, it should be added, as the Albert are in no position to sack anyone.
The players emerge. There is no tunnel, of course, just a doorway alcove large enough to shelter some schoolboy smokers from the rain. Hawick are up against it from the start, but the 40-odd punters in attendance are treated to a match which turns out to be fairly spirited, as 10-0 drubbings go. Duns, still fresh-faced from their miraculous rebirth, are mustard keen to rack up some goals, cup tie be damned; they celebrate each and every one like a lottery win. In a manner strongly reminiscent of a glitchy video game from the 90s, their players quickly uncover the Albert’s inability to defend through balls and carry on accordingly, tearing apart the HRA defence like a wee boy pulling the wings off a fly. Half-time comes and goes, and with only a couple of minutes left to play, a measured pass defeats the linesman’s flag again, and another grandstanding celebration skit is surely on the cards. Only it isn’t, and what follows instead is a ‘What Happened Next?’ moment, as the Duns goalscorer-elect gets free and clear only to be wiped abruptly out by a rugby ball mortaring in from the right.
It’s inevitable, of course. Rugby players really only kick the ball to get it off the field, and on the adjacent pitch, Selkirk RFC are giving the other Duns something of a skelping. During the course of the two games, the football has bounced onto the rugby pitch several times and been ignored, whilst every encroachment of the rugby ball onto the football pitch has been received with fresh outbursts of dismay. A Hawick defender strides over and attempts to kick the intruder away, but its shape deceives him, and it spins around on its axis like a Lazy Susan.
Meanwhile, the Duns attacker scrambles back to his feet, and the referee gives a drop ball, a reasonable improvisation on the theme of the rules; but this latest crossover between the games has taken things too far, and suddenly all four sets of players on both pitches round on each other, their temporary opposition forgotten in favour of the age-old enemy across the way. As they advance ominously, we supporters, caught between them in our precious strip of no-man’s land, swivel our gazes anxiously from one side to the other. The footballers spindly, wiry, decidedly metrosexual; by no means to be encountered insouciantly in the proverbial alley but nevertheless what might one call, by only a small stretch of the imagination, prim. The rugby players bearded, gigantic, like your best friend’s dad when you were six; recognisably human, but scaled up by some unimaginable factor, CGI from an IMAX movie. There is a long, silent stare between the pitches. Then the games resume.
Our match concludes as it has to, with the home side progressing to the second round, or third, or whatever. The referee picks up the match ball, vainly calculates which Duns player to award it to. There are not many handshakes, and precious little in the way of celebration as the players file off-field. Departing, I look back to see that the rugby match is still going on. It is hard to tell who is winning. Perhaps no-one is. It hardly matters. They are all engaged in their own gigantic world, grimly tossing around their strangely shaped ball like a smaller lad’s schoolbag.
There are seven senior sides in the Scottish Borders, four in the Lowland League and three in its East of Scotland feeder, and when it comes to home grounds the situation that afternoon in Duns is much closer to being the rule than the exception. Like Liverpool and Everton, Dundee and Dundee United, the football clubs in the Borders are generally shunted side-by-side with their rugby-playing counterparts, a road or an industrial estate or a thin scrub of parkland often all that separates them. A couple of years ago, Hawick’s Graeme Paxton showed a great deal of political prescience when he ran for club chairman on the platform of building a fence between Albert Park and the adjacent rugby ground. How tall the fence would be, who would pay for it, these were details for later. The stated purpose of the division was to keep the ball from one game from interfering in the action of other; but the real reason, as everyone understood it locally, was simply to segregate.
Unlike the bitter rivalries of neighbouring football teams, this long-standing enmity between rugby and football in the Borders is all the more poignant for its lack of consummation. When Notts County fans stare across the blank bounds of the Trent and lay their envious eyes upon the City Ground, they can at least console themselves that a lucky cup-draw will sooner or later set their David against the Goliath. But in the Borders, Gala Fairydean will never scalp Gala RFC; Jed Legion will never bring down Jed Forest. Code-switching was once a relatively normal occurrence, such that it was Selkirk FC, rather than RFC, who played in the very first Melrose Sevens. But nowadays, attempts at cross-code competition are made only sporadically and informally, and it is always the rugby players who win.
Rugby is far from the only challenge facing Borders football. Captive audience notwithstanding – for most Borderers, the nearest league club is Berwick Rangers, serving only to counterpoint the irony that England has more clubs in the Scottish league than the Borders does – attendances at local football matches are generally dismal. On the playing side, clubs are largely dependent on recruits from outwith the region, and the practicalities of travel mean that very few Borders teams train locally. As a result, local players rarely turn out for Borders sides which, in turn, means a growing disconnect between players and supporters, dwindling attendances and, eventually, stagnant football. These and the other difficulties of transplanting the beautiful game to the inhospitable hills of the Borders are, it often seems, insurmountable, and football clubs in the vast swathe between Edinburgh and England often wind up as colonies, leper colonies really, uncertain little halfway houses between the Old World and the New.
Take Gala Fairydean, for example. Down at Netherdale, the rugby club and the football club sit side by side as they face glumly out across the town, a pair of grumpy old codgers on a worn-out bench, a Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for the 21st century. But of all the Borders clubs across all the codes, it’s the Fairydean who have been most prone to lift their eyes from the dismal horizon and set sights on a world elsewhere.
Nominally Gala Fairydean Rovers since a 2013 merger, the Fairies are in many ways the self-conscious poster child for Borders football. Forward-looking and unwary of change, the Fairydean committee have in recent years been responsible for a wide-ranging boondoggle of cosmetic and commercial alterations to the fabric of the club, including a new 3G pitch, new badge, new strips, new sponsorship opportunities, and a new (albeit unconvincing) motto, “Unitas est Fortitude”. All this with the express aim of making the Fairydean more like a viable football club and less like – I don’t know – an 80s sitcom.
We are all of us trying to impress people, but Gala Fairydean have suffered more than most in their ongoing quest for acceptance. Their first attempt to join the Scottish league was in 1994; they received more votes than any of the field, but vote weighting meant that it was Ross County and Inverness Caley Thistle who were elected. In 2000, the Fairies tried again and failed again, losing out to another brace of Highland League sides. Two years on, Gala’s attempts to claim a league slot were foiled by Gretna, who consequently went bust and whose phoenix club now play alongside the Fairydean in the Lowland League. By the time Gretna’s space went up for grabs in 2008, even Gala had started to get the message. Annan Athletic won the spot, and no Borders side since has even come close to joining the league.
Ironically, it’s the Lowland League, initially devised as a path to league membership for the upwardly aspirational, which has effectively put the kibosh on Borders hopes. At time of writing, the four Borders sides are firmly rooted in the bottom five of the Lowland League, and not since the opening season of the league, when Vale of Leithen squeaked into sixth, have a Borders side even finished in the table’s upper half. Gala Fairydean Rovers may have a new name, a new badge, a new pitch; all the accoutrements of a successful modern club. But it’s the quality on the pitch which counts now, and on that criterion the football teams of the Borders are as far removed from the rest of Scottish football as ever.
The game goes on. In the brutalist, Category A-listed stand at Netherdale, the San Siro of the Borders, a decent crowd of well over 100 has turned out today, with the hope of the believer and the passion of the convert, to bear witness as the Fairydean take on Selkirk in one of these mad derbies in which form literally means nothing and a rugby score is as likely as a football one. In truth, local pride apart, today’s match matters not one jot. East Kilbride have run away with the Lowland League, and the new town in which they play is perfectly primed to accommodate itself to league football. The Borders, once again, seems doomed to being on the outside looking in.
Though practical and cost-effective, the Christmas-tree green of the Fairydean’s Astroturf – sprinkled around the edges with grey dustings of frost – is highly suggestive of a Subbuteo pitch when viewed from the nosebleed of the stand, lending an unmistakably toyetic aspect to the game. The blood and thunder tackles have a smallness to them, the oofs ringing out with a distant quality in the cold, distorting air. In the bleak, breath-misted grey of Galashiels, this bright and lively game might well be a hologram, beamed in direct from some alien planet. It’s football, Jim, but not as we know it; though why that should be a strike against it in the current climate, God only knows.
The old Border ballads are full of laments, and so are the modern ones, cardinal amongst which is that professionalism killed the game of Borders rugby. Though of undoubted benefit to the players and to the status of the sport overall, the onset of professionalism ensured that never again would a Jim Renwick or a John Jeffrey play for any other side than Edinburgh or Glasgow Warriors, never again would Hawick or Melrose boast the finest team in the country.
The analogy with Borders football might not be apparent at first glance. Well you may suspect that there is no possible world in which Gala kept John Collins from upping sticks for Monaco. And yet, such enticements as the Borders and its teams do possess are surely not the imported ones; the increasingly corporate outlook, the jealous counting of beans. In Hawick, in Gala, in Selkirk, in Duns, football is only gradually awakening from a kind of suspended animation, a little chain of intact islands in some land long lost to Time. Still, to be stuck in the past is no terrible thing when the present looks so unpromising. As modern football continues to sink beneath its own commercial weight, to introduce the Scottish League to the Borders ecology looks more and more akin to contaminating some untouched continent with a particularly virulent strain of pathogen.
When a club from the Borders make its advances, moves spiritually closer to Edinburgh and Glasgow, the result is invariably that something is lost. Call it the cost of doing business, but in attempting to fit in, Borders football runs the dreadful peril of conformity, our red and blue shirts becoming sponsorship boards, our club identities giving way to brands. Brother Nietzsche says; be wary when you strive with monsters, lest you become a monster yourself. Amen to that.