Second thoughts

Following Cowdenbeath, my second team, has taught me many things. Above all else, that there is more to football than the football itself.

By Joel Sked

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2016.

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Lower league clubs such as Cowdenbeath are villages. Not everyone gets along, but everyone knows each other’s business and it’s a dynamic which keeps the village going.

“Who you calling Gretna scum?”

*Look straight ahead, watch the game, don’t engage*

I did my best to be invisible, avoid any confrontation. My companions – let’s call them Jamie (father) and Harry (son) – engaged, no doubt with a witty put-down which likely focused on either the aggressor’s intellect or looks. Probably both.

Gretna and Cowdenbeath were playing out what would be a 2-1 victory for the home side at Raydale Park. It was the start of the 2004/2005 season, which Gretna would waltz through. A growing number of locals were taking it upon themselves to climb the wall of the ground where the away support was housed. Their target was Jamie and Harry. Because myself and two others were associated with them we were not spared any vitriol or aggression.

The full-time whistle blew and the crowd of 568 exited into a sunny Dumfries and Galloway afternoon. We were a long way from home. As we trooped around the side of the ground something wasn’t quite right. A group, nay, a horde of youths were waiting. A range of ages were on bikes and carrying an array of threatening weapons.

A friend and I, neither of us Cowden fans, became detached between two groups of supporters. It was us they targeted. Sensing any danger my natural instinct is to run. I all but did, speeding up my walk to join the group in front, leaving my mate in my wake.

“Who was calling us Gretna scum,” demanded the irate Gretonian.

Thankfully another group caught up with him before anything serious unfolded. Refuge was sought within the Gretna social club on the other side of the ground. A taxi was swiftly called, preferably one with a reinforced shell.

I had only travelled from Haddington via Edinburgh and Carlisle to watch a lower league game of football.

It is not uncommon for football
supporters to have an affiliation with another team. Some will have a defined second team, others will choose one that they like. Maybe it is a team from abroad they have seen while on holiday or one which they led to Championship Manager glory. Others prefer to focus on the moneyed elite south of the border. After all, access and coverage is ubiquitous.

Naturally, I find myself in conversation about football a lot. Heart of Midlothian always seem to crop up. Yet, more often than not, they are joined by another team: Cowdenbeath. Their mention usually arrives when talk turns to obscure Scottish towns and grounds I have visited. Maybe certain games I had no reason being at. Or maybe something daft I have heard or witnessed on my travels.

It is a term I am averse to use but use it I will. Cowdenbeath are my ‘second team’.

It all started back on January 12, 2000. That was the day of my first ‘experience’. East Stirlingshire v Cowdenbeath at Firs Park. What an introduction. Two of the worst sides in Scottish football – they had finished the previous season eighth and ninth respectively in the bottom tier – in deepest, darkest winter at a rundown football ground. For most, it would have been a case of ‘this was nice, but . . .’

I loved it. I can still remember the 11-year-old me sitting in the pub pre-match, eyes wide open at these unassuming characters. Being talked to by grizzly strangers. There was the walk to the ground, getting lost and having to climb a wall. The game itself, an imperious 4-0 win to lift Cowden to the heady heights of third in the old Division Three. The programme which I lost and am still upset about doing so to this day. The train to and from the game. It was an adventure. Ask me to provide memories of a Hearts game at that age and I draw a blank.

This is a story, self-indulgent though it may be, about the team which made me appreciate that there is more to football than the football itself. That it’s more than 90 minutes every Saturday. That it’s more than a bunch of players whose mission in life, it seems, is to offer a glimpse of hope before delivering frustration and disappointment, and sucking any morsel of happiness from your life. Until you are back in the pub, back on the train, back again the following week.

At the time of writing Cowdenbeath are on a precipice. Finishing bottom of League Two, a two-legged play-off against East Kilbride to try to keep their place in the league; only two years removed from welcoming Hearts, Hibs and Rangers to Central Park in the Championship. By the time of publication I hope that they’ve survived. That Gary Locke, of all people, has led them to safety.

On a personal level, if they were lost to the Lowland League, Scottish football would be lessened by their absence. I take pride in the fact that I have only three grounds left to tick off in the football leagues: Dumbarton’s Cheaper Insurance Direct Stadium, Ayr United’s Somerset Park and Borough Briggs of Elgin City. Many were checked off while enduring away day misery with Hearts. But the more humble and undistinguished places were only possible because of the Beath.

From Annan Athletic to Peterhead, Cowdenbeath have taken me to places and parts of Scotland I would never have otherwise ventured. After all, why would I want to go to Methil, the arse end of Fife? If my memory serves me correctly we were sitting next to John Candy and Steve Martin on the top of a double decker bus as it wound its way around the roads of the Kingdom.

While many fans want to jump in their car and get home as quick as possible, travelling to games via public transport allows you to see more of your surroundings, take it all in. The good, the bad and the ‘did I just see that?’

Staying in Methil (for the purpose of this story, not overnight) we ventured into a few local hostelries, in one of which I had to use the facilities. On opening the door to the bathroom I was confronted by a wide-open cubicle and a couple of boys indulging in a substance. They had obviously chosen to ignore the advertisement at the ground, which faced the fans, stating ‘Drugs are for Mugs’. The message has always stayed with me having sat only a few seats along from Skeletor’s long-lost brother.

I could check Statto.com to see what the score was that day, to see who scored or if the game held any meaning. But for me, what happened on the park was of secondary importance.

Don’t get me wrong, after a few drinks I would celebrate as if it was my own team. I did just that at Galabank, where we had to walk through a game of five-a-side to get into the away enclosure. Paul McQuade had scored for Cowden and I went steaming down the front (about three steps) to get a high five. Only to be completely ignored. Or at Easter Road when Hibs edged out the Blue Brazil in a tight 3-2 win. I didn’t need any alcoholic lubrication to celebrate like a madman for either of the two goals that day.

No, what mattered most was the day out. The adventure. Whether it was north to Angus, south to Berwick or west to pretty much everywhere, a train was taken. My friend took the opportunity to identify him and his dad as the ETB. Early Train Brigade. Even when Cowden were “shite” it was rarely the case of driving to the game, getting there for kick-off, in and out. Ironically, the only occasion I can recall a goal – scored by Pat Clarke at home to Stirling Albion – was missed was one of the few times the car was taken. In fact the worse Cowden were the more meaning the day out took, and the earlier we’d start.

Drinking before 11am in Waverley Station’s Cooper’s pub – now imaginatively called The Beer House – never got old. Nor did the skoosh of the first can opening on the train. From Jamie’s eclectic mix of lager to warm cans of Tennents to not wasting a single drop and hiding cans in various bushes and hedges across Scotland for collecting once the game had finished.

Alcohol was an essential element. Any football fan worth their salt will know that the sweet nectar is the perfect antidote for a turgid affair, especially when the cold weather is doing its best to rival the ‘spectacle’ in front of you in prompting you to question where and when life took such a turn.

Heck, while some fans across the country piled into cubicles at grounds for nefarious purposes, father and son would join them in that ritual, only they were sharing a can of Tennents before and sometimes during matches.

The three of us thought we had hit the jackpot when we took a jaunt to West Lothian to follow our local junior team. To Fauldhouse – first time I’ve ever been, never been back since. We were drinking cans of Heineken during the game at the side of the pitch. As Fauldhouse pushed for the winner a winger came under the scrutiny of my two cohorts. The ball landed behind us and as he tried to get it back as quickly as possible I, like an experienced defender, got my body in front. It led to me getting pushed, said player squaring up to both me and Jamie before I whimpered ‘it’s only football’ and scurried off, again sensing possible physical harm.

This level of interaction with the players, with the game, is uncommon at the top level. Even in the Scottish Premiership there is a distance between player and fan. Atmospheres may be more intimidating, but the lower league experience, whether at Central Park or a midweek trip to Arbroath’s Gayfield, is more visceral. The abuse dished out to certain players is eye-opening, more personal. And you know that the player has heard it. They can’t have avoided it. Much of the abuse is imaginative, original, highly amusing and mostly unprintable.

But it works both ways. The connection between fan and club, fan and player is greater. You are at the coalface, every fan to every lower league side in Scotland is important. It doesn’t matter if it is the guy who brings his dog to the game, wanting to be given the opportunity to moan – success is no good to him. Or the fan who dedicates a large part of their life to their club, like those Andy Harrow resonantly wrote about in Nutmeg issue three.

I’ve witnessed the camaraderie around lower league clubs. The laughs and jokes shared between my acquaintances and former Cowdenbeath stalwart Craig Winter. The fact the vast majority of the fans know each other, whether it is a meaningful connection or simply passing acknowledgement. Without straining the metaphor too much, top-tier clubs can be like cities, faceless entities, where the fan is no more than a number. Lower league clubs such as Cowdenbeath are villages. Not everyone gets along, but everyone knows each other’s business and it’s a dynamic which keeps the village going.

And, over the years I started to recognise the faces, the mannerisms, the quirks. A general observation is that there are a lot more quirks at lower league level. But again, that is simply because ‘in the village’ the quirks stand out more, there is a greater emphasis on them.

Despite seeing hundreds of players in the last 10 plus years of attending Cowdenbeath games it’s the people encountered along the way who often stand out more. Although certain players will forever be ingrained on my memory. Witnessing a young but rash Darren McGregor; Morgaro Gomis and Markus Paatelainen as part of one of the best third-division teams in recent memory; Brechin City goalkeeper Craig Nelson being called a “beige twat”; Gareth Wardlaw rampaging single-handedly against defences; the dross; looking sheepish after another never-will-be on loan from Hearts looks disinterested on his way to flopping.

Because of Jamie’s history of working all over the country his contacts spread far and wide. They included a Hibs supporting East Stirlingshire board member who made sure we were looked after during a visit to Ochilview, even though it didn’t sit comfortable with him that one of those attending the game was a Jambo. It was a thread he enjoyed pulling at, even jokingly threatening to push me onto the train tracks. At least I think it was a joke.

Or Neil ‘Tattie’ Taylor. A well-kent face around Montrose who sadly passed away earlier this year. He was always on hand to provide a free lift from Montrose into Brechin. Or ‘Reekin as he preferred to call it. He took great pleasure in taking a picture of myself and Harry dressed as Grim Reapers beside the road sign ‘Welcome to Brechin’.

Our last visit to Montrose in September didn’t require a lift to Brechin. Instead, we were there to see Cowdenbeath play The Gable Endies. An instantly forgettable game – other than former Cowden left-back Iain Campbell staring out Harry – of something which didn’t resemble football was made all the better by the hospitality, where we talked Cowden and Hearts, and Montrose, Aberdeen and Dundee United, such was the variety of fans huddled around the table. We all had one thing in common: we had all suffered through those 90 minutes. And many before as well.

Then there’s the fan who couldn’t stomach the final moments of games where Cowden held a slender lead. They could’ve been holding off Arbroath 1-0 in the middle of January, yet he’d be at the top of the Central Park terracing pacing around, barely taking any notice of what was happening on the field, almost willing a goal for the opposition to finally end his misery.

And, yet, there are still those, including the chairwoman of Hearts, who would like to see fewer teams in Scotland. It’s doubtful if they  understand that football matters at all levels. You simply can’t wish teams away. That there are fans who dedicate hundreds of hours and a multitude of cash towards helping and supporting their team.

That’s been a benefit of seeing the machinations of a club, a team, a set of fans from a step back. You can see what the game means without being wrapped up in it, making you appreciate and embrace it when it comes around to your team.

I was there in 2010 when Cowdenbeath beat Brechin City in front of The Hedge to secure promotion to Division One through the play-offs. From the fans geeing themselves up as All These Things That I’ve Done by The Killers played in the pub pre-match to the full-time whistle and the inevitable pitch invasion, plus the older fans taking it all in from the sidelines.

Even though it wasn’t my team it was fulfilling to see. An experience which only leads you to pity those who’d prefer to watch certain teams in Scotland and England from a distance.

Yet, amusingly, that wasn’t the most memorable moment of the day. That came on the Edinburgh Waverley to North Berwick train. Jamie was turfed off before it had even departed the station for using ‘foul’ language in frustration at an over-officious train guard.

If the game, alcohol and people are three key elements to a day out at the football, the train makes up the quartet. There is more enjoyment to be had on the train, rather than cramped in a bus or stuck in a car. Plus, you can drink. You can play cards. You can quiz each other – questions ranging from what football club in Scotland is furthest from a train station to what is the capital of Honduras.

But, of course, sometimes the trains conspire against us, whether it is getting stuck in the barriers at Waverley having not had to buy a ticket or trying to find a way back to East Lothian from Cowdenbeath on a midweek March evening after a 2-1 win over Arbroath, the same night many would have opted for the Champions League as Fiorentina and Bayern Munich played out a stoater.

That evening Cowden were only a couple of months from promotion to the second tier where they would spend four out of the next five seasons. A time when a certain amount of charm was lost, such was the effect of taking part in the higher echelons of the league structure.

But it gave thousands of fans from up and down the country a taste of Central Park. Cowdenbeath’s spacious ground is perhaps one reason why many would not lose a smidgen of sleep if the Blue Brazil fell out of the league. On one midweek trip to watch Cowden at their spacious ground, we were listening to Sportsound and Ryan Stevenson, then at Ayr United, was interviewed. He name-checked Central Park as his least favourite ground in Scotland. That may have been partly due to the ferocious slagging he often received, but it is a sentiment that is shared by many others. After all, it’s a ground where stock car racing is more important than football.

Yet, give me Central Park over the Falkirk Football Stadium. Give me Central Park over New Bayview. Give me Central Park over The Tony Macaroni Arena. It’s primitive. It’s open and cold, windswept and decrepit. You have to guess when taking a piss. You’re not sure if what comes out of the taps is water, if anything comes out at all. Standing on the terracing, the football looks like it is taking place in a WWE hell in a cell match. It makes ramshackle look like a Caesar’s Palace penthouse suite.

But, it has personality. If you look closely enough you may even find some charm. It’s within a minute of the train station. It’s within five seconds of an Indian takeaway. A number of pubs could even be reached by a David Hay goal-kick.

The best pub is the incongruously named New Goth (until it was done up). It used to run Central Park close in the archaic stakes. But who could complain about getting change from one of the cantankerous barmaids after handing over a tenner for four pints. Even if it was the place I was grannied by Jamie on the pool table, while the old school jukebox flicked from record to record in the background.

Regrettably, since Hearts’ ascension to the Premiership and Cowden’s demotion to the third tier I can count on one hand how many times I have seen the Blue Brazil. But as the old adage goes, life gets in the way.

But their struggle to maintain their league status has allowed me to think back and muse about why football is more than just the football. About a time when I learned that there was more to supporting your team than simply turning up at 2.55pm every Saturday.

Standing in the pissing rain in Peterhead. Sneaking into Central Park for the price of a 15-year-old despite being in my early 20s. The awesome Cowden programme. The atmospheric and rundown pubs. The walk to Berwick Rangers’ Shielfield Park. The early rises. The carry-outs. The pies, the sausage rolls and stovies. The terracing. The wind. The Townies. The arguments. The quiet. The laughter. The day out. The adventure.

Cowdenbeath made me appreciate it all. 

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2016.

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