Let’s start by mixing our metaphors: where the Forth squirms like chicken guts between Stirling and Kincardine, Clackmannanshire grips like a limpet to its northern banks. It flares away to the north east, up toward the prettily named Crook of Devon and the not-so-prettily-named Pool of Muckhart. In the 1950s one figure bestrode the Clackmannanshire Association Football League like a colossus. That man was Robert “Cardigan Bob” Thorburn (1892-1974). As the long-suffering manager of Sauchie Academicals he held the reins of power for over a decade. There were glimmers of silverware but the trophy cabinet remained unoccupied. He was a man of scrupulous decency and integrity, a man of tactical nous presiding over teams of staggering incompetence, he was a man inordinately fond of knitwear. The fans loved this taciturn man of Clackmannan, who walked the touchline wreathed in smoke from a straight Dunhill clenched beneath irreproachable moustache, occasionally adjusting Charles Hawtrey spectacles, and always – always – impeccably cardigan-ed.
This was the face that he presented to the world. A face as inscrutable as the moai of Easter Island – monolithic but just a little less weather-beaten; and without the moss behind the ears. But what of his inner world? Here is a brief section from his diaries.
July 16. Wet. Margaret busy finishing new cardigan, which she says will be “positively dashing”. We shall see. I’m worried that it may strike too optimistic a note for the start of the season.
July 23. Wet. Again. A bit of training to get the fellahs in shape seemed like a good idea, so I put the word out. Five of them turned up, knocked the ball around for twenty minutes in the teeming rain then buggered off. Shameful. I reminded them of the club motto: “Contendunt excellentium” (“strive for excellence”). Roy Forsyth (outside right) shouted back something that sounded like “contendunt”, only briefer.
Later that evening gave the new Hillman Minx a spin. Sitting at the lights on Henderson Street caught sight of Frank Millar (full back) emerging from the Clachan. He approached the vehicle and you could smell the drink off him without having to wind the window down. At the same time his wife appeared and accosted him with a somewhat forthright term of endearment. Frank then showed a turn of pace that, I regret to say, I have seldom seen him employ on a football pitch.
July 24 (Sunday). Church. Excellent sermon that drew on Matthew 19:24 – “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle etc etc.” This turned my mind to thoughts of threading, which in turn led to thoughts of the team’s wayward passing.
Wore new cardigan (cable stitch, red chevrons around elbows, quite jazzy). On leaving church, stopped by Minister who said, “Next thing, Robert, and you’ll be sporting a cravat and telling us that you’ve taken to using a cigarette holder. Very Noel Coward”. Margaret laughed immoderately. We didn’t speak during the journey home.
July 30. One week before first game. We’ve been pitted against Tullibody Athenians. Previous encounters with them have been more akin to running battles. They have a useful (if somewhat agricultural) centre forward but their backs take a distinctly “direct” approach. After last season’s home fixture – a dreadfully fractious affair – I had to have a word with their manager, a bumptious, shiny-haired fellah called David Sinclair (aka “Wee Davey”). I started to remonstrate in a restrained yet forceful manner but things “escalated”. He made several snide references to our robust (but strictly fair) tackling. I managed to remain cool and referred him to Matthew 7:3 – “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” This seemed to flummox him and led to an unpleasant string of epithets, followed by a wee bit of argy-bargy, in the course of which he tugged at my woollens. I lost both my composure and two buttons from my favourite shawl-neck cardigan. Never again.
4 August (Wednesday evening). Just had a call from our goalie (Alan Ross) to tell me that he will not be available for Saturday’s match. I asked him the reason and, amidst some rather theatrical coughing, he told me that he had come down with the flu. This isn’t the first time this has happened – last season he missed nine games on the trot with “suspected leprosy” and the season before that was out for four weeks when he claimed to be suffering from “yellow fever”. This is Clackmannanshire, not the Belgian Congo.
7 August. Disaster. 6-2 home defeat to Tullibody – and this despite wearing “lucky” cardigan (football buttons, russet and gold trim). I’m not blaming stand-in keeper Jimmy Blackie but he’s five foot three and has only two fingers on his right hand (a riveting accident during his tenure in the Leith shipyards). Frankly speaking they kicked us off the park. At the final whistle, and in order to make him feel even smaller, I approached “Wee Davey” and pointedly shook his hand. However, I couldn’t refrain from remarking on the fact that perhaps he should spend some time looking through the “T” section of the Oxford English Dictionary – because he clearly possesses an indistinct definition of “tackling”. He gave me an annoying wink and remarked “Alright Bob, keep your buttons on”. I can see that this may develop into something beyond mere rivalry.
8 August (Sunday). Church. Minister actually used the sanctity of the pulpit to refer to yesterday’s defeat – that man is plunging in my estimation. Firstly, facetiousness over a perfectly respectable – if perhaps a little racy – piece of knitwear and now this. Made a reference to David and Goliath. I assume he was making a comparison between the stature of myself and “Wee Davey” – whom I am now referring to as “The Brylcreemed Buffoon”. Always suspected the Minister of having a sneaking admiration for the Athenians. I remember passing his back garden once when he had the radio on. The results were coming in and when the announcer stated that Tullibody had beaten Glenochil Nomads 2-1 I actually saw him punch the air! I think he may have been doing the pools. My views on gambling are well known.
11 August. Mid-week training was shambolic. Frank Millar (full back) arrived reeking of a combination of after shave, diesel oil and McEwan’s Export. He visibly swayed when he dismounted from his bicycle and played the first half of the practice match in two-tone dancing pumps. Our inability to pass remains deeply troubling. We seem quite incapable of playing the ball to feet over more than a yard. The idea of anticipating a run, let alone threading a through ball or making a “dinked” overhead pass are the stuff of fantasy, a shimmering mirage in a barren wilderness of ineptitude. I remembered Matthew 19:24 and said that I wasn’t asking them to try and get a camel through the eye of a needle. They all looked confused and then John McSween (centre back) – not the brightest – said “A camel?!? Through the eye of a needle?!? Ya heid’s mince, gaffer!” Much laughter. Roy Forsyth (outside right) then made a reference to my latest cardigan being “gallus” (I had suspected that Margaret’s last minute decision to add a rather garish saltire to each of the breast pockets was “a bridge too far” in knitwear terms). This evoked even more laughter. Much of it bordering on the boisterous. I don’t know why I bother.