Sometimes in these still lands, it is hard to imagine a ball being kicked. It seems too strenuous, too disruptive. The Borders are Scotland’s gentlest quarters, serene towns and villages of folk that listen first and talk second. The countryside is polite and cushioning, a lie-in instead of an early start.
Here until not so long ago, days jolted along to the clunking noises of textile mills. You can see some of them now in the valley that holds Galashiels in its palm. In bold stone and slate, a number are repurposed. A few are derelict, the forgotten mansions of industrial clout.
Today, the Gala Water which once powered them sloshes onwards as if searching for something to do. It looks like it has taken a wrong turning, or misremembered its course; have you seen the mill, I’m sure it used to be here… It rattles away next to us as we walk to the ground, its utterings not unlike those of a crowd in the distance.
To see the football in these parts, one must look beyond the rugby. So it is walking this way to Netherdale, where the pebbledash of Gala RFC comes before the Brutalist majesty of Galashiels Fairydean Rovers FC. Beyond the turnstiles, the players of Gala and Keith do their hopscotch warm-ups and steam rises from the tea hatch. The hatch and cafe area are new additions, a series of fairy doors for child’s play behind the goals too. In every increment it can afford, here is a club devoted to widening its appeal.
Nothing can improve the bar underneath the stand. It is the ticking heart of Fairydean Rovers. Here, wins are predicted and sorrows drowned. Old pals sit together and beckon over the new. The game matters, but not so much as these segments of the day – nothing staves off lonely winters like laughter and shared jeers as the scores from elsewhere come in.
The home side have lost four on the bounce, their visitors nine. Perhaps a cup tie will shake free a win. A Keith supporter tells me a tale of his Dad. In 1928, he had watched Celtic come to town in another cup tie, far from here and now. Absent facilities saw the Hoops change away from the ground, and march through tough northern streets in their full kits. The supporter goes quiet, green and white ghosts clacking on the cobbles, marching through his mind.
The football is urgent. Netherdale’s 3G bounce occasionally flummoxes the Keith players, puppies chasing leaves in a breeze. Regardless, they score twice and don’t concede. In the Gents afterwards one man sighs and says to another: ‘Ach, what else would you do with your Saturdays?’ ‘Exactly,’ the other replies, ‘see you next week.’
On some other Saturday, we pass more gargling waters in Selkirk and Hawick. It is a soggy afternoon. At Yarrow Park, the goalnets are pinned to the crossbar. There will be no game. Postponement, that dreaded word. The dug-outs are empty, the ‘Players and Officials’ door is bolted. There may as well be a ‘No Ball Games’ sign. Birdsong is the only sound. Snow festers on hills beyond the ground, winter reminding all that it is still alive and well. Oh to watch a game from that shepherd’s kop.
A few miles away, Hawick Royal Albert play on, their neighbours too, the town rugby club. Civil Service Strollers are down from Edinburgh. All-blues versus all-reds, the colours of table football or Subbuteo starter-sets. The turnstile doubles as programme stall and clubshop. Genial Irene in her Honorary President badge takes our money and sells the club to us. Her enthusing stops only when Royal Albert, embedded at the table’s foot, are granted a penalty. It is screwed wide. ‘Ah just…cannae…believe it,’ she chokes.
Upon the wooden benches of a quietly regal main stand, other supporters can believe it. They have seen it time and again this season. The penalty miss is as inevitable as the five Strollers goals that follow. In the Art Deco directors’ box seats, foreheads fall into hands.
It is best to let matches such as this and places like Albert Park just happen to you. That way are you pleasantly beguiled by the forest that lines the opposite touchline, and enormously comforted by the familiar stock names of Scottish football as they are barked: DAVEY! STEVIE! WEE MAN! BIG MAN!
Further, you may become engrossed by the varied noises a wet football pitch makes – squelches, paddling, slurps, slaps, gurgles. You may fixate upon a single tear of rain falling from the stand’s guttering. You may follow its course as it bounces dangerously close to a coffee mug marked ‘Twat’ perched upon the MDF roof of the dug-out. You may smile as the Strollers manager offers his gloves to the frozen linesman.
At 0-5, the Hawick goalkeeper makes as good a save as I have ever seen. Only the raindrops clap.