You know you’ve made it when Eric Morecambe begins reciting your work back to you. That’s exactly how the late James Alexander Gordon – the unmistakeable voice of the football results on BBC Radio for 40 years – must have felt every time the great comedian greeted him in Broadcasting House. Supposedly, Morecambe would mimic his BBC colleague’s unique delivery style which would hint at a particular scoreline simply by the intonation he put on the name of each team.
“Eric never called me James,” Gordon recalled in an interview in 2012. “Whenever I saw him over a 20-year period, he would say ‘East Fife 4 Forfar 5’. I’ve got a tape of that.” While that may be true, what Gordon didn’t have a tape of, however, is himself – or anyone else for that matter – ever reading that result out at five o’clock Saturday tea-time.
It was Morecambe and Wise’s prime-time TV contemporaries, The Two Ronnies, who further propelled the two low-profile league clubs from footballing footnotes to full blown pop cultural references when they cleverly slipped the fixture into a sketch where they read out a tongue-twisting version of the Scottish football results which concluded ‘East Fife 5 Forfar so far 4’.
Around the time that Edinburgh-born Gordon hung up his microphone in 2013 after a battle with cancer robbed him of his larynx, the enduring myth of the East Fife 4 Forfar 5 result had been widely debunked. Although, one could be forgiven for being convinced that it had actually occurred – so embedded has it become in our nation’s sporting consciousness – and for being befuddled by the verbal gymnastics needed to get everything out in the right order; especially for those with a clipped English accent rather than an idiosyncratic Fife or Angus burr.
Firstly, let’s clarify what did actually happen, as it’s not so far from the falsehood.
East Fife and Forfar Athletic did indeed play out a nine-goal thriller – with Forfar winning by the odd goal – except it was at the latter’s Station Park ground on Wednesday, April 22, 1964, not Bayview Park in Methil. The record books show that 562 people attended on that Spring evening; a fairly average crowd for a Loons’ home game at the time, and although it was an early evening kick-off, Forfar had yet to install floodlights.
The 1963/64 Second Division season was coming to a close and the visitors didn’t have much left to play for. East Fife’s hopes of promotion to the top flight had evaporated in the previous few weeks while Forfar were locked in a struggle with Stirling Albion in the dubious race for the bottom, one which they ‘won’ (or lost, depending on your perspective) by virtue of a less worse goal difference having conceded an incredible 104 goals in their 36 league games.
The portents for a memorable match were well signposted. Apart from Forfar’s notoriously porous defence – something which afflicted them throughout the entire decade – the Fifers were only bested by runaway champions Morton in the scoring stakes.
David Potter – author of a book on the history of Forfar Athletic – was 15 years old and had sat his ‘O’ grade arithmetic at Forfar Academy that very day. From his position next to the players’ tunnel, he was perfectly placed to see the action swing back and forth from one goalmouth to the other.
“I was standing by the tunnel in front of the main stand; it’s the same one that’s still there today. You can’t see the near touchline when you’re in there. It’s an awful stand.
“The pitch was in reasonable condition, although it was quite chilly for that time of year. You always get a cold wind blowing in from the west at Station Park,” he recalled.
Fifty-four years on, he remembers it being a decent rather than exhilarating game, despite the avalanche of goals. David also pointed out that the two teams played out a more thrilling 90 minutes later that same year in the first leg of a two-legged League Cup supplementary round play-off, which Forfar won 4-3 (East Fife triumphed 7-5 on aggregate). Although he admits the importance of that game versus the meaningless end of season Division Two meeting may have crystallised this assertion.
Forfar’s 5-4 win came with more than a few raised eyebrows, as David explains: “It was widely believed among the Forfar fans that East Fife – who had a theoretical chance of promotion up till a few games previous – were not all that bothered whereas Forfar were determined not to finish bottom. The suspicion was that teams like East Fife and Arbroath could often have gone up but deliberately threw games because they just couldn’t afford it.”
East Fife historian Jim Corstorphine wrote an article for the club’s programme which chronicles the game in greater detail: “Victory at Station Park against the team holding up the rest of the league seemed almost a formality and would give East Fife an almost unassailable lead over Arbroath (in the race to finish third). Forfar were on a good run despite poor form during most of the league season and went into the match on the back of an impressive 4-1 victory over Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park.”
Fate intervened in just the third minute of the game to ensure the scoreline did not run to double figures, otherwise an enduring myth may never have come about. East Fife’s Jim Walker nudged Forfar’s Kenny Dick in the penalty area, but the Loons’ centre-forward struck the resultant spot kick wide of the post. Barely three minutes later, however, Dick made amends after latching onto a through ball to put the hosts a goal up.
Goal scoring opportunities came thick and fast thereafter; Morris Aitken missed a couple of chances for the visitors before future Fifer Hamish Watt doubled Forfar’s lead on 19 minutes. Neither side seemed to be employing much in the way of defensive durability – East Fife struck their opener just a minute later through Ian Stewart.
East Fife – undoubtedly the superior side over the course of the campaign – began to dominate and completed the comeback by the half hour mark thanks to goals by Alex Wright and Aitken. After the early scares and the resultant 3-2 lead, you’d have expected East Fife to close out the half a bit more pragmatically. Unfortunately for them, their back line had other ideas allowing Dick to steal in and restore parity before the break.
So bad was their defending that evening, the following day’s Leven Mail was moved to lambast their efforts at keeping the normally toothless Forfar attack at bay: ‘Shocking Defensive Blunders’ was the headline; the reporter added further scorn by remarking “Any defence that concedes five goals to an energetic rather than brilliant forward line deserves to lose.”
The second half was as breathless as the first, and another Aitken goal gave East Fife another opportunity to put the game to bed. Yet again, woeful defending undermined their attacking brilliance; this time Forfar were the comeback kings, taking a 5-4 lead courtesy of strikes by Watt and Eddie McMurdo, whose winner – incredibly given what came before – came with a full 20 minutes of the game remaining. Whether both sides suddenly developed an overdue sense of caution or were hit by a bout of defensive profligacy is not certain. Either way, a legend of sorts was inadvertently spawned with the final blast on the referee’s whistle.
The man in black that night was a Mr Tom Wharton, or ‘Tiny’ as he was ironically known on terraces around Scotland. At 6 feet 4 inches tall and noticeably thicker round the middle than the modern-day referee, Wharton dwarfed the majority of those he officiated over. David Potter remembers that, unusually for a referee, he was fondly regarded by supporters and players alike across the country for his humour and authority on the pitch (he addressed everyone as Mr) as well as his larger than life character off it: “At one game at Celtic Park, a jobsworth on the door failed to recognise him and wouldn’t let him into the stadium because he had forgotten his pass. So Mr Wharton, with his deep Glasgow Kelvinside snobby voice boomed: ‘If Mr Stein wonders why there’s no game on today because the referee hasn’t turned up, tell him I’ll be waiting here for him to discuss the matter’. It seems everyone involved with Scottish football at the time has a Tiny Wharton anecdote ready to hand.
He was respected internationally too, including in FIFA’s corridors of power. Just two years before the Forfar vs East Fife game he refereed the European Cup Winners’ Cup final between Fiorentina and Atletico Madrid at Hampden and was a regular choice to take charge of international fixtures around Europe and occasionally further afield. After hanging up his notebook and whistle, Tiny continued working at the steel firm he owned in the Gorbals and became involved firstly with the supervising of generations of officials that came after him, and then – more importantly – took up the role of deputy chairman of The Football Trust which placed him at the heart of funding the modernisation of football grounds in the United Kingdom in the wake of the disasters at Valley Parade and Hillsborough. He was awarded the OBE for services to Scottish football in 1990.
Of the players who participated in the famous Forfar 5 East Fife 4 match, it’s probably one who was among the busiest – the visitors’ goalkeeper – who is most remembered. Dick Donnelly had played more than 100 times for the Bayview club since 1960 – although he would soon be moving on to Brechin City – and after retirement, remained involved in the game as a reporter and broadcaster covering football in his native Dundee for many years. So well-known and distinctive was his style and delivery, that he was parodied in sketches by the BBC’s Only An Excuse? both on radio and TV.
East Fife’s manager, Jimmy Bonthrone, continued in the job until 1969 when he joined Aberdeen as assistant to Eddie Turnbull, who he then succeeded in 1971. He resigned as the boss at Pittodrie four years later in a transitional period for the club which was punctuated by the high-profile sales of Martin Buchan and Joe Harper, although he was responsible for giving Willie Miller his debut.
Unusually for the 1960s, Forfar didn’t have a manager. From 1960 and the departure of David Gray from the role, team affairs were run by committee – something that happened off-and-on at Station Park. They wouldn’t get another man in the hot seat until Doug Newlands in 1966.
Just when memories of that 1964 encounter were on the wane, in 2011 the two teams almost served up a 5-4 repeat – this time in the order mistakenly believed to have happened all those years before.
Hopes were raised across the country when the half time score of 3-2 was reported from East Fife’s Bayview Stadium. Millions of neutrals must have been glued to their TV sets and Final Score or Soccer Saturday, thinking that they might actually get to hear the famous East Fife 4 Forfar 5 read out in something other than jest. Sadly, for fans of the trivial, the teams could only raise themselves to play out a 4-3 revenge victory for the Fifers; leaving final scores announcers everywhere ruing a lost opportunity to do something even James Alexander Gordon never did.