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Airdrie v Partick Thistle: Scotland’s secret football feud goes under play-off spotlight

With a place in the Premiership potentially at stake, one of Scotland’s most niche footballing rivalries is about to go mainstream.


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Perhaps too much time has passed with the clubs moving in different orbits for a new generation of fans to know or care why they’re meant to hate the other side. Or perhaps, the majority are simply occupied with what’s happening on the pitch. Because no amount of pavement dancing or am-dram Green Street re-enactments could make these forthcoming games between Rhys McCabe and Kris Doolan’s sides more enticing than they already are.
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I am in the minority of Thistle who can recognise just how hilarious our cataclysmic bed-shitting last year was. If it had happened to Airdrie or Morton, we would still be laughing now.

Mike Tyson versus Jake Paul. Godzilla versus King Kong. Seinfeld versus Newman.

Rivalries don’t necessarily have to make sense to be compelling. On the face of it, the rivalry between Airdrieonians and Partick Thistle makes not a lot of sense. The clubs reside a solid hour and a half’s commute apart and have spent just three of the last 14 seasons playing in the same league. In fact, the beef between the Diamonds and the Jags is so niche many people aren’t even aware of it. Yet, to hear others tell it, they are the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford of Scotland’s lower leagues.

And this week, this most underground and cultish of disputes will suddenly have the spotlight of national attention shone on it, when the clubs meet in the quarter-finals of the Premiership playoffs. Two games played across a span of just four days, both broadcast live on BBC Scotland, that might just lead to one of these teams playing top-flight football next season. It represents a sliding doors moment for two of the country’s brightest young managers and a host of talented young players on both sides, and is undoubtedly the rivalry’s largest, most meaningful flashpoint since the original Airdrieonians were liquidated and reformed as Airdrie United 22 years ago.

So, what’s the rivalry all about?

“Scarves over faces, marching in formation, checking bushes in case of ambush. For these guys, this was their cup final of scraps. I walked to the front because I didn’t care, and people thought I had a death wish.”

Thistle fan David Forrest is describing the afternoon last August when the Jags travelled to the Excelsior Stadium on matchday two of the new Championship campaign, for the first league fixture between the teams played in front of a crowd in 10 years (there had been three meetings – all Thistle wins – played in empty stadiums during the pandemic-abbreviated 2020-21 League One season).

The story goes that the rivalry started back in the bad old days of the 1980s, when every Scottish club big or small seemed to have a hooligan firm following it around like a foul smell; Section B in Airdrie’s case, the North Glasgow Express (NGE) in Thistle’s. Whatever the specifics of their clashes, the bad feeling between the fanbases clearly had not dissipated by 2002, when a BBC camera crew dispatched to a Maryhill pub as part of the fly-on-the-wall documentary Grasping The Thistle asked a group of Firhill regulars for their thoughts on the Diamonds.

“They hate us, we hate them,” replied one matter-of-factly. “Scum of the earth, they really are.”

Speaking of sliding doors moments, that was one of them. The documentary captures a period not dissimilar to now when the clubs were locked in battle over the 2001-02 First Division title. Thistle, led by the legendary John Lambie, prevailed by 10 points and went on to enjoy two years in the old SPL, whilst Airdrie, managed by future two-time Jags boss Ian McCall, went to the wall a matter of days after the last ball was kicked.

‘Why we hated them’

“That section of the documentary is great and really put it succinctly why we hated them,” says Forrest, a writer for Thistle’s programme and regular on Thistle podcast Draw, Lose or Draw. “The fact you could see them swirling down the drain as we beat them to the title, before they ultimately were liquidated by KPMG, was the cherry on the cake for many.”

There were depressingly retro scenes when fighting broke out on the streets around Firhill before a Scottish Cup tie in January 2022. If you’ve come to this article expecting a written version of those embarrassing vlogger videos with titles like ‘THE VICIOUS RIVALRY YOU’VE NEVER EVEN HEARD OF’, though, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. Despite all the anxiety about 10 years of stored up male aggression erupting over the Monklands area, the local constabulary in fact had very little to deal with on that August afternoon last year. A satisfyingly anticlimactic YouTube video, posted with the ominous title ‘Wrong Turn Sees Jags Fans Wander Housing Estates of Airdrie’, shows Thistle fans simply walking quietly through the rain towards the Excelsior, presumably not long after those bush-shaking scenes described by David earlier.

“I thought the way some of our fans acted that day was ludicrous,” he recalls. “But in the end, it was really just daft kids throwing stones outside the ground, nothing more. And the thing at Firhill in 2022 seemed to be a few young kids having a scrap. That said, there is definitely a group of grown men in their 40s/50s who always harken back to the halcyon days of the North Glasgow Express – if I had a quid for every time some lunatic in the pub has told me ‘the NGE are coming back’, I’d be a multi-millionaire by now. The same goes with Airdrie. I went to their game against Stenny a few years ago and there was still some middle-aged angry men going overboard there. I think the whole thing is beyond idiotic.”

Thankfully, all this season’s subsequent meetings – so far at least – seem to have passed off similarly peacefully. Perhaps too much time has passed with the clubs moving in different orbits for a new generation of fans to know or care why they’re meant to hate the other side. Or perhaps, the majority are simply occupied with what’s happening on the pitch. Because no amount of pavement dancing or am-dram Green Street re-enactments could make these forthcoming games between Rhys McCabe and Kris Doolan’s sides more enticing than they already are.

Young managers turning heads

Pound for pound, it is already one of the fascinating matchups in all of Scottish football. Although their combined age adds up to slightly less than one Dick Campbell, McCabe and Doolan have both done excellent work despite budgetary issues and the loss of key players over the past two seasons. At the time of that Excelsior clash last August – which ended in a 2-1 comeback victory for the hosts – Airdrie looked light on numbers and proven quality following their surprise promotion from League One, whilst Thistle were still wading through the post-traumatic stress of what happened to them in the Premiership playoff final up in Dingwall, not to mention the financial crisis that kicked them when they were down soon after.

Since then the Diamonds have knocked St Johnstone out the Scottish Cup, won their first trophy for 16 years by beating The New Saints in the SPFL Trust Trophy final, and secured their place in the playoffs with games to spare after a late-season dash left Greenock Morton and Dunfermline in their dust. Meanwhile the Jags rallied from a sticky spell between January and March to go on a seven-game unbeaten streak which included surely the most satisfying victory of their season: a 4-0 skelping of Airdrie at Firhill which effectively ended any hopes McCabe and co had of reversing the order of Tuesday and Friday’s games by nicking third place.

While Airdrie have had roses thrown at them on social media for their widely shared set-piece routines and intricate passing moves, Thistle are the division’s supreme entertainers, comfortably outscoring everyone other than champions Dundee United. And if you add up the combined number of players aged 21 or younger that made 10 or more league appearances for the two clubs during the campaign, it comes to an impressive 14.

From rivalry to…respect?

But rather than idealism it’s McCabe and Doolan’s ability to make do and mend in the face of injuries and tactical quandaries which has arguably distinguished them most. Player-manager McCabe largely benched himself in the second half of the season, leaving the midfield keys in the hands of 21-year-old Dean McMaster (the Monklands Modric, if you will), who completed a remarkable 96% of his passes in the recent draw with Dundee United. As for Doolan, he has got the best out of evergreen striker Brian Graham – in the goal-scoring form of his life aged 36 – and found a diamond in the rough by signing Luke McBeth from sixth-tier Glenafton and converting him from a midfielder to a centre-half. With so many shared ideas and values, it’s seen something completely unprecedented break out amongst the fans: grudging respect.

“In a league renowned for hatchetmen and hammer throwers, Airdrie have played some excellent football,” admits Forrest. “For all our venom towards them, I have to give them their props on the park.”

So it’s Monklands v Maryhill, McCabe Ball v Doolan’s Vibes Train, Roy Orbison v Partick Thistle Boing Boing, but what it certainly isn’t is one group of angry fans that should know better against another. And a lack of disorder has not meant a lack of edge or buzz at the four encounters so far. I was at the 2-1 game back at the start of the season to watch the away end run through enough anti-Airdrie numbers to fill a West End musical, from the classic ‘you’re not Airdrie anymore’ to the one the Diamonds seem to get everywhere they go – ‘we hate Airdrie, everybody hates…fucking Airdrie’, set to the tune of Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now.

“Other ones include a labyrinthine song about our defender Wasiri Williams which goes ‘Wasiri said to me, I fucking hate Airdrie,’ ” Forrest explains. “I do personally enjoy the nice and simple ‘Section B, wank-wank-wank’ though.”

What was interesting was the lack of musical retaliation from a home crowd largely composed of kids and families. In fact, while the attack on St Johnstone fans before January’s aforementioned cup tie shows that some form of nasty element is still active in the town, on matchdays at the Excelsior the only contingent living up to enduring stereotypes of Airdrie fans tends to be confined, with their Union Jacks and Donald Trump flags, to a small corner on the far-right side (appropriately enough) of the Jack Dalziel Stand. Colin Telford, host of Airdrie podcast Only The Lonely, has a theory.

Why always Airdrie?

“I really don’t think that there is beef on our part,” he begins. “When they hammered us last month the ‘we hate Airdrie’ chant was nonstop, but we don’t have any equivalent anti-Thistle chants, which probably sums up the rivalry well. If Thistle were a person they’d be Jay from The Inbetweeners: girlfriend at their caravan, wild tales of Big Bad Airdrie and how they’re a force for good in the world in the face of our horrible existence.

“We’ve had a year where a vulnerable Raith Rovers fan was assaulted after a Fife Derby, a glass bottle was chucked at Tony Watt by a Raith fan and a bottle opener was thrown at Lawrence Shankland by a Hibs fan. I don’t want to get into whataboutery, isolated incidents happen at games which are out of order, but it does feel that when it’s Airdrie it becomes a free-for-all.”

The thing is, the idea of the two clubs as polarised ideological opposites only really works if you believe the old stereotypes apply across the board on both sides. And that’s as untrue of Thistle’s good reputation as it is of Airdrie’s bad one.

“Look, I am an avowed season ticket holding, anti-capitalist, woke lefty, LGBTQ+ ally snowflake, and a lot of the people I go to games with are too,” says Forrest. “I mean, we even have flags which say ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, John Lambie’ in the North Stand. But by the same token, you have to accept that every club has a racist element. Despite our club’s whole ethos being ‘we’re neither of the Old Firm bigots’, I’ve still heard misogynist, homophobic and anti-Semitic abuse from supposed Thistle fans over the years.”

Clearing the air

In the crossover event that we didn’t know we needed, Telford appeared on Draw, Lose or Draw earlier this year to light-heartedly confront Forrest about some forthright comments he’d made regarding Airdrie as a club and town. And, in scenes vaguely reminiscent of the time Boris Johnson was forced to apologise to the city of Liverpool in person, he then accompanied Telford on a pub crawl and tour of Airdrie’s foremost sights before January’s 1-1 draw between their teams at the Excelsior. Humour, honesty, respect, just the right amount of passive-aggressive jibes – the dynamic between the two men and the two podcasts probably represents how the rivalry is for 90% of fans nowadays, no matter what it was like in 1985 or indeed 2002.

“All joking aside that chat was more reflective of the real world,” states Telford. “There’s the Twitter cesspit, there are fans at a number of clubs who want to meet up for a square go, and then there’s the vast majority who just want to go and watch football for a bit of enjoyment in life. What can irritate me is that the ‘othering’ of Airdrie, but hopefully David’s pub crawl with us dissuaded him of that notion. The DLD guys were good enough to give me a right of reply, and as I said on the podcast, I’m a very proud Airdrieonian. We were able to have a laugh together – who’d have thought it!”

“That was a stupendous bit of audio for sure and exactly what we look for when we’re doing the pod,” offers Forrest. “We’re just four or five misinformed punters firing out wild takes, I’ve spent most of my life acting like a tit, and if I didn’t want to sound like one the pod would have lasted legit about one episode! We all have our fun putting the boot into Airdrie, but it’s a typical post-industrial Lanarkshire town and I enjoyed my day out. As awaydays go, it isn’t Arbroath, but what is?”

And so, if we can return to the actual football briefly, what are the two expecting from this play-off quarter-final, and what does it mean to them at the end of a year neither fanbase is likely to forget for good and bad reasons?

Play-off hopes

“We could lose both games and it’ll still have been an incredible season,” says Telford. “The fact that there’s a chance Big Bad Airdrie might be in the top tier is phenomenal – it could be a whole new constituency of supporters telling us how horrible we are next season! But I don’t think it matters that Thistle are our opponents; it’s just a good team that our own good team needs to try and overcome. We’d changed formation and rested a couple of key players for the heavy defeat at Firhill, so I’m hoping it was a blip. But we will find out very soon.”

And for Thistle, after last year’s nightmare in the final, would losing as early as the quarters to Airdrie of all clubs be almost as painful, in a way? Forrest gives the idea short shrift.

“I am in the minority of Thistle who can recognise just how hilarious our cataclysmic bed-shitting last year was. If it had happened to Airdrie or Morton, we would still be laughing now. I think for me, the club was in such a state that a lot of us felt like it could be curtains. Last year’s vibes train was a really special moment as the club came together, whereas people struggled to get up for games earlier this season, but this late run of form has reminded us why we love the club.

“If we aren’t going up, I would rather we didn’t go on the big journey this time, rather than going up to Dingwall or Perth and blowing it AGAIN. So, to be honest, losing to Airdrie would not be the end of the world for me. But also, fuck them and I hope we smash them.”

Issue 32
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