Principles are all very well, but if ever a team needed the Almighty's help it is Cowdenbeath. Earlier this week, despite a pep-talk from the minister, their run without a home victory in the Scottish League was extended to a staggering 37 matches when they lost 1-0 to Montrose before a 'crowd' of 208. This afternoon they receive Berwick Rangers and, on this form, they do not have a prayer.
Cowdenbeath's sorry sequence has been dragging on for two years next month and has brought them, in the words of their chairman, Gordon McDougall, 'unwanted fame'. They have been dubbed 'Cowden-grief' and 'Britain's worst team'. However, notoriety and apathy are running parallel to unprecedented national interest, generated by the unexpected success of the Rev Ron's paperback homage to his home-town club.
Black Diamonds and the Blue Brazil (Famedram, pounds 5.95) is unpromisingly subtitled 'A Chronicle of Coal, Cowdenbeath and Football'. Yet it has struck a seam of interest going way beyond the boundaries of West Fife - 'I get letters from places like Scunthorpe signed 'Yours in Solidarity',' Ferguson said - by tapping into that affection we British bestow on losers.
Watching Cowdenbeath, which has become a fashionable pastime among groundhopping ghouls from far-flung places if not locally, is to be reminded of Michael Palin's Ripping Yarns paean to 'Golden Gordon'. Ferguson, who had flown down from his parish on Orkney for the Montrose match because of a gut feeling that the hoodoo was about to be banished, reels off past 'Cowden' line-ups in the way Palin's crazed cloth-cap recited the litany of Barnstonworth's finest.
Apart from a cult book, Cowdenbeath have little else going for them. Having had relegation from the First Division confirmed with six weeks to go last season, they are currently adrift at the foot of the Second. This summer, when the League is reorganised into four divisions, they will be in its bottom section.
Once, though, theirs was a story of boom rather than doom. Between the wars, when coal was king and the town had seven working pits, the club enjoyed 10 consecutive seasons in the company of Rangers and Celtic. But relative prosperity went with the closure of the collieries, along with a social cohesion in which 'the Miners' were a key component.
That nickname long since gave way to 'the Blue Brazil', a self- mocking description but one which acknowledges the style Scots expect from their footballers (one of the few who would not have been embarrassed in Pele's presence, Jim Baxter, hails from Cowdenbeath). As one diehard explained, the monicker came about 'because Cowden play in blue and have debts like a Third World country'.
Against Montrose, in an Amazonian downpour, Cowdenbeath played more like the Blue Belize. The optimism engendered by last Saturday's draw away to the same opponents lasted only for 10 minutes before the visitors exploited typically sloppy defending to score. In the tumbledown old stand, encouragement subsided into gallows humour and outright abuse.
Most of the hostility was aimed at John Reilly, the Cowdenbeath player-manager, who tasted European action in his days at Dundee United. The cry of 'Resign, Reilly' had gone up even before the goal, and when he retrieved the ball from a puddle in the second half a sarcastic voice boomed out: 'Yes] Reilly touches the ball.'
Later, as he headed for a shower, Reilly spotted a friendly face among the huddle of hacks and proceeded to give an off-the- record verdict in colourful language. A reporter from a Christian radio programme, there for the 'Reverend Ron' story, tactlessly asked if he would repeat it 'without the swear words'. And they call it the life of Reilly . . .
It did not help, he suggested later, that the players had been changing in Portakabins following a fire at the ground (although subsidies from Central Park's main attraction, the chairman's stock- car racing business, recently enabled Cowdenbeath to open respectable new facilities).
'That's not an excuse but a fact,' Reilly insisted, 'though the real reason we've done so badly at home is that it doesn't hurt some of the players enough to lose. There's a lack of mental toughness and professionalism.
'In my first game here we were
3-1 up on Queen of the South two minutes from half-time and they were down to 10 men. We still went in 3-3 and drew the game. Alloa equalised four minutes into injury time. Against Queen's Park were were 2-0 up and it could have been 10-0, but ended up losing 4-3. Yet our away record is as good as anyone's'
His chairman looked shattered. 'I thought we were going to do it tonight,' McDougall sighed. But why soldier on, putting in so much effort for so little reward? 'I don't know . . . it's a bad time to ask. Even when we won two years ago the average gate was only 362.'
Melancholy gives way to defiance. 'There's no question of letting Cowden die. The club will be here as long as I am. Our debts are down to pounds 170,000, which is manageable, and we've a new stand with 650 seats opening next season.'
Whether there will be anyone to occupy them must be doubtful. But the Rev Ferguson, accustomed to Orkney children asking why 'the minister's always on about cows and beef', will certainly keep the faith: 'It's fairly insane, but it's in the blood.'
Reilly also hopes to be around, even though Cowdenbeath have had 15 managers in 19 years and sacked one of his predecessors a fortnight after he had taken them up. 'Everyone's got to start some where,' he smiled when reminded that Alex Ferguson's managerial career began at East Stirlingshire. 'I'm cutting my teeth.'
While the Blue Brazil's faithful few are more used to gnashing theirs, McDougall sees hope in the huge golden trophy that stands on his desk. Cowdenbeath's youth team picked it up for finishing second in a huge international tournament in Sweden. 'We lost the final to a Romanian side two minutes from time,' he recalled. 'Those boys are the club's future.'
Two minutes from time: the story of Cowdenbeath's life. But today, when attempt No 38 and Berwick beckon, they have another chance of redemption. Win this one and they will have to start calling Brazil the Yellow Cowden.
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