Football: Lament for Glenbuck - Shankly's 'lost' village
Don Gillespie on the mining hamlet where football not coal was king
Monday 21 April 1997
At half time, the 17-year-old Bill Graham stirred the hearts of all who claim to love football. For Graham comes from a hill farm overlooking the now deserted Ayrshire mining outpost of Glenbuck. He played for its lost community and the men, like Shankly, who contributed more to the game than any other place on earth.
Before the year is out, Glenbuck will be no more. The last remaining house and every trace of its existence will go, the land on which it stood will be peeled back and the coal beneath quarried out. Even its name on the map will erased, for opencast mining is a heartless business.
Yet if ever a place deserves to be remembered and respected, then this place surely does. From a population of never more than 1,200, Glenbuck produced over 50 professional footballers. Six played for Scotland and one became a footballing legend. Its famous team, the Cherrypickers, formed in 1872 and named after a regiment inwhich some of the villagers fought in the Boer War, became the most successful in Ayrshire. A visit to their home ground, Burnside Park, was a testing experience.
In a 30-year span, Glenbuck men graced the pitches of Celtic, Rangers, Motherwell, Partick Thistle, Dundee, Kilmarnock, Hamilton Academical, Heart of Midlothian, Ayr and Stranraer. Others went south to Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, Liverpool, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Portsmouth and Manchester City.
The first to turn professional was Alex Tait. He won an English FA Cup winner's medal with Spurs against Sheffield United in the 1901 final at Burnden Park, watched by a crowd of almost 115,000. In gratitude, Spurs allowed the Cup to cross the border and be displayed in a Glenbuck shop window.
From then on player after player swapped miners boots for football boots at the first opportunity. For some, it almost became the family business. Names like Knox, Bone, Wallace, Tait and Shankly crop up again and again as son followed father, and brother followed brother.
To appreciate the scale of their achievement, imagine if it was a couple of streets in your town that could boast a record like that. And they did it with no outside help, no benefactor or lottery money.
To understand more requires an awareness of industrial and social history. But basically, mining, and mining communities produced special people. This hard and dangerous profession forced many to better themselves in other spheres. In South Wales it was choirs and rugby, in the North of England it was brass bands and fast bowlers, but, in Scotland, the passion was football. Nowhere was that passion stronger than Glenbuck and no village son ever more passionate than Shankly, the youngest of the five famous footballing brothers.
Shankly was forged in the Glenbuck football furnace. His father had been a renowned middle-distance runner whose training techniques were adopted by the Cherrypickers. His uncle, Bob Blythe, played for Rangers and his four brothers all pursued successful careers.
Perhaps it was fate that chose him to be Glenbuck's most famous son for it turned out that he was to be one of their last. In 1931, the one remaining pit in the village closed and, with the pumps shut down, the rising watertable turned Burnside Park into a bog. With no work and no pitch, the Cherrypickers were finished and so too was Glenbuck.
Shankly carried the Glenbuck tradition with him and his management of Liverpool bears all of its hallmarks. His rapport with the fans was unmatched, because he was one of them, as straight and determined as you could find.
When the news broke on the Kop that Glenbuck was to vanish, they decided something had to be done. A delegation, including a Liverpool video-maker, Maurice Alexander, whose cameraman survived a 150ft fall while filming at the site, were sent to talk with Scottish Coal.
They secured permission to erect a memorial on an island of undisturbed ground in the centre of what was Burnside Park. A plaque, paying tribute to Glenbuck and bearing a dedication to Shankly "the legend, the genius, the man", will leave Merseyside tomorrow wrapped in a Liverpool flag. It will be unveiled on Sunday.
At least now, Glenbuck and its footballing sons will be remembered and, just like Shankly, they too will never walk alone.
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