Football: Stonehouse rock of ages

A journeyman footballer is about to reach an all-time league appearance milestone. FIRST NIGHT; Graeme armstrong
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Stenhousemuir's No 4 put his hands to his face as the ball hit the back of the home net. "Come on Louis, get yer heid up son," a voice from the darkness implored. It was fair to say that Graeme Armstrong had known better moments than the 52nd minute of Tuesday night's Scottish League Third Division fixture at Ochilview Park. It was safe to assume, too, as Scott Sorbie's long-range shot gave Brechin City what proved to be a winning lead, that "Louis" Armstrong, to use the stage name given to him by the Ochilview audience, was not exactly saying to himself, "What a wonderful world". In the dressing-room afterwards, though, Stenhousemuir's veteran performer had a notable record on his mind.

"Och, I never thought I'd play to this age, never mind break any records," he said, nursing a fat lip and the pain of a 1-0 defeat. "The only ambition I ever had was to play until I was 30." Graeme Armstrong is 42 now. This coming Saturday he makes his 864th recorded appearance in a Scottish League match. The British record for an outfield player is 863, held by Tommy Hutchison, of Blackpool, Manchester City and scoring-for-both-sides-in- a-cup-final fame (the highest total outright, 1,005, rests in the safe keeping of Peter Shilton). In actual fact, Stenhousemuir's game at Dumbarton yesterday was Armstrong's 864th league game, though he is happy to keep the Irn Bru on ice until East Stirlingshire visit Ochilview on Boxing Day, having declined to make a fuss about the one appearance that has never been credited to his official tally.

"I'm not really bothered about it," he said. "But technically it should go down as an appearance. It was a league match that I played in." It was Armstrong's very first league match. He was 18 when he played as a trialist for Meadowbank Thistle against Stirling Albion at Annfield Park. The television menu that night included such small-screen delights as Dixon of Dock Green, Mike Yarwood and Sale of the Century. And the tartan-bedecked Bay City Rollers were topping the charts with "Bye Bye Baby". It was not the best of times, you could say, for Scottish-made records.

Not that any formal record exists of Armstrong having launched his epic run on Saturday 25 April 1975. In keeping with Caledonian cloak-and-dagger custom, he was listed on the team-sheet at Annfield that afternoon as "A. Trialist". Meadowbank's line-up was entered in the Rothmans Football Yearbook without a No 8. It was not until 27 September of the same year - with Rod Stewart's "Sailing" at No 1, Kenny Dalglish scoring the winner for Celtic against Dundee United at Parkhead, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier preparing for their thriller in Manila, and BBC1 unveiling a new show called Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game - that Armstrong made his first official mark, with his own name and his own number. "I must have played reasonably well in that trial game," he reflected. "Meadowbank lost 4-1 and they didn't sign me but Stirling Albion did. I made my debut here at Ochilview actually. We won 1-0. I can remember the goal. The goalkeeper dropped the ball on the edge of the box and a guy called Mike Lawson scored. I'd been playing for a junior team, Haddington Athletic, and I only signed on the Friday. I'd just turned 19.

"I never thought I'd play league football, to be honest. And it was a few years before I started thinking it would quite nice to play until I was 30. It was only six years ago that people started talking about records, when I got close to Kenny Thomson's Scottish League record. I've never thought about breaking records myself. I haven't even counted up the appearances. I've left it to the statisticians."

The McStattos are likely to be out in force at Ochilview on Saturday to witness Armstrong's momentous appearance against East Stirlingshire. Terrace admission charges having been cut to 1975 prices (pounds 1 for adults, 50p for children), Boxing Day trippers could be descending from far and wide - from Oslo, if not from Oban. Stenhousemuir might not be the most popularly supported club around - the attendance on Tuesday night was 333 - but they have a Norwegian fan club with a membership in excess of 100. The Viking Warriors were formed six years ago by Rolf Erik Wulff, who started following Stenhousemuir simply because of their good name. "It translates to 'stonehousewall' in Norwegian," he explained, "and when I was a little kid I used to kick a ball against the stone wall of a house."

The navigational nous of a Norseman would certainly be helpful in locating Ochilview. Stenhousemuir is both a football outpost and a village unsignposted on the main arterial routes through Stirlingshire. Ochilview itself is tucked behind the McCowan's factory, home of the celebrated Highland Toffee. On Tuesday night it was Stenhousemuir who were coming unstuck there. "Pull yer fingers oot Warriors," one despairing die-hard cried in the dying minutes. There was a time when the Warriors could call upon the services of William Wallace - or Willie Wallace, rather, one of Celtic's Lisbon Lions. But on Tuesday, directed from the dug-out by the headmaster of Musselburgh Grammar School (their dufflecoated manager, Terry Christie BSc), they fought a losing battle against Brechin. They did so despite the noble efforts of Armstrong, who is Christie's assistant, his captain and one of his three central defenders. Armstrong may be well past pensionable age in football terms but the father of four from Port Seton, East Lothian, was no doddering member of the home guard on Tuesday. "It's frightening when you think the two lads we have up front are both 18," he mused. "They weren't even born when I started playing. I wouldn't like to say how long I can keep playing. I've no idea. I think it helps, though, that I sprint on the Highland Games circuit in the summer. I've done that since 1979. I used to train in the same group as Allan Wells in Edinburgh."

Wells, of course, struck gold at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Armstrong has not been so glitteringly successful as a Scottish League footballer with Stirling Albion, Berwick Rangers, Meadowbank Thistle and Stenhousemuir. "Have I won many honours?" he echoed. "Well, there haven't been very many. I've won two Second Division championship medals, with Stirling in 1977 and with Meadowbank in 1987. And we won the League Challenge Cup three years ago, Stenhousemuir's only national trophy.

"The money hasn't been in the pounds 40,000-a-week class, certainly not. I think I got pounds 10 for my first match and the basic here is about pounds 50 a game. It's not bad, though, when you've got a good job too. I've worked at the same place since I left school: Jim Bean Whiskey, as it is now, in Leith. I'm a commercial manager there. But the football's never been about the money. That's secondary. It's about pride, about playing at the highest level you can."

Old "Louis" Armstrong has played on the Scottish League stage for more than 23 years now. And at Ochilview on Saturday he will have a particularly proud record to trumpet.