James Cusick: Hospital patients swelling the gate – welcome to life in the Scottish Third Division
There won't be many supporters (or pies) but Rangers and their fans will get a warm welcome
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Saturday 14 July 2012
Never volunteer – for anything. My last Old Firm game, Glasgow's serial re-enactment of the Battle of the Boyne, was a faded schoolboy memory. Nevertheless, I thought the sports desk wouldn't resist the offer of my intellectual insight into the weekend's Celtic-Rangers game.
What happened between then and 3pm that Saturday, requires language I couldn't possibly repeat here.
So no Ibrox Park. No massed singing terraces. No sectarian warfare. Instead of Scotland's gift to the beautiful game, I was sent to the other end of the spectrum: Stenhousemuir versus East Stirlingshire at Ochilview park, so called because you could, eh, see a view of the Ochil Hills, which you mostly couldn't because of the relentless rain.
In military terms this was a bar fight rather than Bannockburn. With barely anyone there, the small covered terrace looked like acne – single spots everywhere, the odd isolated eruption here and there. I was told the attendance was "the usual".
As a "treat" for the patients of the nearby Bellsdyke Hospital, just outside Falkirk, which helped those with enduring mental health problems, a section of the wooden rail that surrounded the pitch was reserved. So they stood, shouting as enthusiastic fans do – though I failed to pick up if they were Stenhousemuir or "Shire" fans. Apparently no one knew, or cared.
Knowledgeable football reporters told me to make sure I got the match programme. So I did. I counted only nine men on the Shire's team. Number 10 and 11 were named as "trialist", which insiders knew meant locals who might have a bit of talent.
With real sports writers back in Glasgow surrounded by the global importance of the Old Firm diaspora and preparing their notebooks for front-line action, I was in Ochilview's press box. When I say box, I mean hut, a B&Q sized wooden hut. There was a bench and a window, though the last time it had been cleaned Lloyd George had just delivered a Budget. A young boy shrouded by an oversized Parka was sitting inside. He stood and waved at me, probably shocked at the sight of a reporter who wanted to write about this game. I hadn't the heart to ask him to leave.
A man in a tie and a pullover, who said he was in "the committee" came to tell me there would "freshments" in the committee room at half-time. His small son, wearing the same tie-pullover combo, told me: "Be quick, the pies run out."
The Shire once had aspirations of class. The delusional former Scotland manager, Ally Mcleod, described as a "well-respected figure" in the club's official biography, suggested they hire a young gun from Rangers. Sir Alex Ferguson was East Stirlingshire's manager for 117 days. He cost them £40 a week – part-time. The success he brought almost overwhelmed the fans: victory over Falkirk, the first in 70 years. Manchester United? Must have been on the phone immediately.
I can't remember who won the game. It was all dull kick-it-up-the-park monotony – like Wimbledon on a good day. But I remember the mood in the committee room as "optimistic".
Don't read too much into that. The Shire have finished bottom of the Scottish Third Division for three years running. A recent match programme stated: "It could have been a lot worse".
This is all a long time ago. Pre-Millennium. The Shire have collected silverware since then – the Stirlingshire Cup.
At Ochilview there's a new covered enclosure, new floodlights, new perimeter fencing and a Tarmac car park. New hospitality suites with their strict shirt-and-tie dress code, now boast a "bubbly" reception, gourmet luncheon, and "viewing gallery" for £65. Pies, like the old press hut, have been relegated.
Sadly, as things stand, the Glasgow giants won't be playing Stenhousemuir next season. They are now a tier above the once-great club in the Second Division.
But East Stirlingshire – who ground-share Ochilview with their neighbours – will be looking forward to the unexpected challenge of New Rangers FC in the Third Division. For all the big-time football reporters who have missed out on the delights of the other end of Scottish football, their time has finally come.
Grounds for concern: The fourth tier
Value for money
The average Third Division season ticket for an adult is £145, working out at just £4 a match. Montrose are the most expensive at £180 and East Stirlingshire cheapest at £120. The cheapest Rangers season ticket last season was £425.
An open playing field
In contrast to the duopoly of the SPL, there have been 17 different winners of the Third Division since the league adopted its current format 18 years ago. Livingston are the only club to have won the league twice – in 1995-96 and again in 2009-10.
Elgin City boast the highest average gate at 628. Their Borough Briggs ground has 478 seats, all of which were taken from Newcastle's St James' Park in 2000. Queens Park play at 52,000-capacity Hampden Park, but average a gate of only 519.
The league struggles to attract big-name stars and there is only one player from outside the British Isles. That is France's Zakaria Belkouche, a centre-back for Stranraer. In contrast, the SPL has had 603 foreigners since 1998.
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