Against all the Odds: The World of the Small Scottish Football Team

Gerry Hassan

February 11th 2010

It is week three and sadly the final week of Jonathan Meades strange, fascinating and somewhat magical series on Scotland, ‘Off Kilter’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00mwqvq/Jonathan_Meades_Off_Kilter_Episode_3/ This week his theme is the inviting subject of ‘The Football Pool Towns’, addressing small towns, hopes and Scotland through the world of football.

This short series has illustrated how it is possible to tell stories of Scotland, and address supposedly familiar subjects in new, imaginative ways. In so doing it has exposed the chasm of aspiration at the heart of much of the mainstream media in Scotland, where budgets seem to be in inverse proportion to originality and boldness. There are so many parts of Scottish life and society crying out for exploration left unexamined at a point when our nation and democracy is at a huge crossroads in how it sees itself.

Anyway back to this episode which begins with Meades reminiscing about the days of the Mini and Hillman Imp, before citing Jackie Stewart, supposed Scottish icon, ‘ambassador’ for the Royal Bank of Scotland and resident of Switzerland, who once said the immortal words, ‘A car is like a woman and cornering is like bringing a woman to climax’. Oh, er, missus, what a lad that Jackie!

Then it is off on a tour of the small footie grounds where clubs are according to Meades ‘creations of the football pools’, a remark which I think is unfair and inaccurate, in that these wee clubs, which survive against all the odds predate the pools by decades, but many of them have continued in existence thanks to the pools. A very different prospect.

First stop is Berwick Rangers, the English club playing in Scotland, and then it is on to the kingdom of Fife, for a whistle-stop tour of what has been called by some  ‘Gordon’s Kingdom’, after the great man himself. Meades homes in on Central Park, home of one Cowdenbeath FC and stock car racing, who are known as ‘the Blue Brazil’. Cue groovy Brazilian music, although I couldn’t identify it immediately as Os Mutantes or Caetano Veloso.

Central Park is interestingly the only football ground that Meades walks and hangs about in, possibly because it is the only one he is given access to by the football authorities. Then it is along the road to East End Park, home of the once mighty Dunfermline Athletic, the club which gave Jock Stein his start in football management (although Meades misses this). Instead, we get lots of Carnegie references and nods towards his local Carnegie Hall, Carnegie this and that, and the Carnegie Library, the first of 3,000 in the world.

Along then further the Fife lowroad to Starks Park, home of Raith Rovers, based in Kirkcaldy, once famous as ‘the lino town’. And then to Bayview Park, home of East Fife in Methil and a moment of magic. For East Fife’s metal mickey little one-sided stadium has facing it the rusty remnants of Methil’s decommissioned power station looking like something out of ‘The Terminator’. This then takes us back into Fife’s past and the lost world of coal and community (also famous for Communism and culture).

He then backtracks on himself heading westwards and out of the kingdom to Recreation Park, home of Alloa Athletic and then along to those relative giants, Falkirk, who reside in the Scottish Premier League.

This is all fun, but Meades I feel in a fascinating tour misses the full wonder of the perfectly formed small world of Scottish football. For example, in Falkirk, he misses East Stirlingshire’s old ground, Firs Park, which they just moved out of two years ago. This is a team that for five years were the worst team in Britain, had a book written about them called ‘Pointless’, and who gave Alex Ferguson his breakthrough in football management. Mmnn, what a ‘legacy’ that is introducing Fergie on the world, akin to the recent claim that Scotland via the Enlightenment created the US, the world and basically, the universe as far as we know it. I mean do we want that responsibility!

Then it is on for a breakneck tour of some of the post-war estates of Fife, with Meades commenting on the conformity and lack of imagination in them. Maybe its me, and my intricate knowledge of Scottish estates, but some of these look a bit Stalinist, while also being cared for, while some look habitable, humane and decent neighbourhoods with houses that might not win architecture prizes, but look fine to live in.

Meades is just warming to his theme, getting worked up about the alcohol levels, alcohol related violence, and general violence everywhere. The scale of heroin use in Scotland of 50,000 people is he states the highest proportionately in Europe, while disability benefits are claimed by 600,000 people, 11% of the population. This is the sort of thing that often gets my dander up, and Meades is pushing me to breaking point with this simplistic, caricature of modern Scotland. Yet, he is both right that these are problems, and he has built up such a deep curiosity and love of the country, that I can’t help but let him off.

His final thoughts are a set of observations on Scottish independence. For the English Tories, the party of the union, Meades argues this would contribute to them having a near-permanent Commons majority, as acres of Scots Labour MPs are sent north to think again. I am not quite sure in his final remarks what Meades thinks of independence, but what can be ascertained is that he thinks the Scots could make a go of it and be a decent, fairly successful, affluent nation. Which is more than many of our Westminster politicians would credit.

Many thanks for a short series which has been a welcome and fresh different take on Scotland and a wake-up call to our broadcasters, assuming they still care or are even watching!