The Power of the Small: A Journey into a Hidden Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 19th 2014

Football is everywhere in modern life and no more so than in Scotland.

It is a partial story, concentrating on the theatre, drama and tropes of a very select few: the changing fortunes of Celtic and Rangers, the predictability of the Premiership, and an over-focus on a few clubs in the Central Belt (along with Aberdeen and the two Dundee clubs).

A whole array of football is missing from these accounts: the Scotland of the non-league game represents what is in effect a hidden Scotland. The biggest and most impressive part of this is junior football which covers 164 clubs in the country, and is nearly entirely absent from our media and public conversation, from the vast coverage of the game on TV, radio and papers, and which seems even beyond the reach and interest of Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan’s ‘Off the Ball’, along with most football reporters.

At the start of January 2012 myself and my friend Eddie completed our tour of Scotland’s 42 senior football grounds and teams. We had deliberately undertaken the journey in a rambling, off the cuff way: to consciously not make it into a project or extension of work, and to do it with affection and love. It was also not just about football, but going to parts of our country with curiosity, as well as spending time travelling and blethering as friends. That experience concluded as I wrote about in ‘Scottish Review’ at the time, at a Peterhead v. Celtic cup game, and Berwick Rangers v. Stranraer.

There were many memorable experiences in that sojourn such as the rascal-like behavior of Celtic fans on the coach to Peterhead illicitly drinking, taking drugs and even engaging in a bit of mass shoplifting. But the fans that stood out by a mile for us were those of East Stirling. They are groundless (sharing with Stenhousemuir), finished bottom of the lowest league five times out of six in recent years, and yet, their fans are an example to all of us: showing commitment, humour and tenacity.

It was this latter example, the impressive fortitude in the face of adversity, which gave us the idea for what to do next after the 42. Initially, we struggled to think: what next? We even thought about doing all the teams again in a kind of time travel starting with the oldest (Queen’s Park) and ending with the newest (which got into the pointless old/new club Rangers argument).

In another leftfield suggestion, Eddie (who fancies himself as a bit of a boyracer!), came up with the idea that we attempt to drive to all the grounds in as short a period as possible, starting with Ross County in Dingwall. This would be a kind of cross-country football rally drive. For charity. We could even have Eddie and Gerry emblazoned on the front of the car. Eddie did suggest we could complete such a project in 24 hours, with gave me an image of, up and down Scotland, of creating absolute carnage and chaos on the roads behind us. So that one fortunately stayed on the drawing board.

Beginning Our Journey

We actually stumbled into what we did next and the East Stirling experience gave us our inspiration: the world of junior and non-league football. Our first junior game actually came before we completed the 42 and on a Saturday minus any ‘senior’ football due to a Scotland international game we went out and discovered Kirkintilloch Rob Roy and their then slightly dilapidated ground, and for the reasonable entrance price of £5 witnessed an exciting and open game which finished 3-3.

Our first proper trip in February 2012 took us on a rain soaked Saturday to the town of Blantyre and a Blantyre Victoria v. Johnstone match. We had even taken sandwiches, not sure if football at this level, would have that essential addition, the pie shop, which it did. In front of a crowd at most of 60 people, all of whom seemed to know each other, we witnessed a game with occasional flashes of skill, and a 1-1 draw. Given our expectations, we were hooked, and off!

This was for a number of reasons, not all to do with the football. There was the journey and sense of discovery. Scotland’s junior football grounds are not, unlike nearly all the senior clubs, sign-posted, and none well-known. So there was a real element of exploration: of finding towns and places we had never heard of such as Camelon (by Falkirk) or Hurlford (by Kilmarnock), followed by the search for the ground (which could even be complex with GPS).

Often junior grounds are tucked away in the midst of council estates or in a rundown part of town, and sit there as symbols of dreams and glory days of past and some hopeful future. There is something innately impressive in the networks of love, commitment and energy which keeps this whole world going without much attention from outsiders.

Even the name is a misnomer. ‘Junior’ to some people implies young kids playing. To others it brings an association with journeymen and bruisers knocking the hell out of each other in an uber-physical game. It turns out to be anything but this, and in the dozens of games we have witnessed in the last couple of years we didn’t witness one complete dire game, which is more than can be said about the ‘top’ league in recent times, and several epic classes with lots of goals, skills and drama.

The best thing about junior football is the scale. At Arthurlie who play in Barrhead, Eddie found that he had won the half-time draw price, worth £10. When he went to collect his winnings from three elderly guys who were part of the local committee, they confessed that running the club was a complete labour of love, and made no financial sense, with the club several hundreds of pounds worse off each week, which was made up by the committee.

Neilson v. Carluke Rovers was billed as a top of the table clash, but it didn’t feel like that with the home side winning easily 7-1. When the seventh goal went in we cheered noisily as we are inclined to do having a policy of cheering all goals and generally supporting the home team, the Carluke manager turned to us and said to me, ‘Hey big man pack it in’. I replied to him a summary of part of our outlook, saying, ‘We are neutrals. We just want to see goals’, to which he responded, ‘Fair enough’.

The Joys of the Junior Cup

The Junior Cup provided some of our most memorable experiences. At a Largs Thistle v. Shotts Bon Accord semi-final with the game in the balance the Shotts centre forward was sent off in a completely baffling decision by the referee. By chance we were standing in the enclosure next to the player’s parents. They were gutted and close to tears, recognising that if Shotts went on to the final, he would miss it. In consolation, Shotts did get to the final, and won the cup.

The Junior Cup is a tournament filled with romance, and is one of the oldest surviving cups in the world, originating in 1886-87, and predating the Scottish league. The actual cup itself is a thing of magnificence, and while the original Victorian trophy has been superseded, its replacement carries with it the air of history and splendour.

The cup used to attract in the heyday of the game in the 1950s huge gates for the final which was played at Hampden with crowds of 60,000 plus; and the record for a final is an impressive 77,650 in 1951. Those crowds began withering in the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1986 they took the wise decision to stop playing at Hampden. But the whole cup still has the air of something romantic and worth playing for, and in its later stages, attracts very decent crowds.

Our first experience of a Junior Cup Final was witnessing the underdogs Shotts, minus their centre forward, take on the giants of the junior game, Auchinleck Talbot at Livingston’s ground (apparently called the Energy Awards Arena!). Shotts got themselves into a shock two goal lead within the first fourteen minutes, and despite Auchinleck piling on the pressure they could only pull back one goal with two minutes to go to produce a famous upset.

The final was on a Sunday and the following Tuesday Shotts had a league game and were desperately trying to win promotion, a battle they succeeded in. Before the game, the Junior Cup sat on a table at the side of the pitch, and you could have your picture taken with the cup and even lift and hold it to mark the moment. All at no charge unlike the senior game where this would be a costly corporate package.

Elements of the game provide a window into a past Scotland. At the Largs v. Shotts semi-final, standing in the enclosure, fans openly drank significant amounts of alcohol, smoked dope, and sang sectarian songs. They did all of this within earshot of two local policemen who stood smiling and observing all this, nodding affirmingly towards the fans.

All of this felt like a glimpse into a Scotland of the 1970s, of fans enjoying themselves in ways which might now annoy the authorities, but was really in good humour and spirits, and not making much bother. It was the Shotts fans who were singing the songs, chanting, ‘Hello Hello we are the Billy boys’, and eventually when they continued doing it a couple of games on, we decided that sadly they weren’t the special junior team for us.

This year’s Junior Cup Final between Hurlford Athletic and Glenafton Athletic at Rugby Park saw myself and Eddie nearly barred from entry as we met the face of officialdom. As we went to enter the ground we were stopped by two G4S personnel who told us that ‘legislation’ meant we could not take a camera into the ground. After I told them politely there was no such legislation, they then referred to ‘Premier League rules’; myself and Eddie then pointed out that this was a junior game hiring Kilmarnock’s ground, not a Premier game, a distinction which seemed beyond them. The two G4S staff presented myself with a choice: give an undertaking not to use my camera, or face the prospect of being barred from the final. Reluctantly, I gave such an undertaking.

That wasn’t the complete end of the matter. Once inside Rugby Park, just before the game started, a special announcement was made over the PA just to our stand, ‘Would supporters in the Frank Beattie stand please refrain from taking any photographs as it is against the rules’: this clearly directed at us. This made us have a good laugh, knowing that small-mindedness isn’t restricted to the senior game, but everywhere. Hurlford ran out impressive 3-0 winners on the day.

Our trips have taken us to many wonderful, welcoming places across Scotland. These include the infamous Auchinleck Talbot v. Cumnock Rovers Ayrshire derby where we were frisked by the police before entering, and the woman in the local pub told us with evident pride, ‘the rivalry is much worse than the Old Firm’. At Ashfield (who play in Possilpark, Glasgow), one man told us how he had until recently lived in London and supported Chelsea, paying £1800 for a season ticket, and now could do so for £50. A recent Beith Juniors v. Largs Thistle finished 5-5 with the game swinging one way then another, as myself and Eddie reflected that we had never seen ten goals in a single game.

Walking into Stewart Regan and the Titans of Fort William

We have also extended our travels beyond junior football to other non-league teams. The opening day of the Lowland League saw us at Preston Athletic v. Dalbeattie Star and the opposition win 4-3, with SFA head Stewart Regan in the tiny crowd. Eddie tweeted his presence, and invited fans to suggest questions they would like to put to him.

A couple of weeks before the Lowland League started we went to Spartans v. Threave Rovers in the first round of the Ramsden Cup, and Spartans win 4-2. Before the game, we did notice that despite Spartans playing next to the Pilton estate in Edinburgh, the crowd appeared completely middle class. When we asked someone associated with the club why this was so they answered, ‘We tried inviting local kids last season but they made too much noise. We got complaints from neighbours, so we stopped it’.

Then there is Fort William FC, who play in the Highland League, and are the ‘East Stirling’ of the north, regularly finishing bottom, and often getting trashed by nine, ten and even eleven goals, and still going on. We went there, for the first round of the Scottish Cup not expecting too much, and found a well-looked after ground and set up. The match against Newton Stewart finished nil-nil, but could have been about five each, so bad was both their finishing. In one instance, a Fort player managed to miss an open goal from six yards, hitting it so softly that the other team managed to get a player back and clear it off the line.

Then there is the rich history of junior and non-league football: the teams, towns and nature of small scale Scotland which follows an archaeology set at the peak of industrial Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It isn’t an accident that the heartlands of the junior game map practically exactly the powerful forces of that earlier age, with Ayrshire, West Lothian and Fife, places where junior football carries with it an importance way beyond the game.

For many clubs, they carry with them a whole host of stories, identities and memories about what it is to live in the 21st century in places such as Auchinleck, Cumnock, Beith, Bonnyrigg and countless others. Maybe reflecting on it, their local football team, run mostly on countless acts of goodwill, carries just a bit too much of this sense of local pride and place, and that in a country which continually stresses how different it is, while centralising and standardising lots of public life, perhaps government and public bodies could actively support and sustain such local feeling.

This is about history, connection, generational and collective stories, and a whole lot more. Important things which tend to get forgotten about, but which make us into who and what we are. None of us who live here are just simply Scottish, or even Scottish-Asian or Scottish-Italian, but a whole mix of complex and fluid identities.

Some of this can be seen in the clubhouses and social clubs of many of the junior clubs. There we find a conscious attempt to preserve and record the illustrious achievements of the past: the Junior Cups won, numerous other trophies and cups, memorials and testimonials, occasional big matches played against titans from the top leagues, pendants exchanged, and photographs of great league title winning teams. In some of the clubs, this is all beautifully presented and maintained, while in others, who shall remain nameless, there is a potent sense of decay and the passing of an era.

What is most evocative about the junior game is the intimacy of the whole thing. It is all on a very human and personal scale, which allows you to practically reach out and touch the players, and see and feel the emotions, hopes, elation and occasional heartbreak which people go through over the course of a game.

Eddie and my exploration of football captivated us, is ongoing, and in future will take us to many other towns and places. Here is another Scotland which exists underneath the attention of most of society and with a near-complete media blackout; the exception being the Junior Cup Final shown each year on BBC Alba.

As lifelong football fans, Eddie, a Celtic fan, and myself, a Dundee United fan, all of this has been an enormously uplifting and affirming experience, about our friendship, football and wider Scotland. Fans have an opportunity to get to know the players, and spend time with them on a pub on Saturday night, celebrating highs, commiserating lows, and berating them for mistakes. There is something rather edifying in this, far removed from the grotesque corporatised world of the European Champions League, English Premiership, and even to a lesser extent, Scotland’s top flight.

In the course of the last two and a half years as we traversed up and down Scotland, the two subjects which obsessed public life were the implosion of Rangers FC and the independence referendum. People, not surprisingly, spoke in passing about the former, but with a mixture of bewilderment and amusement, and no real relish or malice.

Yet, for all the debate elsewhere and claims of ‘a nation in conversation’, not one person mentioned the referendum. In fact, politics was nearly completely missing from the hundreds of people we spoke and listened to. This might be good old-fashioned Scottish reticence, but it also points to a deeper truth: that politics and even the independence referendum are not all there is too life.

There is even, in the year of our historic choice, a Scotland beyond politics and the independence debate. That’s as it should be in a mature society. What the world of junior football shows is that there is a fascinating, rich, diverse country beyond the gaze of the media, politics and government, a Scotland beyond the big cities and centralisation of practically everything in public life.

The hidden Scotland of junior football is a fragile, precious ecology, a place held together not by the millions of the globalised game, but hundreds of thousands of Scots giving voluntarily their free time. There are concerns about its viability in some places: the aging volunteers and supporters, and the generation of working class older men who have given back so much to their local teams. What comes after them?

Junior football shows a glimpse of a very different land: one about localism, small-sizedness, and the potential of self-management. This Scotland has managed to exist and be nurtured without much interest and action from the Scottish Government or comment from Stuart and Tam and the like.

Maybe there are bigger lessons for the powers that be in this state of affairs in this historical year: namely, that there is more to life than politics and recognising the limits of the remorseless logic of centralisation. There is a rich tapestry of a complex, varied society out there – below the radar and beyond the attention span of official Scotland – which doesn’t have voice or recognition in the corridors of power. Perhaps we could all learn from the endurance of junior teams the length and breadth of our country, and celebrate the beauty of the small, the local and the reach of the voluntary. That would begin to look like a very different and better Scotland than that of today.