Hedging my bets on top of the table clashes

As I pulled into the car park at Gatwick Airport I was pretty sure I had remembered everything for my latest sojourn to Scotland.  Everything that is bar a coat.  You need a coat in Scotland in mid-July, so not wearing one on an October night could get a man sectioned.  Only two types of people could possibly get away with such a mistake – girls from Newcastle and Inuit’s.  Whilst I do have relatively girly eye-lashes, so I am told, and can rub noses on request, I can’t profess any strong association with either group and thus had to buy a replacement coat.

Fifty pounds lighter in my pocket and five pounds heavier in weight, I landed in Edinburgh ready to start a whirlwind twenty five hours that would see me take in four games in four different grounds, taking advantage of the fact the mighty Lewes’s FA Trophy tie with Kingstonian had been pushed back to the Sunday.  With our latest injury crisis, I may even bring back more than a Tam o’Shanter wig and a packet of Scottish shortbread, the standard family presents when travelling north of the border.

30542588462_136c95bc9c_kOriginally, when looking at options for the day I was going to let the train take the strain, travelling from Edinburgh up the beautiful East Coast to Aberdeen and then back again via a couple of stops along the way.  I had pencilled in a visit to Forfar’s Station Park ground as my 3pm option but soon found out that despite playing at Station Park, Forfar doesn’t have a train station.  Perhaps it was an aspirational idea to name the area, a local counsellor having a Bull Durham moment (“build it and they will come”) or simply that it was a trendy thing to do?  I had to consult my father, a guru on late 20th century railway lines in Great Britain for the answer.

“Forfar was the principal station between Perth and Aberdeen in the days when trains between Glasgow and Aberdeen always ran via Stanley and Kinnaber Junctions on the Caledonian Railway.  It was running until 1967 although on occasion they ran trains on the line, the last one being in June 1982.  If you look carefully on Google Maps you can still see where the line went.  The buildings behind the South Stand at Forfar were almost certainly goods sheds and hence why it got the name Station Park”

Thanks Dad.  I asked him how I was therefore supposed to get to Forfar from Aberdeen.

“No idea son.  Trying asking someone who gives a shit about places without train stations”.

It soon became clear that the train option wasn’t really an option at all.  Whilst I didn’t fancy driving 300 miles in a day, that was going to be my only option if I wanted to squeeze in three Saturday games.  I’d have to swap the Brewdog Brewery tour option for a case of IrnBru but that’s the level of sacrifice you often have to make as a Football Tourist.  So the plan would be Aberdeen-Brechin-Raith Rovers.  Not a bad haul in a day.  But first I had a Friday night bonus game just four stops on the tram from my hotel, albeit of the oval ball variety as Edinburgh would be taking on the Italians from Zebre (Italian for Zebra in case you wanted to know) in the Pro12 League.

30026052603_d4dcb922fd_k-1Zebre’s record in the competition hasn’t yet given many hope that the Italian teams can compete at this level.  They’ve finished in last place in every season they have played in the competition so far bar last season when Benetton Treviso finished below them and arrived in Scotland pointless from the opening five games.  The lush and fertile lands around Parma are hardly a hot-bed of rugby, underlined by modest crowds at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.  But you cannot deny the spirit they put into every game, which once in a while provides an upset and justifies why they should still be part of the tournament.  They had lost on their last four visits to Edinburgh and hadn’t scored a point at Murrayfield since November 2013.

Edinburgh 14 Zebre 19 – Murrayfield – Friday 28th October 2016
Of course that stat was the cue for the Italian’s first ever win in the Pro12 League and it was fully deserved.  They led for virtually the whole game, only going behind with ten to play but responding with a try in the final minutes.  The Edinburgh fans went into the night wondering what happened to the team from seven days ago that beat Harlequins.  As I wandered down to pitch side I bumped into a group of Halloween revellers, who had decided to take in the game first before heading to wherever the kids head to these days.  Whilst they had made some effort with their grizzly costumes, they had a long way to go to be as scary as some of the Italian players, coming off the pitch battered and bloodied after their famous victory.

Welcome to the Granite City said the sign as I drove across the River Dee at 11am.  Autumn was in full bloom with the warm sunshine reflecting off the trawlers in the quayside.  Aberdeen.  Home to Henry Cecil, Graeme Garden, Brewdog and Alex Salmond, winner of Britain in Bloom a record ten times and the 56th most habitable city in the world.  What better way to start my triple header of games in Scotland than here at Pittordrie, home to Aberdeen since 1899 where Celtic were the visitors for the early televised game.

My day had started some hours earlier, at 3.15am to be precise, when the fire alarm at the hotel rudely awoke everyone’s sleep.  I hastily dressed, realising that I had left my new coat, the one bought yesterday to replace the one I forgot, in the bar the previous evening.  It turned out to be a false alarm fortunately.  Someone was trying to tell me something and at 8am I had brought replacement number two from the Tesco Extra across the road.

30659434885_3840ef989d_kA win in this early kick off would extend the Bhoys lead at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership to 10 points with a game in hand over the Dons in second place.  These were the two form on teams in the league over the last six games and many felt that Derek McInnes side were the best placed of the crashing pack to challenge Celtic this season, borne out that the two sides would be meeting again in four weeks’ time in the Bedfred League Cup final at Hampden Park.

Perched almost on the edge of the North Sea, Pittordrie has been home to The Dons since 1903 although was actually in use from 1899 by the previous incarnations of the club, Aberdeen, Victoria United an Orion.  The site was a former Police horse dung heap, giving rise to the term “a pile of crap”.  It was here in 1920 that the dugout was first used in a football club anywhere in the world when then head coach Donald  Coleman dug a trench in the side of the pitch so that he could view the ball at the players feet to try to improve their skill levels.  In 1978 the stadium became the second all-seater in Great Britain, following the trend set by the now defunct Clydebank FC.  As with many grounds of a similar age, improvements have been made as and when finances are available or when legislation has necessitated.  The last addition to the stadium is the impressive Richard Donald Stand at the East end of the ground which does at least provide a decent windbreak from the biting North Sea air.

However, ambition to challenge the likes of Celtic and Rangers off the pitch has meant the club thinking about the future.  The idea of the New Aberdeen Stadium at Kingsford in the city, a 21,000 modern all-seater has received planning approval but with strong objections in the Kingsford community the club hasn’t been able to proceed yet.  For now Pittordrie, with history dripping from every seat, remains the Dons home and the home fans had come out in droves to bask in the Autumnal sunshine and hopefully close the gap on the league leaders.

Aberdeen 0 Celtic 1 – Pittordrie – Saturday 29th October 2016
One thing you cannot afford to do against teams at the top of the table is waste opportunities and the failure of the home side to deliver a decent corner from their first three attempts heightened the angst around the stadium, whilst the perceived easy nature that the Celtic players were going to ground was enraging the crowd, none more so than the lady with her kids in front of me who launched into impressive, coherent rant at the linesman that included an impressive six different four-letter swear words (now there’s a good idea for a Family Christmas game!)

30659435595_04f04f1cc3_k-1Twenty four minutes on the clock and Celtic took the lead.  There didn’t seem to be any danger when the ball bounced awkwardly in front of Tom Rogic on the edge of the box but the Australian controlled it with his right and then as it rose off the ground, struck it with his left past a flailing Joe Lewis in the Dons goal. Whilst the goal spurred Aberdeen forward, the lack of an end product was evident as they couldn’t find a way through the Celtic backline.  In fact it was the visitors who should have added a second when Stuart Armstrong side-footed wide when he had the goal at his mercy.  Half-time, 0-1 and a chance to sample the Pittordrie Pie.

The world of Scottish football savoury snacks has been turned on its head after the KilliePieGate in the summer.  Up here at Pittordrie they saw the danger such a similar situation could mean financially for them and so they are aiming to become the first football club in the world to trademark their own pie – The Pittordrie Pie, a mince pie with a golden crust that last season sold over 100,000.  I’d love to give a critical review but they were so good that by the time I went to the bar at half-time they were sold out so I had to make do with the Macaroni pie, which was “interesting” to say the least.  The concept of cheesy pasta in a pie doesn’t read well when written down and tastes just about the same.  Looking around me it seemed the trick I missed was to carefully lift the pie lid and squirt in half a bottle of tomato ketchup.  Amateur mistake.

The Aberdeen fans hoped that the team were given a lecture at half-time on being wasteful in midfield but within the first ten minutes it appeared the only words were “more of the same, lads” as Celtic continued to press forward.  On 75 minutes the referee finally lost it.  His performance had been erratic to say the least but in the process of separating a flare up started by a late, cynical tackle by Scott Brown, he managed to floor the Celtic captain as he stretched out his arm to make a point, then to add insult to injury, he booked Brown.

A crowd of over 17,000, the second biggest of the season at Pittordrie departed having seen Celtic underline their dominance.  Bar the last five minutes of pressure, the visitors had been in total control and Rogers will need to analyse the performance and assess why they weren’t well out of sight before the injury time onslaught by the home side.

One down, three to go.  Whilst many fans would head to the pubs around Aberdeen for the rest of the afternoon, my day was only just beginning. Next stop, Glebe Park and THAT hedge.

30028215794_1574956099_kThe approach to Glebe Park, home of the football club is rural to say the least, hidden down a turning between some houses.  Whilst the club are nicknamed “The City”, Brechin itself is technically only a Town.  Whilst the presence of a cathedral was once the only real criteria for being able to be defined as a city, today there’s forms, royal warrants and interviews.  Faced with so much red tape, Brechin decided to simply put their fingers in their ears and go “la” until someone important notices.  But the club’s main claim to fame is the impressive hedge that forms the perimeter of the ground on two sides.  No other ground in the world can boast such impressive shrubbery.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Glebe Park.  Not only do they have the hedge, resplendent in different Autumnal shades but they have a superb old Main Stand with the cathedral spire towering over it.  Remember Hedgegate that almost threatened the finest example of football horticulture? I’m sure most of you do but for those who don’t pay much attention to Scottish lower league football politics, let me give you a brief summary.

Back in 2009 UEFA mandated the minimum size of a pitch that could be used to host football at a professional level.  Unfortunately, Glebe Park’s pitch didn’t measure up and so there was a suggestion that the cheapest way around the problem was to get the hedge trimmers out and widen the pitch.  Common sense prevailed (unusual words when talking about UEFA) and the club retained its unique feature.  To add to the eclectic mix of features at the ground, the newest addition to Glebe Park is the large stand set back from the goal line with the multi-coloured seats, opened in the 1990’s, offering fine views of the surrounding area.  Having walked around the ground and taken a million photos (you can never have enough football hedge photos in your life I always say) I sat back and watched to see whether Brechin could retain their spot at the top of the league.

Brechin City 0 Livingston 3 – Glebe Park – Saturday 29th October 2016
I sat high up in the stand behind the goal, giving me a fine view of the action as well as the surrounding area.  Despite their position at the top of the league, Brechin appeared nervous on the ball in the opening period, allowing Livingston far too much time on the ball and consequently on top for the first quarter of the game.  Twenty minutes in and Livingston created the best chance of the game as Alan Lithgow had a half-volley well saved, whilst the chance of the half also fell to the visitors as Buchanan was set free by Da Vito, but the Brechin keeper’s outstretched leg diverted the ball wide.

30623241196_b43048d7c3_kHalf-time and whilst the visitors could claim they had the best of the half, they hadn’t been able to take any of their chances.  Apparently, according to a Brechin fan in the queue for a Scotch Pie (no Glebe Pie here alas), Brechin were a second half side.  In fact, whilst they had won seven games so far in the league, they had only led twice at half-time, with their last five wins coming when they had been level at the break.  “Not that I believe in omens” he said, stroking his rabbits foot keyring.

Alas, the omens were wrong.  Livingston came out strongly in the second half and scored three times without reply, although with twenty minutes left to play it was time to head south for the final game of the day, so I missed Livingston grab a third which would see them leapfrog Brechin at the top of the table when Bryne tapped into an empty net after Smith had pulled off a great save.

I set the SatNav to Kirkcaldy which was fifty minutes away, meaning I’d get there just on kick off.  A simple plan.  Or was it.  Ten minutes down the road the signpost said “Forfar 2”.  I must have read it as Forfar is 2 good to miss and before I had time to realise what had happened, the self-drive functionality of the Citroen had me exiting the A90 and heading for the floodlights in the near distance. I knew it wasn’t in the plan but something drew me to Station Park like a moth to a flame.  This was a home banker if there ever was one.  Forfar Athletic were top of League Two, whilst the visitors, Edinburgh City, in their first ever season in the professional game, were rock bottom with just three points from their opening ten games.

Forfar Athletic 1 Edinburgh City 1 – Station Park – Saturday 29th October 2016
As I parked outside the ground a cheer went up.  I assumed it was another Forfar Athletic goal but when I entered the ground and asked the score I was very surprised to hear the goal was actually a Forfar equaliser, after the visitors had been leading since the 25th minute.

30359627930_b5b7adbae6_kConfession time – I hadn’t been motivated to divert to catch the action at Station Park by a desire to “tick off a ground”, although of course I will claim a visit, but to indulge in the world-famous Forfar Bridie.  A delicious mix of minced steak, butter beef suet and onion in a semi-circular shortcrust pastry shape (that’s how you can tell they are from Forfar).  To the uneducated they look and taste like Cornish Pasties BUT never say that to a Forfarian and they will get very very annoyed.  For your reference a Bridie doesn’t have any potato in.

Fortunately, they hadn’t sold out of these, making the short trip worthwhile even if I didn’t see any further action, or acquire any Forfar Athletic socks.  Time to depart and complete the journey through the Scottish Leagues.

So after a brief detour into Forfar, I arrived in Kirkcaldy for the final game of the day, the televised Championship game between Raith Rovers and Queen of the South.  Who needs the X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing when you have live Scottish Championship football on the TV?  Some may moan about the impact of the TV companies on kick off times but thanks to them I’d managed to watch football in each of the four Scottish divisions in one afternoon today.

Kirkcaldy can claim a few famous residents although it is highly unlikely that many of them ever attended a game at Stark’s Park.  Whilst it is likely former unelected Prime Minister Gordon Brown popped in from time to time, the town’s most famous resident, Adam Smith was too busy writing the Wealth of Nations to worry about football – that and the fact he finished writing his epic 116 years before the football club were formed although it is clear to anyone who shares a passion for football and economic theory as I do that the “invisible hand” Smith refers to as the way supply and demand interact is actually Sky Sports.

“The ability to self-regulate and to ensure maximum efficiency, however, is threatened by monopolies, tax preferences, lobbying groups, and other “privileges” extended to certain members of the economy at the expense of others” Said Smith – you tell me that’s not a statement that Rupert Murdoch would be proud of saying?

Stark’s Park is approached from the town centre up a steep hill, giving the impression it is some kind of citadel sitting in a strategic position to defend the town. The ground is a strange mix of different styles, underlining how clubs at this level have had to develop their infrastructure as and when the good times roll into town.  The main stand, with its very distinguishable Archibald Leitch gabled roof is an unusual L-shape but only extends two-thirds of the way down the side of the pitch due to the road outside, whilst two newish stands, identical stands at either end of the stadium act as windbreaks from the biting East winds from across the North Sea.

Raith Rovers 1 Queen of the South 0 – Stark’s Park – Saturday 29th October 2016
“Games aren’t won on stats” said the Queen of the South fan in front of me as we exited the ground.  Despite having five times as many shots as the home side, the visitors would be heading back to Dumfries pointless after an injury time goal settled this rather dour encounter.  In truth there was little between the two sides for the most part, although the lack of confidence in the home side to pull the trigger when in a dangerous position appeared to have cost them two points, only for Raith’s Mark Stewart to have the final say and lift them up to third in the table.  Ironically, when the two teams met here around the same time last season, Raith won 1-0 thanks to a single goal, against the run of play late in the game.

30571465961_8d52a4bf31_kSomehow I missed the fact that the empty North Stand was sponsored by Val McDermid, the crime writer.  I could have hardly missed it as it was plastered in five foot letters across the top of it.  A quick search not only confirmed that one of the UK’s best crime writers,  Ms McDermid was born in Kirkcaldy, was a Rovers fan but was also a director of the club and a former front of shirt sponsor.  As dedicated goes, that’s pretty impressive and I scanned the Main Stand to see if I could see her, but alas my detective skills were not on a par with some of those of her characters from her books.

The rest of the second half passed with very little goalmouth action.  The interest of the fans was peaked when Raith were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box but the effort came to nothing.  As the game entered the added period many fans were already on their way home as Stewart slid inbetween the Queen of the South defence to net.

The official line on the game from the Raith Rovers website summed it up quite nicely:-

“Make no mistake, this was not a game that would leave the football purist purring, but those of a Raith Rovers persuasion can be satisfied with three points which keep the club within touching distance of the summit of what is a very competitive league.”

But I couldn’t complain.  Thanks to some fortuitous fixtures, some favourable traffic conditions and some detailed planning I had sampled four games in one day, almost equalling my record from 2008 when I managed five in one day in Copenhagen.  Scotland is the gift that keeps on giving for the Football Tourist and I very much doubt this will be my last trip north of the border this season.

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