Monday 19 March 2018

Memories of how other half live

James Cusack

NO Old Firm game for me. 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 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 helps those with mental health problems, a section of the wooden rail that surrounded the pitch was reserved. So they stood, shouting, as 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. Numbers 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, 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 MacLeod, described as a "well-respected figure" in the club's official biography, suggested they hire a young gun from Rangers. 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.

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.

Irish Independent

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