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Saturday 5th August 2006 ko 15.00

Scottish League Division 3

EAST STIRLINGSHIRE 2 (Dymock 75 Tweedie 78)

ELGIN CITY 1 (Mackay 6) Nelson sent off 41 (dangerous play)

Att 227

At Firs Park, Falkirk

Entry £9

Programme £1

With my football watching winding down for summer, I thought I’d use the time to cover some of the places I’ve visited before I started the blog. There are plenty I could write about, so I’m going to filter these quite carefully down to grounds you can’t see anymore, or those you really should visit. You could say this is my “Greatest Hits” tour!!

If you know me well, you’ll be well aware I need no excuse to go and find a game, however back in the dim and distant past this flight of fancy took me on one of the longest drives I’d ever attempted, Banbury to Falkirk and back in a day!

The reason I gave myself made sense… to myself, my then wife was away at a girls’ weekend at Butlins, and my company car was due back on Monday at the end of a lease that forbade me to do more than 30,000 miles; I’d done 299,500, so I decided to make it a round ten times the agreement!

For a learner-hopper there was a lot to attract me to Firs Park too. I’d seen the article on East Stirlingshire in lad mag “Loaded,” and a club that had finished rock bottom of the SFL for each of the last 3 seasons, saw fit to pay its players only £10 each per week, and had put its ground up for sale seemed ripe for a visit. There was also the matter of club chairman Alan J Mackin, who seemed to be notable by his absence and was clearly the bête noire of the Shire faithful for his plans to sell off the ground, and presumably fold the club. Later that season a pressure group was formed to facilitate his removal called F.O.A.M. If I tell you that the O stands for off, I assume you can work out the rest.

I parked up in Firs Street, and paid my £9, and was marvelling at the photocopied programme when a Scots accent grinned at me and went, “What on earth are you doing here?” It was my pal former university lecturer Jim Kidd, and he proved to be a font of knowledge on the travails of Falkirk’s less-well known team. He didn’t bore me with the fact that Alex Ferguson’s first managerial post was here, in 1974. I suspect Shire fans are bored rigid of that nugget being trotted out every-so-often.

I took in my surroundings, there was the terrace behind one goal, closed on safety grounds and only used as access to the tea bar and the main stand. The stand was Firs Park’s best feature, with its barrel roof, the structure being a facsimile of a similar structure demolished. Opposite was a covered terrace, the rusting roof providing some cover to the dusty concrete below. But what visitors to Firs Park at this time would have remembered is the “Land of Leather” wall. The club had staved off financial disaster a few years previously by selling off the terrace behind the far goal. A huge concrete wall was placed where the terrace once stood and strikers had an extra incentive to hit the target as if you missed, the ball would bounce off the wall and anyone not paying attention would run the risk of being brained.

It was simple enough to get a teamsheet from the boardroom/Portakabin by the stand, and I settled for a cheeseburger from the tea bar, as the club was in dispute with the pie firm at the time. Jim had explained how the two teams were probably the worst in the Scottish League, and that a fair percentage of the Junior game would give either a good hiding. However I didn’t expect to see the referee have to supervise the correcting the positioning of the two penalty spots before the game, but as an official did explain, they had played all of their pre-season games at Grangemouth Stadium. That fact was causing mutterings amongst the home faithful about the club leaving Falkirk, and looking back, I’d have loved to have bought a F.O.A.M. t-shirt!

I did, however see two things that were and are highly unusual. Let’s deal with the first, I saw a Shire win, there were to be only 6 of those in that league season, with Shire finishing in their normal position of bottom (21 points) and Elgin second-bottom (29 points). At the risk of annoying Shire fans there was nothing unusual in them being flat last, but I did see something I doubt I’ll ever see again, and that’s a player sent-off whilst on a stretcher, his leg in a splint, being wheeled off to the ambulance. I should explain, Elgin midfielder Adam Nelson was guilty of a quite dreadful challenge, and succeeded only in breaking his leg. The red card served only to prevent a substitution, and I assume a SFA fine. It turned the game the Shire’s way, and two late goals gave them an encouraging win, that sadly proved to be a false dawn in what was to be another dreadful season for them.

The SFL became tired of The Shire’s perennial underachievement and in 2005-6 it was determined if a club finished bottom of the Third Division twice in successive years, it would face the risk of being reduced to associate member status, meaning the loss of voting rights, and as-such could by far more easily removed from the league altogether. In East Stirlingshire’s case, a league vote was held and concluded in favour of the club retaining full member status with the condition that it did not finish last the following season in 2008. Shire had finished bottom 5 times in succession at that point, so where did they finish that next season? That’s right, second-from-bottom, beating Montrose to finish above Forfar in the final game of the season, which turned out to be the final game at Firs Park.

The Shire  left Firs Park ostensibly because the ground, and in particular the pitch couldn’t be made to comply with SFL ground grading requirements. The rumour was that due to the “Land of Leather” wall, the pitch was 22 inches too short! The club didn’t follow Falkirk FC to Grangemouth, and have settled into what looks to be a long-term groundshare at rivals Stenhuismuir’s Ochilview Park. There is still talk of moving to a ground of their own, but plans are only at a very preliminary stage.

The move to Ochilview, and the coincidental departure of Mackin did see an upturn in The Shire’s fortunes, and whilst they are still in the bottom division, now rebadged SPFL League 2, they haven’t finished bottom since and made the play-offs 3 seasons in succession (2008-10). Of course, with the rule now that the Lowland and Highland League winners from next season will playoff for the right to playoff with the SPFL League 2’s bottom club for the last place in the league, the days of a club being as strikingly bad as The Shire were, are probably gone.

But for all of that, I still miss Firs Park, it had character by the bucketload, even if what occurred on the pitch seemed barely credible for a national league.