With the football season over prematurely due to the Coronavirus Pandemic I’m in the unusual position of actually having this blog up to date! So to keep the content coming, and for something to do, I’ll do some old grounds and games where there’s a story to tell.
Saturday 2nd August 2008 ko 14.20
Scottish League Division 3
COWDENBEATH 1 (McQuade 16)
ANNAN ATHLETIC 4 (Jack 30p 48 Archibald 58 Johnstone 90)
There are of course no lack of towns that with the greatest of respect to their residents, that you’d never visit for tourism but would for football. That said I do know one couple where the wife made the rather rash decision to let hubby book their summer holiday. They were due to visit Sunderland this June had it not been for Coronavirus. Cue the complaints from the Sunderland tourist board…..
So why would I travel from Oxfordshire to a former mining town in Fife and back in a day? It involved well over 12 hours driving, and it was for an early kick-off too. The answer is a little convoluted so here goes.
2008 was momentous year for Scottish football. It was then that the fuel ran out of Brookes Mileson’s attempts to make Gretna FC a major force in the Scottish Premier Division. His death and their subsequent bankrupcy created a vacancy in the Scottish League. Five clubs applied and 12 years later 3 of them are now in the Scottish League, Cove Rangers, Edinburgh City and of course Annan who won. Can you name the other two applicants? Answer after the photos.
GroundhopUK’s Chris Berezai and I traveled up to Galabank to watch the Annan Tournament a few weeks after the vote and were rather taken by the club. We even found out the club entered the FA Vase twice in the mid 1970’s! The works to get the ground up standard were many and varied but more than anything else we were rather taken by how the club were clearly enjoying themselves. We also enjoyed looking at the letters of congratulations on the notice board. It must be said there was one from a former Gretna director saying “If you see a man with a fat cheque book, run the other way!”
Frankly I didn’t do that. A couple of weeks later Annan played their first game as a Scottish League club at Clyde FC in the Challenge Cup. I was there watching Annan play their last competitive game in Non League (East of Scotland League) kit by special dispensation. I travelled back home, then Chris Berezai phoned me, did I fancy a trip to see Annan play their first ever league game?
Of course I did, even though as a company car driver I ended up doing the driving. I did however failed to ask where it was. “Cowdenbeath….. Fife…Crumbs!” But never let it be said that I shirk a challenge, even if I do remember gulping as I collected Chris and Mike Woodward at Long Eaton. Sometimes you don’t want to see the estimated trip time on your sat-nav!
I should explain the need for the early kick-off. Cowdenbeath play at Central Park and the venue is fundamentally a stock car venue (and for a time Britain’s most northerly speedway track) and make no mistake, the stock cars take precedence as we were to find out. The football must end by 4.00 for the stock cars to start.
We made serene progress and it was rather disturbing to be recognised by the young lad serving the buffet breakfasts at Tesco, in Carlisle no less. He made me smile, but that grin was rapidly wiped from our faces the second we crossed the border. I think we’ve all had that moment; you’re ahead of schedule then “Bong!” and the sat-nav updates to tell you you’re going to be half an hour late!
The problem was that there’d been a pile-up on the Forth Bridge, and unbeknownst to us the Annan team coach was caught up in it. I diverted to the Kincardine Bridge to avoid the traffic chaos and positively screamed into the car park at Central Park with smoking tyres and roughly a minute to spare to the scheduled 14.00 kick off, or so we thought.
The surprise was that Musselburgh-based groundhopper Jim Kidd was there to let us know that due to the fact that Annan had arrived only slightly earlier than we had, kick-off had been delayed by the maximum Cowdenbeath could- 20 minutes. That did give enough time before kick-off for me to have a flick through the excellent programme, and have a stroll round the ground.
Other than the safety fences and racing track Central Park is notable for having two main stands- of a fashion. When one half of the stand was the victim of an arson attack in 1992, the undamaged half was truncated, and a new stand built on the site of the attack. Choice is almost always a good thing but here for us there really wasn’t any- we made a beeline for the Annan fans in the old stand.
To all our surprise we were recognised, “It’s our friends from Doon Sooth” was how “Scotland on Sunday” remembered it. Now sometimes you find yourself in the right place at precisely the right time and this was definitely one of those days as we sang, cheered and laughed with the Annan fans and directors on an incredible afternoon.
I forgot the dreadful drive up and came close to not hearing the stock cars revving up during half time in a game where the visitors overcame conceding early to win deservedly. We celebrated, and former Gretna midfielder Derek “Deggsy” Townsley gave his trademark toothy grin- I got the impression that he’d seen it before, from a few miles east of Annan. And there was the sickening irony that his former team’s phoenix club were just about to base themselves at the Everholm Stadium- just a couple of hundred yards on from Galabank and they were to stay there until Raydale was made available towards the end of that season.
With the imperative to get the Stock Car meeting going there wasn’t much time to celebrate, which looking at the drive home was no bad thing! It was disconcerting too that there were substantially larger numbers of people waiting to come in than were leaving. But what’s happened since?
Annan have stayed in the Division 3, now SPFL League 2, ever since. Galabank has seen massive improvements since our visit to the Annan tournament. We saw the beginnings of the turnstile block but there’s now lights, terracing, toilets and a 3G pitch too. I’ve not watched them since, our paths haven’t crossed, but everytime I’m driving home from a game and “Sports Report” is on the radio I can’t help but listen out for their results. They are a lovely club.
More convoluted is Cowdenbeath’s recent history. This game was the Blue Brazil’s first game back in the Scottish League’s bottom division after relegation so perhaps the hangover was understandable. They finished that season 5th from 10, but won Division 3 in 2006 and were promoted via the playoffs to Division One in 2010.
That was a high point and possibly a bridge too far as the club were relegated twice in two seasons (2016 and 2017) and after finishing bottom of the rebadged League 2, only retained their league status by winning league playoffs against Lowland League champions East Kilbride in 2017 and Highland League champions Cove Rangers in 2018.
I remember visiting nearby Kelty Hearts on the 2018 Scottish Hop and speaking to their directors it was clear that they were targeting the Scottish League in the shortest possible term. Cowdenbeath were never mentioned by name, or even hinted at, but it didn’t take an expert in the Scottish game to see Gretna being replaced by nearby Annan to extrapolate Kelty replacing Cowdenbeath. With our GroundhopUK hats on Chris and I had Central Park on a possible hop game list for a while.
Thankfully for the Blue Brazil that won’t happen in the short term. Cowdenbeath were comfortably mid-table in this last truncated season and so I hope their troubles are now behind them. Apart from anything else I’m not sure how we’d fit them in to a hop and keep the stock car racers happy!