Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Ground 206: Gayfield Park, Arbroath

September 12th 1885 was the first round of the Scottish Cup - and a bad day for Aberdeen's amateur sportsmen. The match referee estimated Dundee Harp had beaten Aberdeen Rovers 37-0, though one of the home officials counted two goals fewer. The two agreed to settle on the lower figure, allowing the Harp team to retire to a celebratory tripe and potato supper at a Dundee pub.  On the same afternoon, eighteen miles up the North Sea coast, two more Aberdeen sides were among the first round losers.  The first went down 7-0 away to Strathmore.  The second, more famously, were battered 36-0 at Arbroath FC.

 Floodlights! Football ground! Pub! Sea! Amusement arcade! Erm, crocuses...

The enduring legend has it that Arbroath were supposed to be playing Orion FC, one of the three clubs which later banded together to form the modern-day Aberdeen.  Instead, the Scottish FA mistakenly sent a letter of invitation to Orion Cricket Club, who, anything for a lark,  adopted the city's motto of Bon Accord as a team name, left their bats and pads behind and turned up in Arbroath without any kit.  It's a version of history which has since been disputed, with some maintaining they were just a very bad football team, less Dennis Compton than Paul Jewell's Derby County. Either way, Arbroath had struck fifteen goals past visiting wicketkeeper Andrew Lornie by half-time - his opposite number, Jim Milne, watched from under an umbrella borrowed from a friend in the crowd - while 18-year-old John Petrie went on to get his leg before goal thirteen times, an achievement only equalled by Archie Thompson during Australia's 31-0 win over American Samoa in the qualifying rounds of the 2002 World Cup. The scoreline itself was eventually beaten as a senior record when Stade Olymique L’Emyrne's players decided to score 149 own goals against AS Adema on the final day of the 2006 Madagascan League season, which, no matter how you look at it, very definitely wasn't cricket.

As at Dundee Harp, the final margin of victory could even have been greater. "My only regret was that I chalked off seven goals, for while they may have looked doubtful from an offside point of view, so quickly did the Maroons carry the ball from midfield, and so close and rapid was their passing, that it was very doubtful whether they could be offside," referee Dave Stormont later admitted, though if his running style was as long-winded as his manner of speech, it's no wonder he couldn't keep up with play. "The leather was landed between the posts 41 times, but 5 of the times were disallowed...the Aberdonians might as well have been outside the ropes for the resistance that they provided, " sniffed the Scottish Athletic Journal.  The game was "a farce" wrote the Arbroath Guide.  Neither hints at the quality of an Arbroath team which scored sixteen in winning the next two rounds, three in losing at Hibernian, and ended the season with 178 goals in just 42 games. Two seasons later Arbroath finally met the real Orion FC - and thrashed them 18-0. Aberdeen had to wait another sixty years for its revenge, winning 2-0 in a 1947 Scottish Cup semi-final watched by 22,000 at Dundee's Dens Park.

Before last season's Third Division title, that game was as close as the club had come to a national trophy in 133 years. Like the proverbial London buses, Arbroath fans mightn't have long to wait for another, Pat Sheerin's side currently just a point behind leaders Cowdenbeath with three quarters of the league campaign played.  Brian Kerr - a Scotland international formerly of Newcastle United, Hibernian and Motherwell - and ex-Plymouth and St Johnstone winger Kieran McAnespie start on the bench for Arbroath.  East Fife, trailing Stenhousemuir as they try and squeeze into the end-of-season play-offs, dispensed with manager John Robertson after their midweek defeat at Forfar and have Gordon Durie in charge for the first time.  Yes, that Gordon Durie.

You looking at me?

For me, the highlight is on the other side of the pitch, where the North Sea comes to within a tarmac footpath of Gayfield Park's East Terrace at high-tide.  If you're planning a visit youself,  the Bermudas and beach ball are best left in the car. "No matter how good the weather is take a coat!" advises the entry in the Scottish Ground Guide. "A lovely place on a nice day," a Dumbarton fan told me. "Thing is, I don't think they've ever had one."  That said, I come as close as I've ever done to love at first sight as the sun breaks through at a minute to three and the players come out to The Undertones - "He always beat me at Subbuteo, 'cos he flicked the kick and I didn't know". The steak pies actually contain meat, I'm standing on a terrace fifteen metres from the sea and both sets of fans are scurrying round the pitch like a fast-forward shot of a Tokyo commuter station as the teams swap ends for kick-off.  Good old life.

 Arbroath are a goal up after six minutes and two ahead by fifteen, Trinidad and Tobago's Collin Samuel crossing from left then right, Liam Caddis - a Scottish Under-19 international on-loan from St Johnstone - twice guiding the ball into the bottom corner of Michael Brown's net.  The first strike is accompanied by a blast of The Pogues, the second, slightly spoiling things, by the more predictable sound of James Brown wailing 'I Feel Good'. It's not so good for long, the two-goal lead cut in half the moment Ryan Wallace's pass meets Robert Sloan shortly before the half hour. Stung by the unexpected goal, Arbroath charge back, Steven Doris sidefooting straight at Brown from six yards. "You cannae miss that!" rages a home fan, prophetically.  Two minutes before the break, Wallace lays on the equaliser, Steven Hislop nodding in past Darren Hill at the far post. "It's all the goalkeeper's fault," says an Arbroath fan, wandering off in search of a pie.

 Hill keeps the score level early in the second half, springing to his right to turn a goalbound shot around the post. For the neutral, it's an entertaining, full-blooded forty-five minutes of football.  East Fife have the best of the possession and chances but look stretched whenever Arbroath get the ball forward. Neither side quite manages to score, despite Fife's David White seeing red in both senses of the word, remonstrating with the player he's just deposited on the ground as the referee brandishes a second yellow card. "At last! Should have been off fucking ages ago," reckons a steward. "Seven bad challenges and he'd not even had a talking to." It's the second time in three days Arbroath have thrown away a two goal lead, resulting in an epic bout of swearing from the Gayfield Park fans.  "Fucking awful",  screams one. "This is rubbish," shouts another. "Pathetic, Arbroath. Absolute shite!"  The first-half goalkeeping critic is slightly more constructive: "We're not going to win the league playing like this, are we?" he asks. Despite Cowdenbeath dropping two points at Airdrie, it's a question that doesn't need a reply.

Date: March 3rd 2012
Admission: £12 (plus £3.20 for a properly delectable steak pie and Bovril)

  • Gayfield Park's a ten-minute walk from Arbroath Station, on the line between Dundee and Aberdeen.  The closest bar to the ground  is the Tutties Neuk. There's a Wetherspoon's, the Corn Exchange, in the market place by the harbour. A few minutes from the station, Lochlands has real ales on tap, Arbroath shirts on the wall and framed photos of every Scotland World Cup squad. Moustaches galore.
  • Along with John Petrie, George Mutch and Ned Doig are the two most famous Arbroath players you've probably never heard of.  Mutch left Gayfield for Manchester United, later scoring a last-minute penalty winner as Preston North End won the first televised FA Cup Final in 1938.  Doig, a young outside right, turned up to watch Arbroath a year after the first-team had played Bon Accord. Realising the home side were about to start without a goalkeeper, someone in the crowd yelled  "Let Ned Doig play."  When he eventually retired in 1908, Doig had won four English titles with Sunderland, six caps for Scotland, been promoted as champions with Liverpool and kept goal over 1,000 times in a 25-year career. A note to any teenagers reading who still turn up at games wearing shin pads and full replica kit: give it up, that kind of thing doesn't happen more than once.
  • The only other two times I saw Arbroath play, they went down to last-minute goals at Alloa  and Dumbarton.  Probably just a coincidence...

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