FOOTBALL IN SCOTLAND
EXCELSIOR STADIUM - AIRDRIE UNITED
I stopped off to pay a quick visit to the Excelsior Stadium, the home of Airdrie United FC. Despite its modern looks, it's already quite famous as having been responsible for the demise of the previous occupier, Airdrieonians FC, thus ending that classic description of Scottish football Ayr to Airdrie, who am the Onians.
Having received a considerable sum of money from the Safeway supermarket chain for the sale of the Broomfield ground, the club acquired the land around here for a new stadium that would meet the requirements of the new Scottish Premier League. Planning permission was however quite another matter and the constant difficulties meant that when the club was required to vacate Broomfield, the new stadium was light years away from completion.
Airdrieonians played for several years at Broadfield, the home of Clyde FC, paying away in rent the sum that they had received that should otherwise have been invested in the new ground and the team. The Excelsior Stadium was finally completed in 1998 and the club returned home. But by then it was hopelessly saddled with debt and folded in 2002, being replaced in the Scottish pyramid by Gretna.
Another Scottish club, Clydebank, was in an even worse predicament. Homeless, with no cash and a dwindling support base, its future looked positively hopeless. A prominent Airdrieonians fan bought what remained of the assets of Clydebank and moved them to the Excelsior Stadium, and with the permission of the Scottish Football Association changed the name of the club to Airdrie United. So if you were an Airdrieonians fan you should be supporting Gretna and if you are a Airdrie United fan, one assumes that you were previously a fan of Clydebank. If you are a Partick Thistle fan, you don't care who is or was Gretna and Airdrie United and you hate them both with an equal amount of venom.
Today though, there was a car boot sale underneath the stand. And I was in luck. You might remember that in the summer I bought a 230-volt coffee machine for use on the farm, but it didn't work as I hoped. Here under the stand at Airdrie I bought a mini-expresso machine, brand new and still wrapped up in the box, at a super-negotiated price of two quid. And even more exciting, it runs off 300 watts! I can even use that in Caliburn.
THE RECREATION GROUND - ALLOA ATHLETIC AFC
I was passing through Alloa on Saturday 8th December 2007 just about 15 minutes to kick-off. I'd driven past Alloa's ground before but it was locked up so I'd never managed a peep, and I'd been past Ross County's ground at Dingwall back in the early 80s when the club was still in the Highland League. Consequently, a match between Alloa Athletic and Ross County just as I'm driving through has to be a sign from the Gods, even though it's freezing cold and pouring with rain.
So armed with a Morrisons fruit loaf and the Pentax K100D, I took myself inside.
The ground itself is small, neat and tidy for an impoverished amateur club, with a lovely view over an outcrop of the Highlands, even though today it was covered in low cloud.
You can see a much better view of the Highlands in this photograph here. In fact you can even see the snow that's settling on the upper slopes of the hills. What was even more interesting was that all throughout the match, the snow level crept lower and lower and lower down the slopes.
As indeed you might expect, most of the action in the first half took place up at the far end of the ground, and only rarely did Ross County actually threaten Raymond Jellema in the Alloa goal, although he did make a good diving save, low down to his left.
Nevertheless, two-nil at half-time was hardly a fair reflection of the play even if Tony Bullock in the Ross County goal was the worst goalkeeper I've seen for many a long while, and Ross County's two central defenders were conspicuous by their absence for much of the game.
Indeed as you might expect, the second half showed a reversal of fortunes. Ross County, having thrown into the fray a couple of substitutes at half-time then proceeded to attack the Alloa goal which was, of course, up at the far end of the ground. And, unsurprisingly, they pulled a goal back, out of range of the Pentax K100D.
Alloa did manage a third goal late in the game, but by this time my feet were frozen to the concrete and my hands had turned to blocks of ice. Once more, a cross into the box and an uncontested header into an empty net.
BROADWOOD - CLYDE FC
I was having a bad day in Scotland back at the end of October 2007, as far as football grounds went.
Dunfermline Athletic was closed up and locked up, as was Alloa Athletic's ground just down the road (but I got there a few weeks later as you have seen). I was waylaid in Stirling by the SNP's party office so I didn't get to see Stirling Albion's ground, and that of East Stirling is actually in Falkirk. The ground of Albion Rovers in Coatbridge was locked and in total darkness too
I did get in at Broadwood though. This is a spanking new stadium in the new town of Cumbernauld, in between Glasgow and Edinburgh and is the home of Clyde FC. Clyde played for many years at Shawfield in the impoverished south side of Glasgow until their entire fan base was swept away in the major slum clearances of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
After years of struggling along with gates in the lower hundreds, they eventually relocated here in 1994 after a nomadic existence around some of the other Glasgow-area grounds.
But even with all of the new optimism, you can see that the ground isn't finished. And it won't ever be, for the gates here struggle along in the 1500s, and 2000s if they are lucky.
In fact the reason I managed to get into the ground that evening was because there was a match taking place between Celtic reserves and Rangers reserves, which would in all probability attract a bigger crowd than Clyde could ever manage for a home league game.
And a quick look at the team sheet told another story too. Turning out for Rangers or Celtic reserves were people like Derek O'Riordan - a player who would walk into the first team of any other team in Scotland and probably half the teams in England. When he was with Hibernians he showed a great deal of promise, so Celtic signed him. Not so that he could play in their first team, of course, but so that no other team could have him and undermine Celtic's position at the top of the league.
Rangers and Celtic have to money to do things like that.
I remember some friends of mine, Morton supporters to a person, being asked "who do you support?"
They replied "Morton" only to be asked "yes, but I mean really - you know, Rangers or Celtic?"
And that's the big issue here in Scotland. As long as everyone really only supports Rangers or Celtic and treats the smaller local clubs with contempt, the situation isn't likely to improve. The smaller clubs will slowly wither away.
And that's why clubs like Clyde, and Dumbarton, and Hamilton Academicals, and East Fife live in modern stadia that no-one can afford or think worthwhile to finish, and which won't ever be filled to capacity no matter who plays in it, why clubs like Albion Rovers play their football in derelict stadia, and why clubs like Gretna play their football 80 miles away from home in Motherwell and collapse into financial ruin trying to keep up with the pace.
Mind you, what all of this has to do with Broadwood I haven't the slightest idea.
CLIFTONHILL - ALBION ROVERS
Albion Rovers' Cliftonhill ground is one ground that has always been high on my list to visit. I was disappointed that I didn't get in here a few weeks ago as you can read above, but perseverence counts for everything, and here I am.
The ground is situated almost slap bang in the centre of Coatbridge, a former iron town in the Central Scotland belt between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and just a couple of miles from Airdrie and the legendary Excelsior Stadium.
100 years ago Coatbridge had a population of 90,000 but the collapse of the traditional industries saw a collapse in population, and now the town can muster a mere 45,000 or so. It's difficult to think of any other town today that has suffered such a dramatic decline in population in modern times.
The collapse of the town's fortunes has dragged everything else down with it, and the local football club is no exception. The club has never been particularly successful, yet the record attendance at Cliftonhill is a grand 27,381.
But that was in 1936, and it is no surprise to learn that the visitors on that day were Glasgow Rangers, and in an era when almost 150,000 fans crammed into Hampden Park to see Scotland play England. That was a long time ago, though, and since that heady night 72 years ago, things have gone steadily downhill.
I met the chairman of Albion Rovers when I visitied the ground, and he graciously gave me permission to wander round the ground and take photographs as I saw fit without restriction.
He told me that back 40 years ago the club could count on 1000 - 1500 fans but these days it's lucky if 300 turn up. Furthermore, he lamented that nowadays on matchdays he stands at the entrance to the ground and watches endless stream after stream of bus full of local sectarian football fan travelling to Glasgow to watch whatever is on offer at Rangers or Celtic.
Like me, he considers that this is one of the big nails in the coffins of the suburban football teams, but it might also bring a little ray of hope.
Sectarianism is slowly becoming a dirty word in Scotland and many parents are baulking at the idea of taking their kids to listen to songs about Good King Billy and the like. The club has started a family initiative where kids under 12 get in free if accompanied by an adult. This would make an affordable day out for a family as well as sating the kids' appetites for football, and may well wean them onto the "wee Rovers".
Another initiative the chairman would like to try is Friday night football. NEWI Cefn Druids, in the suburbs of Wrexham in Wales, do their best to play on a Friday night whenever Wrexham are at home. it's no exaggeration to say that their attendance figure can double as the local Wrexham fans can have double the footy fix that weekend.
The difficulty that Albion Rovers have is that the local police farce have put their big size 12 into it. On a Saturday it's quite often that the police don't attend the ground, but if games take place on a Friday night, they reckon they would need to have a presence at the game, and of course charge accordingly. Wigan Athletic in England were almost ruined by the cost of police presence at their ground and the implications of this court case may well defeat the extra revenue that the club might attract.
These sports have effectively died out now due to nanny-state health and safety and animal welfare legislation, and it's not possible to rely on a secondary income stream of this nature these days. This has been the downfall of many a football stadium, and the effects can be seen nowhere clearer than here at Cliftonhill.
And the diminishing revenue from the ground has brought about a diminuition of the facilities on offer and led to a reduction of the area of the ground that is open to spectators. Nowadays, it's only the area around the stand that is open, and the ground capacity has been reduced to about 2500.
The floodlights are old hand-me-downs. It's said that they come from Cardiff Arms Park, the Welsh rugby ground that was demolished in the late 1990s.
There's an interesting story about the stand too. A Glasgow football club, Third Lanark, closed down in 1967 due to bankruptcy. The Official Receiver auctioned off the club's assets and Albion Rovers bought the seats to go in the stand.
The club, thoroughly beset by financial problems, has tried on several occasions to relocate, one of the more famous being to move down the road to Airdrie's Excelsior Stadium during the problems there.
But this move never came off and their problems were eased temporarily by selling off a part of their ground for housing. But with the housing market being what it is in the UK (until recently, that is), there has been a good deal of interest in their ground from building companies.
The local council has also recently released some cleaned-up former industrial land onto the market, so the chairman is hard at work trying to broker a deal that may well see a new Cliftonhill rise out of the ashes of a former steelworks or coal mine on the edge of town.
They don't need much in the way of football ground, he reckons. maybe 500 seats and some standing room for the die-hard fans. Like me, he can't understand the reason why modern fans prefer to sit down at a game. They just don't understand the atmosphere that they are missing.
But as long as the new ground isn't another one-sided wonder like at Dumbarton, then anything has to be an improvement on Cliftonhill. It is really the worst professional football ground I have ever seen and it sums up perfectly the state of modern Scottish football.
But at least by cutting their cloth according to their coat, the directors have managed to make the club survive. Their main ambition is to make sure that the club is still there at the end of the season, and on 300 fans at each game that's all they can realistically aim for.
When are Albion Rovers next at home? We should all go up there and help them out.
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