Fitba Week: Raith Rovers vs Falkirk – A Tale of Three Penalties
Well, it’s the end of Fitba Week here on 200%. We’ve been to Cathkin Park, told the stories of ES Clydebank and Third Lanark, remembered the late, great Arthur Montford, recalled when Estonia didn’t turn up, and paused to consider the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup. But now it’s time to go back to the south coast of England after a very happy two weeks away, and to mark it all, it’s time to take a trip to the very mouth of the River Forth for a match that represented the third tier of Scottish football with considerable distinction.
Scotland is full of undiscovered gems. Whilst tourists flock to Edinburgh castle, the site of the battles of Culloden and Bannockburn, or increasingly into the metropolis that is Glasgow, other parts of this beautiful country go relatively unremarked upon. Kirkcaldy is a town of 50,000 people that sits on the line between the Firth of Forth and the east coast of Scotland. We get into the town centre at lunchtime, not really quite knowing quite what to expect. What we find is a beautiful bay that curves around the firth, dotted with former lookout points and heavy with the cloying scent of seaweed, largely empty apart from a couple of dog walkers. The town centre, meanwhile, is another delight, with two large parks, one just to its north and one to just to its east. It feels airy and bustling on this sunny early afternoon, the pubs dotted with groups of people in navy blue football shirts, all looking forward to their afternoon at the match.
The local football club is named for its history, rather than its present. Raith Rovers take their name from the Scottish-Gaelic word “rath” (meaning “fort” or “fortified residence”), which was also give to an area which once stretched from south of Loch Gelly to Kirkcaldy. There can be no “dancing in the streets of Raith” (as the BBC’s Sam Leitch famously proclaimed during the 1960s, because there is no such place, in a formal sense, at least. The club’s happiest days are also lodged in the past, albeit a somewhat more recent past. Scottish Premier League football, winning the League Cup – as they did during the 1994/95 season – and European football are now just memories, held preciously by those old enough to be able to remember them. In the quarter of a century since then the club has had its share of close shaves with extinction, and this season started with the club in League One – the third tier – of the Scottish league system, having finished in third place in the table last season before losing a play-off final against Queen of the South.
East Fife, Dunfermline Athletic and Cowdenbeath make up Raith’s traditional derbies, but there’s a hint of spice in the air with the visit of Falkirk this afternoon. Falkirk is only twenty-five miles from Kirkcaldy and both clubs claim Dunfermline – who sit between them – as their biggest rivalry. They’re in the same division as Raith Rovers this season, but it’s only the second time they’ve played at this level following relegation at the end of last season, and regardless of the fact that this match is being played in the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup – the nearest English equivalent is the Check-a-Trade Trophy, though its not being boycotted by thousands of supporters at the moment – they’re expected to bring a reasonably sized travelling support with them to Stark’s Park this afternoon.
Stark’s Park itself is a mixture of the old and the new. At each end sit new stands, anonymous-looking structures of the type seen all over the country, whilst the length of one side is hugged by a stand which backs onto the railway line in and out of the town. It sits empty for most matches, these days. The star of the show, the ground’s pride and joy, is the curiously L-shaped main stand that sits in one corner of the ground, stretching around the corner flags and up towards the halfway line. Designed by the Christopher Wren of football ground design Archibald Leach and constructed in 1925 with the assistance of money raised from the sale of Alex James to Preston North End, it leaves half of one side open, meaning that, when combined with the closure of the stand opposite, Stark’s Park may be the only ground in Britain at which it’s not possible to watch a match from the halfway line.
It’s easy to see why it had to be built this way – the ground is completely hemmed in on this side by a road – but this will come as scant consolation to whose houses border one side of the pitch. It’s difficult to believe that those whose rear windows back onto the pitch haven’t had them reinforced with toughened glass, but it’s similarly unlikely to the owners don’t have the occasional palpitation every time a centre-back with the thighs of a Highland cow launches a clearance directly towards their kitchen or living room window. There’s one near-miss this afternoon, which elicits a disappointed “oooh” from the travelling supporters when it hits a wall just to the left of somebody’s rear window.
It’s pay at the ticket office which is very near the gate this afternoon, a bargain at just £10 per ticket, and the atmosphere around the ground is expectant without being over-excitable. The sun is out, and gleaming particularly brightly upon a synthetic pitch that was laid just last summer, and we opt to take our places amongst the away supporters, primarily because a seat in the North Stand offers the best views across the ground. These pitches have a tendency to encourage passing football, but this turns out to be something of a sticking point for Falkirk, who can out-muscle Raith in the middle of the pitch but are lacking the creativity and imagination in attacking positions to be able to capitalise on dominating their early midfield tussles. A lot of this is bad decision-making at crucial moments. There seems to be space on the Falkirk left to exploit, but more than once they find themselves in promising positions before opting to turn inside rather than take advantage of it.
As the first half wears on, Raith’s confidence grows and consternation starts to grow in the seats behind us. The early singing dies away to a more sullen quiet, and when Raith are awarded a penalty when Michael Miller is bundled over over by Mark Durnan. Regan Hendry’s low penalty kick is powerful and well-placed enough to give the Falkirk goalkeeper Robbie Mutch little chance. Behind us, booing and cat-calling starts to ring out. “Ah’m fed up wi’ it!”, yells a woman sitting just behind us, to murmurs of assent all around. When half-time comes, the away support is a little more forthright in its condemnation of a toothless first half performance. Half-time gives us the chance of a cup of Bovril – it’s never too warm for a cup of half-time Bovril, although its aroma is The Scent of Winter, for me – and the opportunity to come closer to getting locked in a men’s toilet than I probably would have liked.
There’s planning and preparation goes into these matches. Training, huddles, time spent in front of a whiteboard discussing both theoreticals and actuals. However, no scientist has yet found a failsafe cure for the distinctive combination of rashness and daftness that seems so familiar in lower league football, and five minutes into the second half the Falkirk manager’s half-time words of wisdom crumble to dust when Ian McShane is adjudged to have pushed Dylan Tait over on the right-hand side of the Falkirk penalty area. There’s a case for saying that it was a soft call – the ball was probably running out and Tait could hardly be said to have been in a dangerous position – but at the same time the tackle was so unnecessary that it’s diffiuclt to pin too much blame on the referee for giving it. Hendry accepts his second golden ticket of the afternoon with glee, and the anger behind the goal ratchets up another level.
Falkirk huff and Falkirk puff, but for all their possession they offer little threat to a Raith defence that seemed calm and well-organised. They do, however, have one huge opportunity to spark a late comeback when Charlie Telfer is felled inside the penalty area with twelve minutes to play for a third penalty kick of the afternoon. Telfer picks himself up and, in a moment that seems to perfectly encapsulate Falkirk’s afternoon, smacks the ball firmly against the crossbar with the goalkeeper comfortablsy beaten. A few travelling supporters start to drift toward the exit. It feels as though those staying behind are doing so primarily to give the players a piece of their mind upon the blowing of the final whistle. A few hundred of them have made this trip, and although yes, this is the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup and is therefore not the most important fixture that eiither club will play this season, the gut reaction to such a supine performance can hardly be expected to take in too much in terms of broader context.
On the street that runs along the side of the ground, the local yoof – immediately marked out by their Stone Island (and in one case, which takes me immediately back about twenty years, Burberry) uniform – are hanging around, feigning disinterest whilst probably looking for a fight, should one become available. One of them has stashed whatv looks like about a quarter of a bottle of Buckfast tonic wine in a front garden, but it lasts about twenty seconds in his possession before a police officer spots him and, with a gait and tone of voice which hint that this is far from irregular, takes it off him. This peacocking doesn’t amount to anything as we walk past, though, and pretty soon we’re in car again, heading back towards Glasgow.
We drive off, both literaly and figuratively, into the sunset. It’s the end of a stay that has revealed something to me that has been in plain sight all along, a rich and storied football culture that reaches back to the very beginnings of the professional game. There were 1,700 people at Stark’s Park for this match, a ground featuring a handsome piece of architecture that reaches back two-thirds of this distance. Scottish football, as we’d expect anywhere in the world, has changed. Some changes for the better, others for the worse. But what sits at the centre of it is forty-two clubs in the SPFL and dozens more in the junior leagues, all in a population of just under 5.5m people. These clubs range from international brands at the top to the rustic at the bottom, and its beating heart is something obvious for those of us from England, that this culture is unique, still vibrant and should be celebrated on its own terms. If professional football is going to continue to be commoditised and monetised until it’s the sporting equivalent of fast food, then cuisines as rich and varied should be enjoyed for what they are. We’d miss them, if they were no longer here.