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A day when Scottish football scorched the record books

THERE was a time in Scotland's sporting history when it was common to see young men band together to form football clubs for the pure enjoyment of the game. Emigrants, mates from work or a group from the local town would take to the pitch as one for a weekend of fitba. Then, just as now, matches could be found on patches of grass and dirt from Stornoway to Strathaven, Lewis to Largs.

To be sure, the quality of play was not always sharp and the talent not exactly at the level of a George Best in his prime. Which might explain the oddest display of the game on any pitch in any corner of the world on 12 September 1885.

The Scottish Cup is held in historic reverence across all football circles. The competition began in 1873 and its silver-plated cup is recognised as the oldest national trophy in the world. Is it any wonder that all teams under the Scottish sun wish to have a shot at glory and raise the cup high above their shoulders?

It was 120 years ago this year that two teams – Arbroath Football Club and Aberdeen Bon Accord – matched wits in a first-round tie of the Scottish Cup. The match featured an established Arbroath home side, founded in 1878, against a no-name bunch of working lads from the north. The outcome would be certain and swift, but unexpected was how dominant Arbroath would be that afternoon.

The day was wet and dreary across Angus, as rain fell for ten hours. The ground was in surprisingly good shape after having been recently resurfaced, however a glance at the final result between the clubs and one would think the pitch had tilted decidedly downward in favour of the home side.

Arbroath scored early and often against Bon Accord. John "Jocky" Petrie, a scrappy 18-year-old centre-forward, found the net with two quick goals. And then the football floodgates opened: Marshall, Munroe, and again Petrie put the ball between the posts. The Red Lichties would walk off after the first half with a comfortable 15-0 advantage. What on earth was going on?

"There could scarcely be said to have been any play shown on the part of Bon Accord, and from the beginning of the game the goals began to accumulate at an alarming rate," reported the Arbroath Guide, which described the display as a "farce".

A lopsided result was not too surprising in football's early years – and for that matter in the early rounds of the Scottish Cup. It was a time when any Scotland-based team could compete for the coveted trophy.

"You look at the earlier rounds in Scottish Cup in the 1880s and there are virtually hundreds of teams competing," says Richard McBrearty, curator for the Scottish Football Museum in Glasgow. "You can imagine the standard will go from the likes in the 1880s of Queen's Park, Rangers or Hearts – who were well-organised – compared by these fly-by-night teams who were very enthusiastic but might have only last a couple of seasons at senior grade and then very quickly disappeared."

Intermission over, the story in Arbroath gets better.

The second half at Gayfield Park was a mirror image of the first. Five goals were scored in the opening 15 minutes. Incredibly, another 16 goals would follow. Petrie completed the afternoon with 13 tallies, a single-game international football record that still stands today (although equalled in 2001 by Australian Archie Thompson against American Samoa).

It was a day in Arbroath that no-one would soon forget. Reporting on the incredible 36-0 result, a record acknowledged today by the fine folks at Guinness, the Scottish Athletic Journal, put it in perspective:

"The leather was landed between the posts 41 times, but five of the times were disallowed. Here and there, enthusiasts would be seen scoring sheet and pencil in hand, taking note of the goals as one would score runs at a cricket match."

And poor Andrew Lornie. Wishing he could hide under the goal line for his shabby performance, Lornie was the Bon Accord goalkeeper who watched the ball sail past him – officially – 36 times. The life of the 22-year-old Perthshire-born man, a tinsmith and gas fitter by trade, would probably never be the same.

"The Aberdonians might as well have been outside the ropes for the resistance that they provided," the Journal added.

But wait a minute. It gets even better.

On the same day – 12 September – and in the same Scottish Cup competition, two clubs provided another stunning result. As Arbroath established the mark for most goals in a sanctioned football match, Dundee-based Harp embarrassed Aberdeen Rovers. The final result: 35-0.

What makes that outcome ever more interesting is that, according to Fraser Clyne, the Arbroath FC historian who researched both matches in detail, the referee had noted 37 goals scored. However, Harp's secretary insisted the correct result was two goals less. The referee is said to have acknowledged difficulty keeping track of the offensive onslaught and acceded to Harp's lower total – completely unaware that a club down the road was establishing the record ... and having the last laugh.

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