Livingston return to Meadowbank – where it all began

Meadowbank Thistle striker Darren Jackson (No 10) in action against Forfar at Meadowbank  in August 1985.
Meadowbank Thistle striker Darren Jackson (No 10) in action against Forfar at Meadowbank in August 1985.
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It was always likely to happen in time. But few expected it would be the very first competitive game Edinburgh City played as an SPFL side.

Tomorrow night’s Betfred Cup fixture in which Edinburgh City, whose home is Meadowbank stadium, take on Livingston is plied with significance.

By pitching these particular clubs together in the group-stage draw, the footballing gods were impishly saluting events in the early 1990s, when Meadowbank Thistle morphed into Livingston amid bitter recrimination – and some light-fingered cheek.

When Edinburgh City moved into Meadowbank stadium a few weeks after Livingston departed during the 1995-96 season, they found the previous tenants had taken everything, including the dressing-room pegs and lightbulbs. At least that’s one story.

Perhaps manager David Hopkin and his team will be good enough to bring these items back tomorrow, when Livingston play their first competitive match at the stadium since upping sticks just over 20 years ago. But this 
is about the only beef the hosts now have with the opposition.

It isn’t quite AFC Wimbledon v MK Dons, who are set to meet this season in a league match for the first time since the former took the latter’s identity and moved to Milton Keynes, nearly 60 miles away. But it is the closest Scottish football has to such a fixture, even if feelings won’t run quite so high. The numbers involved are not so abundant, for one thing.

Indeed, fans, or lack thereof, was one reason why Meadowbank Thistle flitted to Livingston in a strategy pursued by Bill Hunter, known to readers of fanzines at the time simply as “Mr Blobby”.

Legendary Meadowbank Thistle manager Terry Christie described the move to Livingston as “sensible” but fell out with Hunter and left before it took effect.

“It is so hard for a third team in Edinburgh to survive with the popularity and history of the Hibs and Hearts,” he says now. “But good luck to Edinburgh City. Meadowbank had a real go at it for the best part of 20 years.”

Edinburgh City play in black and white – indeed, their website rather optimistically states Edinburgh “is black and white”. However, this term cannot be used to describe the context in which tomorrow’s fixture sits, since it is far from black and white. This is not a clear case of good versus evil, as it is possible to depict AFC Wimbledon v MK Dons.

But there was once considerable venom. Hunter was the target for much of it, as outlined in a book, The Road to Livingston, which he and his wife, Barbara, self-published last year.

“I had a friend who was updating me,” says Colin McPherson, a former Meadowbank Thistle fan who is now heavily involved with Edinburgh City, despite having moved to England. “He would go into Waterstones every lunchtime from work and read a chapter and report to me what it said; he wouldn’t give Hunter the royalties.”

So, yes, there is some residual bitterness. After Hunter drove through the relocation, Meadowbank Thistle fans were left with a choice; watch “their” club, which was no longer even called Meadowbank Thistle, in a new town nearly 20 miles from Edinburgh, find another club to support or simply give up on the game 
completely.

A few – McPherson settles on a precise “four” – did decide to follow what David Stoker, another former Meadowbank Thistle fan, maintains is the same club. Stoker was 17 when Meadowbank Thistle became Livingston, perhaps too young to take on board all the intricacies involved.

In any case, he was and remains a football fanatic, who just wanted to watch football. Stoker, brought up around the corner from Meadowbank Stadium in Jock’s Lodge, remains a Livingston supporter, serving on the club’s board for a spell.

“If I was older I might have looked at it differently,” he says. “But I could not see how Meadowbank could progress in Edinburgh. There were a whole lot of things making it harder; the transfer market had disappeared, pools money was gone. I saw Meadowbank withering on the vine.

“The ideal solution would have been Meadowbank Thistle playing at Livingston,” he adds. “And I think a lot of people that moved to Edinburgh City might well have continued to support the team in that 
scenario.”

In actual fact, Livingston regarded Meadowbank Stadium as home in the first few months of the 1995-96 season, playing a number of games there, including excellent cup victories over Morton and St Mirren, while their own custom-built ground, now the Toni Macaroni Arena, was completed.

But McPherson did not witness these wins. Suddenly left with no football team to follow and prepared to argue to this day that Livingston are a completely separate entity, a group of around 15-20 MeadowbankThistle supporters drifted towards Fernieside. This was the unenclosed pitch in Edinburgh’s southside where Edinburgh City then played, after first diligently clearing dog dirt from the park. But McPherson is adamant that if his team secures a win tomorrow night – or even a bonus point, after penalties – he will celebrate for what it means to Edinburgh City, “not as a disaffected former Meadowbank Thistle fan”.

“We got involved all these years ago because we had a strategy – we wanted to get Edinburgh City into the league,” he adds. “That was the way we wanted to right this historical wrong.”

Edinburgh City have plans to continue playing at a revamped Meadowbank Stadium. But the priority now is continuing to develop an already impressive youth- team structure. They have already been successful in their principal target: securing senior league football.

“We were not allowed to reform Meadowbank Thistle because Livingston took the rights to the name,” explains McPherson, now 51. “It was always in the back of our minds, we wanted to do it properly. We wanted to watch our club in the Scottish league.”

While he admits to cheering Livingston defeats in those early post-Meadowbank Thistle days, the motivation is not wishing ill on them. Rather, it is cocking a snook at the Scottish football authorities, after what McPherson, and many others, perceived was a dereliction of duties.

But he is careful to add this is a backdated grievance. Current office holders such as Stewart Regan and Neil Doncaster have been supportive. McPherson’s ire is reserved for those who sat back and watched – or, worse, rubber-stamped – the process whereby a club was ripped from its community and relocated somewhere else, all in the name of, well, progress.

“They chucked us out of the Scottish league, left us disenfranchised. But we are back now,” says McPherson.

Perhaps with reference to the anarchic, brilliant Meadowbank Thistle fanzine, AWOL, he once helped produce, which took few prisoners, he adds: “We 
are older now, more responsible. We are running a football club – and like to think we are doing it 
properly.”