Raith fan and former prime minister extols Slim Jim, Gazza – and the Blue Brazil
All week I’ve been on the trail of Raith Rovers’ most famous fan. “Yes! The final!” says the helpful Ravneet, clearly on-message about the Ramsdens Cup’s place in the football firmament. But every day brings tiny hope in the morning which is cruelly dashed by mid-afternoon. Where exactly is the former prime minister of Great Britain?
His London office either isn’t sure or won’t tell me. Eventually Ravneet feels the need to say something beyond the constant reassurance that, yes, her boss really wants to do this, talk about his team, his hopes and dreams for them. “The Azores,” she confirms. This feels like progress. But it doesn’t feel like an interview. And then comes the potential crusher: “Sorry, his plane’s been delayed.”
Finally, at a quarter to ten yesterday morning: “Uh, hullo…” says Gordon Brown with sound-for-sore-ears lugubriousness. He catches me on the hop, with the Azores’ Wikipedia page still on my computer screen. It looks nice there amid those nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic, and although I don’t say as much, he seems to sense what I’m thinking.
“I was in Portugal,” he stresses with that familiar, uncertain chortle. Is he being defensive? Mentioning the parent country where there are almost certainly less lovely bits with no lushness or cloudbursting peaks? I wasn’t actually inferring he was a politico on a jolly. But the Rovers, the club he has supported for 56 years, might have need of a stout rearguard display against Rangers.
“I was giving a speech about 2025 and what health care will look like then,” he continues. “And before that I was in Pakistan, meeting the prime minister and the government to talk about education. I’ve taken up the case of Malala Yousafzai who was shot calling for the right to go to school. One thousand girls there are campaigning for this.”
Now I feel a bit of a heel. He was doing good work; I was merely being impatient. Thankfully Brown, 63, is soon into his stride about the Rovers, the prosaic charms of Stark’s Park, the 1994 League Cup penalty-shootout triumph, the half-time scoreboard in Munich showing, incredibly, Rovers beating the mighty Bayern, the importance of football clubs to their communities – and a player he will probably never tire of eulogising, no matter where he is in the world.
“I remember the day Raith Rovers sold Jim Baxter to Rangers,” he says. This was the summer of 1960 when Brown would have been nine years old. “It was after he had essentially humiliated Rangers by playing so brilliantly against them. Later, I talked to Jim about this, how him being transferred for £16,500 had been the worst day of my life.
“He said: ‘It was £17,500.’
“I said: ‘Well, I think Raith Rovers only got 16 and a half!’ ”
A chancellor of the exchequer in the making? Back then, his ambitions were the same as any sports-daft laddie. “Like any boy I wanted to be a footballer. Then when you realise that isn’t going to happen you think you might be a football manager. Then when that isn’t going to happen, a football club owner. Eventually you realise you can be none of these things. At least at Raith Rovers I’m a shareholder, even though shareholding these days is a form of donation.”
Ten years ago when the club were threatened with extinction, Brown helped save them. Modestly, he doesn’t bring this up today, preferring to talk about the key task of selling match programmes outside Stark’s Park.
“I did that, you know. Fifteen minutes after the game started you’d get in for free. And when Rangers or Celtic came to town you could do very well.” Or at least the sellers could. Once, he remembers, Celtic thumped Raith 8-0… “or did we get a consolation goal?”
That good work of his has merely shifted to Kirkcaldy. “Today I’m helping the Fife Society for the Blind launch a new reading aid which will be extremely useful.” Tomorrow’s final has been marked off in the diary even since Raith beat Annan Athletic in the semis. “I’m going, my sons are going, my brothers are going. We’re all looking forward to it very much,” he adds.
“We want to do a cup double over the Old Firm. We want this to be the sequel to 1994 when we defeated Celtic. I’ve seen the team play a couple of times recently – the boys and I have season tickets – although not as often as I’d have liked. They’ve not had a good run although they seem to play well in the big games. That was a great result in the Scottish Cup to beat Hibs. Maybe it’s good this final is at Easter Road. Let’s see how they do. I certainly don’t think they’ll be overawed.” This will be a first final for the Brown boys, John and James, who four years ago charmed the nation in their smart blazers when they helped their old man make his dignified exit from Downing Street with their mother Sarah. John is now ten and James seven. “The youngest one in particular is very keen on football. He and his pals have formed a team. They play at Pitreavie every Saturday and I go and watch.” His sons better not get too used to cup finals, I say. Brown laughs and says he’s looking at a photograph of them with Nelson Mandela – alongside, inevitably, one of Baxter. We discuss the much-broadened horizons for the football-obsessed, compared with his youth. “The boys like the Spanish teams; they do go for the top stars. But I think local loyalties are important as well. We’ll see. You can’t predict how the interests of ten- and seven-year-olds are going to develop.”
When Brown was nine, as we’ve learned, he was so loyal to football and his local hero Slim Jim that it left him heartbroken. It was two years before that, on New Year’s Day 1958, that he attended his very first Raith game, a derby against East Fife. “I can still remember the team: Drummond, Polland, Mochan, Young, McNaught, Leigh, McEwan, Kelly, Copland, Williamson, Urquhart.”
He thinks Rovers won 2-1, and that East Fife would end that season being relegated, not returning to the old First Division for many years, although in fact records show the match was a 2-2 draw. If you know how keenly rivalries are played out in Fife, you might think his slight error typical. After all, when Brown – then chancellor – personally contacted fellow Rovers fan Val McDermid to ask for the crime writer’s help to save the club, she wasn’t in the least bit surprised by Jack Vettriano’s reaction on being told of their plight. An East Fife supporter, the artist said he’d only donate money to see the Stark’s Parkers go bust.
These celebby fans, they do love their banter. And Rovers’ back story – featuring as it does a shipwrecking (the team of 1923 survived) and an invitation from metropolitan London televisual HQ to the local populace to go “dancing in the streets of Raith” – is impossibly, mirthfully rich. But if Brown’s support of Raith is genuine – unlike his stated admiration for the Arctic Monkeys, which was probably foisted on him by the spin doctor concerned with the youth vote – he must surely take a dim view of politicians who display dubious football credentials in the hope this will endear them to the electorate. Didn’t Tony Blair declare Jackie Milburn his favourite player even though he was too young to have seen him perform for Newcastle United? Our man chortles again. “These things happen, but I’m not going to criticise anyone. I’m interested in football. I can tell you what’s happening in all the different leagues. I’ve always been able to do that. I’m fascinated by football; it’s a brilliant game.”
Early on in his fandom Brown was struck by the habit of his father John, a Church of Scotland minister, of applauding good play by the opposition, even if they were another Fife team.
“I did question this, but he told me it was the right thing to do.” Like father, like son. Ten years after Euro 96, Brown was asked to nominate his favourite England goal – not, he stresses, his all-time best from anywhere. After choosing Paul Gascoigne’s against Scotland, he was criticised by the Tartan Army and the SNP. “I simply said it was a great goal. No-one who was supporting Scotland that day – and I was at Wembley – could have been happy about it, coming straight after Gary McAllister’s missed penalty. That’s one of the great ‘What ifs?’ in Scottish history, isn’t it?”
In the ineffably sporting world of Gordon Brown, Raith rivals Cowdenbeath are also deserving of his backing. Well, he is after all the Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. “I’ve been to some of their games recently, too. They’re a great team deserving support. They’ve struggled of late but they’ve done a huge amount with kids in the area which is something I want to help them continue.”
The Blue Brazil, of course, are now managed by Raith ’94 hero boss Jimmy Nicholl. “Jimmy’s a good guy and Cowdenbeath are very lucky to have him, although Colin Cameron was a good manager too, who’s doing well again at Berwick Rangers.” At this, he lapses back into history which even pre-dates him. “I remember my father telling me he was at the match in, I think, 1924 when Cowdenbeath won promotion to the old First Division. There were thousands at Central Park. Even East Fife’s Bayview had a record attendance of more than 25,000. They had such big crowds when the miners were strong in numbers.”
Did his father, being a man of the cloth, take a dim view of bad behaviour on the pitch or the terraces? “Well, he was a very tolerant man, but I think football, from the days when there was more drink associated with it and some violence, has made a lot of progress. It’s a far nicer place to take kids.”
Brown admits to concerns about the game he loves. Looking at the financial woes of Rangers and Hearts he says: “The decline of so many Scottish institutions, be they banks or churches or football teams, is a worry. But I think Rangers, with the fan base they’ve got, will come back.”
Generally, he wants to see football engaged in “more community involvement” with admission prices being further reduced for children. At Raith a couple of years ago kids got in free although the system ended up being abused. “I think there were adults claiming to be children, climbing over the turnstiles.” At least the Rovers tried. “When there’s a club that’s at the centre of community life you want to see it get as much support as possible from the community. Attendances are far too low right now and we’ve to do something about that.”
Such concerns can wait for another day, though, for right now, back in the constituency for the weekend, Gordon Brown is firmly focused on the prospect of more cup glory for – sorry Cowdenbeath, sorry Gazza – his one true favourite football team. Does he have time to hang about for a victory parade? “I’m not due in New York at the United Nations until Tuesday, so yes. And Kirkcaldy Town House is very capable of organising a civic reception!”