Interview: Donald Findlay on his love of and fears for Cowdenbeath

Cowdenbeath chairman Donald Findlay QC at Central Park. Picture: John Devlin
Cowdenbeath chairman Donald Findlay QC at Central Park. Picture: John Devlin
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Donald Findlay likes to start each day with The Scotsman crossword and I imagine he usually completes it. This legal eagle perches on the uppermost branch, the ace defender of some of the nastiest pieces of work who’ve ever worn a suit in court, though he doesn’t describe himself like this. “I’m simply a mechanic,”
is what he says, “who uses words instead of tools.”

But I’m wondering if right now he would stumble over a pretty straightforward clue for 5 down, seven letters, first one P: “Triangular tomb offering resurrection. Egyptian toffs only need apply.” The pre-eminent QC grimaces then groans. “Yes, I’m not overly fond of the pyramid.”

In Scotland we have the Pyramid Play-off where no such afterlife opportunities are limited. Lose, and your club won’t die right away but they’ll disappear from the sanctity of the Saturday tea-time results round-up, so almost as good, or as bad, as being potted heid. Reincarnation back in the senior game is possible, but ambitious, better-resourced whippersnapper outfits might keep your team in semi-oblivion. This is 
the terrifying prospect facing 
Cowdenbeath today.

Fife’s oldest club are the colourful, controversial Findlay’s hometown team. He’s the chairman, so grandstand etiquette decrees he should be first to offer congratulations to the directors of Cove Rangers should they win. But he finds this sort of thing hard to do. “I’m a self-confessedly bad loser and have been all my life,” he sighs.

“I can’t bring myself to shake hands and say: ‘Well done.’ It’s terrible. I’d rather cheat the grandkids at tiddlywinks than lose. So I tend to leave these duties to my colleagues on the board. No one really needs to see this bad-tempered bastard stomping about the place.”

Are other clubs surprised he’s such a bad-tempered bastard, given the day job requires him to display considerable erudition and for which he dresses like an Edwardian gent? “You mean: are they surprised I’m such a… bear? That’s the word you’re looking for. No, I think it’s well-known in the realms of football. Most people don’t take it personally.”

The flamboyant, bewhiskered Findlay, 67, and Cowdenbeath have been in this desperate plight before. Egypt’s pyramids are aligned to the sun. The Pyramid Play-off deluged rain on 
Central Park last May and the team, having missed their previous six 
penalties en route to the showdown with East Kilbride, seemed certain to see their 136-year history washed away. “But five better-struck penalties you couldn’t hope to see,” says Findlay. Except he didn’t see them. “I couldn’t watch. I got out of my seat. I stood in that awful rain. I went down the tunnel. After it was over the wife of one of the directors opened the door to the small office and said: ‘This will give you ten minutes.’ I needed to pull myself together. I broke the law and had a smoke in the cupboard. There was no elation at Cowdenbeath having saved themselves but I was not prepared to let anyone see how much that meant to me. It was my business and nobody else’s.”

If they can’t repeat that feat of escapology would the chairman have to consider his position? “Of course. I’m trying to avoid a phrase which came to haunt Ally McCoist: ‘We don’t do walking away.’ Would I turn my back on the club? Most certainly not. But if other people want me to go, then I will.”

At first glance Findlay and Cowdenbeath, who’ve made it to 137 years, appear an odd match. He’s a superstar in his field. If a highly cerebral TV quiz like Postcode Challenge was to ask “Name a well-known QC”, he’d be the most popular answer. When there’s been murder most foul he’ll invariably get the gig. You might assume he loved being vice-chairman of Rangers, and he did, before being caught on film singing The Sash at a supporters’ 
function forced him to resign.

Cowdenbeath meanwhile are the Blue Brazil, occupants of one of oor 
fitba’s brutalist gems which they share with crazy stock cars. They’re the butt of jokes at the Dunfermline Alhambra panto and far beyond and, officially for the last two seasons, the worst team in Scotland. Findlay is almost certainly the only fob-watch flaunting fellow to be found in the old mining town, though the waistcoat flourish is missing from his attire today, as are the pipe and horsehair rug. Ah, but town and man are thirled to each other, as he explains when I ask if the stresses 
of his Monday-Friday role are in any way similar to those of his Saturday afternoon one at the Cowden 
Pleasuredome:

“When you’re wrapped up in a case and hoping for a positive outcome, it’s stressful, but I’m not sure there’s an answer to that question which wouldn’t be cant and cliched. They’re totally different jobs… different but the same. I can’t help but care about the people I represent.” Even though some are right bad yins? “Even though some are right bad yins because they have handed over their fate to me. They don’t know whether I’m having a difficult time elsewhere in my life but they trust me to come in and do the work and do it right.

“Now, the blood in my veins flows blue which is nothing to do with royalty. It always has and it always will. Cowdenbeath play in royal blue, not that insipid shade which Rangers have been wearing of late. The town is where I come from and what I am, nothing more nothing less. Grandson of a coal miner, the whole bit. I care deeply about the place because it’s still my home even though I left when I was a child. No relatives remain there or indeed anywhere, but I’m still tied to Cowdenbeath. The club mean more to me than I could describe. I don’t want to see them fail. I don’t want to be the person that failed them. Saturday will mean a huge deal to me and now I want to be back in my cupboard because that’s as emotional as I’m going to allow myself to get this afternoon.”

We’re in Glasgow’s Marriott Hotel which Findlay calls his alternative chambers. We last met here in 2010 shortly after he’d taken over the Central Park chairmanship when the club were funny, eccentric Cowden.

Now they’re funny, eccentric Cowden quaking at the lip of the trapdoor. And right after our first encounter a suspicious package was delivered to the ground, addressed to him.

“It was a knife, it wasn’t going to go bang. Nevertheless it was baggage which had apparently come with me. My first concern was for the effect this might have on the good, honest staff at the club. The package may have been sent by the brother of someone I’d failed to defend. I get a fair proportion of nutter correspondence.”

Presumably, too, he’s the target of terrace banter. “Oh, do you know the best and funniest? Celtic Park when I was at Rangers and where the rule, even in a blizzard, was no coats: red, white and blue ties, club badges – give it! So we were walking across the car park and I was getting loads of abuse, all good stuff, when there was one of those strange moments when the rabble goes all quiet and I hear: ‘Haw, Findlay. You’re a dirty orange bastard.’ That’s followed by: ‘Haw, Findlay. You’ll defend any c*** for money, so you will.’ I looked at this fellow. ‘What did you say?’ I asked. ‘You’re a dirty orange bastard and you’ll defend any c*** for money.’ ‘But I defended you!’ I said. He said: ‘Aye, so you did, right enough!’ That was the only time I ever got a cheer at Celtic Park. After that normal service was resumed.”

Okay, slight Rangers interlude: what does he think of the latest Ibrox managerial appointment? He looks as he might when a trial takes a sudden lurch: new evidence is introduced but he’s anticipated it. “Steven Gerrard is a gamble. I would have gone for more experience and banged on Sean Dyche’s door or Eddie Howe’s and said: ‘This is Rangers, you can be kings here.’ Or, though I don’t know if he would have moved, said to Rafa Benitez, ‘Come and look at Ibrox’, and taken him straight to the trophy room. All that history and tradition.

“But my biggest concern is whether
the new manager, Gerrard in this case, will be given the money he needs. Would you get a straight answer from the Rangers chairman? And if you did would you not question it anyway? I’m afraid I don’t think Rangers are going to return to where they were until the present lot are cleared out lock, stock and barrel.”

Does he miss Ibrox? “Of course I do. You can’t be at the heart of a club like that and not.” One thing, though: being a Cowden boy at heart, he had a better appreciation when he was there of life in the lower divisions than Alexei Mikhailichenko: “I think it was after Marseilles away in the Champions League when the guys – who hadn’t been home and were still wearing their souvenir striped jerseys and berets – had to go to Arbroath in the Scottish Cup. In the warm-up big Mikhailichenko came over and said: ‘I not play here.’ The inference was he thought Gayfield was a shithole. I said: ‘No Alexei, this is the practice pitch.’ ‘Where’s stadium?’ ‘Over there, you just can’t see it, 40,000 all-seater.’ The guys went back to the dressing-room and when he re-emerged at that trim little ground, a credit to its staff, he offered me the get-it-right-up-you gesture.”

When he took charge in west Fife Findlay’s dream was that Central Park would be revitalised, living up to its name as the hub of the community. Another dream was that he could persuade even some of the town’s Old Firm fans to occasionally miss the bus and support their local team. “That didn’t happen, and we haven’t been able to secure the funding to rebuild the stadium. I visualised a stand which could open up its full length for carpet bowls, tennis, whatever. A bridge club could have met there, old folk, too. Central Park could have brought life back to the community but the problem has been funding. When I took over the arse had fallen out of the economy and things haven’t got any better. There’s no spare money anywhere.”

Isn’t there an expectation that the chairman should be putting his hand in his pocket? He snorts: “Who do you think is keeping the club going?” But then a chuckle: “You’re talking to someone who’s enjoyed spending as he’s earned. I’ve never been a saver and that’s probably the Fifer in me. I’d hate to have retired with a tidy sum then 
two days later drap doon deid. I’d hate to have the worry in later life: ‘Shite, who’s going to get all my money?’”

There’s enough to worry about right now, of course, and defeat for Cowdenbeath, who are tied at 0-0 with Cove, would be devastating for the town. I assume he’s not a fan of the Pyramid. “Well, it’s difficult to talk about it without seeming to be disparaging to the Lowland League [where Cowdenbeath would play should they lose]. I don’t mean to be but two seasons ago we were in the Championship playing Rangers, Hearts and Hibs. Next season it would be Hawick Royal Albert and Vale of Leithen. We’ve been in existence for 137 years, we’re the club with the history. If we had to drop out it would be… choose any word… it would be catastrophic. But please: don’t portray me as Billy Big Tosser here.”

It’s funny the stuff people reveal about themselves when they’re vulnerable and Findlay will know this from his courtroom interrogations. For instance, he might not be a saver but he’s an incorrigible hoarder.
What does he hoard? “Everything!” So is his front-room like Steptoe’s backyard? “What a cheek. The house is tidy but every cupboard is jam-packed. I can’t throw anything out. I still have the cables for devices which are long gone. There’s probably more cabling in my house than in this hotel. I still have the operating instructions for gadgets which stopped working 25 years ago.” Maybe the book-of-words for a Ronco beard-trimmer, perhaps? “Not likely. My ablutions involve more sophisticated apparatus. Listen, you’re sitting there sniggering at me but one day you might phone me up and say: ‘Donald, you wouldn’t have the manual for a 1958 Deluxe vacuum cleaner by any chance?’ Then you’d have to wait and see if I’d let you have it.”

He attributes these squirrelish tendencies to “never having had very much as a kid”. The previous time we chatted he admitted he couldn’t share – “If you wanted to borrow a book I’d give it to you but then I’d have to buy myself a replacement” – and put this down to being an only child.

Eight years ago Findlay told me: “Football pleases me and it excites me.” Does it still? “Of course. Listen, I couldn’t kick a ball to save myself so I became involved in the game altruistically. It’s great to see young guys doing something I would love to have done, although I don’t imagine I would have stayed on the park for very long.

“This season has been a trough of desperation. I’ve been involved with football one way or another for 55 years and it’s been the worst. Now it comes down to one game. It’s a grave situation but I believe we can survive. I have to believe. This is my team. If I don’t believe in them, who else is going to?”

Findlay isn’t superstitious – “That’s just mumbo-jumbo” – and his only pre-match routine will consist of munching cheese and onion crisps. This might seem out of kilter for a man who likes the finer things in life, flying first-class across the world and staying in the best hotels while driving round Scotland’s diddiest football grounds in a top-of-the-range Jaguar. But he says: “I’m a crispaholic. And it’s cheese and onion despite – or to spite – my father. Dad was an incredible man, very, very clever, but he once pronounced: ‘See potato crisps, Donald? They’re an extremely sound business model. Tuppence per bag and you know what you’re getting. The little sachet of salt gives you an element of control. But these new cheese and onion ones costing tuppence halfpenny – mark my words they’ll never catch on.”

Maybe Cowdenbeath are the traditional option and Cove the fancy-flavour threat. And even though the tension will be almost unbearable, perhaps Findlay is enduring it for his father, the church beadle, and his grandfather, the miner.

“There’s probably something in that. I hope they’d both be pleased that I’m trying to help the town team. They’re both buried at Hill of Beath and I’m sure I’ll be nipping across to the cemetery to have a chat with them before the game.”