OUTSIDE Ibrox before kick-off a couple of years ago, two prowling Bears approached. I only had myself to blame for wearing my retro shirt, resplendent in black and gold in a sea of light blue.
“Is that a 1938 shirt?” growled Bear 1.
“No, it’s late ’40s, early ’50s,” I replied, accurately but naively.
“Is that a 1938 shirt?” growled Bear 1 again, with added purpose.
Even at this early stage of the encounter, it seemed a good idea to agree. “Yes, in fact you’re right,” I replied, meekly. “How did you know?”
Still no eye contact, but there was a follow-up from the equally inhospitable Bear 2. “We want your record.” And with that, they were off.
My heart sank as I realised what this was all about. Rangers fans had set targets they believed their club should achieve during what they thought would be a three-year sabbatical from the top league. Points records, attendance records and goalscoring records were all in their sights. There was another marker, which troubled me: they were eyeing up East Fife’s record of being the only team from outside the top league to win the Scottish Cup, back in 1938. And with their ludicrous spending while in the Third and Second Divisions, it looked like they might just “buy” the cup. The record would probably fall, although really by default.
To my pleasant surprise, it still stands to this day, but it could be gone by tonight. Not courtesy of Rangers, as I had feared, but to Falkirk, who have reached the cup final from Scottish football’s second tier.
It’s a very proud record and one that I would be sad to see equalled. It is said that records are there to be broken, but I’ve never signed up to that way of thinking. For a start, East Fife’s cup win came when there were 20 teams in the top league, not just the 12 we have today. We’re comparing apples with pears, because winning the cup from the second tier is far more likely today than it was before. But 1938 was supposed to be such an amazing achievement that it would never be equalled. This afternoon will play havoc with my emotions, and not for the first time.
The record was one of the first things my father told me when football – in particular, football played at Bayview Park, Methil – first fired my imagination in 1976. At that time, East Fife had only been out of the top league for two years, the good times would be back before long. Wouldn’t they? Eh, no. They wouldn’t.
Mum was on my grandfather’s shoulders when the cup arrived back in Methil from Glasgow, 77 years ago. Her memory is poor these days, diminished by a cruel illness, but she remembers that night. Her father was a loyal supporter; I wish I had been old enough to talk with him before he passed away.
It is wrong to live in the past, but what is a club without a sense of its history? Pride is a basic football instinct, alongside rivalry. Sure, we all have ambitions for our team, but at East Fife, there is no present worth shouting about, and not much prospect of a future either as we bump around in Scottish football’s dungeon. History is all we have and winning the cup is our place in the record books. But, for the fourth time in the last ten years, it is under threat. This is a new and bewildering phenomenon. Between 1938 and 2004, only two teams from outside the top flight reached the cup final. Now it is becoming the norm. That either says something about the way the leading teams treat the cup now or about the strength of the top league. A bit of both.
First up were Second Division side Gretna, who took Hearts to a penalty kick decider in 2006. I was at Hampden that day; I couldn’t watch as Hearts eventually won that game of Russian roulette. We had been only a couple of wayward strikes away from the record falling to a club that was no more than a fabrication, destined to disappear out of existence just two years later.
In 2008, it was the turn of First Division side Queen of The South, who gave Rangers – and me – a hell of a fright before going down 3-2 at Hampden.
But the worst experience was 2010. Ross County, then in the First Division, provided a genuine shock by dumping Celtic in the semi-finals. The following day, another First Division side would try to reach the final, and if they succeeded, the record would be gone, before the cup was even lifted. Chillingly, that team was Raith Rovers – our traditional rivals, who can crow all they like about a solitary Coca Cola Cup win (did I mention we were the first club to win the League Cup three times?) but could barely tell the difference between the Scottish Cup and the Venus Rosewater Dish.
I headed for the hills when the match was on, literally. Left my mobile phone at home. On my return, I can still remember the desperately tense wait for the BBC website to upload with the score: Dundee United 2, Raith Rovers 0. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
At this rate, the record is going to fall some time, and who would begrudge Falkirk a first cup win since 1957? Inverness fans, you would imagine, with good reason. And Dunfermline too, Falkirk’s bitter enemy. Apart from that, only the small-minded and the petty would object. People like me. I need to get over it; I really do.
That’s why I will be in the Falkirk end at Hampden today. With my seven-year-old son, a Junior Bairn and a Falkirk mascot earlier this season. If the record goes, he will be on my shoulders, like my mother all those years ago. Better him on my shoulders, than the weight of the world.