Remarkably, the clubs last met in a competitive fixture 89 years ago. Despite the away dugout housing Britain’s most venerable manager in Craig Brown, it is doubtful that anyone present at Station Park this afternoon will be able to recall the Scottish Cup clash between the sides on 13 January, 1923. Today’s fourth round tie truly deserves to be described as “long-awaited”.
Other than two Northern League encounters in what was Aberdeen’s maiden campaign in 1903-04, there has only been one other competitive fixture. This was in 1911, again in the Scottish Cup. Given that Aberdeen faced Forfar four times in their first 20 years of existence, it would be reasonable to have assumed they would face the team from 50 miles down the road at least once every decade or so. In actual fact, this afternoon’s clash is the first meaningful one since the Jazz Age.
Not that anyone should take such a long interlude to mean that anything other than a warm relationship exists between the clubs. Indeed, they played a closed-door game against each other only a matter of weeks ago. Aberdeen also helped open what the match programme described as the “the new floodlighting system” at Station Park in October 1971. According to Forfar secretary David McGregor, the nearest the sides came to a competitive meeting in recent times was in November 1984. Alex Ferguson brought the reigning Premier Division champions down for a “Centenary Season Challenge Match” against Forfar, who, as well as celebrating 100 years in existence, had also just lifted their first title after winning the Second Division championship. There was a close miss in 1996 when Ian McPhee’s failed effort in a penalty shoot-out against Airdrieonians meant Forfar also lost out on a Scottish Cup quarter-final trip to Pittodrie.
McGregor’s only recollection of hostility between anyone involved today can be traced to two occupants of the away dugout. Brown, when manager of Clyde, had to be given a police escort from the field after he found himself grappling with then Forfar player-manager Archie Knox – the Archie Knox Lounge is a sell-out this afternoon – during a midweek fixture at Station Park in the late Seventies. The incident followed a clash between legendary Forfar defender Alex Brash and Neil Hood, the then Clyde striker. “The game was going on, I was out in my blazer and I found myself in the centre circle,” recalled Brown last year.
“Billy McNeill was the Aberdeen manager at the time. Billy came down to watch his old club, Clyde, play Forfar. It was a promotion game at Station Park. Billy said, ‘in all my years in football, it’s the funniest thing I’ve seen’.” Aberdeen still played in black and gold stripes when they last lined up against Forfar. Every person in the expected crowd of nearly 4,000 this afternoon will be witnessing a competitive game between the sides for the first time. They will also be watching what could be the last big game to be played at Station Park on grass, with a 3G pitch set to be laid in the summer.
It was impossible to miss the scent of history in the air at the stadium yesterday. Even Giggsy, groundsman Martin Gray’s 14 year-old dog, appeared to sense something was up. She – yes, Giggsy’s a she, despite being named after the Manchester United winger – lifted up her sad eyes from a perch in the pantry, where programmes from significant games in Forfar’s history line the walls.
The switch to a synthetic surface doesn’t mean the end for her owner, however. Gray will still need to carry out maintenance work at Station Park. His pitch-tending skills will be put to good use at Forfar Farmington’s ground, the ladies club with whom Forfar have entered into a partnership in order to gain a “cash back from criminals” award of £300,000 to go towards the project. “I came when Doug Houston was in charge – that’s 14 managers, five chairmen and a wife I have gone through,” said Gray, in a break from giving the lines another going over with whitewash.
“I am in favour, but it will be a sad day,” says McGregor, of the imminent ripping up of the turf on which so many stories have unfolded. Another one will be written today as Aberdeen make their first competitive appearance at Station Park – the last two Scottish Cup meetings were both at Pittodrie, with Forfar still waiting for a first goal after 5-0 and 1-0 defeats.
McGregor accepts it is “odd” that the teams have met so rarely on competitive business. Aberdeen remain the only side he has not seen Forfar play a competitive fixture against since he began watching his team as an eight-year old in 1959. He has even seen Forfar against Hibernian, who they last played 40 years ago.
It seems fitting that the full house of teams should be completed before the grass goes for good. McGregor recalls finding an Albion Rovers director standing by the pitch earlier this season, lost in reverie. The game had long since finished. He told McGregor that Station Park was what he deeply wished Cliftonhill could be. “You’ve got a proper football ground here,” he said, as he gazed at the neatly-kept surroundings, backdropped by the Angus countryside. Aberdeen fans will hope the wait to sample both the view and local delicacy – more than 2000 bridies have been prepared by Saddler’s, the bakers-of-choice – will prove to have been worth it.