There is a curious force catapulting footballers back to the place where their careers began. Weather permitting, Colin Cameron will today step out at Fife’s other Central Park, where he starred on loan as a teenager sent out by Raith Rovers to earn his spurs in an often unforgiving environment.
He is understandably concerned about the likelihood of yet another postponement, further delaying his second home debut for Lochore Welfare, now of the Scottish Junior Football East Region, North Division. “Time is at a premium for me! I am not getting any younger,” Cameron, who turns 44 later this year, smiles.
Ten years ago he was playing for Wolves against Manchester United in an FA Cup tie. Today it’s Forfar Albion – providing the fixture doesn’t go the way of Lochore’s last seven home games by falling foul of the weather.
Jonathan Northcroft, writing in Scotland on Sunday in 1996 following former Nottingham Forest striker Ian Wallace’s return to Dumbarton, referenced the “crazy paving football career path” which throws men so willingly back to where they started.
“Would a journalist come back from the New York Times to edit his old parish newsletter?” he mused. “Or a surgeon return home to teach first aid?”
It was an astute observation and the phenomenon remains in evidence today. In Wallace’s case, he was heading back to begin a management career that didn’t, in the end, amount to much.
They were dancing in the streets of Lochore – or actually Crosshill, where the club is based – when Cameron re-signed for Lochore Welfare, solely to play. He will perform in front of a smattering of spectators whose eyes will inevitably drawn to the bald head of the former Scotland international: “Forget yer zimmer did ye?!” This was one of the kinder comments aimed at him during an away match against Dundee’s Downfield before Christmas.
There seems something therapeutic about Cameron’s decision to keep on keeping on following his sacking as Berwick Rangers player-manager in October. But, unlike Paul Gascoigne, for example, it isn’t because he fears for his sanity when he finally calls it a day. Cameron seems happier than ever, with a stable home life and two young children to look after. He is simply addicted to the thrill of pulling on his funky white boots, the purchase of which signalled his intent to continue playing – “first time I’ve veered from black,” he notes – at whatever level he could.
“After I left Berwick, I still wanted to play,” he explains. “I still wanted it to be senior level. But it’s hard because senior clubs will not necessarily want a player who is my age and, more importantly, has already been a manager. They might find it threatening. That would never be the case with me but it is understandable if they feel that way.”
There was some interest from Stirling Albion. “I spoke to Stuart McLaren, he said he’d love to have me at Stirling. But he did not have space in the squad to bring me in. It’s not about money. I’d be doing it to help out the younger players, or whether the team wanted help. But nothing happened there.”
So he welcomed Lochore Welfare’s invitation. “It’s Lee Dair who is manager there,” he says. “I go way back with his brother Jason to Raith Rovers days.”
Cameron agreed a deal until the end of the season in January, though he hasn’t actually played as a “signed” player yet. “I have only played one game competitively. I played up at Downfield, we lost 5-4 and I got sent off for two bookings. The first one was a booking, the second one was ridiculous. Basically, I questioned the referee’s decision.
“I was like ‘Jesus, what was that for?’ So he booked me. But he didn’t realise he had already booked me earlier. Their guys on the side were like: ‘But you’ve already booked him’. So he came over and apologised and said: ‘I am going to have to send you off, I’ve already booked you’.”
If it sounds amateurish that is because it is amateurish. But Cameron adores rediscovering the sensation of playing only for petrol money while also getting used to the novelty of early afternoon kick-off times due to the absence of floodlights. Lochore Welfare haven’t been able to play at Central Park since late November, which means Cameron has been enjoying spending time with wife Nicola and their two young daughters, Casey and Christy (he has another daughter, Regan, from a previous marriage, who is currently studying law at Stirling University).
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to do that every Saturday afternoon!” he exclaims. He was back on the pitch at half-time of the Edinburgh derby Scottish Cup clash two Sundays ago at Tynecastle, persuaded by John Robertson to take part in a penalty shoot-out against a pair of old Hibs legends. Old is the operative word – Mickey Weir pulled a hamstring beforehand and had to drop out.
But a fit-looking Cameron scored both his penalties in a victory for “Hearts”. It was about the last thing that went right for them in terms of this tie. After conceding two second-half goals they then lost Tuesday night’s Easter Road replay, something that has placed Robbie Neilson under a surprising amount of pressure from some sections of the Hearts support.
Cameron feels sympathy for Neilson, a former team-mate at Tynecastle. “I was speaking to someone earlier who is a Jambo,” he says. “And he was not happy. Fans are fickle. The work that he [Neilson] and Stevie [Crawford] have done at he club since they have been there has been fantastic. Unfortunately most of the fans are all about the derby wins than the overall picture. That’s why a few of them are not happy. In recent years Hearts have had the upper hand. But he’s won promotion and they are sitting third in the league – it is an amazing achievement.
“I am happy with the progress the club has made – of course I am. Disappointed at the moment, because they had one foot in the next round of the cup. That’s the only time where I have seen them where they have not been able to see out a game.”
“Hearts are a relatively young team,” he adds. “Maybe if they had one or two more experienced boys in there…”
Surely Cameron isn’t suggesting what you think he is suggesting? It turns out he isn’t proposing a Hearts return, although looking at him as he slurps down his wife’s nutritious homemade soup it’s possible to wonder if Hearts could in fact do a lot worse. He can certainly still take a penalty…
“It’s maybe not much to brag about,” he says, of the half-time victory over Steven Tweed and young Hibs keeper Sean Brennan, Weir’s late replacement. “I’ve never seen Tweedie take a penalty in his life,” he adds. “But you still have to put the ball in the back of the net. Me and Scott Crabbe scored our goals, they missed one each.
“I’m probably fitter now than I was playing at Cowdenbeath, before Berwick,” he adds. “It’s maybe because I am not training as much. With Lochore I am just training once every two weeks. I keep myself ticking over, I have these discs I do in the front room at home – 25 minutes a day.
“Over Christmas and New Year, it’s probably the first year I said: ‘I am just going to enjoy myself’. I developed a bit of a belly, and I’m not used to that! It looks a bit strange.”
He resolves to do something about it and is already down to under 11st 3lbs, his weight while at Berwick. “I will probably get it back to under eleven,” he adds.
That’s the aim prior to setting off with the Scotland Seniors side to Thailand this summer. “It’s really hot over there, the last thing you want to be doing is carrying any extra weight,” he says. “It’s the World Cup, they do it every year to raise funds for the Tsunami appeal. I think two years ago they got beat by England on pens in the final.
“I am getting a bit of grief from the wife. It’s our wedding anniversary on the third, we go away on the second of June. I will miss that. Hmmm. But she has managed to wangle a trip to New York for Thanksgiving Day, so comme ci, comme ca.”
This flash of French is a reminder of Cameron’s other life just now as a coach for Edusport Academy, a residential academy based in Scotland for young French footballers. They receive a thrill when discovering Cameron once played in the Stade de France for Scotland against the reigning world and European champions, in Berti Vogts’ first game. Scotland fell 5-0 against the likes of Henry, Zidane et al, with Cameron replaced at half-time. “They all end up googling me – I think they are quite surprised, probably not impressed!”
Cameron seems to have been present at many of Scottish football’s landmark moments, from when Duncan Ferguson head-butted Jock McStay to land a three-month sentence in Barlinne to Raith Rovers winning the League Cup against Celtic. He also scored a penalty when Hearts beat Rangers to win the Scottish Cup in 1998 for the first time in over 40 years.
“You can’t grade the memories, each one is unique,” he says. But if push came to shove, if he had to pick one, perhaps it’s no surprise the Kirkcaldy boy plumps for Rovers winning the League Cup, particularly since one of the club’s finest servants, Ally Gourlay, has so recently passed away. Cameron will attend Gourlay’s funeral on Monday, with Rovers staging a tribute to their popular former media officer at their game against Livingston this afternoon.
It also seems appropriate that Cameron is speaking to The Scotsman just minutes after the announcement confirming the League Cup final will revert to its traditional pre-Christmas slot, which is where it was when Rovers beat Celtic on penalties at Ibrox in the late November gloaming back in 1994.
“Raith Rovers was my first major honour, a First Division side against a Premier League team,” he says. “Hearts v Rangers was not such a big shock. We had a really good team. We had a really good team at Raith Rovers but with the greatest respect, we were not expected to do anything.
“At Hearts we felt we had a real good chance. It was still a bit of an upset but not a major one.”
He played in and won a Premiership play-off with Wolves against Sheffield United at the Millennium Stadium, while he also tasted the new Wembley, for MK Dons v Grimsby Town in the Johnstone’s Paints trophy final. “I have been very lucky,” he says. “MK Dons v Grimsby, there was over 40,000 at the game which is ridiculous for two teams in League Two. The Millennium, for the play-off final, is the best stadium I have ever played in. My wife remembers feeling the stadium moving because of the atmosphere.”
From a match frequently described as the richest in world football to today’s venue – a ground with one small covered enclosure. “And a refreshment kiosk,” he points out. He claims to have promised that Lochore Welfare will be his last competitive football fling.
“My wife says I am being a bit selfish by playing on. Maybe I am. I still have that burning desire to play and I am still enjoying it.
“Another thing is I still feel I can influence games. If you are way off the pace, what’s the point? But that’s certainly not the fact. Even at training, I am still up there with the boys. I am not lagging behind. I am not far from the front.”
After scoring for Berwick Rangers last season at the age of 41 and ten months, he now holds the record of oldest goalscorer in Scottish football’s fourth tier, wresting this mantle from Robert Prytz of all people, who struck for Hamilton Accies aged 40 in the 2000/01 season.
“Then there’s the player I saw on Facebook, a Japanese guy I think who’s just signed a new contract at 48,” smiles Cameron. Warning to Nicola: He could well be serious. “I have been taking cod liver oil,” he says, while extolling the virtues of his wife’s healthy cooking regime.
These regular doses of vitamins could not stop the colour draining from his face when such a distinguished senior career came to a sudden halt in a corridor inside Montrose’s Links Park earlier this season.
“To say I was disappointed is an understatement,” he says, with Berwick then only three points off second place in League Two (they are now ninth). “The season before we under performed in the league but got to the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup v Hibs, which the club hadn’t done for thirty years. That made enough money to pay for the whole season. But there was still one director wanting board meetings to get rid of me. I knew this season the vultures were out. We were doing OK, then went down to Annan in the Scottish Cup and were one up at half-time. Ended up being beat 4-1.
“I was kind of told – not outright – that if we did not go up to Montrose and win then that was it. Obviously we lost 4-1 again. It was just outside the changing rooms, the chairman [Brian Porteous] was there with one of the directors. Basically they said that was that. My dad was up in the car and I went back with him – I wasn’t going to go back in the bus.”
Cameron’s father, Douglas, remains one of his greatest supporters. “He comes to games – with my mum and stepdad,” reveals Cameron, surprisingly. Really?
“The three of them are a team… my mum and dad have a better relationship now than when they were married! They go to the bingo together. My dad goes up to their house every other day. My mum’s man, Bill, helps him out.”
It sums up the community spirit Cameron feels each time he returns home to Kirkcaldy. “I’m a Raith Rovers fan, not a Hearts fan,” he says. “I have a great affiliation with them [Hearts] because of my history, same with Wolves.
“But I am a Raith Rovers fan,” he stresses. “My dad still stays in the same house when I signed for Raith, at the bottom of the road, three minutes walk from the ground.”
Current Rovers manager Ray McKinnon is doing just fine but it’s possible to wonder whether, in future, Cameron might return there too to work, a not-so-potty scenario when you consider football’s crazily paved path.
“Never say never,” he says. But first things first: a 1pm meet today, Central Park. No zimmer frame required.