The bloody and tragic origins of St Magnus Cathedral on Orkney, where Ron Ferguson used to be the minister, date from 1117 when the aforementioned Magnus was clouted on the head with an axe after being betrayed by his cousin. The pair had resolved to settle a dispute on the island of Egilsay, each to bring two ships of supporters, but the diabolical relative flouted the ruling and landed with considerably more back-up. With a scoreline of eight boats to two, Magnus’ fate was sealed.
Now Ferguson, author of cult classic Black Diamonds and the Blue Brazil, which celebrates a football team who many times must have felt they were beginning matches already behind by such a deficit, is wondering what’s to become of his beloved Cowdenbeath.
“We’re a wee club so I know most of the fans and there’s quite a bit of fear around,” he admits as Cowdenbeath prepare for today’s Pyramid Play-off first leg at East Kilbride. “We’re well used to relegation, we’re well used to getting hammered, but this is different: we’re teetering right on the edge.”
Right on the edge of the world as delineated by the classified football results. From steam radio to Grandstand, with David Coleman bestriding the videprinter like a safari-suited colossus, to the present-day theatre of men in too-tight shirts on Sportscene offering immediate analysis of the scores, Cowdenbeath have always rated a mention, no matter how lousy the defeats. But if they fall to the Lowland League upstarts, Fife’s oldest club will exit senior football.
The first thing you see upon entering Ferguson’s home in the parish of Orphir, nine miles west of Kirkwall, is a sculpture of the scales of justice, a leaving present from his posting before St Magnus, in Glasgow’s Easterhouse. You might have heard of the artist: Jimmy Boyle, the most celebrated inmate of Barlinnie Prison’s special unit.
Our man explains: “A friend who’d been going into the unit for some time – to teach a lifer how to care for budgies, would you believe – asked if I fancied coming with him as the prisoners were keen to hear from a minister.” Ferguson and Boyle discussed radical, social-action church work, from Harlem to the Gorbals. The great Geoff Clark had taken ideas from the former into the latter when he set up a 1960s ministry in the worst slum in Europe and Ferguson had written a book about him. “Jimmy was one of the most feared people obviously – the bogeyman, the hard man – but in his way he was quite charming.”
So how are the scales going to tip for Cowdenbeath over the most crucial seven days in their 136-year history? “Folk who know something of the East Kilbride set-up are expecting them to be keen, rugged, a bit arrogant,” says Ferguson. “I think the play-off will be two pretty horrible games. Even if we manage to be leading with five minutes left we’ll be hyperventilating every time the ball is launched up the park. The Scottish condition of expecting the worst will be fairly apparent.”
In Scotland’s first designated new town today, League Two’s bottom team will have to do without the support of the man who identified the condition of “Mad Cowdenbeath Disease” and, now 77, admits to still being riddled with it. “It’s something which invades the brain,” laughs Ferguson, “and there’s absolutely no logic to how it behaves.”
He still preaches now and again and helped out at the cathedral at Easter. A full-time writer these days, it’s a one-woman play which will keep him away from East Kilbride’s K-Park, having just finished a libretto for an opera to commemorate the 900th anniversary of St Magnus’s martyrdom.
Ferguson will be in his usual place for next Saturday’s return at Central Park, but when he tells you about his match-day journey it’s a wonder how he ever makes it to the windblown, decrepit bowl.
“Well, it can be quite hairy,” he says with a churchman’s placid understatement. The Pentland Firth is notorious at the best of times and Ferguson has been sick on the ferry crossing ever since a holiday in Orkney prior to taking up pulpit duties. “When I got the job at St Magnus I remember asking my wife Cristine: ‘What on earth am I doing?’ But we love our life here and the crossings just have to be done.”
Are you ready for 13 hours on a bus? Ferguson has to be, first Scrabster to Inverness then a change of coach at Perth. In Leith he will stay over with his son Neil or daughter Fiona who live round the corner from each other. They have Mad Cowdenbeath Disease too, as evidenced by the text he received from Fiona who was on a train in darkest November, the wind shoogling the carriage and the rain streaming down her window. That’s my girl, he thought. Only B-movie ghouls were out on such a night; them and Cowden fans. All told, Ferguson’s pilgrimage – from the study with the signed strip bearing the legend “Fife Gas Services” and all the way home again – takes two and a half days.
Notice how I said it’s a “wonder” he gets to Central Park rather than a “miracle”. Football folk talk about miracles all the time; men of the cloth can’t be so free and easy with the term. Nor does Ferguson feel he can call on help from God, no matter that the situation is grave, a potential hat-trick of consecutive demotions.
“This is more serious than the usual scrapes affecting Cowden,” he repeats. “We hope we’re not about to witness the death-knell of our club. Being realistic, their future viability might at stake if they’re to drop out of senior football. We have a great history. A pretty odd history but nonetheless a proud one. But I just think you have to look at this in theological terms: no club has a divine right to exist, no club at all.”
Two years ago the Blue Brazil were in the Championship with Rangers, Hearts and Hibs. Admittedly the Jambos thumped them 10-0 but the next week against the Gers they sneaked a draw. Such has been life at crazy Cowdenbeath.
Ferguson smiles plaintively at the idea that prayers could help his team. “I’m not sure God will be sitting around just before three o’clock today thinking: ‘Should I relegate Cowdenbeath? I don’t think you can blame Him for all the wrongful penalties Dunfermline Athletic have been awarded against us, or all the blatantly offside goals that came the way of Raith Rovers.
“I’m afraid I don’t say prayers for us to win games. Back in my Sunday School days the picnic was the big thing and there were races for the children with bags of sweeties for the winners. I did pray one year that I’d come first and what happened? I finished last!”
Crikey, Cowdenbeath are about to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and they’ll be making the excursion on their own! But surely they travel with the good wishes of all the opposition fans who’ve ever experienced football at their tumbledown headquarters. Among the grounds we call old-school, Central Park is cave-wall-for-a-blackboard. For those who’re there every other Saturday, Ferguson maintains that the place, the team, the eternal struggle, are character-forming.
“We’ve come through some hard times and I think, as a Cowden fan, you develop a kind of theology of suffering. It’s funny thinking about Old Firm supporters and how seriously they take themselves. I used to live a goal-kick from Ibrox and they’ve got this sense of entitlement which leads to almost suicidal feelings when they lose one game. They should try 38 home defeats in a row!”
It was that interminable sequence in the early 1990s which inspired, if that’s the word, Black Diamonds and the Blue Brazil. “You’re taught resilience at Cowdenbeath,” adds Ferguson, “and that certain things will happen which are not going to be totally joyful. These are useful life lessons. Your team are going to get done. And sometimes by some mob in a godforsaken place like Arbroath on a horrible, sleety day. That’s obviously not brilliant but the love of your club carries you through.”
Fair enough, or unfair enough if you support Cowdenbeath. But how does a reverend cope with the less than reverential language which must fly around the terraces? “I prefer to stand at games and where I go the banter is always terrific. I grew up in Cowdenbeath when it was a mining town and worked as a minister in Easterhouse so I’m used to colourful language; it doesn’t bother me. The only justification for booing your own team is when they’re not bothering to try. There’s no point in swearing at guys who don’t have great ball control.
“I’m sure that once or twice bad words will leave my lips. And I know that I’ve run on to the park because BBC Alba covered the play-off at Brechin [2010, Cowdenbeath gaining promotion to the second tier] and friends were astonished to see this elderly hooligan leading his kids on a charge. But, you know, there’s something clever and almost lyrical about swearie words being jammed into the middle of unsuspecting sentences. The first time I heard that I was doing a summer job sweeping the streets. My boss had just got back from a holiday. ‘What was it like?’ I said. ‘Mag-f****n’-ificent,’ he said.”
Ferguson loves the humour of football and especially when it’s “quick-wittedness in adversity”, which can soften the blootering disappointments of Central Park. “When John Martin [pictured left] was our goalkeeper and the game got boring, the cry would go up, ‘Johnny, Johnny, swing on the bar’, and he’d treat us to his gymnastics routine with a big toothless grin.
“I loved Mixu Paatelainen as our manager. Some of the appointments have been colourful to say the least. Mixu’s predecessor, straight after he got the job, was involved in a rammy in Dundee and spent the weekend in the cells. Before him there was a manager who was found in a police raid to have a sawn-off shotgun under his bed. But Mixu played his two brothers which gave rise to the chant, ‘There’s only three Paatelainens’, and he also discovered a striker in his own image, big Armand One, raised in Paris and suddenly finding himself in Cowdenbeath, who weighed several tons. His song was, ‘One, One, One. Pizza Hut, Pizza Hut, Pizza Hut’, and he always responded by breaking into a little dance. Obviously, there are times as a Cowden supporter when you can hardly bare to watch, but then a player will happen along to lighten the mood. At Central Park we have to be philosophical and stoic. If we allow ourselves to get upset by Scottish football at this level we’d be greetin’ all the time.”
If the Blue Brazil can’t call on He Who Mans The Dugout For Us All to help them in their time of need, maybe they can summon inspiration from that great, proud and, yes, odd history. It goes all the way back to 1881 before the population explosion which saw the town, with eight coal mines a-thrumming, dubbed “the Chicago of Fife”. Ferguson is deeply embedded in the heritage because his great grand aunt, Margaret Pollock, was the club’s founding mother who, as the local antiques dealer, imported the first leather ball.
On the walk-up to the ground, Ferguson passes the old painter and decorator’s where his father and grandfather both worked. They introduced him to Central Park and, from the first rumble of tackety boots on the stand’s wooden floor, he was hooked. And then he was Hooky-ed. “James “Hooky” Leonard from the 1920s was one of our great characters. He had sumptuous skills. I can still see my father, hand resting on the TV set because he was creaking by then, impersonating Hooky’s great trick of cushioning a high pass and flicking it out to the wing in one movement.
“But Cowdenbeath players are bound to have some flaw in their make-up – that’s why they’re there. Hooky was terribly ill-disciplined and there were more than a few Friday nights when he was horizontal. I compare him to Jim Baxter, another locally-produced wayward genius, because, like Jim, he used to sit on the ball to annoy the opposition fans – only when Hooky did that at Morton they stoned him.”
Then there was Tewfik Abdullah, nicknamed “Toothpick”, also from the Roaring Twenties, the decade of “peak Cowden” when the team were installed in the old First Division. Toothpick was one of only four Egyptians to play in Scotland between the wars, having come from Derby County where he greatly amused team-mates, on a frosty pitch covered with sand, with a shout of “Where’s my camel?” Actually, the cry had been “Where’s Mick Hammill?”, after the player he was supposed to mark, but never let the facts get in the way of a ripping yarn.
Remember Michael Palin’s telly comedy Ripping Yarns and the one about Golden Gordon? A team of perpetual losers under threat of their ground being sold to a scrap dealer get help from old heroes from the 1920s and bang in eight goals to save the day. Cowdenbeath’s present plight seems not dissimilar, although Ferguson insists that other decades, other incarnations of this doughty club, have produced stirring moments against the odds.
Who gave Cowdenbeath a chance of beating Rangers in the League Cup in 1949? “Folk were outraged at the temerity of Cowden simply turning up at Ibrox,” he says, “but they won 3-2 and our top man of that era, Alex ‘Big Ming’ Menzies, danced the Highland fling in front of the crowd. That’s bravery!” More recently in 2014 there was a play-off to stay in the Championship, local rivals Dunfermline the opposition. “I seem to remember their manager Jim Jefferies calling our park a tattie field. Having secured a draw there, Dunfermline were supposed to be teaching us a football lesson on their perfect pitch. We won 3-0.” They had Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings back then, and suddenly the pair were gone. “If you make a mark at Cowdenbeath you don’t stay long.”
Underestimate them at your peril, though, and Ferguson’s final tale to illustrate the club’s pluck concerns Sir Alex Ferguson (no relation). “Fergie was playing for Falkirk in 1970 when he was attacked by Daisy the tea-lady. She was Andy Kinnell’s mum and not very impressed with Fergie’s rugged style so she chased him shouting ‘You hit my boy!’. He had to be rescued by Cowden manager Andy Matthew pretending there was a phonecall for him.”
Up in Orkney poor Magnus didn’t stand a chance. But 2017, as well being his 900th, is also the centenary of Central Park. Ferguson does not seek the commission to write the verse for Cowdenbeath’s demise and this true believer says: “I think they might just survive.”