Scottish Cup: Arbroath will offer their Rangers more than just smokies

GAYFIELD Park, Arbroath hasn’t changed much over the years, with its modest grandstand along one side, and terraced enclosures on the other three, all of them buffeted by the adjoining North Sea.

Tuttie’s Neuk is still going strong across the road, as is the Pleasureland amusement arcade. Only the old Seaforth Hotel has gone, its peeling, whitewashed walls burned to the ground.

Arbroath have done a splendid job sprucing up their tidy little home, which now boasts a couple of smart hospitality suites, but the structure remains unchanged, as do the famous elements that batter its exposed location. When nearly 6,000 cram inside for the visit of Rangers in today’s William Hill Scottish Cup fourth-round tie, it will be like old times on the Angus coast.

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Not that Gayfield was broadcast live across Britain in the early 1970s, when crowds of that order were commonplace. Sky Sports, accustomed to turning up and plugging in, has been at the club for weeks, erecting the scaffolding and laying the cables that will allow 13 cameras to capture every angle. They paid Arbroath £82,500 for the privilege because they have no rights to matches in England this weekend, a stroke of outrageous luck for the Second Division club.

Whether they will be quite so fortunate on the pitch remains to be seen. They are part-timers, 22 places below Rangers in the league hierarchy, but under Paul Sheerin, their 37-year-old player-manager, they have been praised for their slick passing game. After winning last season’s Third Division title, their first-ever major trophy, they are now challenging for a second successive promotion.

Gavin Swankie, their striker, who is back at his hometown club for a third spell, says that Rangers will not be relishing the prospect. “It will start in the changing rooms, which will not be the kind of luxury they are used to. And there’s the wind, obviously. I’m hoping it’s not windy – it would spoil the game – but if it is, we’ll be more used to it than they are. They won’t enjoy the tight park either. We’ll create chances. We always do. If we can hold out early doors, we’ll definitely give them a game.”

It wouldn’t be the first time. Rangers games are prominent in Arbroath’s history, which also includes the famous 36-0 defeat of Bon Accord, a cricket team somehow admitted to the 1885 Scottish Cup. Had the referee not questionably disallowed seven goals for offside – he later conceded that he could not keep up – the biggest winning margin in the history of professional football might have been even bigger. The first of two celebrated wins against Rangers was the year before. Arbroath recovered from 3-0 down to beat them 4-3 at Gayfield, only to find that the Glasgow club were protesting to the Scottish Football Association about the width of the pitch. “Beaten on a back green,” they said to the governing body, which eventually ordered a replay. On a widened playing surface, Rangers won 8-1.

That, though, comes a distant second to Arbroath’s best result, a 3-2 league win at Ibrox in 1974. To this day, it is commemorated in the boardroom, where the match programme hangs on a wall, framed and signed by Albert Henderson – their manager at the time – Billy Pirie, who scored their second goal, and John Fletcher, who got the other two.

Fletcher, a former PE teacher who runs a residential home in Carnoustie, will be a special guest at Gayfield this afternoon. Now 58, he recalls the day in detail, from the smokies that he had for breakfast to the dressing-rooms that were “like the Marine Ballroom” and the quagmire of a pitch. As for wages, the players were on £20 basic, and £10 a point.

The match was filmed by Scotsport. When Fletcher returned to Arbroath, he couldn’t wait to watch it on his parents’ colour television. “Nobody had a video recorder in those days. You got to see it once, and once only. So we were all gathered round, waiting for it, but when it came on, it said ‘We must apologise. We sent our colour cameras to Ayr races so this will be in black and white’.”

Disappointed by that, Fletcher never expected to see the footage again, especially when he was told in later life that it had been destroyed. Little did he know that a former Arbroath employee would discover the highlights while working for Setanta just a few years ago. When John Christison, the club chairman, was informed, he promptly invited Fletcher along to a match.

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Fletcher had no idea what he was about to see when he was ushered into the manager’s office and seated in front of a television. The Englishman could not disguise his emotion as he watched a flaxen-haired striker flash across the screen to lob in a late winner. “There was a tear in my eye,” he admits. “Occasionally, people say ‘did you play in that game?’ I can now say, ‘it’s on YouTube mate’. The day I first saw it, they showed it to everyone in hospitality. It’ll probably be on a loop this Sunday.”

Arbroath had quite a team then, with Pirie and Andy Penman among the stars. The Henderson years, from 1962 to 1979, were the club’s halcyon days. In the 13 seasons leading up to the introduction of the new Premier Division in 1975, they were promoted twice and spent four years in the top flight. They have contributed much more to the game than fish and a howling gale.

Christison is Scottish football’s longest-serving chairman, having taken the job in 1993. He first attended Gayfield in the 1950s, when his father helped him over the turnstile, but even he regards himself as just a custodian. “Our club was established in 1878. We are probably the longest-running business left in the town. We’ve banked with the Bank of Scotland since the club started. We must be their oldest customer. There is a great tradition of football in Arbroath. A lot of folk look for the scores every week, even if they don’t come to the games.”

These days, too few of the town’s 22,000 population are inclined to spend their Saturday afternoons at Gayfield. Even now, with their team on a high, the average crowd is less than 800. As high streets die across the country, so do sponsorship opportunities for clubs such as Christison’s. “There are fewer and fewer local businesses,” he says. “They have been very good to us, but you don’t want to milk the coo dry.”

And yet, despite the economic downturn, Arbroath are in decent shape. They will never be a full-time club, but it is only eight years since they last frequented the First Division, which again looks to be within reach. The losses they are expected to post at their next AGM will be wiped out by the £140,000 profit from today’s match.

In a strange way, these challenging times could be good for the likes of Arbroath, who have benefited from cost-cutting elsewhere. Sheerin admits that some of his better-known players – including Swankie and Brian Kerr, the former Newcastle United midfielder – only chose to play for him because the bigger clubs had been scaling down their squads.

Swankie, the Third Division’s player of the year last season, says that Sheerin, a former team-mate, was a big factor in his decision to join, but it wasn’t the only one. The 28-year-old has made no secret of his desire to play full-time, but moves last summer to Falkirk and Ross County never materialised.

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“If something comes up full-time at the end of this season, I will consider it, but if not, then I’m thinking of just getting a job and staying part-time,” he said. “I enjoy it here. It’s a nice wee club. And they’re a great bunch of lads.”

Swankie was born in the town, but when he was a boy, he would go with his father and his cousin to see Rangers on a Saturday. Like plenty of other places, Arbroath still loses fans to the Old Firm, too many to count. Today, for once, it will be different. Today they will all be at Gayfield.