I HOPE the boss doesn’t mind me telling you that we had another front page planned for our sports section yesterday. Part of it was going to feature Dick Campbell, manager of Forfar Athletic, throwing his hat into the ring for next season’s Championship. But it just goes to show that you never know in football – or, more crucially, the play-offs.
I wasn’t at the Indodrill Stadium because I was at Ibrox where the unholy racket which greeted the start of the game was a throwback to happier times in Govan and worth the price of the admission alone. Admittedly the fact the admission was only £5 helped Rangers muster their biggest crowd of the season – but so did the importance of the match, another play-off.
The previous day I was at Links Park, Montrose. This game wasn’t work but pleasure, and what pleasure it provided – easily the most fun my son and I have had at the football for ages. Exciting, but also draining, and at the end we barely had the energy to help hoist Marvin Andrews into the air. As the Rev. Marv might have put it: “Praise be the play-offs”.
So what do we have here? A tremendous fightback by Alloa Athletic. A tremendous crowd. And a tremendous strike by Garry Wood to stop Montrose sliding down the pyramid and right out of senior football – honestly, everyone who bore witness reckons it’s the goal of the season. The play-offs provided all of this in one weekend and I didn’t think I liked them.
I thought they would be contrived. I thought they would drag out a long campaign even further. I thought we were copying England but in a cut-price manner, with no big day out at the national stadium to conclude matters. I thought the quality of football would be poor – panic-ridden and petrified. And there seemed to be something macabre about the process and maybe we would be watching the equivalent of a Victorian freak show, with the relegation-threatened writhing around in a pathetic manner for our lurid amusement.
But none of this has come to pass. Queen of the South have contributed massively to this year’s showdowns with their clever passing game and yet they will take no further part. At Montrose I wondered if the team officially rated the worst in the land would be a bunch of numpties, but they tethered the ball in blustery conditions and played with enterprise and no little bravery. Now we have a titanic two-legged tussle between Rangers and Hibernian which should make us forget about all those meaningless games in the last few weeks of the Premiership and could yet overshadow the Scottish Cup final.
‘This cute little ground was in severe danger of slipping right off the football map’
This would be an utterly fascinating contest anyway, without the ties amounting to the biggest challenge yet faced by Stuart McCall and Alan Stubbs, without the intrigue over whether it’s best to keep playing (Rangers) or spend five days in your flip-flops (Hibs), and without the £5 admission throwing up the question: “Does filling the stands ramp up the pressure too much?” Now all of these issues add extra-hot sauce to tomorrow night.
On Sunday everything was louder than it had been at Ibrox for a good, long while. (Simply) The Best was cranked up to 11, the first time that had been deemed necessary since before Prince George came along to claim his right to the throne. But the clangers dropped by the Rangers defence were loud, too, and McCall will be hoping his players won’t be so jittery tomorrow – or that Hibs are even more unnerved by the din and proceed to out-jitter them.
Maybe last season Hibs were the almost-too-gruesome play-off participants. But in the first leg of the final at Hamilton Accies they managed to remember how to win a match – only to toss away their advantage in the return. It is that Easter Road game, burned in the memory of every Hibee, in which each desperate, booted clearance seemed to unlock yet another downpour until their team were washed down the Premiership plughole, that has given the play-offs their current allure. Yet another claim to fame for the first club into Europe.
At Links Park, the kick-off had to be delayed to let in a crowd almost seven times bigger than the last home gate. “Welcome to the home of the mighty Montrose,” said the mannie at the microphone, local schoolteacher Ross Thompson. Then he quoted from Winston Churchill: “Sure I am this day we are masters of our fate, that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength, that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance.”
Montrose had the great wartime leader, Marvin Andrews and, by implication, God on their side. But Brora Rangers from the Highland League had brought a loudhailer, a bell and a set of bagpipes. Montrose had the snell wind, presumably something with which they’re familiar, but it kept floating the ball into back gardens. Snugly situated among the trim houses, this cute little ground was suddenly looking alarmingly precarious, and in severe danger of slipping right off the football map. And then after almost running out of balls it completely ran out of pies.
But, urged on by cries of “’Mon the Mo’!” and a song which refers to what I’d assumed was a mythical beastie called the “Links Park Dynamo”, the Gable Endies rose above these pangs and toils and Andrews rose above the Brora defence for a steepling header. Then came Garry Wood’s ridiculous winner. When he hit it he was 30 yards out. By today in his re-telling it will have been stretched to 35 yards. By Christmas, 40. By the end of his career, 45.
At the final whistle, as the fans streamed on to the pitch, a board was quickly put in place – “Pyramid champions” – but the players didn’t feel like standing behind it, far less bouncing in the customary fashion. A small girl asked what it was that Montrose had won. “Nuthin’, darling,” said her mother, “they’ve just no’ lost anything.” The play-offs can be a tricky concept to get your head around but they seem to work.