It illustrates just how stultifying Jerry Kerr found life upstairs at Dundee United that he jumped at the chance to resume his managerial career at lowly Forfar Athletic in 1974.
Kerr, credited as being the original harbinger of Dundee United’s glory days, could not resist one last mission following his move upstairs at Tannadice to accommodate Jim McLean’s arrival. Kerr, by now into his 60s, had every right to think he retained something of the old magic after his first 90 minutes back in the hot seat. Forfar had not won any of their opening six league games in the old Division Two but they won that September’s night: 2-0 at Station Park against Raith Rovers.
“He came in afterwards puffing on his pipe and said: ‘there you are, you’ll be all right now boys’,” recalls defender Bobby Hopcroft.
Except they were not all right; far from it. They didn’t win another game all season. Forfar’s campaign quickly went from bad to worse – and then to worst-ever. Vale of Leven did not manage a win in only 22 league games in 1891-92. But no side since then has endured such a miserable season as Forfar’s – to date at least.
Jimmy Kyles, the striker who scored twice in that solitary win over Raith and somehow reached double figures by the end of the campaign, has spent more than 40 years being blissfully unaware he features in British football infamy. “Ach, I didn’t even know that,” he said, when informed earlier this week, on the back of neighbours Brechin City’s attempt to steal Forfar’s crown.
What is it about Angus clubs and extremes? Arbroath of course have a more genuine reason to boast: the world’s biggest win, 36-0 over Bon Accord. But Brechin might soon be more widely known for something other than a hedge. The Glebe Park club announced earlier this week they were buying their season ticket holders – “over-18s only” – a stiff drink before tomorrow’s home clash with Queen of the South following “a long and difficult season”.
That’s one way of putting it. Brechin are currently without a league win in their Championship campaign, which concludes tomorrow. Their last game in a season in which they have far from disgraced themselves has been lent something of a cup-final edge. “The players have their own personal pride to play for,” says Brechin City chairman Ken Ferguson. “They do not want to have that tag of being remembered as the team not to have had a win in the league.”
The best Darren Dods’ Brechin side can now do is share the ignominy which fell on Forfar, Kerr, Kyles et al in 1974-75. At least Kyles has something with which to silence the scoffers: a hat-trick at Hampden later in his career for Brechin City against Queen’s Park: “Two at the Celtic end, one at the Rangers end, we won 3-1.” He wonders whether he is the only Dundonian to achieve this feat.
What needs no clarification is the full awfulness of the Forfar campaign in question. It is there in black and white. Kerr’s assurance things were now looking up held true for the second game of his reign as well – a 2-2 draw with Clydebank.
Forfar were still unbeaten under Kerr when they travelled to face Queen of he South in his third outing as manager. They were thrashed 7-0. They lost their next game 3-0 against Stenhousemuir. They then scored three at Albion Rovers but conceded five. There were successive 5-0 thrashings by Stenhousemuir and Albion Rovers again later in the season.
There was not even any respite in the Scottish Cup. Highland League Ross County came down to Station Park and knocked the hosts out 3-2.
Every week, it seemed, Forfar’s fate seemed tied up with the cattle being paraded around the mart next to their ground; there was slaughter in the air.
Even when the nights became lighter, the days longer, the black cloud hanging over the Angus town, and specifically Station Park, refused to budge. Forfar scored only once in their last 13 games – a Kyles strike, inevitably.
“It wasn’t as if we were not trying to win,” he says. “We were a happy bunch. I don’t remember it being a slog.”
However, it is only natural if Kyles felt slightly let down by the circumstances he found himself in. Picked up by Celtic as a schoolboy a few years earlier, he and Tommy Burns became best pals. “I then got released and came back to Dundee and started my time as a joiner,” Kyles, now 63 and still working as a joiner, explains. Having left the senior game at 29, after playing for Montrose as well as Forfar and Brechin, his playing days seem a long time ago.
Kyles makes the point there were 20 teams in the bottom division in those days. “Forfar were competing against the likes of St Mirren, Hamilton Accies, Queen of the South and Falkirk – some quality sides,” he says.
There were some decent players as well, Forfar’s included. Hopcroft had the chance to turn full-time under Jim McLean at Dundee United. However, already employed by the local council in Dundee, he didn’t want to take a drop in wages. He was on £6 a week with Forfar. “Plus £2 a point,” Hopcroft notes, which added the princely sum of £18 to his pay packet after 38 games in which Forfar managed one victory (in the days of two points for a win) and seven draws.
Hopcroft was sold at the end of the fateful campaign. “For actual money”, he confirms. Brechin were not put off by Forfar’s goal difference of minus 75 and paid £1,500 for the defender. As for Kerr, who lasted another full season before leaving near the start of the 1976-77 campaign, Hopcroft said: “Jerry was a character. He was not very hands on. There were no team talks as such.”
The fans tended not to be so relaxed. Kyles remembers one fan screaming advice at him in a booming “Farfar” accent: “hegh and a’kward, hit it hegh and a’kward Kyles!” Hopcroft recalls someone, possibly the same person, having it in for him and his team-mates every second week. “He stood in the same place and hurled the same abuse,” he recalls. “I was back a couple of years ago. He was still standing there. I went up behind him and grabbed him: ‘Remember me you bastard!?’ ”
26 April, 1975: the last day of Forfar’s worst-ever season and the final weekend of Scotland’s old two-tier system. Reconstruction resulted in the creation of the Premier Division the following season.
A new dawn beckoned but Forfar signed off with a 3-0 defeat by Alloa Athletic in front of fewer than 200 people, who felt relief the anguish was finally over. Or was it? Woe to the Forfar fan who also happened to be a Tartan Army conscript with a ticket for the annual Auld Enemy fixture at Wembley a few weeks later. It finished England 5 Scotland 1.
Stewart Kennedy, the then Rangers keeper who signed for Forfar in 1980 and shared in some of their greatest years, earned his fifth and final cap that day. Commentator David Coleman described him as having “lost his geography” as the goals flew in. A few years later Kennedy was a member of a Forfar team who took Rangers to a Scottish Cup semi-final replay and came within a whisker of promotion to the top flight.
As club historian David Potter remarks: “How fitting it was that Stewart and Forfar should go on and redeem themselves together.”