It is strange that after 20 years of reporting on football matches, one of several that stick out among many hundreds should have occurred at Stenhousemuir’s ground, Ochilview.
It isn’t as if it was a cup clash against more illustrious opposition, nor was it the scene of a cup shock. It was, though, a cup game. But a Scottish Cup second-round replay clash between Stenhousemuir and Whitehill Welfare would not ordinarily hold its charge, certainly not for nearly two decades.
But it has, because every year I learn that Kenny Miller has struck another Scottish Cup goal, or indeed witness him doing so, I think back to being there for his first goal in the competition – scored when still a teenager at dear old Ochilview in the last year of the last century, on 11 January 1999. He scored a match-winning double that day, just as he did in Saturday’s Scottish Cup fourth- round comeback win for Rangers over Motherwell. That isn’t the only reason why the game has survived in the memory.
It was a lovably chaotic afternoon, including a missed penalty from underdogs Whitehill Welfare when the score was still 0-0. Martin Cameron, a striker/squaddie with recent experience of being posted in Northern Ireland, and therefore somewhat accustomed to pressure, wanted to take it, before manager Mickey Lawson got involved.
As Lawson recounted afterwards: “I’m on the park saying: ‘For God’s sake don’t let the soldier take it! Give it to ‘Bongo’ Thorburn, let him have a go!’ And after the game I’m going to Cameron: ‘Why the hell did you not take the penalty?’” Suffice to say, Bongo bungled.
The fixture, played on an ice-bound pitch, was also preceded by a ding-dong between Stenhousemuir and Hibs over whether Miller would even be available. Refused permission by his parent club to appear in the first game, which finished 0-0, something happened in the interim to heighten the stakes: the winners of the replay were drawn with Rangers. At Ibrox.
Terry Christie, the Stenhousemuir manager, knew that having Miller available – he had already made his mark in the league for the club – could be crucial to progressing for the ultimate pay day, against a star-studded team including Stephen Guivarc’h, who’d played for France in a World Cup final a few months earlier.
Cue a scene where a headmaster – Christie was in charge of Musselburgh Grammar school as well as Stenny – haggled with Rod Petrie, then Hibs chief executive. Petrie, as per, drove a hard bargain, meaning Stenhousemuir, for the first and likely last time, were effectively paying around £14,000 for a player to make a single appearance for them. It turned out to be a good deal, though, since Miller’s two second-half goals earned them a £100,000 share of the gate receipts from Ibrox.
Yet another memory from the day was standing in the corridor at Ochilview, where reporters were left to gather to interview players in the understandable absence of a press room. One journalist asked Dougie Samuel, the then Whitehill Welfare midfielder and now Spartans manager, what were his plans that night following such a bitter disappointment.
“We’ll do what we normally do at this level,” he said. “We’ll go home and dream”.
If Miller went home that evening and did likewise, could he have dreamt of what was to follow? Of multi-million pound moves to Rangers, to Wolves, to Celtic and then back to Rangers again (twice), via spells in Turkey, Cardiff and Canada? Could he possibly imagine still scoring goals at 37? And not just for anyone, but for Rangers, where he continues to meet the high expectations of their supporters.
It seemed like the right time to put a call into Christie, who paid his own tribute to Miller yesterday. “Like everybody, you are amazed someone can be playing at that level at 37. If you’d said to me 18 years ago he’d be scoring goals now I’d have given you a strange look.”
Christie is especially interested in Miller’s continued achievements, having been his headmaster at Musselburgh Grammar. “I have known him since he was 12,” he said.
“I knew his dad, Jocky, well, he was a good junior footballer. Kenny has the same attitude as his dad, who played for a long time in junior football. Jocky kept playing until well into his thirties.”
Christie believes a simple love of the game has to be the starting point for such longevity.
“That’s the secret, a passion to push yourself, to keep fit. It is quite remarkable how fit Kenny is. It is a great tribute to him. When you see him he is actually thin and drawn looking now, because of the work he puts in.”
So what about Miller’s first Scottish Cup goal, does Christie still remember it?
“We were struggling, and had a veteran to thank for unlocking the defence – Albert Craig, if you remember him. Albert was a lovely wee player, he delivered a really good ball into the box and Kenny was sharp as a tack and scored the goal. It was a real quality headed finish from Kenny, and helped earn us a lot of money,” recalled Christie.
“I can’t remember the second goal, but the first one I do remember because it was such a good goal,” he added.
For the record, the second was scored from a tight angle, after 80 minutes, from Ross Hamilton’s cross – I can still remember it.
Hoping now to have done enough to merit another two-year contract from Rangers, something he surely deserves, Miller might yet make it a remarkable 20-year span of Scottish Cup goals, meaning yet more significance will be attached to a memorable frost-bitten afternoon in the fading light at Ochilview.