HEAVY defeats are an occupational hazard of being a footballer. Already this season, Sunderland have gone down by eight goals in a league claimed to be the most competitive of them all. A year ago, Hearts lost at home by seven goals to nil in the Scottish Cup against Celtic, a result they will hope to avenge this weekend.
Even Brazil, the football nation to which all others must defer, recently endured the horror of a multi-goal thrashing. On their own patch. In a World Cup semi-final. So Selkirk deserve to be granted some grace, surely. They are in good company. Thirty years on, perhaps the time has come to provide context to a game that stands as the heaviest defeat in British football since the late 1800s – or, if you like, the highest victory.
The events of 8 December, 1984 put Annfield-with-an-extra-n on the map. It is from there that reporters spelled out the score to disbelieving copytakers at newspaper offices all across the land: Stirling Albion 20 (twenty) Selkirk 0.
“The build-up was OK, the team talk fine, the players were up for it,” recalls Jackson Cockburn, the Selkirk player-manager in that historic Scottish Cup first-round tie. “There were one or two guys who were a bit nervous. It was just a case of not being able to keep up with their pace. I tried to switch things round, fill the midfield. We went in at half-time 5-0 down.
“That was bad enough. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have told them at half-time: ‘if we don’t get our fingers out, this might reach double figures’. That was my second mistake.”
It did reach double figures, just not the ten he originally feared. Shooting down the slope, Stirling scored their last ten goals at a rate of one every two minutes. According to Cockburn, his first mistake was to borrow a bus from Selkirk Cricket Club, which, he now realises, helped convey an amateurish impression as they parked up outside Annfield. But then, that is exactly what Selkirk were – amateurs.
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“The club had gone through a financial crisis the year before and we actually came out the senior East of Scotland league to play in one of the amateur leagues – the second division of the Borders Amateur League, in actual fact,” explains Cockburn, now 66. In order to retain their place in the Scottish Qualifying Cup, the Selkirk committee paid a nominal fee to the Scottish Football Association.
These days £1 can get you Rangers Football Club, back then it paid for a year’s membership of the SFA.
Those who wonder how such a mismatch could occur in modern-day football are ignorant of the background to the tie, the anniversary of which is being marked in Stirling, if not Selkirk, next weekend, before the club’s League One clash against Peterhead.
In attendance will be winger Davie Thompson, who scored seven times, and Willie Irvine, who got just the five goals. It is hoped manager Alex Smith, who later went on to lift the Scottish Cup with St Mirren and Aberdeen, will appear at an evening function following his recent heart scare.
In the spirit of friendship, an invitation was communicated to the Selkirk players. The few who still live in or around the Borders town decided against going. Along with Cockburn, Neil McFadzen was one of the experienced players in the team that day.
Because he was a veteran of the Seventies, when Selkirk had their finest side, the defeat hit him particularly hard. Although too modest to mention it himself, he had already kept Davie Cooper quiet in a Scottish Cup tie against Clydebank seven years earlier.
After the Stirling defeat, McFadzen, now 65, couldn’t wait to return to his hill farm in the Ettrick Valley, where he pondered this week that “maybe we should have played a little more defensively, it was too late before we realised”. After asking what prompted the phone call, he replied: “Is it an anniversary? Bloody hell.”
Like McFadzen, Cockburn won’t be travelling to Stirling next weekend. However, he wishes them well. Relations are good between the clubs and they played each other as recently as July, in a friendly. The score? A respectful 5-2 defeat for Selkirk.
“The Stirling supporters’ club phoned me a couple of weeks ago asking myself and any of the players, and any supporters for that matter, to come up for the celebration dinner,” says Cockburn. “But the three or four players still in Selkirk I asked were not that keen to go. It’s a celebration for them, which is fine. But obviously it is not really a celebration for us.”
It seems the right moment to apologise to Cockburn for digging it all up again. It’s possible to sense that even 30 years on, he feels protective towards the players.
“That’s what a manager should do,” he says. “They played as best they could. And what we did to get there was a great achievement.”
Indeed, given their straitened circumstances at the time, a replay win over Glasgow University and then victory over Annan Athletic, taking them into the first round proper, was a better than expected return.
The money earned for reaching this stage is now viewed as a principal reason the club is still in existence, and able to field a former English Premier League star in Garry O’Connor, their current highest scorer. “If there had been no Stirling Albion, there might not have been a Selkirk FC,” is how club secretary Alan Heatlie interprets it now.
And so, whither Richard ‘Midge’ Taylor, the goalkeeper that day.
“To be honest, I could count on one hand the amount of times I have seen Midge in the last 30 years,” says Cockburn. He believes Taylor moved away from the area, though is unsure whether he fled as far as Australia, in the style of Frank Haffey, the unfortunate Scottish goalkeeper who conceded nine times against England in 1961.
Taylor did play the following weekend, as confirmed by the team list printed at the bottom of a report of their next outing, against Gala Amateurs. Selkirk quickly got back on track, winning 6-2 in the Walls Cup. “No licking this time,” noted the Sunday Post.
In attendance that day were high-profile football reporters, sent by their papers to report on how Selkirk would react to such an ignominious result. Included among them was former Rangers centre-half Doug Baillie, then a reporter for the Sunday Post. He quickly made clear his feelings on being sent on this assignment.
“Having savoured the delights of the Bernabeu stadium and rubbed shoulders with Pele in the Maracana, you will appreciate it came as a severe shock to the nervous system to present myself at the Netherdale Sports Field in Galashiels at 10am – yes 10am.” He later listed the names of everyone in attendance – “for the teams’ sake”.
Cockburn accepted all the brickbats. He and his players arrived back in Selkirk in their cricket club bus in the early hours, after drowning their sorrows following such an epic defeat in a bar in Bannockburn, of all places.
The final whistle didn’t put an end to their goalkeeper’s woes that weekend. “Midge had just bought a Skoda car, and woke the next day to find that, for some reason, the number plates had been stolen,” recalls Cockburn.
“I am not sure whether someone thought they might be worth something one day.”
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