University of Stirling: the team with 1000 friends but no fans preparing for 54-year Scottish Cup first at Dundee United
The local butcher, window festooned with rosettes and scarves, is usually a good place to start. If there’s also a baker and candlestick maker, so much the better.
Applying this standard procedure to what clearly is the tie of this weekend – Dundee United versus Stirling University – is a little trickier.
The University of Stirling does not have a high street, for example. It has a campus. There is no quaint old stadium or a social club. There's a students' union, of course, but, sadly, it’s been a while since this reporter carried a matriculation card.
Access is more easily gained to the impressive sports centre that is the main hub of this ‘town’. It’s a hive of activity. And it’s not even term time. The Spring semester does not officially begin until Monday. Not that the university’s elite football team has been on holiday, far from it.
They have been as busy as ever, with students even required to play on Boxing Day: a 3-1 win over Berwick Rangers in the Lowland League. Last Wednesday night saw a clash against old rivals Edinburgh University in blustery conditions at East Peffermill. The visitors – helped by a hat-trick from centre half Jake Service – ran out 4-0 winners. Fife was the destination last Saturday for a bad-tempered 2-0 Lowland League defeat against Cowdenbeath.
The tactics board had been left behind in Stirling while someone had forgotten to charge the GPS tracker vest the players wear under their shirts. It was all unusually unprofessional for a Stirling team currently setting new standards when it comes to student football.
“Just one of those days,” says manager Chris Geddes. It was understandable if his mind was not completely focused on the match. Never mind facing Dundee United, the house next to his had burned down the night before the match.
And this week? Stirling have already popped down to Durham to make some history, securing the point required – having trailed 3-1 at half-time – to wrap up the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Premier North league title for the third successive time.
“I am not sure people appreciate the magnitude of the achievement,” says Geddes, 37. It’s true. While there will be many 1000s of words, these included, focusing on this weekend’s trip to Tannadice, this cross-Border success went completely unreported.
The bus left at the ungodly and very un-student-sounding hour of 7.30am. The triumphant team arrived back at just before 8pm. Meanwhile, United’s game against Livingston, scheduled to take place on Wednesday evening, had been called off. “Just what we needed,” sighed Geddes yesterday, as preparations began ahead of the next challenge. Finally, a chance to sit down and analyse Dundee United’s danger men? Put some clips together of Steven Fletcher’s movement?
Well, yes and no. There’s a match against Whitburn Juniors to come first in an Under-20s fixture. “I am their coach too,” explains Geddes. “I have to be there.”
Geddes racked up 99 games last season. “It begs the question, is it a world record for a manager in one season?” he wonders.
At least he isn't required to patrol the campus rounding up rowdy students. In the old days, they might well have staggered off the bus from Durham amid a clatter of cans and bottles. Next stop, the union.
Instead, it was straight home to halls of residences, digs in town or hotel mum and dad. All 16 who made the trip will be involved against Dundee United tomorrow. Geddes can add four more to the squad, including a couple from the Under-20s probably, with nine substitutes permitted in the Scottish Cup. Understandably, he wants to give as many as possible the chance to sample the experience.
"I scored a hat trick in the Scottish Cup for the uni, I scored in the League Cup against Morton for Brechin and I scored in the Championship, League One and League Two and the Lowland League,” he says. “I just never got to the Premier League.”
Can he recall his last senior game? “I am pretty sure it was East Stirlingshire v Forfar and I was clean through in the last minute to keep East Stirling bottom, and I missed it, and we lost, and Forfar finished bottom of the pile that season. They brought Dick in.”
Dick Campbell didn’t mince his words. The manager told Geddes he would be the third-choice striker. He left the professional game on his own accord to return to the juniors, a level he already knew from having been at Pumpherston, alongside current Livingston manager David Martindale.
He had two successful seasons at Broxburn before borrowing £2000 from his then partner to buy out his contract after Liam Corr, who was a football scholar at Stirling, suggested he should join him at the university. “I am sure they were all like, 'who is this guy?' They had not had many non-students. I was one of the first.”
He supplemented his income by coaching the 5ths and worked as a lifeguard at the swimming pool while scoring lots of goals – as many as 50 during one season – for the first XI, before graduating to the top job six years ago, once Shelley Kerr had moved on to national coach of the Scotland women's team.
She remains a confidant, as does old mucker Martindale, who has proved a valuable sounding board this week. Of course, had it not been for the weather, Martindale might have been able to issue an up-to-date scouting report on United too. Have United watched Stirling? “You’d imagine so,” says Geddes, whose team deserve respect. They started the season in eight tournaments and are still in eight tournaments – until this weekend at least.
Despite last Saturday's defeat to Cowdenbeath, they are lying fifth in the Lowland League, three points off the top with a game in hand. It’s far from absurd to suggest they could be an SPFL side next season. Geddes is ambitious but realistic.
“We can’t reload,” he says. “East Kilbride have just signed a defender, someone who played the first half of the year at Hamilton Accies. If anything we get slightly weaker, because the boys are a bit tired.”
It’s hard to escape a sense of melancholy as well. Players’ contracts don’t expire. Rather, they graduate. These boys of summer become men with jobs, responsibilities. They move away.
Skipper James Berry, in the last year of a combined sports and business studies degree, is nearing this career and life crossroads. “I have kept in touch with quite a few who have already left,” says the 23-year-old, who made a handful of appearances for Raith Rovers before his mum suggested applying for Stirling. “They all say the same thing: it is the best four years of your life. It sounds silly but you meet friends for life. So when it comes to an end it is sad to have to move on. But to be honest, I have not really thought about it. It has gone so quickly. It feels like yesterday I was applying and meeting Chris. I am just trying to enjoy it now, while it lasts.”
“Has anyone ever played at Tannadice?!" Geddes has gathered his players around him. "Ever been there? Someone told me it’s on a bit of a slope….”
The nearest Geddes has been to the ground is sitting on a bench across the road at Dens Park. He was an unused sub as Brechin City pulled off a shock 1-0 victory in 2006 in one of Michael O'Neill's first games in charge.
That was then, this is now – but he’s still never been to Tannadice. It’s Tuesday afternoon in Stirling, a day before their triumph in Durham, and while that game is the focus, how can one stop thoughts drifting towards Saturday’s historic encounter? It's the first time since 1969 that a university side will have taken part in the last 32 of the Scottish Cup.
Glasgow University endured the “getting a lesson from” headlines when their run came to a halt against a Kilmarnock side featuring both Jim and Tommy McLean. Without knowing for sure, the Glasgow students were probably a bit more, well, student-y. Post and perhaps even pre-match night outs, fly fags at half-time, that kind of thing. They lost a goal in the opening minute. According to one report, Kilmarnock “won at a canter”.
One wonders what Stirling can hope to achieve at Tannadice. They will be roared on by an extended family consisting of friends, relatives, alumni and interested hangers-on rather than dyed-in-the-wool supporters. Only one of the football club’s six other teams will be absent. Harthill Royal were unwilling to reschedule their Kings Cup clash against Stirling University 2nd XI from Saturday afternoon. Otherwise, all roads lead to Dundee.
“It is really good that we don’t have fans, as such,” reflects Geddes. “Everyone who supports us supports the boys. I told (midfielder) James Stokes’ dad, ‘I heard you shouting the other night’. ‘Oh sorry, Chris,’ he said, ‘am I too loud?’ ‘No, it is brilliant, keep it going!’ I told him. ‘You support the boys’. Whereas if you have fans, bloody hell, they want you sacked.
“I read a tweet today from a Dundee United fan, something like: ‘Great chance to get a clean sheet and score lots of goals!’ Imagine after 20 minutes if they have not scored. Do you think their fans will be sitting there, singing ‘United! United!’ Of course not.
“Our 1000 or so followers, they will be cheering no matter what. 10-0 down, 1-0 up, they will be cheering. Because it’s all friends. There are 300 friends and families from the squad alone. Our goalie (Ben Fry) goes to church, his church group has got a bus going. James (Stokes) has got 45 people coming in a bus from Glasgow...”
People have been getting in touch from near and far. Alumni have been posting good luck messages on social media. One greeting, on Facebook from Nick Baker, catches the eye since it details the long forgotten last occasion the students of Stirling played Dundee United. This was a pre-season friendly in 1989, during Jim McLean’s time in charge, and the Tannadice side brought along a team including a young Duncan Ferguson, from nearby Bannockburn of course.
The Premier League side won 2-0, but the students, wearing their old green-and-white chessboard patterned shirts, were still drawing 0-0 after 70 minutes, and even hit the bar.
As well as providing previously unseen photos of the United clash, Baker recalls an old club song. He writes: “‘Bertie Mee says to Bill Shankly, ‘have you heard of the North Bank Highbury?’ Shanks says, ‘no, I don’t think so, but I have heard of the Stirling Uni….’”
He adds that it “would be heard loud in the Meadowpark hotel” after games.
Such memories are more in keeping with how most people might view student sport. The social aspect was fundamental and that remains the case for many. It’s a little different these days at Stirling, though the Meadowpark hotel is still there, at the foot of the brae. Now a self-styled “country house hotel”, one wonders if it still accommodates standing-on-tables-dirty-pint-downing antics and other associated post-match frolics?
How does Geddes keep a tight rein on his charges, who are, after all, all high-spirited young men? Their youth – and the size of task facing them – was underlined during a shooting exercise on Tuesday, when, as happens at clubs up and down the country, those taking part were separated by age into two teams.
The team of “oldies” lost and so were on “double sweets”, meaning they had to fork out for the next day’s pre-match energy boost. The thing is, the oldest of the oldies was Stokes, who’s only 23. The oldest player full stop is 24-year-old defender Matty Burrows. Cruelly, their most experienced campaigner – who would still be considered young if he was playing for the opposition tomorrow – is suspended this weekend after being booked in all three rounds so far.
“When I played here, the level of opposition was not as good,” says Geddes. “Guys might have got away with going out on a Sunday, for example. I tell the boys, ‘see if you are ever going out on a night out, own up to it, come in drunk and I will send you home. Don’t lie to me and say you slept in when I know you’ve been out’.
"I was in the dressing room for six years. I know what night is a good night out.”
For someone who grew up outside the university environment, whose most recent full-time education was spent at a “teuchter school” in Callander, Geddes is evangelical about Stirling’s football programme. “When we are winning games, people say it is because Stirling University are effectively full-time, they have sports scientists and this and that,” he says. “And then when we are losing, no one cares, we’re just a bunch of students, who have nothing. No one finds the middle.
“That is why this week has been good, speaking to the media, getting the message out there.”
Win or lose, his players will conform more typically to the student stereotype on Saturday night. That’s already been given the green light. Other rewards are still to be established.
“One big question was, ‘how can we reward the boys for beating Albion Rovers in the last round?’” recalls Geddes. “We don’t pay win bonuses, so we can’t give them cash. Maybe if we beat Dundee United, we can somehow arrange some cash. After the last round win, we bought them embroidered kit bags.”
Amid all the worries cluttering up Geddes’ head are some very basic ones. Who’s got the strips? Who was next on the washing rota? What happens if Dundee United players, unlikely as it might seem (though it's nice to think they might recognise the significance of the occasion), want to swap shirts? Geddes makes a mental note to ask Martindale what the form is.
“My boys would have to say, we can’t!” he says. “We don’t have another kit.”
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