Broxburn had sold all of their 1,600 tickets for this fourth-round tie at St Mirren. Travellers were swapping the alluring shale bings which guard their town for the old mills of Paisley.
These two places were once titans of industrial Britain. Their football teams, though, inhabit altogether different worlds; St Mirren are in the top tier of Scottish football, Broxburn Athletic play in the sixth. The home side first appeared in this competition in 1880 and have won it three times; this season marked the Burn’s maiden appearance. That is not to say that the West Lothian town has contributed scantily to our footballing terrain – red ash pitches, loved by no-one and yet recalled with a grin by most, were made of the same shale spoil as those bings.
If the cup still has magic, then it resides in its capacity to mismatch sides to this extent, and then in the way that followers of minnows can nevertheless dream wildly. St Mirren are a full-time club with a sports science department; Athletic players turn up for training on Tuesday and Thursday evenings with paint in their eyebrows and grouting in their fingernails from day jobs. “You never know, we might get an early goal, and then the crowd will turn on them,” said a Broxburn supporter to me. Cups are recklessly illogical, and delightful for that.
Yesterday morning, the Broxburn players walked from their home ground, Albyn Park, to Giannino’s Italian restaurant for a pre-match meal. In a cheering sight, red and white-scarfed locals walking up the hill towards their coaches saluted the tracksuited team passing downwards. For a minute, we were all in a Lowry painting called Waving off the Men.
Up at Albyn Park, queues formed around purring buses. Here gathered stalwart men, children who had been counting sleeps until this day, old ladies in bobble hats, and teenage girls with red dye in their hair. In short, all sorts, standing in a cold sun that had rendered the shale bings a magnificent salmon colour, ready to watch this team from their town together. “I just like what football does for the community”, said one man.
As the teams walked out at St Mirren Park, the away end bubbled like it was Gala Day, or one of those other yearly rituals so popular in the Lothians. There were homemade banners, cardboard trophies sheathed in foil, flags throttled through the air, smoky crimson flares and even wooden rattles. Here was an occasion. Here was a cup tie. Someone threw a trainer shoe on to the pitch.
The whistle blew to a Broxburn-shaped roar and St Mirren attacked. Thus was the first-half mould cast. Away excursions over the halfway line were rare. Burn players or management could not be blamed for that. To play any other way would have been to expose themselves to the kind of result that makes children cry. They defended as a team; admirably, grittily and with little regard for their own personal safety. From the first minute, centre-halves Grant Gavin and Chris Townsley played as if a clean sheet would win them a day off work on Monday. They attacked headers with the ferocity of dogs in a chophouse. A teenage boy invaded the pitch. He was wearing only one shoe. Mystery solved.
On the left, Dominico Gibson was a ball of fire. He sports the hair of Kim Jong-un but possesses the elegant and joyful running style of a greyhound liberated from the tyranny of the track. With the efforts of that trio and those around them, Broxburn had a 0-0 at half-time.
Sun falling, floodlights blinking, and the team from the sixth layer of Scottish football were still in the game.
It did not last. Ten minutes into the second-half, Jon Obika, a cut above the rest all afternoon, scored for St Mirren. The Broxburn fans sang for the team and, you suspected, their town once more. Their players responded with a number of incursions forward. Still, it was St Mirren who owned the ball. They chiselled chances but were to find an obstacle ahead.
Connor Wallace, in the Broxburn goal, played what may have been the half of his life. He prowled, jumped, rolled, punched and tipped his way through the 45 minutes. It was balletic.
The two further goals that St Mirren scored late on were heinously cruel on Wallace and his team. “We just want to do the town proud”, manager Brian McNaughton had said on Friday. His side did that, and then some.