Best-selling author's father was the Stark's Park scout who discovered Jim Baxter, and ensured his daughter became a fan
• Val McDermid spends most of her time in Alnmouth, Northumberland these days, but there's no doubting where the family's allegiances lie on the football pitch. She says: "I was never dragged along to the Rovers – I loved it.". Picture: Phil Wilkinson
STARK'S Park is one of the world's great football grounds viewable from a train. Head north up the East Coast Main Line and the last you glimpse of it is the stand paid for by blood, guts, torture, dismemberment and ever more elaborate death.
But when the hard-up and grateful Raith Rovers offered to call the structure The Val McDermid Stand in recognition of her sponsorship, the ten million-selling crime writer and Rovers fanatic declined. "So it's known as The McDermid Stand in memory of my father," she says. "Being an internationally-renowned cultural icon is all well and good, ha ha, but in Kirkcaldy I'll always be Jim McDermid's lassie."
Jim McDermid was turnstile manager for Rovers and, more significantly, a scout. Crucially, he was the one who found Jim Baxter. His daughter would have been just a babe when he made the dramatic discovery, but as soon as she was old enough, she'd accompany him on his talent-spotting rounds.
"I'd be four or five and Dad would get this plank of wood he always kept in the boot of the car and place it by the side of the pitch," she says. "It stopped us sinking into the mud as we stood in the biting east wind and freezing rain watching Crossgates Primrose, Ladybank Thistle and the rest – teams mostly made up of miners who were experiencing the tremendous joy of not being underground. They'd spend all afternoon kicking great lumps out of each other."
You can tell she's a writer, can't you? Colourful description, social background, emphasis on the most romantic of club-names, nice juxtaposition of 'Primrose' and 'mud' – and of course Crossgates were Baxter's team. Rovers, because of her father who died in 1987, are McDermid's team and she'll be cutting short her customary Bahaman holiday after the completion of yet another book to be at Hampden tomorrow.
She thinks they've got "a wee glimmer of a chance" in their Scottish Cup semi-final against Dundee United although she admits this is based on the kind of evidence that would get her crimebusting heroine, psychological profiler Carol Jordan, laughed out of court.
"I never remember my dreams and I can't stand people who start sentences with: 'I had the most amazing dream last night ... ' Now, you probably won't believe this, but I had the most amazing dream last night and what's more I remember it. I dreamt the Rovers won 2-1."
I tell her I believe her because a made-up dream would have been over-egged with highly suspect detail, such as the nature of the injuries reducing Raith to eight men, the number of opposition players beaten twice in the dribble leading to the equaliser, the velocity of the overhead-kick winner, and so on. And I guess that's the mark of a good writer: knowing when to embellish, and when 2-1 is just enough.
Today we're not in the Bahamas or Kirkcaldy but in Stockport, just outside Manchester, enjoying a spot of lunch. McDermid is a large, jolly 54-year-old with spiky silver hair, a radical feminist and just as radical socialist, who, when asked by the waitress what size of wine glass she'd like, quips: "Do I look the sort of person who ever orders a small anything?" She spends two days a week here to be with nine-year-old Cameron, the son conceived with a previous lesbian partner through artificial insemination. The rest of the time she's in Alnmouth in Northumberland with Kelly Smith who she calls "the wife".
Tentatively, I ask how all of this goes down at Raith but there's no need for coyness with McDermid, who says: "If I ever worry about being an old, fat lezza – which by the way I don't – then I'm pretty confident the attitude of the Rovers would be: 'Aye, but you're our old, fat lezza.'"
At school in Stockport, young Cameron plays dodgeball in a Rovers strip. "He likes to say that Man U are his second team," she laughs. Smith has also been indoctrinated in Rovers' ways, and while the American publisher's first team remain baseball's Detroit Tigers, she was with McDermid for the derby with East Fife when Cameron got to lead out Raith as their mascot.
"That was a very proud day," says the writer, "and a pretty hilarious one as well. The wee man got to keep the ref's pound coin and was interviewed in the centre circle. Cameron introduced himself and said he was from Manchester; the Stark's announcer said: 'So you've come here to see how fitba should be played.' Then the announcer asked who he'd brought to the game and Cameron – bless him, uttering words never before used at the Rovers – said: 'My mum and my step-mum.'"
Any reaction from the away end? "Well, if you're wondering if they jeered, then no. East Fife are from Methil, don't forget, and they're slow on the uptake there. By the time they'd worked out our domestic arrangements the moment to hurl abuse was gone."
McDermid has written 26 books, and the Carol Jordan titles have been turned into the hit ITV series Wire in the Blood starring Robson Green. The 27th will be called The Cost of Everything and concerns a series of deaths dating back 20 years. "The question is, are they the work of a psychopathic serial killer or is this person just someone around whom bad things happen?" The title is a Deacon Blue song, as is every chapter heading, the Scots rockers' leader Ricky Ross being more generous than Paul Weller, who refused McDermid permission to use Jam songs in her book The Distant Echo.
The restaurant is a favourite haunt, and the maitre d' has just passed on a request from another regular, a professor in medical history, who wants McDermid to talk to his students. She's happy to oblige, just as long as it's understood her talent is writerly imagination. "Some folk get the wrong idea. Recently I had to tell these clinical psychologists: 'No no, I make this stuff up.'"
The excitable newspapers which ask her to write profiles of murderers, such as Gianni Versace's killer, can get similarly confused, but McDermid admits there's been the odd unnerving moment when a real-life crime has echoed one she's dreamed up. If she inhabits a world positioned between fact and fiction, though, maybe the same can be said for Raith.
There's the celebrity patronage, something which can provoke sneers from the terraces' hodden rank-and-file, and Rovers are the team of Gordon Brown and, improbably, almost the whole of Scotland's senior whodunnit fraternity when you include Ian Rankin. There's the legend: "And they'll be dancing in the streets of Raith tonight!" Even more improbably, Raith were once shipwrecked. And what are the team supposed to be this season – fact or fiction? First Division plodders or Scottish Cup fantasists?
McDermid details her credentials. "I cannot remember a time when football, and the Rovers, weren't a huge part of growing up in Kirkcaldy. We lived across the road from the library, which was definitely a bigger influence on my life, but every Saturday night I'd be sent round to the corner shop for the Evening Telegraph sports final so Dad could read about the Rovers and, of course, our rivals.
"I asked him why Dunfermline were known as 'The Pars'. He said: 'Well, darlin', it's short for 'Paraplegics' 'cause that's how they play.' He also told me that the tank traps on Kirkcaldy beach were there specifically to stop Hitler getting his hands on the linoleum he craved and I believed that one for quite a long time."
McDermid still believes in football rivalry. "I've no time for slab-faced sectarianism but a little bit of responsible hatred is necessary for the cohesion of the whole." It was right and proper, she says, that when East Fife-supporting Jack Vettriano was asked to help Raith in their hour of need, he said he'd only give money to see them go bust.
Her oldest memories of Stark's Park are of restricted views ("My dad had to put me down whenever he wanted to wave and yell, which was quite often") and the perishing cold which only became slightly more bearable when she learned to let the gravy in a Pillans pie run down her sleeve. Perhaps not surprisingly, she struggles to nominate a favourite player from childhood.
"My early relationship with the Rovers was unusual. I didn't share experiences with kids my age because on match-days I'd be hanging on to Dad while he chatted with Bert Herdman, the manager, or Rankin Grimshaw, the chairman. And of course I was a girl. I did give Dad the satisfaction of buying me football boots – from Brown's Bazaar in Kirkcaldy – when I started playing hockey for the school. I was the goalie so I needed the protection of the re-enforced toecaps. I remember him saying: 'I'm the only man in the whole of Fife whose daughter wants fitba boots for Christmas.'
"He wasn't very successful at tempting my mother to games – she got soaked to the skin at Alloa once and never went back. In fact, when she was invited to Stark's Park for the stand dedication, that was her first time inside the ground. Dad would have loved to have been a footballer, I'm sure, only the TB he contracted during the war put paid to that." But did he wish his only child had been a son? "No, I was never dragged along to the Rovers – I loved it."
Perhaps because she grew up an outsider ("There were no lesbians in 1960s Fife"), McDermid never got frustrated by Raith's inability to be all-conquering. "You need a sense of humour to be a Rovers fan, though – same with being a Fifer. Only Fife would try to persuade tourists to walk a coastal path which goes through Methil Docks and past the slurry-burning Levenmouth Power Station!"
Work commitments prevented McDermid from being in the crowd for the 1994 League Cup triumph over Celtic ("I listened on the car radio. When the winning penalty was scored I burst into tears and almost drove off the M62"). But on the tenth anniversary of the club's greatest day, and with Raith threatened with extinction, she answered the call.
Or rather the wife did. "Kelly said: 'This guy Gordon Brown was on the phone.' I presumed she meant the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Whatever you say about Gordon – and I could say a lot about how he's awkward and unspinnable but that's what people claimed they wanted after Tony Blair; and how we must have short memories if we're seriously thinking about voting for the posh, smug gits again – it's beyond dispute that he's a Rovers man. I don't think he's happier than when he's watching a game with his boys either side of him. Our own fathers were good friends from the BBs. He told me it was time for everyone with the Rovers in their hearts to help save them."
Her sponsorship of the old north stand, rumoured to be six figures, is initially for two years though she hopes the arrangement will continue beyond that. "When Gordon asked me to get involved, I wasn't sure I belonged – but I've really been made to feel part of things. You'll probably want to cue the violins here, but, in a community that has been kicked in the teeth so many times in recent years, the Raith story is a heartwarming one about a family club that people still care deeply about."
The novelist much preoccupied with death has helped resuscitate Raith, but she gives all of the credit to everyone else including manager John McGlynn ("He's done a fantastic job, totally changing the culture and showing the team how to have pride in themselves") and Ally Gourlay, chairman of the ex-players' association.
McDermid tries to make it back for half a dozen games a season and these days she sits in the directors' box. "They're the same seats as in the main stand, separated by a small concrete wall, so the luxury is relative." And what does the famous crime writer get from her football team? Oh, just about everything.
There's mother-son bonding, humour ("After we beat Aberdeen, the Dons fans spotted the team coach and sang: 'Can you play for us instead?'"), and the reassurance that, like the smell of lino, Raith never leaves you. An old school friend is Hampden-bound after getting in touch from Saudi Arabia via Facebook and she's even bumped into Rovers fans in the Bahamas. "I was in a restaurant when this guy started complaining to the waiter. I turned round, pointed to the club crest on his shirt and right away he dropped the American accent. Would you believe that his mum and mine play cards together?"
It takes all sorts to follow Raith, as the murder-obsessed old, fat lezza who's good friends with the last Prime Minister would confirm, although McDermid likes being just another face in the crowd. "Sometimes I'll be asked if I'm the one who writes 'they books'. But, you know, Dad never let on to me he'd discovered Jim Baxter. Years later when I found out by myself he said: 'Oh him? Aye he wisnae bad.' That's very Fife. We don't like to make a fuss."
First rule of Fife Club: no dancing in the streets? If Raith win tomorrow, let's see if that holds.