Queens' feat of reaching the Scottish Cup Final has proved a welcome fillip for down-on-its-luck Dumfries
THE MAY sun is drying the billiard table surface of Palmerston Park almost as quickly as two sprinklers can give the grass its post-season dousing. A girl from the Queen of the South office has taken a break from answering the never-ending phone calls and making tea to have a fag, just a throw of the magic sponge from the home bench. Meanwhile, I am the one-man audience of a comedy act by two men in their sixties who once graced the pitch before me.
Alan Ball, 67, was one of my heroes. Rangers' Allan McGregor was recently feted for saving a penalty against Celtic with a sprained ankle. I watched Ball stop one with a broken leg, in a 5-4 Scottish Cup win over Ayr United. Today, his comic foil is Billy Collings, an attacking midfielder of the old school – one who was as happy exchanging lumps with opposing defenders as sticking the ball in the net. It's the Collings & Ball Show.
"Bally" is ribbed mercilessly for being English, and for being bald. ("He looked eight years old when he was born," insists Collings. "It was all downhill from there.") Ball hits back that his pal earned just 8 a week because he broke into the first team after relegation to the old Division 2 in 1964; the former goalie made the team a year earlier and so earned 14. Ball spent an incredible 19 years at Palmerston, while Collings left in 1970. "I was always meant for greater things," he deadpans. "Stranraer signed me."
But both are still drawn to their old stage. As Queens prepare for the biggest day in their history, honorary director Ball has been helping with queues of fans desperate for tickets to the Scottish Cup final against Rangers on Saturday.
A sceptical SFA awarded the Dumfries side – average attendance around 2,000 – just 15,000 seats; with ten days to go, there are none left at the one-window office at the Main Stand. But the last 1,200 will be delivered tomorrow, so the queue meanders forward, each person happy to hand over 35 on the promise that their ticket will be posted when it arrives. "No receipt?" I ask as I pay for two tickets. I get a puzzled look. Why would you need a receipt? Maybe I've been in the big city too long.
DUMFRIES HAS changed since I left 24 years ago. In that time communities across Scotland have been transformed by three of the biggest blunderbusses in the town planner's armoury: by-passing, pedestrianisation and barmy parking restrictions. My home town has been hit by all three.
The results are all around. A pair of coffee houses are among businesses that have closed on Queensberry Square, home of the town's old Trades Hall. A couple of hundred yards down the road, Robert Burns' statue stares out at not one but two shops promising to sell "everything for a pound". Friars Vennel, once home to thriving individual shops, is a sad vision of boarded windows and flaking paint.
In the Hole I' The Wa' pub he co-owns, Max Houliston, 72, bemoans the loss of a 50m plan to create a new shopping area stretching from the picturesque Whitesands to the High Street, which has foundered on the credit crunch. Queens' success couldn't have come at a better time, says Max – whose brother, Billy, was the side's best-ever player and only full Scottish internationalist. "They've made us proud of Dumfries at a time when everyone was on a bit of a downer with the state the town's in," he says. "A lot of people in Britain will have heard of Queen of the South but they didn't know where they played. They do now – they've put Dumfries on the map."
And, despite the economic gloom, there are signs that the town isn't lying down. Most obviously, the Midsteeple has its spire back after temporarily losing its crown in a 500,000 refurbishment. Around the fringes of the town, hundreds of new homes have been built to cope with a swelling population. In other words, like a hundred towns, Dumfries is doing its best in difficult times.
This includes making the most of the unexpected success of the football team. Annandale Insurance Brokers and Barbours department store have "Good Luck Queens!" displays in their windows, while the Caven Arms beckons shoppers in for a pint of Palmerston Pride. Flags have started to appear in house and car windows – and an explosion of blue and white is expected in the run-up to Saturday.
ONE MAN deserves more credit than most for this enthusiasm, and you can expect to see David Rae's mop of unruly white hair on your TV screen more often than Boris Johnson's this week.
The Queens chairman is a flurry of activity when we meet at Palmerston. He's on the phone wrapping up a deal for a new player; he's talking to John Paterson, who has run the club shop for 23 years, about replica cup final strips from China; and he's in discussion with Motherwell, Airdrie and Hamilton about using their grounds for Queens' European adventure if Palmerston is too small for UEFA.
It's all change from a year ago, when Queens avoided relegation to Division 2 on the last day of the season. When Rae then offered the managership to Gordon Chisholm he told him he wanted to slash the first-team squad from 30 players to just 20 – but the club would go full-time. Cue an astonishing year in which Queens finished fourth with a record 52 points and smashed past Aberdeen in the best Scottish Cup semi-final in years. "Win or lose against Rangers, it is a great financial boost for the club," says Rae.
"This club has gone from hanging on, probably by a thread, in the black to being a bit more comfortable." But a Gretna-esque lunge for the SPL is not on the cards. "We will now be able to sign players who can strengthen the club. I would like to think we can compete more in the CIS. We've also got to play well in the league and I think we can finish one or two places higher. But it must be done on a secure basis. I always say to people, when you build a house what's the most important thing? The location? The size of the windows? The most important thing is the foundations. If they are not right it will crumble and it is the same with a football club."
Rae, a retired farmer, knows the need to plan ahead and trebled the number of junior season ticket holders by slashing the cost to 1 a game. "Being in the Scottish Cup final will mean more season ticket holders and support coming in," he reasons. But even this pragmatist dreams. "The SPL is not a never-never," he says. "It is a possibility. We used to play teams like Rangers and Celtic week in, week out and we could return to that."
BACK AT the Collings & Ball Show, the ex-goalie's eyes are on the final against an Ibrox side which has been preoccupied of late. "I laugh about players being tired," says Ball. "I worked down the pits for eight hours then went training for three hours. I never felt tired once. We were young and we loved playing." Ball thinks Queens can win "by the odd goal". Collings is more bullish: "If our boys perform the way they can we could win by two clear goals."
And with that, the duo return to the ticket office. My mobile rings, but I cut the call short when Collings returns. The smile is gone. He looks a bit shaken. "What's your mother's name?" he asks. I tell him. "I knew your Aunt Sandra," he says. "We were pals when we were young." My aunt died, too early, of breast cancer, and the knowledge passes between us as Collings shakes my hand one last time.
Not quite "Ah kent yer faither". But close.