A Game of 2 Halves: love, life and football with Albion Rovers

Whilst we can – at last! – enjoy Scotland being at a World Cup this summer, there’s just something about club football that runs deeper. Internationals feel episodic, whereas your club – it’s part of your day-to-day identity.

This summer we’re looking at the ups and downs of supporting Coatbridge’s own, Albion Rovers. In celebration of 100 years at Cliftonhill Stadium, the exhibition – A Game of 2 Halves (running July-October at Summerlee) – combines the wonderful photography of Iain McLean with interviews and objects loaned to us by Rovers fans. As part of the prep for the exhibition I went along to Cliftonhill to talk to fans about how they came to be supporters, their favourite memories, and what the club means to them.

Having traded a few emails with our point of contact at the club, Ronnie Boyd, he recommended coming along on a Thursday morning as there was a group of dedicated volunteers that help maintain the ground and get it ready for the weekend. Strolling along Coatbridge Main Street the shops fade behind you for a quieter mix of houses and silver industrial units, until you are met with a wall on your left plastered with a gaudy collage of local adverts. Beyond this the delightfully old fashioned grandstand of Cliftonhill looms steeply on the verge, a corrugated mass of striking red and yellow.

I slip through an opened door in the gate, and have a wander about. There doesn’t seem to be anybody in the lower concourse, so following my instincts I head up the sloping steps on my left to the pitch.

Having ascended to pitchside, I cast my gaze up into the stand. In return I’m greeted by an array of gleaming black terrace barriers and painted wooden seats, with the tin roof stretching up into a tall blackness. Surveying the pitch I spot a group of men at the far end shuffling a large olive tarpaulin about. I head on over into the body of the kirk.

As it turns out, not only are the tarpaulin group enthusiastic fans but a substantial proportion of the club’s Board of Directors. Ronnie introduces himself with a warm handshake, and in turn everyone else. Fellow board members Ian Benton and Gordon Lind have been Rovers fans for some time. Mark Hunter is also a financial director for the club. This is quite a bit removed from the perception of directors as distant entities encased in executive boxes.

Ronnie Boyd

All of the Thursday group are volunteers. The club wouldn’t be able to afford the staff, so this coming together of enthusiasm and many talents is what keeps it going.

Mark became a fan when he moved to Coatbridge from Glasgow. Showing eagerness to help out, the response was “Brilliant! What can you do?” and before he knew it had been recruited. With the club looking for more fan representation on the board, Ronnie – a founding member of the Supporters’ Trust – found himself elected. Gordon had worked in the commercial side of the club in the 1980s and was friends with the late Rovers stalwart and club historian Robin Marwick, whose collection of club material is now held by North Lanarkshire Archives.

It’s not just the board who volunteers on Thursdays. Also present is retired couple Mary and Andy Allan, George Hogg – who does First Aid on match days – and Donnie Hutton, an electrician by trade. Sitting in the lounge around a table generously furnished with tea and cakes, we have a blether about football, how they came to support the Rovers, and life in general.

“Initially I didn’t even know there was a football team in Coatbridge because my dad wasn’t a football fan, and my grandfather wasn’t a football fan either. His cousin was a Scottish internationalist and yet he wasn’t a football fan!” recalls Donnie with a hint of bemused disbelief.

Donnie Hutton

“It was Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon and the results were coming through. I think my dad made some comment ‘oh, I see the Rovers have won’. ‘Who’s Albion Rovers?’ I asked, he said ‘that’s the Coatbridge team’. I was probably about 10 or 11 at the time. Because I’d showed an interest, my dad’s cousin – who had quite a bit to do with the Rovers at the time – decided he’d take me to the games.”

George, who volunteers with the Thursday group as well as doing First Aid on match days, felt a family pull to the club. “My grandad supported them and he used to come up with the bands,” recalling the days when Coatbridge Burgh’s Instrumental Band would march to and from games and fans would gather behind pounding drums and resonant brass. “Then my dad supported them, and then my older brother started supporting them. Then he left to go to Essex so I took over from there – would be about 1976.”

For Gordon, the family connection goes back to the dawn of Cliftonhill itself. His grandfather was at the opening of the ground against St Mirren on Christmas Day 1919 (unfortunately a 2-0 home defeat). He was also there in 1920 for Rovers’ only appearance so far in a Scottish Cup Final, which Kilmarnock edged 3-2 in front of a crowd of 95,000 – a then-record attendance at Hampden for a non-international match. “My dad was a PE teacher but he died when I was just 5, he was only 38. He worked at Kildonan Secondary in Coatbridge. So it was my grandpa who brought me here when I was 8 or 9.”

Family ties run deep for quite a few in the group. They might not be the biggest club but the sense of belonging and comradeship is more important.

Andy and Mary Allan, a retired couple who originally met when they worked together at Pye’s Scottish Telecommunications factory in Airdrie, have been following the Rovers since the 1980s.

I was quite chuffed to learn that Andy – originally from Harthill – began life as a fellow Motherwell fan, and a little bit thrilled to hear him recount his time as a Fir Park regular during the time of St John, Quinn and the Ancell Babes (“a great team, though they never won anything”). “When we got married and he came through to Coatbridge” laughs Mary, “I said to him ‘we cannae afford to keep going to Motherwell!’ so we started following the Rovers.”

 

Andy Allan

“It’s my father’s fault!” laughs Ronnie. “Like a lot of people around here there’s a generational aspect to supporting Albion Rovers. My father was an Albion Rovers diehard, you might want to call it, for all of his life. He wouldn’t have anything to do with Celtic or Rangers or any other clubs for that matter, he was born and bred in Coatbridge and almost saw it as a duty to support the local team.”

Following the Rovers in spite of the pull of Glasgow’s big two is a firm feeling held by a lot of the fans. Old Firm dominance of football support is strong in Coatbridge and Rovers have always struggled from having to compete. The fans might come to the club for various different reasons, but they take pride in celebrating its independent spirit. Swimming against the current is a source of much camaraderie.

“We brought our two kids up to follow the Rovers…I wanted them to go to a football match where they weren’t going to hear somebody calling some else a ‘hmm-hm-hmmm-hm-hmm’. That’s what happens” says Mary. “To come up here, you can watch a game of football – you’ll maybe get the odd bad word or something like that but you’ll never get anything religious shouted.”

Mary Allan

“I think it was compulsory to have one Albion Rovers fan in each year group” Ronnie recalls of his time at high school. “There was very, very few of us. I’m still friends with the person who was in the year above me and the person in the year below me. We’d see each other on Saturdays and quite often when we got to about 13 or 14 went to away games together.

“It was like a self-help group! We were largely ignored, it was mostly Celtic and a few rare Airdrie fans, with the very unique specimen of a Rovers fan in each year group. So it’s always been a minority interest. The Celtic-Rangers thing has always had a very strong hold in this area.”

Local Heroes

It’s not all huddling together against the storm though, far from it. Memories of some remarkable results and league finishes over the years are shared. An 8-2 trouncing of rivals Airdrie back in the 1965 League Cup was warmly remembered, with local lad John Dillon netting 4 goals. Donnie was there: “We’d been beaten 6-1 or 7-1 the week before up at Airdrie….I think it was only 2-1 at half time, so it was quite unexpected in the second half!”

“I thought mistakenly that it was always going to be like that” chuckles Ronnie, who was about 11 at the time, “I didn’t realise there’d be seasons where you’d be lucky to get a win or a draw.”

“Most of the supporters who come down here we get on well with, apart from Airdrie supporters” jokes George, “It’s a friendly rivalry I’d say, but we just like to beat Airdrie!”

Another hefty triumph more recently – a 7-2 win in 2011 – almost eclipsed the previous record. “I was texting my wife and daughter the score and they thought I had gone mad” says Ronnie, with a big grin. “It brought back boyhood memories. We couldn’t quite make it the 8-2 I was hoping for historical reasons. But, we stopped at 7 and took pity on Airdrie that day…and, as someone said to me, I had to get the smile surgically removed.”

The same game meant different things for George too. “The 7-2 game, I was up here with my dad, and that was the very last game he saw of the Rovers. So that was my favourite game. I mean, apart from the score. My dad was pretty ill at the time but he got up, sat there and watched it – and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a couple of months later he passed away. That’ll always stick in my mind that one.” At the home game following his passing the club held a minute’s applause in commemoration.

George Hogg

In recent seasons there has been the excitement of promotions and cup runs. In 2010-11, they reached the Second Division (now SPFL League 1) with a 4-3 on aggregate playoff victory over Annan Athletic. They took 4 buses (decorated by Mary) of fans down to the second leg. “We ran on the park” she confides, “I know you’re not supposed to do that, but it was just excitement!”

Up for the Cup

2013-14 brought a memorable giant-killing cup run and Rovers were even on the brink of a Scottish Cup semi-final. A 1-0 win in the fourth round over Motherwell, then 3rd in the top flight, was one of the highlights. Gary Phillips – now back after spells at Arbroath and Berwick – was the 90th minute goalscorer. “The place erupted” remembers Andy, with a twinkle in his eye as he recounts the passage of play that led to the goal, “and after the whistle went, it was even more.” “We all saw that ball go in the net and we didn’t believe it had happened.” recalls Mary, “There was a quietness. We looked at one another – everybody was frightened to move just in case it didn’t happen. But see when it did? My God, the place just went!”

A 2-0 win over Stenhousemuir in the next round – no mean feat given Stenny were in the division above at the time – set up a quarter-final showdown with Rangers at Ibrox. Rovers took the lead early on with captain Ciaran Donnelly’s precision tap-in through the scrambled aftermath of a corner. They held their own for over an hour of play, with goalkeeper Neil Parry and the defence pulling some heroic blocks as they faced over 30 attempts at goal.

With 13 minutes to go a hopeful cross from the Rangers wing found the head of Bilel Mohsni, whose hulking frame collided with Parry and sent him and the ball over the line. It was controversially given as a goal and sent the game to a replay, which Rangers won 2-0. Andy, along with most of the volunteers, was at the match. “Everybody, even the Rangers supporters we know, say it shouldn’t have been a goal. It was a foul on the goalkeeper.”

“You know, everybody felt we were robbed – we should have won,” reflects Gordon, ”but I think the fact we had gone to Ibrox and that big scoreboard was saying Rangers 0, Albion Rovers 1 with fifteen minutes to go…”

‘The Greatest Escape’

More recently there was the joy of winning the 2014-15 League Two championship, the first league title since the Second Division win of 1988-89. Last season meanwhile was one of intense drama and anxiety – but with a happy ending.

Having dropped down from League 1, cuts to the squad budget were implemented and new manager John Brogan recruited a selection of replacements from the junior leagues. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out. Rovers started underwhelmingly and would be bottom for much of the season and faced the prospect of a drop into the Lowland League.

A disappointing Scottish Cup exit to Highland League side Formartine in October was the catalyst for Brogan’s resignation and the appointment of current manager Kevin Harper. Both Harper and his current assistant, Joe McLaughlin, had interviewed for the job. Gordon was part of the selection process. “I thought ideally Joe would come in as assistant manager but I didn’t think it would happen because Joe had obviously applied for the manager’s job.

Gordon Lind

“But I then discovered two days later they’d been on the phone to each other because they’d both played at Hibs. Joe had said when Ronnie had phoned – to tell him he hadn’t got the job – that he asked ‘could I come as assistant? I would quite like to come as assistant seeing as it’s Kevin.’ So by the end of the week the pair of them were here.”

It wasn’t an immediate fairytale transformation. Although most fans reckoned performances were improving, results continued to be poor. It took time for Harper to develop the team’s style and get the right dynamic, making a few personnel changes along the way to try and find the right mix. As his first senior managerial role, understandably he too had to find his own way.

By the start of December, Rovers were 8 points adrift and the margin between themselves and Berwick stayed roughly similar for months afterward. Berwick’s woes always meant there was the slightest glimmer of hope, but this seemed to be fading as Rovers continued to struggle. The prospect of a last-placed finish and a playoff against an in-form winner of either the Lowland or Highland Leagues was on the cards and there was a feeling that might prove to be too much.

“It was huge pressure” Ronnie says in sombre reflection, “the idea of possibly disappearing into the Lowland League. This year has been the most challenging season. I think there’s always been challenges, always been difficult times. Back in the ‘90s we finished bottom of the league three years in a row but back then there was no trap-door, no pyramid system…[this season] there was a lot of praying, maybe more than planning. It would be the same plans as normal and then divide by 3. That’s how severe it would have been.”

The fixture against Berwick Rangers on the 2nd of March was a big chance for catalysing a revival. With Berwick having played 24 games – two less than Rovers – and 7 points ahead, it was a must-win. Rovers took the lead through on-loan Motherwell striker George Newell and despite having missed opportunities afterward, they seemed like they might be holding on for a 1-0 win. 86 minutes gone and they were defending a corner. They failed to clear and the ball dropped for Berwick forward Calum Adamson, who fired it in. 1-1 it finished and all seemed lost.

The club were hit by profound grief at the same time. Michael Duke, their goalkeeping coach, passed away that weekend at the age of 38. “It was a very hard time for the club” notes Ronnie, “it seemed to galvanise the players.”

The following Saturday morning, they discovered their 1-0 defeat to Clyde in February was to be overturned as Clyde had fielded an ineligible player. Rovers would be awarded a 3-0 win by default. Buoyed as they travelled to face 5th placed Stirling Albion, they left with a 1-0 victory. It was their first win in 20 games. “6-point-Saturday, that’ll be a quiz question in future I’m sure” jokes Ronnie, “All of a sudden we started winning games.”

With wins over Elgin and Cowdenbeath in the following weeks, the gap was beginning to be narrowed. A couple of wobbly results against Clyde and Queen’s Park didn’t derail survival, with an impressive 3-2 win over Edinburgh City at Cliftonhill allowing them to finally have survival within their own hands.

They went into the penultimate game of the season with trip to relegation rivals Berwick. They needed to avoid defeat in order to finish 9th. Around 200 Rovers fans made the trip – and they came back from the Tweed with a 3-0 win. It had been a remarkable turnaround.

Having said that, there was no celebrating Berwick’s relegation – since confirmed by playoff defeat to Cove Rangers. When I interviewed the volunteers quite a few of them were planning on going down to Berwick to support them in the home leg of their playoff game. They know what relegation would have meant, and likewise what it could mean for Berwick. There’s a friendly rivalry with other teams, and the fans enjoy traveling to places like Berwick, Stenhousemuir and Annan and enjoying a bit of patter with opposition supporters.

Back home

Being a fairly wee fish in the pond is a big part of the struggle behind the scenes too, and I can tell there’s a quiet pride among the volunteers in making sure things keep ticking at Cliftonhill along between games and across the season. When I visit, the First Aid station has just passed official inspection with flying colours and the toilets likewise given a star rating – “that’s my bleach that’s doing that!” jokes Mary. Not only is it the toilets that need cleaning but the dressing rooms, referees’ room and associated showers among others.

An end-of-season inventory of the squad kits

Cliftonhill isn’t getting any younger and it’s a constant battle to make sure everything is up to SFA, SPFL, and council standards on stadium safety and ensuring the welfare of players and fans.

Everyone tries to muck in on these where they can. Donnie uses his background as an electrician to ensure the stadium’s electricals are up to scratch and give recommendations on repairs needed. “I don’t think there’s a piece of the stadium I haven’t painted or scraped” says Andy. “We’ve weeded, we’ve scraped pigeon droppings, cleaned the dressing rooms, you name it. We’ve got the wee garden at the entrance which we’re keeping at the moment…we’re the labourers – and we’re happy to do it.”

The only part he hasn’t painted, he tells me, are the seats in the stand. Even these have their own story. A substantial proportion are originally from Cathkin Park – the Glasgow southside home of the famous Third Lanark – and came to Cliftonhill when the Hi-Hi went bust in 1967.

“If you’re blessed to have a wean” Mary laughs, “[who] plays football for the school and you’re standing there and your wean’s out there – that’s what the Rovers are like. They’re your weans out there. It’s just not a football team. And if they hurt, we hurt.”

Andy and Donnie also feel a togetherness of the support – even if you don’t know everyone you might come to recognise people and chat away. “It’s like a family!” smiles Donnie, “It’s like a family get-together if you like. If you go to a wedding and you see family or whatever that you’ve not seen for a while, it’s good to get together. That’s what coming to the Rovers is like. You’re coming up and you’re standing at the same bit every game, and there’s people round about you and it’s ‘hello this one, hello that one, how’re you doing…It’s like belonging to a big family.”

I come back up to the stand to find Ronnie wrestling one of the tarpaulins across the seating to guard against the pigeons, with whom Cliftonhill is apparently quite popular (with unfortunate side effects). “It’s a constant” he says, talking about maintenance, “it’s not very sexy, but it’s what you have to do.”

“Luckily we’ve got a good number of volunteers – we could always do with more. In a few weeks’ time we begin Saturday tidy-ups and we’ll be looking for folk to give us a hand.”

Before I go he makes sure that I commit to coming along to a game next season. He’s looking forward to the exhibition and its meaning for the club and Cliftonhill. “There’s so much to tell. I hope Albion Rovers remain in Coatbridge, remain on this site for many years to come. I hope that people see the exhibition – but not just the exhibition, but come along and see the real thing. A home game. You cannae beat it.”

A Game of 2 Halves is on 6th July – 27th October, Summerlee – Museum of Scottish Industrial Life. Check out https://culturenl.co.uk/summerleeexhibitions for more info.

For ARFC match fixtures, ticketing and volunteering info https://albionroversfc.co.uk

About the Author

Michael Allan has been the Assistant Curator with CultureNL Museums since 2015.