Every once in a while you come across a football club that restores your faith in the game. Albion Rovers’ attendance for the afternoon comprised of those who have been watching the club struggle for years mixed with the younger generation who have started following that mysterious club at the bottom of the street. Mix with this a handful of polite and friendly away fans and the neutral and you had a pretty good mix. We of course fell into the final category and we were treated amicably by everybody. I may have only spent a few hours at Cliftonhill, but I will talk about the people and the club for many years to come.
I believe that you get out of football what you put into it. If you’re nice to somebody when they visit your club they will come back. If you are a complete arse to somebody, they will avoid your club like the plague and pass on these sentiments to everybody and anybody. I had read on various Facebook groups that Albion Rovers look after people and they weren’t wrong.
This trip came about due to the fact York City were away from home, meaning Ben and John (long suffering City season ticket holders) had a free weekend. Of course, they could have gone to Northampton Town but they fancied a change. Mention of a trip to Scotland convinced me to stay up here for the weekend as opposed to heading back to Manchester for the Friday night match between Barnton and my beloved Atherton Collieries in the NWCFL League Cup. Another York fan, Shaun was joining us this weekend in his quest to tick off the 42 Scottish league grounds meaning that he would be driving.
I was picked up from my flat in York at 08:00 on the dot. It was just as well that he picked me up at that time as I was seconds away from being attacked by the gaggle of geese which had ventured out of the neighbouring River Foss. We set off to Coatbridge via a quick pit stop in Hamilton.
One of the blokes at New Douglas Park told us we could go inside to take some photographs, but the first team were training ahead of their match at Celtic the following day, so we would have had to wait another hour. It wasn’t worth the wait, even for us keen ground hoppers. I wasn’t bothered that I couldn’t go inside as I’ll watch a match there one day, I just really wanted a photo with former Wigan Athletic striker Jason Scotland who I could see training through the meager gap in the fence.
Pressing on from Hamilton, we arrived in Coatbridge at around midday. The former industrial stronghold is found in the central Lowlands around ten miles east of Glasgow city centre. The town was built on iron production and this saw the population of the town increase by 600% during the 19th Century.
In 1845, this description of the town was published: “There is no worse place out of hell than that neighbourhood. At night the groups of blast furnaces on all sides might be imagined to be blazing volcanoes at most of which smelting is continued on Sundays and weekdays, day and night, without intermission.” This reminded me somewhat of the description which George Orwell had given to our area back home in Wigan and it came as no shock when I discovered that Orwell had actually illustrated his famous book with the use of photographs from Coatbridge.
In 1936, Coatbridge became the most overcrowded town in Scotland. Years of work has gone into the town since the collapse of the local industries, but Coatbridge has still been dubbed the ‘most dismal town in Scotland’. I didn’t find it that bad at all.
Sitting on a perch above the surrounding area is Cliftonhill, home of Albion Rovers. If you drive down Main Street and blink you will miss it, exactly like Shaun did. A quick u-turn and we parked up on a neighbouring street in anticipation of our quick get away at the end of the match. There were still three hours to go until kick off and instead of nipping into the town centre we entered the ground through an open gate to take some photographs.
The large multi coloured Main Stand towers above you as you wind up the steep steps into the ground; and what a ground. A paddock with safety barriers covers the front of the stand with more steep steps leading to the rear where wooden seating is provided courtesy of the defunct Third Lanark FC. That’s not the only part of the ground taken from other places as the floodlights were extracted from Cardiff Arms Park when the rugby union ground was demolished and replaced by the Millennium Stadium.
Opposite the Main Stand is the impressive and now abandoned Albion Street terrace. For years it has stood untouched, decaying and rotting away in front of modern housing. There are plans to refurbish this side of the ground if funds become available, which shouldn’t be too long given the proposed move to an artificial surface come the end of the season. A facility which will be open to the local community all week will generate income and interest in the club. Having said that, redevelopment has already started at Cliftonhill, with the imminent opening of a basic hard standing terrace at the Airdrie End of the ground.
The plans to refurbish Cliftonhill have only just started following the club’s decision to remain at their spiritual home after years of looking to build a new ground elsewhere. Not only does the ground’s future look brighter, but so does the clubs following their heroics in the Scottish Cup last season which saw them reach the Quarter Finals. They eventually lost 2-0 to Rangers in a replay, having held them to a 1-1 draw at Ibrox. It is claimed The Wee Rovers made over £300,000 from the cup run which has more than helped the financial stability of the Coatbridge outfit.
Having had a walk around the ground and taken our photographs we were then invited down the tunnel into the Main Stand by club official, Andy. Vast amounts of water were being unloaded from vans at pitchside, in scenes that looked like they could feature on a WaterAid advert. We tried not to get in the way too much as we delved behind the scenes.
First we were shown the Players’ Lounge where a lively volunteer was busy singing a popular chart song to the suspended striker John Gemmell. Scotch Pies and Irn-Bru were being laid out ahead of the imminent arrival of visitors, while down the stairs more preparations were taking place.
We waited downstairs in the entrance next to a large sign welcoming us to Cliftonhill while Andy disappeared through a door. A minute later he emerged and said “Yeah, it’s alright you can come in and have a look.” Walking into the home changing room the startling yellow and red shirts were laid out, with smelling salts and other necessities such as coloured tape sat guarding the room on a nearby side.
Next stop was the board room, which is named after the iconic Jock Stein who played for the club between 1942 and 1950. After his time with Albion Rovers, Stein moved on to play for Llanelli and Celtic before returning to Parkhead as manager, winning a plethora of trophies including the European Cup in 1967. In this room were various trophies and of course a few bottles of whiskey to warm the directors up during those cold Tuesday nights in January.
We were then taken to the club shop where we were handed an Albion Rovers scarf and pin badge each along with a matchday programme. Amdy proudly showed off the club’s new third shirt which was being launched for sale that afternoon. It boasted the “lightest Adidas material ever” and even better it had a charity sponsor on the back. We decided that we’d give the club £10 each towards the charity in return for their extremely kind hospitality.
There was still a while to go until kick off, so we were invited back to the Players’ Lounge where we enjoyed a cup of tea before heading back outside with half an hour until kick off. The ground had filled up a bit now, with the Paddock full of home and away fans.
The visitors, East Stirling brought a handful of fans from up the road and they cheered their side on throughout, to great effect as Shire grabbed a 1-0 victory.
The first opportunity of the match came on five minutes when Jamie Pollock whipped a free kick into the box for Albion. Michael Dunlop looked poised to steer the cross into the back of the net but the towering Richie Barnard claimed the ball above a stack of players. With a hopeful home crowd backing them, Rovers had another half chance minutes later when Mark McGuigan headed a long ball down to Marc McKenzie but his first touch went straight to the goalkeeper.
East Stirling should have taken the lead on 20 minutes when David McKenna raced down the right hand side. The winger squared the ball across the face of goal to Ross Gilmour who was centimetres away from applying the final touch as he slid past the back post.
The home side were in control of the match and dominated possession for large periods. Going forward they looked strong, but were kept out by a mixture of good defending, great goalkeeping and bad luck as shots pinged off the woodwork. Marc McKenzie bombed down the left and cut inside, hurdling the challenge of Chris Townsley before firing the ball well wide of the goal. McKenzie had yet another opportunity just moments later when Gary Fisher crossed to him but his header was too tame to test Richie Barnard.
Barnard pulled off the best save of the first half on 38 minutes. Jamie Pollock threaded a precise pass through to Shire defence and Ally Love was on hand to break through on goal. He barely had time to control before Barnard rushed out and made an interception with his legs.
The best chance of the match for Albion Rovers was the final of the half after a rare Barnard mistake. As the stopper rose to claim Gary Fisher’s high cross, he dropped it to the feet of Mark McGuigan who fired towards an empty goal from close range. However, an incredible sliding challenge on the line from Chris Townsley saw the ball fly out of play. The resulting corner saw Ross Davidson pick out the unmarked McGuigan at the front post and his glancing header was tipped over by Barnard.
At half time we were invited back down into the Players’ Lounge where we were treated to another drink and some food. I had to go for Irn-Bru this time around. The factory is based just eight miles away and I always have to go for local delicacies when I visit far away towns and cities. What’s more is the fact I had been trying to fall back in love with ‘Scotland’s second drink’ after an entertaining night out in York which involved too much vodka and Irn-Bru. It was one of those instances where a smell of a drink brings around flashbacks and you can’t stomach the thought of sipping another drop. Thankfully after four months away from the drink, I had overcome my fears and I proudly took my Irn-Bru cup back upstairs to watch the second half. Also in hand I had a Scotch Pie, which was slightly different from the pies I get back at home in Wigan, but it was still deeply enjoyable.
As the half started, both teams had a fair share of possession and chances. It looked to be a far more even contest as East Stirling fought their way into the game. Various shots fell wide of the target at either end before on 54 minutes, McGuigan thought he gained Albion the lead only for the assistant to raise his flag for offside.
Minutes later and McGuigan was denied again when his latest headed effort crashed off the crossbar. Shire then went up the other end and came close to breaking the deadlock themselves when Ross Dunlop laid the ball off to Max Wright and his shot cannoned off the right hand post.
On 77 minutes a fine save from Rovers goalkeeper Neil Parry saw Luke Donnelly’s thunderous volley tipped around the post. However, from the corner kick, Shire did take the lead. David Greenhill launched the ball to the back post where McKenna headed it back across the face of goal. Parry missed the original cross and Connor Greene was quickest to react, heading the ball into the back of the net.
The Wee Rovers had a couple of opportunities to salvage a point from the game but it just wasn’t to be as the bottom placed side headed back up the road with a rare three points. The result means East Stirling move off the foot of the table, while Albion Rovers remain in second.
You could sense the frustration around Cliftonhill as Rovers lost for the second consecutive match. What made defeat worse was the fact league leaders Arbroath also lost, meaning they had squandered a fantastic opportunity to go top of the table. This meant that our next match could see third placed Queen’s Park rise to the summit if they could beat fifth placed Berwick Rangers at Hampden Park.
The final whistle was our sign to dash off to the next match. We ran back to the car punching in the postcode to Hampden Park into the GPS. This felt like extreme groundhopping. Hampden was 13 miles away and we made it in around 20 minutes, well in time for the next match. I may have been heading to a match at the national stadium, but I knew it would never top the experience or enjoyment that is to be had at Albion Rovers.
It was simply amazing how a club treated the four of us so well. No words will ever do justice to how much we enjoyed ourselves. All I can say is thank you. If you haven’t been to Cliftonhill, make sure you do at some stage as you will not be disappointed. I now have my Albion Rovers scarf pinned on my wall next to my Bolton Wanderers one and I’ll be following The Wee Rovers’ progress very closely.
Everybody at Albion Rovers was lovely, from the stewards up to the people who run the club. My favourite show of generosity came midway through the second half when the stewards approached a large group of teenagers who were standing on the brick wall at the top of the ground. I assumed they were going over to shout at them, but no. They were invited into the ground to watch the match and while they may have been a little vociferous and had to be kept an eye on, it’s more people through the gates and when these lads have grown up they may be part of the core support. If only more clubs had this approach.
Ground 149 and my favourite to date, just a shame Albion couldn’t get the result they needed.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 205 miles (from York)
- ADMISSION: £10 donation which covered admission, programme and scarf
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2