The first term of the academic year had been brought to an end and the highly anticipated Christmas holidays had arrived. In the midst of enjoying a couple of weeks off work, my festive period had been ruined somewhat after watching Colls lose away at rivals Radcliffe. Never mind. Chloe and I were off to Copenhagen and Malmö for New Year, flying from Edinburgh to cut down on costs. Normally this would be less than ideal, but with her living in Carlisle (when she’s not in York) we stayed up in Cumbria for the weekend before travelling over to Scandinavia.
Chloe had made plans with her mates for the Saturday, drinking in Newcastle, and I was asked if I wanted to tag along. Declining, I decided that I would keep myself company and find a football match to go to. Quickly punching her postcode into the Futbology app on my phone, I discovered that the closest fixture was just over the border in Scotland; Annan Athletic v Queen’s Park.
As much as I take an interest in Scottish football and try my best to keep up to date with it by watching A View From The Terrace on BBC iPlayer, I could have told you absolutely nothing about Annan Athletic prior to my day out there. In fact, I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you where Annan was if you gave me a map of the country; it was total ignorance on my part.
A couple of pints on Botchergate in Carlisle (one of my favourite drinking spots) was followed by a quick journey on a ScotRail service over the border. By 12:45 I had arrived in Annan, a town which on first impressions didn’t offer very much to a day-tripper… not that I was expecting much. Station Road, with it’s depressing display of dereliction and decay provided a straight walking route into the centre of the town. Central Hotel, which lay boarded up opposite the train station would have once been a luxurious place to spend the night; a ‘suspicious arson attack’ came close to putting the abandoned listed building out of it’s misery but didn’t quite succeed.
Curving around the Victorian built streets complete with their sandstone houses, more grand buildings lay empty. Next to the clubhouse of Annan Rugby club another boarded up monolith had a large handwritten ‘For Sale’ sign on it’s front, more in hope than anything.
Outside the Town Hall, which has stood presiding over the unusually wide High Street since 1878, two other tourists – as lost as me – studied the large map which was available. Stuck for ideas, we were caught in mutual conversation offering one another suggestions. They didn’t fancy the football, nobody I met in the town did. Off they went for a nice country walk, concluding that they may take in a visit to the Annandale Distillery which sits to the north of the town, further up the course of the River Annan. I didn’t want to look like I was following them, like some crazed whiskey addicted stalker, so headed the other way.
I was soon back though. Full lap of the town completed, I returned empty handed in my search of drinking establishments. I am told though, that Annan does have a handful of decent places for a drink including the award winning The Shed, which is popular amongst football fans. At the Blue Bell Inn, tucked behind the Town Hall, I travelled up the steps with trepidation, not quite knowing what to expect at this time of day.
At the end of the bar, four old men were sat in what I correctly assumed to be their usual perches. I couldn’t understand what they were saying; equally they couldn’t understand me. Tennent’s, in a pint shaped glass, was quickly poured for me by the friendly woman behind the bar. While I’m not necessarily a lager fan these days, I have no shame in admitting that Tennent’s is always my go to drink when I jump over the border.
Making myself comfortable, little did I know that I would end up spending two hours in here before heading up to the ground. An impressive selection of Scotch whiskies kept me occupied; making my way through the ones the regulars recommended. They were less than complimentary about their local distillery, with one of them shoving a bottle in my face and making me have a whiff to back up their personally provided tasting notes.
The woman in charge was great to chat to, telling me that they receive quite a few football fans from Lancashire heading up to Annan for the day. She assumed I was a member of the Lancashire Annan Athletic Branch, who are mainly Preston North End supporters. I could certainly see the attraction; a relatively easy journey up the West Coast Mainline and if organised in advance quite cheap too.
She seemed to love the fact that I had travelled on my own but at the same time, still didn’t quite believe me. I looked like a complete liar when moments later, the door opened and I instantly recognised the distinctive black and white of an Atherton Collieries bobble hat. While he studied the ales, I tapped Keith on the shoulder and he looked just as baffled as I was. We had both travelled all this way on our own (well, only Carlisle for me) and we were both sporting the same headwear… which left the woman questioning whether we were in fact undercover members of the Lancashire Branch.
Keith and I had another pint (and another whiskey) in the Blue Bell before embarking on the quiet, winding walk along the course of the River Annan up to the romantically named Galabank stadium. It does sound like a cross between a bank and a bingo hall but that aside, it’s one of those traditional Scottish football ground names that stand out when you hear it mentioned on Soccer Saturday or Final Score.
The club moved to Galabank in 1953. At the time, the club were two years into their 27 year stint of playing in the Carlisle and District League. Up until that point, they had been members of the Dumfries and District Junior League but the competition was wound up, leaving no option but to join the English system.
On approach to the ground, alongside a small Caravan Park, we passed the Everholm Stadium in Galabank Park. In truth, it isn’t a stadium at all, with no seating present. An athletics track provides a clue as to what the venues main purpose is. Despite all this, a few years ago it was in fact the temporary home of Gretna 2008, the phoenix club set up after the original Gretna FC had gone bust.
Further around the bend, we reached our destination. It was immediately clear that this was one of the most basic venues in the Scottish Football League. Arguably, it’s small stature and laid back vibe made the place instantly likeable. The club’s small car park was full, despite only having around 15 vehicles in it, while the narrow North Road which the ground sits on was littered with yellow traffic cones to appease local residents who were having – yet another – quiet afternoon in their bungalows.
A collection of small, pebble dash rendered buildings formed the entrance to the ground where a club official waited patiently as I took a photo of the aesthetically pleasing metal gates, delicately completed with club crest. These minor details might not seem much but they give a club identity and it shows they care. Further along the path, supporters were filtering out of the social club – which I would leave to visit until half time – and making their way through the turnstiles that were in operation.
Admission at the Galabank was £12. Having paid my entrance fee we arrived into an opening behind the newest addition to the ground, a hefty covered terrace around five rows deep. The Clubhouse End was constructed in 2013, at the same time as the club replaced their infamous sloping pitch with a modern artificial surface.
A steward was tasked with rounding up the Queen’s Park supporters into the designated ‘away section’ at the end of the Main Stand, which straddles the halfway line. I assume she was asked to do it anyway, as I can’t imagine somebody opting to make themselves the epitome of awkward. She was convinced Keith and I were away supporters, with our black and white Colls hats resembling that of the visiting club. It wasn’t a stand-off but it did take a few moments for her to leave us alone; perhaps I should have said we were members of the Lancashire Supporters Branch?
As it was, the Queen’s Park supporters were all gathered up and given their orders. One intoxicated male with a black and white wig on took exception to being told what to do, being dragged away by his mates. Part of me did want to join them, as they seemed to be a small but lively bunch. An older gentleman, who was actually a Gretna supporter, stood next to me moaning about the etiquette of those who had travelled down from Glasgow, telling me how Queen’s Park once used to be the ‘gentleman’s club’ of Scotland.
Relying on me to keep him up to date with Gretna’s away trip to Cumbernauld Colts, I had a good laugh with my new friend as the match progressed. While they didn’t make a huge point of showing who they supported, he wasn’t the only one in attendance who didn’t mind watching both Annan and Gretna, which I thought was quite nice… and normal.
Despite this, I couldn’t help but thinking it must be somewhat bittersweet for football fans like him, as when Gretna did go bust, they were immediately replaced in the Scottish Football League by Annan. They were elected from the East of Scotland League, after beating Aberdeenshire side Cove Rangers 17-12 in the third round of voting.
Annan rocked up in their traditional gold and black colours, while The Spiders were in their change kit of all red. Coming into this League Two fixture, the home side had lost back to back matches, including a defeat to Edinburgh City which actually proved to be their first defeat at Galabank for over a year – which was an impressive record. Queen’s Park pushed them hard but the home side prevailed with a hard fought 3-2 victory in what was a very entertaining affair.
The Galabankies (which for me is one of the coolest nicknames in football) found themselves ahead after nine minutes through Tommy Muir. Despite being in the lead, the warning signs were there and Annan paid the price on 33 minutes when they conceded an equaliser. David Galt’s pass split open the home defence and Kieran Moore ran through on goal to coolly slot home.
With the game evenly balanced it was Annan who struck next, with Muir grabbing his second in the 39th minute. Scot McLean was fouled at the edge of the box and the midfielder took the free kick that was deflected and looped towards the back post where Muir was on hand to head home.
As the interval approached, Keith and I headed back out of the ground – sort of – to enter the clubhouse which was the other side of the turnstiles. A young lad had to open the gate for us. The club shop was also over here, housed in a small yellow cabin. We were amongst the first to get our places in a sizable queue which snaked across a shiny, wooden floor that looked like it had been lifted from a local school hall. At the front, we were the lucky ones, with Tennent’s running dry well before the end of the half-time break.
I strolled back into the ground a few minutes into the second half, just as a wayward shot from Annan midfielder Niyah Joseph flew over the stand, narrowly missing me and a neighbouring picnic bench as it landed.
It was Joseph, fresh from his attempt to hit me, who would prove instrumental as Annan grabbed a third after a great move. The on-loan Hamilton midfielder picked the ball up on the half way line and drove forward passing to Nathan Flanagan down the right hand side before the winger jinxed and cracked a shot past the outstretched arms of goalkeeper William Muir.
Now 3-1 up, Annan brought on former Sheffield United and Hearts striker Christian Nadé who waltzed around the Galabank pitch like a French wrecking ball. Queen’s Park struggled to get the ball of him as he expertly held play up, cleverly winning a number of free kicks in quick succession as he tried to run the clock down.
This only succeeded in ‘rattling’ the away side and they went about trying to reduce Annan’s lead, doing so on 78 minutes through Salim Kouider-Aissa. It made the last 12 minutes a proper spectacle for the neutral as The Spiders pinned Annan into their own half. Then, with moments remaining, the visitors were through on goal but Cammy Foy somehow managed to hit the woodwork with the goal gaping, leading to a moment where the Queen’s Park supporters started celebrating before realising the shot had missed.
Annan had miraculously clung on and the three points gained put them securely in fourth place heading into the new year. It took me a few moments to digest what had occurred in the last few moments of what had been an absolutely fantastic match. As the Annan fans headed into the clubhouse – where I hoped Tennent’s was back on – we walked back to the train station ready to head back southwards.
A quick glance at the sparse departures board showed that the next train wasn’t for another 20 minutes, so we headed into the Station House, a pub which sits on the platform at Annan train station. Overwhelming pungent wafts of perfume leapt at us as we strolled into the bar area, with groups of locals pre-drinking here before heading onwards to the bright lights of Carlisle – or Newcastle if they were really splashing out.
With all the time in the world to waste back on Botchergate in Carlisle, I sat in The Griffin watching whatever match was being televised. £4 spent on a bottle of Corona and a Teemu Pukki goal ruled out by VAR because ‘his right arm was adjudged to be offside’ made me appreciate my day out in Annan. It was a poignant reminder that proper pubs and proper football are the key to an enjoyable matchday experience.
Despite enjoying a good first half of the season, Annan eventually finished in 7th place after losing nine of the remaining ten fixtures that took place before the season was curtailed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Queen’s Park ended up moving ahead of Annan, finishing in fifth place. Cove Rangers were the runaway leaders, gaining promotion into League One.