Saturday 29 February 2020

Queens Park vs. Annan Athletic

Hampden Park - Glasgow - Queens Park FCAside from the het-up atmosphere of a Boca-River derby at La Bombonera, a European night at Anfield or even an Old Firm match – one of the most unique atmospheres in world football to be involved in, has to be watching an amateur side playing at a 50,000-seater stadium (with an average of 650 other people watching with you). 

Today, it’s ‘Pints, Pies and a Stramash’, as my groundhopping takes me to Hampden Park to see if the oldest association football club in Scotland, Queens Park, can keep their League Two promotion push going as they host Annan Athletic.

10 hours after leaving Old Trafford, I’m on the train for the journey to Glasgow – the 2-and-a-half-hour ride was made all the better by Avanti’s free Wi-Fi. It’s been a somewhat gentle start for the new operator of the West Coast mainline, although that may have something to do with the weather holding out for the better in recent weeks. They’ve made a good start with the free internet – Virgin would charge you for the privilege, which considering the prices of trains tickets, was a bit of a cheek. Thankfully, I could look up information about my visit, read stuff on social media and learn the Spanish for ‘cat’ (gato) on my app without having to dip into my data allowance and the patchy mobile network.

On arrival, the first thing I do is go to a cashpoint to draw some Scottish banknotes out. I’m a bit of lapsed numismatist, so I’m always fascinated with the prospect of receiving unfamiliar money – but there’s a plan behind this instance. I always like to go ‘undercover’ at these games, not draw attention to myself – I can concentrate on getting more out of my experience that way. So the drawing out of twenty Bank of Scotland sterling was done to fulfil my numismatic thirst and so I wouldn’t seem like a daytripper. I just need to break the notes before I return home – even brand-new Bank of England notes are viewed with suspicion down there (contrary to popular belief, no retailer is obliged to accept any sterling note – even Bank of England ones).

If you’re wondering what a ‘stramash’ is, it’s defined in the Collins dictionary as an ‘uproar’, a ‘tumult’, a ‘brawl’. In a football context, it’s the go-to word for Scots to describe a ‘goalmouth scramble’. I really like it; the simplicity of using a single word to describe what is essentially, a completed mess, is always a winner with me – it sounds beautiful in a(ny) Scottish brogue too. According to the book, ‘Do You Speak Football’, the term was popularised by STV presenter, Arthur Montford and is also associated with famed BBC Rugby Union commentator, Bill McLaren (presumably to describe a ruck – itself derivate of a ‘ruckus’).

There wasn’t any sign of a stramash occurring as I got on a ScotRail train for the short trip to Hampden – there wasn’t just a plethora of spare seats, it was nice and comfortable too. It took around 10 minutes for me to reach Mount Florida, which is the closest of five stations that lie within a mile of the stadium. From there, it’s roughly another 10 minute walk to Hampden and despite the weather turning nasty, I enjoyed the stroll – there are some impressively-built red brick buildings in the area which do well to hide the fact that there’s a 50,000-seater stadium around the corner. When you walk to Wembley, you know it’s there, even from a mile away – you don’t actually see Hampden until you turn down the corner that leads into its path.

Outside of Hampden Park - Glasgow - Scottish National Team

Home to Queens Park and the Scottish National Team, this Hampden is actually the third one that Queens have played at since their formation. Named after a nearby terrace (that itself, was named after John Hampden, a Roundhead in the English Civil War, with connections to Scotland), the first Hampden Park was in use for 10 years, hosting the first Scottish Cup Final in 1874, as well as an international against England in 1878. The second Hampden Park, built in 1884, was located 150 yards away from the original – the stadium being constructed because a railway company had planned a new line through the site of the original. Queens would stay here until the late-1890s, coming into a disagreement with landlords to purchase nearby land for expansion. The 12-acre site that became the third Hampden Park was purchased from Henry Erskine Gordon in November 1899, the club eventually moving there four years later. After leaving, Third Lanark moved into the second Hampden, renamed it (New) Cathkin Park and played there until their liquidation in 1967. Today, the site is a public park – the terracing is actually still there, overgrown with nature. A new version of Third Lanark have plans to eventually move back (their original home, also called Cathkin Park, now a housing estate).

The design of the third Hampden was mostly done by James Miller who created twin grandstands along the south side of the ground, with a pavilion wedged between them. The famed-football ground designer, Archibald Leitch, also worked on the project – using the ground’s natural slopes to design the banks of terracing. During the construction, a disaster occurred at Ibrox in which 25 people died after part of the wooden terraces collapsed. As a result, the terraces at Hampden were firmly set within the earthwork and ‘innovative techniques’ were applied to control spectators. On its opening, on the 31st October 1903, the third Hampden Park was the biggest stadium in the world – only surpassed by the opening of the Maracana in Rio de Janerio in 1950. Hampden’s (and Europe’s) record attendance is 149,547 for a British Home Championship match against England in 1937 (the Scots came from behind to win 3-1).

The stadium was vastly redeveloped during the 1980s and 1990s – a combination of crumbling facilities, a riot at the 1980 Scottish Cup Final (more about that later) and the Taylor Report, eventually seeing Hampden redesigned to be a 52,000 all-seater stadium. As an amateur club, Queens couldn’t afford the works, so redevelopment costs were sought from several sources, including public donations, the UK government (this being pre-devolution) and the National Lottery. Eventually, the ground was completed in time for the 1999 Scottish Cup Final – a few months after that, the ground saw Paul Scholes score two goals for England in a Euro 2000 play-off win (sorry, needed to get a dig in somewhere!)

By the time I reach the stadium, it’s just gone 1 pm – which gives me the best part of two hours to root around the Scottish Football Museum. After visiting the (English) National Football Museum yesterday and seeing a shirt worn in the very first international match (against Scotland), having a look around the Scottish equivalent (which was established at the stadium in 2001) would provide a nice balance.

Located in the bowels of Hampden Park (you have to walk through the front doors and go down the staircase on the right, which I learned after spending five minutes waiting in a queue to ask the chap at the front desk – why didn’t they just signpost it?), museum entry costs £8 for adults and £3 concessionary. As you enter the double-doors that lead into the exhibitions, one attraction immediately catches your eyes – the Scottish Cup.

The Scottish Cup - Oldest Trophy in Football - Hampden Park

Although this is the second oldest association football competition (after the FA Cup), this cup is the oldest existing trophy in the sport – first presented to Queens Park in 1874. Later, as I was circling back around, I overheard a tour guide tell his group that the original trophy is still awarded to the winners today but they later get a knock on the dressing room door to hand it back, receiving a replica in return. Apparently, the cup is too valuable to loan out, its worth being £2 million – which struck me as being a bit cheap (as ridiculous as that may sound), considering its historical importance.

The start of the museum (as you’d expect) begins with the first instances of the game in Scotland (showcased, as it was at the time, as Foot-Ball – just to make it clear that’s how you play it. Feet, not hands!), the first international, held on the 30th November 1872 at the West of Scotland Cricket Ground in Hamilton (a 0-0), featured prominently. A couple of highlights for me was the reconstruction of the old changing rooms here at Hampden Park, which included a ‘wintergreen aroma’ just to add a touch a realism – like riding a bike or your first kiss, you never forget the smell of wintergreen. Another favourite is the elaborate display of Archie Gemmill’s fantastic goal in the 1978 World Cup against the Netherlands – three-quarter sized figures (roughly), watching as the ball hits the net after Gemmill’s jinking, solo run.

Archie Gemmill 1978 World Cup Display

An interesting factoid that I didn’t know before (but do now, thanks to this display) was that the Dutch keeper, Jan Jongbloed, wore number 8 – which any follower of the game will tell you is bizarre, even in today’s era of high-numbered shirts. I learn later that this was simply because the Netherlands chose to assign numbers in alphabetical order. This wasn’t unusual, as in the same World Cup, Argentina’s Ossie Ardiles wore number 2 playing in central midfield, whilst attacking midfielder, Norberto Alonso wore number 1.

Throughout the museum, there is no escaping the historic importance of Queens Park in the Scottish game. They were THE top team in the country for many years, winning the Scottish Cup 10 times – although none since they beat Celtic 2-1 in a replay at Ibrox, in 1893 (despite this, they are still the third-most successful side in the competition, behind Celtic and Rangers, obviously). The club was formed in 1867 by a group of Gentleman who had kickabouts in the area of Glasgow that gave the club its name. Strictly an amateur club (their motto is Ludere Causa Ludendi – ‘To Play For The Sake of Playing), they initially entered the FA Cup, going on to reach consecutive finals – both against Blackburn Rovers from 1884.

Although they lost both games, they did themselves great credit – the 1884 match (2-1 to Rovers) is notable for an incident in which they had a goal disallowed. Apparently, the referee, Major Francis Marindin, said that they [Queens] had ‘scored once more’, but as they did not attempt to claim it, he had ‘not bothered to award it’. It’s worth remembering that there was no such thing as goal nets during this era – and to think, we’re moaning about V.A.R today!

The club has remained amateur for all of this time – whilst their fellow Glasgow clubs have outgrown them, Queens have remained in the Scottish lower leagues, providing a stable club for up-and-coming local players or for those who may have fallen through the divisions and are looking to rebuild their careers. All this is soon to change, however, as faced with the prospect of losing their tenant (the Scottish FA), Queens have sold the stadium to them. As a result, the only way that they can realistically see themselves surviving in Scottish senior football is for them to adopt semi-professional status – which they did, last November.

From what I can understand, the move to semi-pro status is to ensure that the club can attract players going forwards – at the moment, the privilege of playing at the national stadium is helping to get decent players in for the price of expenses-only. From next season though, they’ll be playing at ‘Lesser Hampden’, their training ground, situated next door. Proceeds from the sale of Hampden Park will go into remodelling the facility to meet SPFL-standard – on passing it earlier, it really needs some work. There’s a tiny stand on one side of the ground, with the rest being open – it’s about a Step 5-standard (as we say in English non-league circles).

Teamsheet for Queens Park vs. Annan Athletic - 29-02-2020
Today’s match has been promoted as ‘Football for a fiver’, so I part with my Scottish money with a feeling of glee. I procure a teamsheet and have a look around the large concourse – where’s the beer? As it turns out, there isn’t any – Twitter tells me they don’t serve beer at Scottish league games when I asked (good job I didn’t ask anyone at the ground, I would have looked like more of an idiot than I already am!) I learn the ban is due to the aforementioned Cup Final (40 years ago, in May), in which Celtic and Rangers supporters clashed on the pitch. An Act of Parliament was passed that prohibited the sale of alcohol in all Scottish sports ground – this was only partially lifted in 2007 when the sale of ale was allowed at international rugby union matches at Murrayfield.

Obviously, being English, this concept was alien to me – whilst my peers and I are busy moaning that there’s no real ale on tap (and we’re not allowed to have the drink in our seats), there are whole generations of Scots (some of whom would be older than me!) who don’t know what it’s like to have a beer inside the ground (let alone meticulously plan to beat the queue at half-time). I’m not going to comment on the incident in 1980 (as I’ve no idea what I’m talking about), but it always seems to be the actions of a few that spoil it for the rest. The alternative is for supporters to get tanked up before games instead – and that’s not going to help to calm things down!

Panorama of Hampden Park

So beer-less, I take my seat in the vast openness of Hampden. Queens are nicknamed ‘The Spiders’ for two reasons; the first (and most obvious), is because of their black-and-white-striped shirts, with the other reason down to their philosophy of playing a passing game that ‘weaves a web around their opponents’. Early on, it’s evident why – the home side confidently hold on to the ball, Annan chasing shadows. It takes nearly 20 minutes for the first clear-cut chance to occur, however – but the home side make no mistake. A rare long ball forward is missed by a defender and Ross MacLean latches onto to it, through on goal and thumping it into the corner.

Queens continue to play some tidy stuff – most of it coming down the left. Interestingly though (and perhaps, a wiser move, seeing as it's pissing down now), it’s another long ball that gets them into their latest great position – again, a defender misreads the flight of the ball, an attacker gets hold of it, runs towards goal, rounds the keeper, and is brought down – penalty. Salim Koulder-Aissa sends the offending goalie the wrong way from the spot and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ is played as goal music (this after T-Rex’s ‘Children of the Revolution’ greeted the first goal, as well as shepherding the players on the pitch). Annan have an opportunity to halve the deficit late on in the half when a quick interchange of passes sees a forward through on goal – he shoots, but Willie Muir, the Queens custodian, does well to turn the ball wide.
Queens Park playing at Hampden Park

I stay in my seat during the half-time break (partly to admire the ground around me, but mostly because there was no beer on) – one thing that does strike me, is how it doesn’t seem like there are 50,000 empty seats here. It’s a ridiculous statement on the face of it because there are over 50,000 empty seats here, but it doesn’t sound as echo-y as I thought it would do. The crowd (made up of people young and old) have been in good voice and I’m wondering now whether the construction of the stadium allows for the noise to reverberate downwards, rather than across the swathes of empty seats? 

A massive help, is the stadium being single-tiered – everyone is able to respond and join in with song at the same time, rather than being in their own tier and waiting. Another point I'd like to make, is the makeup of the crowd itself – whilst Queens (no, not that kind of Queens and make-up!) can offer families and those who don’t want to get involved with the Old Firm an alternative club to watch in comfortable surroundings, will Lesser Hampden offer similar trappings for them to stay for the long-term? The club will need all the support it can get to keep up in the semi-pro game, after all.

Action from Scottish League Two - Queens Park vs. Annan Athletic

Annan start the second half with far more urgency (as you might expect, being 2-0-down and all); they have a great chance when an attacker gets past the last defender but his resulting lob is just-about caught under his own crossbar by Muir. Desperate for goals, Annan call upon a striker from the bench – and I’m surprised when it turns out that the Christian Nade who comes on, is the same Christian Nade who played in the English Premier League for Sheffield United some 13 years ago. The Frenchman has been in Scottish football for some time and was in the news last year after it emerged he has been suffering from depression, culminating in an attempt to take his own life in 2014. It’s somewhat heartening to see he’s still playing football and (hopefully) doing well.

The Spiders manage to get a hold of the balance of the game after a sloppy start to the second half – a great run from one player sees him skip past two defenders, drawing ‘wows’ from the crowd. Brilliantly, the third defender barrels into him to halt his progress – I must admit, that I LOL-ed at that (the lad was okay, by the way, so I didn't feel guilty for laughing out loud!)

The match peters out, which was probably a relief for everyone – the rain is torrential now, so it should be interesting jog back to Mount Florida! It was a fully deserved win for Queens, who generally bossed the match – they’re now 3rd in League Two, with a play-off spot far more likely than an automatic promotion place. I’ve really enjoyed my visit to Hampden, though I would love to hear what this place is like when it is full – it was a decent atmosphere with 700 here, so who knows what 50k would sound like.

I scurry past Lesser Hampden on my way back to the station, making a mental note to keep up-to-date with how the club get on when they move there. For the sake of history if anything, I hope Queens can prosper and perhaps even get up the leagues in years to come. Back at the station, the local trains are that efficient, one leaves a minute early than it was scheduled for! Well, either that or the display was wrong – regardless, I’m back at Glasgow Central with a spring in my step.

A pint of Tenants at Glasgow Central stationTime is pressing, however (I’ve only got an hour until the last train home leaves – at 6.40 pm!!!), so my beer poncing is limited to a craft beer place named ‘Bier Halle’, a short walk from Central Station. Not living in a big city, I’m always surprised to see bouncers on the door of a pub in the afternoon – and this place is no different. A nod from them lets me in and I descend into the dark, underground bar. As expected from the name, it’s very much German-themed, with long tables and tight surroundings; it’s standing room-only. I plump for a pint of Blue Moon which a man comments ‘is that the wee stuff with the fruit in?’. It is, mate – and it’s great. Even Man City fans sing about how good this white Belgian beer (with a slice of orange) is. Obviously.

After supping up, I head back to the station and buy my packed lunch from M&S (butties and cans), leaving 20-or so minutes to while away – so I sneak in a pint of Tenants in celebration of a decent day. When in Glasgow and all that – I’m pretty sure I’ll be back. 

Queens Park 2
(MacLean, 19. Koulder-Aissa, 27 (pen)) 

Annan Athletic 0

Attendance: 734

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