I’ve long been of the opinion – since the 1970s in fact – that if you were a visitor to these shores, and wanted to meet ethnic English people, you wouldn’t necessarily go to London. Even in those days of forty years ago, the place was full of migrant workers, overseas students and tourists. As a wide-eyed country boy dipping my toe into the ‘Smoke’ for the first time, I couldn’t get round the fact that Fish & Chip shops were hard to come by. I could get a kebab, a curry, a pizza, even African and West Indian food, but not a good old chippy. I thought it a strange and foreign land indeed.
My occasional visits to Edinburgh strike me along the same lines. It’s not quite so unusual to hear the local dialect, but I’m sure at least one in every two of those hoards milling along Prices Street are visitors to the UK. On this day in particular, I detect a fair sprinkling of Italians, probably something not entirely unconnected to an egg-chasing contest going on just down the road at Murrayfield.
As I observe them straying not too far from the beaten path, and descending in their multitudes on any establishment flying the Italian flag, it occurs to me that somebody is missing a trick somewhere. I remember going to Amsterdam as a youthful Forest fan, and being grateful for the McDonalds sign which meant there was actually something familiar to eat. In those pre-internet days, my knowledge of Dutch culture was miniscule and although already a committed real ale fan, I knew nothing of the delights of the Trappist beers available to me in this city. So I followed the mob, drank cheap lager and gorged on burgers and chips. Oh for a little guidance.
We enlightened football pilgrims now spend considerable time researching and planning our trips in advance, but it still seems to me that there is a market for those that still follow the herd. A little travel guidance for just a little more cash. In effect, a Travel Agency for for sports fans. More of this later.
My first day-trip to Scotland this season begins at the unearthly hour of 4.45 to give me time to wake, refresh and drive the 60 miles or so from my pad to Crewe station, and the 7.09 to Edinburgh. It’s a busy train and I am amused by the antics of the two ten-year-olds sitting opposite, who when they ARE actually sitting are test-marketing bags of stringy sweets which only ten-year-olds would eat. Once in Auld Reekie I body-swerve round the milling Italians and take the back entrance into the Standing Order, a Wetherspoons with which I am familiar. Lots of people in kilts but not necessarily Edinburgh accents are already pre-loading, and I settle into a corner with a pint of Stewart Copper Cascade looking forward to my large vegetarian breakfast.
Sadly, it proves to be a disappointment. The lack of butter for the toast or any mustard – preferably ‘English Bastard’ mustard although I would settle for the ‘French Bâtard’ variant – is compounded by vegetarian sausages and hash browns so badly overcooked you could easily splinter your teeth on them. I knew I should have ordered the deep-fried chocolate bar….
Pausing only to establish that the welcoming but tiny ‘Half Way House’ pub – on the steps behind the station – is already bulging, as I suspected it might be, I head off to Waverley and the half-hour train ride past the airport, across the iconic Forth rail bridge, and into Dunfermline, a town in which I have never set foot before. I am, indeed, a tourist! The only pub showing on the Good Beer Guide radar is the Commercial Inn. Wetherspoons has been trying desperately for several years to get a foothold in Dunfermline, but their efforts have been repulsed. Maybe in the interests of good cuisine, that’s not a bad thing.
The Commercial makes up for the gap in Tim Martin’s portfolio. It’s a comfortable lounge bar free house where the clientele is on the maturer side of mature, and boasts half-a-dozen ales on handpump. I eschew the English guests and plump for a couple of pints of Caledonian 80 which, although a little on the murky side, I find suits my taste buds. From here it’s a 15 minute walk to East End Park, home to Scottish Premier League aspirants Dunfermline Athletic FC.
The traditional floodlight pylons are a sight for sore eyes in these days of integrated roof lighting, and I have a choice of any one of three stands, the fourth being surplus to requirements in the Pars’ Division One days. To be honest, you could fit today’s entire crowd – 2,553 according to official figures – in any one of the four stands. Little wonder the club is pushing for promotion and those bigger pay-days against Celtic, Rangers and the Edinburgh clubs.
On a battle-weary pitch, it’s a bit of an early slog and I find myself slipping in and out of micro-naps as the pre-dawn start and the beer catches up on me. All that changes on 30 minutes when visitors Stirling Albion – rock bottom of the table – seem a bit harshly done by when the ref awards the home team a penalty. Sure, the striker goes to ground in the box as he tussles with the lone defender, but that’s a familiar scenario. To make matters worse for the visitors, said defender is then shown a Red and its 11 against 10. Make that 11 against 9, because before the game restarts after the successfully-converted spot kick, a second Albion player is sent packing, presumably for advice given to the ref.
The man-in-the-middle is obviously card-happy because he’s at it again five minutes later, showing a home midfielder the door after a dodgy-looking lunge, before surprisingly only showing a yellow to another Albion defender for the trip that leads to penalty number 2. So it’s half time, 2-0 to Dunfermline who also have an advantage in numbers, their ten men taking on nine. You can’t fault the entertainment, but it would be nice to actually see some proper football in the second half.
We do actually get some of that, as Dunfermline’s superiority in talent and numbers allows them to flow forward. A deflected third is eventually followed by an Albion consolation, before the successful penalty taker completes his hat-trick with a firm far-post header, and the home fans go home happy enough.
Today’s bloke-behind-me is on the 18.52 back to Crewe, a Workington fan who has been up to see Forfar for the day and spots my Dunfermline programme. We chat about all things stadia and I explain my concept of a football travel agency until he alights at Carlisle. I’m then surrounded by a group of excitable and not too-unattractive Spanish students who serve to ruin my reading concentration. When they get off at Preston it’s not long before I’m joined by half-a-dozen Brummies who are fighting mad after being kicked out of Wigan with fines round their necks. My new-found peace is once again shattered.
But hey, it’s a slice of life and something to write about. As for my sports travel agency, it’ll probably never see the light of day, but if one does spring up in the very near future, I shall be demanding my royalties – actually I’d just settle for a properly-cooked Wetherspoons breakfast.
Programme: £2.50. I got mine from the club shop outside the ground. Very readable.
Floodlight pylons: 4 of the classic type
Parakeets: Thought I saw a Puffin next to a Scottish river on the way up
Toilets: Under the stand
Club Shop: I refer to the answer I gave earlier (above)
Forgot to mention: snack bar at East End Park sells Cheese & Onion Pies, no Macaroni pies in evidence
Player with the quirkiest name: Stirling’s Ryan ‘Karloff’ Borris and Scott ‘Chesty’ Buist