BY CRAIG STEPHEN
Numbed by repetitive failure over more than two decades, I had long resigned myself to neglecting the Saturday evening result for my home-town team, Montrose, fearing another humbling defeat against East Stirlingshire or Annan Athletic.
Until this season, Montrose had been languishing in the fourth tier, and for that matter often near the bottom of the division, for 22 years. It got so bad the Gable Endies were forced to play Highland League side Brora Rangers in a play-off just to stay in the league as recently as 2015. Defeat in that two-legged fixture would have consigned the club to life in the lower-level Highland League travelling vast distances in front of even fewer heads. The club may have struggled to even survive.
If anyone asked if I was a Montrose fan I would jokingly reply that I was more of a sympathiser than a supporter.
There was little evidence to suggest an upturn in fortunes, and I had to stifle a laugh when one of the Daily Record’s football scribes tipped Montrose to win the Scottish League Two at the start of the season. A joke amongst the sports team in Glasgow I assumed.
So, it was something of a shock to learn at the beginning of this year, via an excited relative still living in the town, that Montrose was locked in a battle with north-east rivals Peterhead for the one automatic qualification to the third tier.
And then they did; they damn well bloody did it, on the final day. A one-all draw at home against Elgin City was enough to secure the championship from their nearest rivals by a single point and end 22 years of suffering.
Getting over the line wasn’t easy; Elgin struck first, but Jamie Redman got an equaliser and the Links Park side held on for the point, their 77th of the campaign, and the most precious of them all. Links Park saw the unlikely scenario of the League Two trophy being delivered by helicopter.
It is only the second championship in the 139-year history of the club – coming more than 30 years after they won the old second division in 1984/85. To cap a particularly special weekend, north Angus rivals Brechin City – a mere nine miles away – ended their inglorious season with another defeat, leaving them winless all season. No other team has ever ‘achieved’ that feat.
As a nine-year old I was hauled along to Links Park by my dad who had just become interested in the game through Scotland’s run to the 1978 World Cup. At that age, a relatively small ground with a capacity of a few thousand seemed imposing. There was one dilapidated grandstand with seats on the north side, but most local fans congregated in the stand closest to the turnstiles, and also the one on the southside behind which an appalling outdoor marble toilet with a drain as a urinal resided. This was demolished when the stand was revamped into a flash all-seater affair several years ago.
Those youthful years evoke memories of old stagers carping at the ref, the manager and everyone else; of the smell of Bovril wafting from the pie cart, and of occasional success. These were the Kenny Cameron years. The former top-class striker, who scored a goal every second game at spells with both Dundee sides, finished his career at Links Park in 1974 and was player-manager from 1975 till 1979.
Over the years the ground has been graced by legends such as Dennis D’Arcy, who played 298 times between 1970 and 1979, Chic McLelland, a former cog in the tough Aberdeen side of the 70s, and Les Barr, who also played for Dundee. The club has developed the likes of Gary Murray, Stuart Beedie, Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, and Martin Boyle, all of whom have played for Premiership sides, with Boyle a vital part of the current, high-flying Hibernian side under Neil Lennon. On the way in have come fringe and failed players from Aberdeen and the Dundee clubs.
During that 1977-78 season I witnessed The Mo’ toil against both Kilmarnock, then a struggling second tier side, and East Fife, but the forensic details remain vague. East Fife would go down to the third tier that season, Montrose survived, finishing 11th of 14 teams. The following season it would be Montrose who would follow the Fifers into Division Two.
Nevertheless, Montrose cashed in when Celtic coming calling in November 1978 in a League Cup quarter-final tie. The Gable Endies had recorded a remarkable win against Raith Rovers in the previous round, seemingly out of it when they went down 3-0 in Kirkcaldy, only to smash the Fifers 5-1 in the return leg in Angus.
At Links Park, Celtic, who would win the Premier League that year, were held to a 1-1 draw, but predictably won 3-1 at Parkhead. In the first match, in front of 3,872 fans, Celtic were unfortunate, having three goals disallowed, which Celtic Wiki notes “two of which looked good” and the Glasgow side also had two good penalty claims dismissed. Montrose took the initiative on 22 minutes when Ian Hair, who had joined from Aberdeen, lobbed keeper Roy Baines.
Halycon days then long decline
These are the matches that tie a young fan to their local team, but I was too young for Montrose’s heyday earlier that same decade.
Under Alex Stuart, Montrose finished third in the old First Division (one below the Premier League), and had some good cup runs.
In the second round of the 1975 Scottish Cup, the club recorded its biggest-ever victory when they thrashed Vale of Leithen 12-0. In the same year, with Cameron now at the helm, Montrose surprisingly reached the semi-finals of the League Cup, topping a group that featured St. Mirren, Raith Rovers and East Fife then overcoming a nifty Hibernian side 3-2 on aggregate. Rangers put paid to their final hopes, however, winning 5-1 in the one-off semi-final.
Under the guidance of Ian Stewart, Montrose won their first championship, the old second division in 1985. They would be relegated in 1987 as the part-timers were outgunned in a league largely consisting of full-time teams.
Under a co-managerial regime of Doug Rougvie and Chic McLelland, Montrose gained promotion to Division One in 1991, but were promptly relegated, along with another Angus rival, Forfar Athletic. Ironically, those same two sides were promoted in 1995, and both sides were relegated the following season (Montrose having won just five of the 36 games), maintaining that yo-yo tradition that afflicts all four Angus sides.
An unsuccessful shot at the divisional play-offs a decade ago has been their only sniff of promotion since. Avoiding the wooden spoon has been a more common ambition, and in the years before a play-off was established between the bottom side and the top non-league team, that miserable position resulted in little more than embarrassment. Involvement in the three cups would inevitably end at the first hurdle, unless a weak Lowland or Highland league side was thrown their way. But the 300-plus diehards would continue to slip through the turnstiles every week.
Four towns, four teams
It has often been said that Angus, with a population of 120,000 spread throughout seven towns and numerous villages, does not need four football teams, none of them having an especially successful history. After all, Aberdeen, with double the population, makes do with just one club in the league set-up.
But each town has a distinctive identity and woe-betide anyone that suggests otherwise. Each club also has a long history, a hardcore support and strong community ties. It’s hard to see how a forced merger would result in either a successful club or a large, regular support.
Montrose enjoys its brief forays into the national consciousness, most recently when the resurrected Rangers made its debut in the fourth tier in 2012 following liquidation and had to settle for two draws in four of the games between them. Extra seating was required at Links Park for the visits of the Glasgow side, and with their games televised, Montrose gained national exposure. I was privy to a recording of the 4-2 win for Ally McCoist’s outfit at Links Park where Montrose put up a strong showing, which showed that the supposed greats were nothing more than a shadow of their former selves.
But it has been Rangers that have since moved through the leagues. Until now, of course.
FOLLOW CRAIG ON TWITTER @Porkysprimecut