Looking at it from 2020 I suppose I was always a subconscious ground botherer. Watching Aberdeen, I managed to nail twenty-seven grounds. I used to love the away days to random places like Station Park in Forfar, Dumbartons Boghead, Alloas Recreation Park and such like. The Highland League brought me five or six from days when Aberdeen were away and my cousin and myself headed somewhere different instead of Easter Road, Tannadice or wherever. We didn’t venture too far, Bellslea, Borough Briggs, Recreation Park, Christie Park were all visited. Allan Park too where I remember catching a fiver blowing across the terrace in a match v Wick Academy. In my teens and early twenties when my own games were off I’d follow Formartine United in the juniors as I had a few pals play for them. This only if the Dons were away. This brought me to places such as North Lodge (obviously) Sunnybank’s Heathryfold, New Advocates Park in Seaton, home of East End, Milton Park of Banchory St Ternan and many more. These were not the only junior grounds I visited either. Due to suspensions and injuries I managed to watch games from the sideline (and get pints) while at Buchanhaven Hearts. Canal Park in Banff, Burghead Thistles gigantic Forest Park and Chris Anderson Stadium were three where I was a spectator rather than a player. Over the years I had also been on a few “lads weekends” which incorporated fitba. All of which were in the English Leagues (I was young and naïve at the time, don’t believe the hysteria folks, it is really not that good). The cream of the crop down there was actually in Wales at Ninian Park. The thing was I always noted where I had been. On top of that I bought scarves from all the non-Scottish grounds that I graced with my presence. Was I preparing for what was to come in later life? Even if I wasn’t, I still had a note of the sixty grounds I had attended prior to boarding a train to Keith……………
December 5th, 2015, another “lads day oot” was on the cards but a bit closer to home this time. An early Christmas day out really. What started off as me and my mate wanting to get boozy and watch some random fitba turned into my brother and his mates tagging along too. The plan was to get the train up. Get wired into the beers and get something to eat in the Royal Hotel while watching the lunchtime kick off Dons game down at Dundee. This culminating in hitting Kynoch Park via a bar or two. The after-match delights were to be more of the same. It didn’t quite go to plan but still ended up an excellent twelve hours or so.
My pal and myself boarded the train in Inverurie and scoured it for my brother and company. No brother it turned out; we did however find his two pals. The first thing to go wrong but not unexpected as he has form for sleeping in. It was explained that they had buzzed his flat continually and tried his phone before giving up as time was running out to catch the train. As the train passed through Insch and Huntly stations I was quite excited at the prospect of a few beers and fitba. It had been a while since I had partaken in an all-day beer-a-thon. What I didn’t realise was the day was a life changer. Not like the day Wee Man decided to come into the world, more like when I heard the Wildhearts for the first time. A game changer to my social habits. We arrived at Keith Station with the intention of the first pub we see we have a pint. After trailing almost, a mile up the hill towards the town centre we were faced with the Ugie House Hotel. A swift beer in there prior to our pre booked plans was the consensus. As we crossed the road into the car park a guy hanging the Christmas lights in the hotel enquired “Brora?”. Once we explained we were just on a jolly but in fact nipping along to the match he welcomed us in and instructed the barmaid to let us have our first drinks on the house. A nice touch. But he put the Christmas decorations on the backburner and had a blether about fitba and Keith itself. The welcome was warm, and we would have felt bad if we up and left to go elsewhere. This led to the decision of eat and watch Dundee v Aberdeen there instead of two hundred yards up the road. After some grub, beers and Niall McGinn and Adam Rooney putting the Dees to the sword, we headed to the Ploo but not before the Ugie owner offered us a nip on the house. Top man. At the Ploo (after passing the best named shop there is, Thingymajigs) there were more warm welcomes. I couldn’t help getting the feeling that random punters heading to see the local boys in maroon were appreciated in Keith. Either that or they knew that we were there to part with a good bit of money in their establishments. Either way the locals were all sound. It was to continue too
So, to Kynoch Park, I can’t really claim it was the main aim of the day. It was as much about the piss up as it was the fitba. As I walked through the turnstile on Balloch Road my life as “ground botherer” had begun, I was just yet to realise it. To be noted I had done what I had never done in the previous sixty grounds, got my photo outside. Why did I do this, had my brain seen into the future? Anyway, Kynoch Park is an old school beauty of a place. The type of place I want to watch fitba. The Maroons had called this fine specimen home since 1924 that much I know. I can’t tell you when the fantastic high wall fronted main stand was erected or the parallel standing enclosure on the other wing was first used. What I can tell you is the place is class and worth a visit if you haven’t already been. I must go back as Wee Man wants to go since he saw it from Simpson Park (Islavale).
Low and behold two minutes after we walked in, my brother turned up. The gang was in full and he had a lot of catching up to do. The whistle went and we were off, and in all honesty, I was hooked pretty sharpish. Despite the game being incredibly one sided and the weather being dreich this is what I had been looking for months. To elaborate on that, I had been losing interest in the modern game for a while coming into this. I was only watching Aberdeen and Serie A at this point as fitba didn’t seem like fitba anymore, an overhyped product at many levels especially the English Premiership and Champions League. A circus where too many believed and still believe the hype. The HFL turned out to be the breath of fresh (wet Moray) air I needed. Good honest “mannies fitba”. The pre match greetings and hospitality from the locals set the tone. But inside the ground there was abundance of likeable elements to the game. To start I was amazed at the quality of the play. More Brora than Keith but with players like Paul Brindle, Dale Gillespie, Steven MacKay and Richie Brittain who was plying his trade at Ross County the previous season they were a cracking team to watch (Still are to this day). There were the disgruntled natives who seemed to be the type who would probably still be annoyed even when they were winning. Included under this banner there were a group of longer in the tooth gentleman just up from us giving the linesman absolute hell from the get-go. To be fair, he was a bit shite and carried the freekick wall spray stuff. Did he think he was he ref? But this was brutal. There was the no holds bar challenging on the pitch some of which would be outlawed in the professional game. To add to that there was the get up and get on with it attitude when fouled. The ruthlessness of Brora was good to watch, no sitting on a lead (they scored one hundred and twenty-eight over the season in the league by the time April had come around, thirty more than eventual league winners Cove R*****s). Keiths side were made up of kids and were clearly up against a far superior team but they admirably didn’t give up. They still got wired in Despite knowing they would be on the end of a do-in they never chucked in the towel at any point. The old fitba romantic in me also love the pitch being cut up into clumps, like something from a by gone era. I also thought the floodlights were great, they seemed to just do their job and no more. It just added to the charm and delight of Kynoch Park. The game was over as a contest by half time with goals from Gillespie, Morrison and MacLeod. A fourth came not long after the half from Martin “Digger” MacLean (also a quality player). Keith grabbed a couple via MacDonald and Pugh each side of Brittain and Brindle getting their names on the scoresheet for Brora. Easy day at the office for the Cattachs but fair play to the home side for getting stuck in until full time. I have seen other teams seriously collapse in similar circumstances.
There was only one place to go at full time due to the proximity and the moisture that had clung to us for the previous hundred and five minutes, The Ploo where we were welcomed back and given a Christmas drink on the house. While watching the scores come in local Junior side Islavale appeared after playing New Elgin (one detail that has escaped me was their score). I got speaking to a couple of them which led to them offering up their bounty of soup and sandwiches to our crew. Another friendly touch from the pleasant locals of Keith. As the evening dragged on the booze was clearly taking effect and the Christmas whiskies were out. Probably not the greatest idea I have ever had but it happened. As the train was an hour away the Ugie House was visited for a final pint. This via the local co-op where the inevitable carry out for the journey was purchased. You know your night is heading the wrong way and descending into chaos when you are squeezing in a tinnie between pubs then find yourself trying to stash the carryout in a bush for ten minutes before the entering the next pub. This really happened with all of us trying to decide which bush as the most discreet. The end result? We took it into the pub and asked for it to kept behind the bar to which the owner form early on was more than happy to oblige. After a swift one in the Ugie the day was over, and we traipsed back down the hill to the train station. Where I inevitably fell asleep during the journey missing the stop at Inverurie and waking up in Aberdeen costing me forty quid in a taxi home and leaving me to miss out on a lift home. I also hadn’t realised my phone had fallen out of my pocket and I had to retrieve it from Aberdeen train station lost property in the morning.
Despite the train mishaps on the way home it was cracking day out and it was decided between us to have three days out a season to HFL games. Start of the season, end of the season, and Christmas time which never materialized in the end. Once I had woken up on the Sunday, I decided I was to conquer the HFL as quick as possible. Which I duly did. That was the start of it, the days of ground bothering had commenced fuelled by a great day in the Moray drizzle at a place ill always have a soft spot for, Kynoch Park. In the twenty-five months I have been home since (other twenty five offshore) I have been to a further one hundred and twenty grounds, all because I got my love for football back on that December afternoon in Whisky country