5th of December 2015. Quite the insignificant date for the outsider. The fifth of December in general, has had very little of note happen throughout history. In 1848 the US saw the start of the California gold rush and in 1945 the Bermuda Triangle caused one of aviation greatest mysteries when “Flight 19”, a group of five Torpedo bombers went missing during training. Barring that, not much else has gone on. In 2015, as snooker great Ronnie O’Sullivan was turning forty and World Soil Day was being celebrated by whoever the bloody hell knows what World Soil Day is were doing what they do, something was brewing in Moray. I, unbeknown to myself was setting the wheels in motion for what has since transformed into a bit of a monster. I became a “groundhopper” (terrible word).
The town of Keith welcomed five of us with open arms, for what was billed as a pre-Christmas piss up. We succeeded in that. It was heading for Christmas and by the time we boarded the train home, we were well and truly oiled. What I didn’t bank on was this day opening the can of worms which was a newfound desire for visiting new football grounds. Not only in our beautiful country either, but a further fourteen between then and now. Something clicked inside me that day. Was it the friendliness of local grogshops? Maybe. What about the standard of fitba? Fair chance. Was it the gem that is Kynoch Park? There is possibly something there too. Then again it was maybe something to do with my love of football had taken a nosedive in recent times and needed kickstarted with something different. A blatant correlation found there. Then again, was it a combination of all the above with the refreshing nature of that whole day’s experience? I think that is the truth right there. The Highland League made me flash back to a lot of what made me love fitba in the first place. Then in turn instantaneously releasing me from my recent slump in fucks given towards fitba overall. (See Fitbawbaggery from the Vaults #8)
My life in football had worked in different ways from the age of five. There had been various stages of playing, which went from Juveniles to Junior to Amateurs, with school and Aberdeenshire district select intertwined in the childhood years. I could say the same about my viewing years going through stages too. As mentioned at various points throughout my blog page, I popped my live fitba viewing cherry on August 17th, 1991. Dunfermline Athletic were the visitors to a pristine Pittodrie. The way the day panned out was superb and I got off to a great start with Jim Bett, Brian Grant and Eoin Jess supplying the goals in a 3-0 victory for the Dons. From here I was hooked and season tickets for my old boy, brother and I were not long in following. Heading down Pittodrie Street was my only port of call for the following four years. In this time there some great memories made. Switzerland visited and knocked Scotland out of USA ’94, although the result was nothing to cheer about, the atmosphere and Swiss fans were something totally different to me. The giant cowbells in the Main Stand corners Swiss contingent still stick out to this day, the giant Young Boys flag in the South Stand away section too. John Collins sending the Tartan Army into raptures is still one of the loudest cheers I have heard at the great old ground. Then the dejection that followed ten minutes later when Georges Bregy struck his penalty past Bryan Gunn ending Scotland’s run of consecutive World Cups stretching back to 1974. The eerie hush and dumbness of the Tartan Army was deafening. I had never seen a crowd get the stuffing knocked out of them quite like that before. Torino was another great night with the wrong ending. Again, the away fans, totally alien to me in my fledgling live fitba career were chanting as opposed to singing, they had flares, megaphones and flags, all of which I had seen on Football Italia but not in the flesh. But to see it in there in front of me had a profound effect on nine-year-old self. From that night I was hell-bent on heading to Serie A. The car journey home from the game always brings back memories of annoying my brother by mimicking the Italians and chanting “Il Toro, Il Toro”. Yes, we had been knocked out of Europe, but I can’t remember ever enjoying an atmosphere like that previously. It was new, it was intimidating, it was fucking magic. Other highlights from my early years include pumping Hearts in the 92/93 season, 6-2 with a Duncan Shearer hat trick in the mix. The big Highlander was then to bring me my ultimate highlight the following season with THAT overhead kick against Dundee United in a 2-0 victory. I loved heading to Pittodrie, I loved the whole experience of the day and I loved spending it with my old boy.
The 1994/95 season came and was the game changer though. The next epoch of my live fitba adventures started. Yes, we were terrible that season and a one point it looked bleak for our survival. (Forgotten to many is how tight the final table was, only thirteen points between us in second bottom and second placed Motherwell). Although known to many as “the season that shall not be named” it will never be forgotten for me. This due to the fact I started heading away with the Dons. First up, the do or die Hearts match. Billy Dodds ensured we were not going down without a fight. The bounce for the late winner still gives me shivers down my spine now. I had never been part of anything like it prior. Then came the decrepit terraces of Brockville where again we came away with the three points with a comfortable 2-0 victory taking us into the playoffs with Dunfermline. Unfortunately, however, I could not add a fourth ground to my list as with my own football commitments that night I had to settle for watching the pitch invasion of relief from afar on the telly in my folks living room. From that season away games came thick and fast, Brockville was revisited on day one of the following season, but the ground list kept building over the proceeding seasons, with the Premier League was obviously where most of the grounds were found. Ibrox happened regularly with on one occasion a full-grown male trying to punch me and spit on me over the partition sheet. This was followed by my cousin flying over my shoulder to try and return the favour, the punch that is, as who spits in general, let alone at a twelve-year-old kid. While Dens Park, Firhill, East End Park, Rugby Park, Fir Park, Tannadice, McDiarmid, Easter Road etc were being ticked off. The Scottish Cup took us to lower league grounds such as Boghead and Recreation Park among others. Friendlies found us at Victoria Park, Allan Park, Glebe Park and more. The ground list was growing exponentially. As all these Dons related away days were unfolding, my cousin and I starting regularly attending Highland League games when we were not on the road with the Dons. Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Elgin, Cove, Huntly were all visited. The Blue Toon putting eight past Cove R*****s at the old Recreation Park was an awesome sight. Still indisputably the best Highland League performance I have seen to this day. The Broch v Whitehill Welfare in the Scottish Cup was a great day out too. We were positioned next to the fans who had made the long journey from Roswell and those guys were on top inebriated form throughout .As the years went on, my mates signed for Junior clubs and I got round a huge percentage of the North Region Juniors grounds for various reasons. The biggest being, when I was at U18s we had a horrific winter, week after week the games were off meaning free weekends leading to me following Formartine United(this before my long running grudge came into being) Many weekends and midweek fixtures were attended, ticking off pretty much the whole Premier League in the process, barring Culter’s Crombie Park which for some reason eluded me for years. Then when I moved up to Juniors myself, I managed to get a few of the other grounds ticked off while out of the team or suspended. Burghead’s gargantuan Forest Park and Deveronside’s Canal Park spring to mind but there were more. From here my life continued in this kind of trajectory, picking up new grounds here and there at different levels. This even including numerous cross border piss ups to English Premiership grounds. This period now being referred to as the young and naïve chapter. Interestingly though, from 1991-2015 I never considered myself to be collecting grounds. I was just a football fan. Simple as that.
Back to that drizzly day in Keith, Brora R*****s were the visitors and pretty much dismantled Keith. 6-2 it ended with the points heading to Sutherland. There was so much to like, it flicked a switch inside me which sent me on a two thousand mile trip round the whole league watching a game at each ground, this inclusive of the teams I had previously visited. Every ground was ticked off with a pre-match thumbs up photo outside. It only took four months to accomplish from Keith to the culmination up in Brora. Eleven months on the calendar but when offshore was four months, and the summer break taking up another three, it was dusted in warp speed. This also made a bit more impressive with Aberdeen games taking priority too, this making the time frame notable. Midweek trips to Fort William, Forres and Clachnacuddin thrown into the equation was further evidence of my dedidication. I was dead set on getting it done. Challenging my self to the HFL made it official; it had happened, I was officially collecting grounds. My list was written up. I worked out that prior to Kynoch Park I had visited sixty grounds, fifty in Scotland and ten elsewhere. To fit in the criteria, they had to be Junior upwards. That’s was the main rule. Council multi-park affairs clarted in dog shite would not count. Public parks and municipal AstroTurf or 3G don’t make it either. The Highland League had put me up to seventy-seven grounds and next up on the challenges list was to complete the Scottish top forty. Yes, forty as I refuse to put money in the pockets of a certain two teams. Again, like the Highland League this was to constitute revisits for thumbs up photo purposes. But before that challenge came to fruition, I had wee continental voyage to take care of. I walked out of Dudgeon Park on the Saturday I completed the Highland League happy in the knowledge I was to be sitting in the Amsterdam Arena watching Ajax v NEC in less than twenty four hours’ time, this followed up with a visit to the Westfallenstadion in Dortmund two days later for a Champions League encounter between Borussia Dortmund and Legia Warsaw. This opening my eyes to foreign fitba. Foreign fitba that would deplete my bank account across fourteen countries and a further fifty-nine clubs out with Scotland (I already had ten under my belt). But in the same period, I was to visit sixty-eight new grounds in Scotland along with all the revisits to get my photo. All in all, I have visited 127 new grounds since and including Keith. Sixty months have passed, thirty of them have been spent in the Atlantic and corona put eight further months to the sword. It may be five years on paper but as I have touched on above, for work and corona related reasons it’s not even two years, this leaving an average of just shy of six new grounds every trip home from work. Which with a season ticket at Pittodrie for the first three and half years taking priority over everything leaves the stats quite impressive. The proof is in the pudding that this has become a full-blown hobby but more importantly, reignited my love affair with the great game.
Kynoch Park was the first official ground of my new schtick, and Esh Winning’s West Terrace was the latest, this until next week when I return from Africa to hopefully tick off a few more. With what is going on in the world just now I will find myself trailing around the Highlands and Moray chasing games. Anything out with the UK is obviously ruled out, as is a lot of the UK itself. But I will not adversity defeat me. Pencilled in but not definite are Scourie in the North Caledonian league, Alness United in the same division but it all boils down to weather and the safety of making such trips in winter. Some closer safer to get to Junior grounds are sitting in reserve, Forres Thistle’s Logie Park and New Elgin’s Nicol-Togneri Park being the two in question. I am also not giving up hope of ticking off a couple of Northern League games, which is dependant of these current draconian measures being abolished. Also, in the mix for my next stint home will be revisits to Spain Park, my local team when staying at lovely lady on the other Bank o’ the Dees house. But hiding in a bush with a carryout will have to suffice there due to the contradictory corona measures being in place. Then coincidentally there is a high possibility of a new year trip to Kynoch Park for a visit of Wick Academy. This to add numbers to Wee Mans highland League collection. Then again, I may just nip down to the Luncarty v Kinoull derby instead. Wherever I end up, I cannot wait.
A lot of people do not get it, which is fair enough, each to their own and all that. But what is the “obsession” with neutral fitba? There are a few reasons. I will start with the most recent and most important. The Wee Man. When he started attending fitba, he did go to Pittodrie. He even made an appearance at Rugby Park when we stole a win via a last-minute Lewis Ferguson goal. Then one day he said he preferred “little games”. This meaning junior games, Highland League and the likes where crowds didn’t hit more than a couple of hundred. A day out at the fitba with him is more than just the match. It’s a point of interest in the morning, a castle, museum or a walk. Then a picnic or a café prior to the game and the fitba itself. It is our way of doing things and it is what we have become accustomed to. This has allowed us to see every neuk and crannie of our great country in doing so. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with their son every Saturday and seeing the fantastic country that is Scotland? He is the main reason and always will be until he is too cool to hang out with his old boy. It is father, son bonding, something you can never have enough of. He is an extra added gargantuan plus point to my travels who took his place by my side for the first time at Colony Park almost two and a half years into my non-aligned football escapades. Taking what was brilliant and creating something that is ten-fold more fulfilling.
I mentioned travelling around Scotland but that goes for out with too. I don’t just drink beer and watch the match as some would believe I do when I am on my jollies. I am all about cultures and history. I will eat the food, drink the local grog and see as much of these cities as possible. When in Rome my pal and I walked twenty five miles in day taking as much as we could possibly cram in. Vienna was another where I spent from 7am until around 11pm on the non fitba day ticking off as much attractions as I could, an unknown distance covered but it would have easily been approaching twenty miles. There has been other fantastic history filled cities over the years too. Belfast, Florence, Arnhem, Lisbon, Le Havre, Dusseldorf, Amsterdam, Prague, Bern and the fabulous Deventer. There have been many more. Sixty-nine clubs have been visited in fifty-nine non-Scottish cities with Vienna, Prague, Carlisle, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Oslo and Lisbon supplying me with a fitba fix more than once. Most of these places have had the tourist treatment, not all as some have been fleeting visits as part of weekend trips away for other games, Wigan, Perugia, Brescia…. I love this aspect of my fitba geekdom. The world is too big to fully conquer and see everywhere I want to, so until I bid this world adieu, I will continue tying football in with my culture and history admiring side.
Another collosal reason is people. I have come across some top folk when out and about. From whole places like Deventer when I went to see Go Ahead Eagles in 2018. A place that seemed like the whole city were chuffed I had come to see their club. Barmen, café workers, hotel staff, restaurant workers and the fans at the ground themselves. A bloody fantastic place that I will hopefully get back to soon enough with Wee Man in tow. (See Fitbawbaggery From the Vaults #1) Then there are leagues like the Northern League where I have never felt so welcome by so many (100% record in six matches). Fans, club members, players, other “groundhoppers”, everyone I spoke to. It is truly is a great place to watch fitba. (See Inane Rambling #10). There have been numerous clubs and fans who have welcomed me with open arms to. Dungannon Swifts, Cumnock, Brora Rangers and Hill of Beath Hawthorn who all invited me and whever I was with into the board room at HT to be fed and watered, although the latter was abandoned on half an hour. Rothes could not have been any more welcoming when we I was part of a corporate day out for a game v Clachnacuddin. There have been great welcomes at Sauchie, Whitburn, Kirrie Thistle, Carlisle City, Tow Law, where committee, fans and old mannies in the social clubs alike have been amenable and glad to welcome us interlopers from a different neck of the country with absolutely no attachment to the clubs. Being taken under the wing and taking in the game with Annan Athletic fans was an enjoyable afternoon. Peaceful, good chat and good to hear the views of different Scottish fitba fans. Then you get the rowdier occasions. For example, being “accosted” by fans of Deveronvale, Utrecht, Young Boys, Cliftonville, Auchinleck Talbot (the night before), Feyenoord, Valerenga where every time I struggled to put my hand in my pocket due to the warmth and cordiality of these people. Days like these really make you realise that although football has the reputation of bringing out the worst in people. It can also bring people together and unleash the best in them. There are also the times where I could just shoot the shit with fans in brief conversations, like at Beith where the home supporters and away (Largs Thistle) would stop and chat to me and have a kick about with Wee Man. These kick abouts have also happened at Linlithgow Rose, Hurlford, Blyth Spartans, Lochee United to name a few. Such moments are a very common occurrence where the delight in Wee Man’s face is there for all to see. These might sound like trivial details, but they are a lot more than that to me. One of my favourite memories was at Albion Rovers where after enquiring about the age of Wee Man (four at the time) the stadium announcer was intrigued by my accent. Immediately jumping to conclusions, he assumed I was a fan of visiting Peterhead. Although hailing from the same neck of the woods and having an old man with a soft spot for the Blue Toon, I am not a fan. This surprising the MC who then proceeded to welcome us to Cliftonhill over the tannoy and announcing Wee Man as the youngest person in attendance to which he received an ovation from the Albion faithful. A fantastic gesture. But he wasn’t finished, as we were walking away, he added a bit extra “Oh aye Graeme, you do realise you are in Coatbridge, I hope you remembered to lock your car”. A stellar piece of self-deprecating that got the laugh it fully deserved. One of my greatest experiences was bumping into AEK fans in the middle of Vienna prior to a Europa League tie v Austria Vienna. It will live long in the memory. Sharing fitba stories over a few beers earned me an invitation to join their march through the city to the game. A truly memorable experience where the Greeks stopped traffic and made their presence felt. The march stopped just down the street from the stunning St Stephen’s Cathedral to carry out a celebratory chant and bounce much to the surprise of all the tourists in the area. Great to watch and be a part of. And bloody intimidating too. No trouble. Just supporting their club the way they know how. These are just a handful of people and events this far in my visits across the UK and Europe. People is a topic that could be a blog itself as I have plenty more stories to go. But even just this snippet shows that fitba really is nothing without folk.
The other main reason is enjoyment of the games in front of me. I think this is heightened by not having that emotional attachment to a team. This meaning barring a 0-0 anything goes. Goals are the aim and when you do not care which net they end up in, it has an air of a refreshing feel to it. Still to this day I get that buzz. Up until I binned my season ticket at Pittodrie at the end of 18/19 season I had lost any good will towards watching Aberdeen. The football was rubbish, the tactics were sometimes criminal, and I felt the manager had well outstayed his welcome (I still do). Going to the games had become a chore and had very little good to come out of them. I can safely say I have not had that feeling as a neutral. From the beginning during my Highland League adventure to laterally heading over the border to the Northern League I have had that kid in a sweetie shop feel every time. Thinking about which grounds I will finish out 2020 at gives me that feeling now as I write. The mileage is never an issue, the late nights either. Driving round trips that equate to five, six, seven times the length of the game itself has never put any sort of dampener on my mood. If there is a game involved, I am in my element and smiling. There have been some amazing games through the years. I can easily place the best too without hesitation. Forfar West End 4–4 Tayport in the East of Scotland Consolation Cup in May 2019 (see Fitbaggery from the Vaults #10). Incredible viewing which proved you don’t need over paid and overhyped mercenaries to create such outstanding entertainment. Heading to the Westfallenstadion is mentioned above, what I didn’t divulge is that it finished 8-4 to the Germans. Incredible stuff and the record Champions League score to date (See Fitbawbaggery from the Vaults #5). Another outstanding match was Young Boys overturning a 2-0 half time deficit to win 3-2 to defeat local rivals Thun. This visit to the Wankdorf was part of a Swiss tour where all elements barring Wee Man came in to play, travel, cities, culture and folk. My most terrific foray to date without a shadow of doubt. (See Fitbawbaggery from the Vaults #7). Other games I couldn’t take my eyes of include Vitesse 4-2 Heerenveen, Twente 2-2 Cambuur, Aarau 3-4 Luzern, Shotts Bon Accord 3-4 Blantyre Victoria, Rot Weiss Oberhausen 1-1 Rot Weiss Essen, Camelon 2-0 Linlithgow Rose, St Cuthbert Wanderers 3-3 Heston Rovers, Duftown 4-2 East End and even a 0-0 will make it in. Atalanta v Inter was a defensive masterclass from the home side. But these are the cream of the crop. There have been many more decent displays on show. There are not even a handful of damp squibs to name so far either. But to be totally honest, to out shite Fortuna Sittard 0-0 Emmen will take some doing though. Horrific viewing. What I find fantastic so far is the fact great games are found across the whole spectrum of levels too. Just mentioning Borussia Dortmund and Forfar West End in the same paragraph puts meat on the bones to that. This element of my hobby is the one people mostly do not understand and the one I get most ribbing for. The is definitely an elitist attitude with some people in regard to watching lower and non-league fitba. I have been laughed at for my choice of games. People are blinkered by the bright lights of the English Premiership and Champions League and other trumpeted pish. The attitude toward the lower reaches is uneducated and unfounded. But as stated above, each to their own and all that.
Wee Man, travel, culture, folk and enjoyment, the reasons I relish what I do these days in my thirties. Since Kynoch Park my attitude towards fitba has be flipped on its head and has become more than just the ninety minutes. I used to be as partisan as it comes. It was Aberdeen or nothing. I did not (and still don’t) follow Scotland or anyone else. I support Aberdeen and a defeat would ruin my day, weekend and sometimes my week. I was in the mindset, once my playing career was curtailed it was Pittodrie until I died. That is how I went about it initially once the boots started gathering dust. I would never have expected to get excited at the prospect of watching games in the sixth tier of Scotland and having a brand-new love of the ninth and tenth tiers of the English game. This did come as a surprise, but it was as equally contenting. Was it due to boredom that I had found myself so detached from not only Pittodrie but the upper end of Scottish fitba in general? Was the disenchantment down to the staleness of what was on show? Was it the media circle jerk of a supposed “old firm” derby being “back”? Or was it that I just mellowed a bit with age and lost the red tinted zealot like approach to how I viewed the fitba? I think these were all slight factors in the changing of the routine. But when I wax nostalgic back to that day in the Moray drizzle it makes me realise that it had the travel, the enjoyment, the folk and the culture, well we were on the whiskies in the Ploo after the match, this surely counts as culture in a whisky town like Keith . The day couldn’t be faulted in any way. It had everything that seemed to be lacking elsewhere to me. Who knew that what I had been craving was found just up the road in the 5th tier. More importantly , who knew what a profound effect it would have on my life
Five years ago I had a began a fitba related metamorphosis and thanks to Keith, I am not sure I will ever change back. Not that Wee Man would give me a choice.