Words by John Watt
It’s approaching kick off on a refreshingly crisp January afternoon as Airdrieonians prepare to overcome East Fife at the Penny Cars stadium. I’m here with my friend and our respective sons via complimentary tickets to watch a couple of players, Tom Fry (Airdrie) and Kyle Wilkie (East Fife), who also coach our lads.
I settle into my carefully chosen, defect free, faded plastic seat and have a few minutes to skim through the match programme and STOMP! Right there on page 20 the journey home begins. In John O’Brien’s “Around This Time” section, there it is, 1981 Saturday 3rd January, Airdrieonians 1 Rangers 1. I felt a rush of adrenaline reading that paragraph, then a warm, nostalgic glow as I realised the coincidence. 37 years almost to the day that my uncle (Gordon Stewart) took my then 10 year old self to his first Airdrie game and now here I am with my 10 year old son at his first Airdrie game. As I watched the game my mind started to wander and the memories began creeping back into focus.
Growing up in Strathaven I loved football and played at every opportunity on any space available. Grass, red ash, concrete or otherwise, however I didn’t really have a strong bond or connection with any team. My Dad was a butcher and as such worked most Saturdays, therefore simply didn’t have time to take me to any games. Despite this he kept himself well informed and we enjoyed the rare evening games on the TV together.
Going to my first matches was the prevail of my Uncle. Most Saturdays my Mum would drive my younger sister, brother and I to visit our grandparents and uncles who were tenant farmers at Townhead Farm, Holytown. We loved those seemingly long drives in my mum's bright orange Talbot Sunbeam with a collection of cassettes providing a soundtrack including Dr Hook, Bille Joe Spears and Kenny Rogers. Occasionally I would be allowed to play one of my treasured tapes, Emerald by Thin Lizzy was always the favourite track.
The tension would build as we approached the corner of Bellshill Main Street on which sat the most tempting toy shop with yellow tinted windows. We never seemed to have the time to stop. Then into Holytown, passing Thankerton Park with its sloped pitch. On braver days I would venture down for a kickabout with some of the older lads who helped out on the farm. Being accepted by and playing with them turned out to be some of my “best of times”. My uncle only just told me that he played against Jimmy Johnstone on that very pitch as Bellshill Academy took on Viewpark Boys Guildl. Onwards past The White House, left at The Coach House and we’re onto the farm road sneaking past the corrugated enclosures that concealed the pitch and toss gamblers, along the side of the coal bing, now the Keir Hardie Sports Centre and home of Holytown Colts, and finally we’re there.
If it was a quiet day for my Uncle on the farm then my luck was in, “fancy taking in a game young John?" Nae reluctance here. He would then scour the local fixtures to see what looked like a decent game.
My first game was Hamilton Accies vs Keith at a dilapidated Douglas Park with the Highland League team pulling off a shock 3-2 win in the Scottish Cup. I took it all in especially the sniggering education in profanity from the guttural, gravel voiced Ian “Fergie” Russell - Hamilton’s infamous foul mouthed fan.
Other memorable games attended included Bellshill Athletic at their original Brandon Park, squeezed neatly among the factories and warehouses of Mossend. A Scotland vs England Schoolboys game at Fir Park with a remarkable attendance and my first full international watching personal heroes, Steve Archibald and John Robertson beat Israel 3-1 high up in Hampden’s old Main Stand.
But my second game 37 years ago, that crowd at Broomfield , standing near the back of one of the covered stands - that’s the special one. Dark, dusty and slightly claustrophobic, the game had an edge enhanced by Airdrieonians opening the scoring with an own goal from Peter McCloy that I couldn’t quite see, but certainly enjoyed. I remember the wonder of seeing Airdrie in those classic shirts holding their own despite Rangers equalising via Ally Dawson. Even as a naive kid I knew this was not the expected result and understood the sarcasm in my uncle's comment upon leaving, “what’d you think of the mighty Rangers then?” “Not much," I replied.
I cherish the memories of those first games along with my uncle’s enthusiasm for the Scottish game, evident by the variety of games we went to. I’m positive this gave me a grounding and objectivity in following football ever since.
As mentioned earlier, until recently I struggled to commit fully to picking “my” team. Trying to convince myself for years that it was Hamilton Accies simply because they were the first team I saw and closest to my original home, but apologies in advance; apart from the long gone Impulse Records shop, never liked the town!
There was a big soft spot for the Dundee United side of Sturrock, Narey, Hegarty and like most, could watch those Barcelona games endlessly as I cut about in my replica kit; tangerine and black still looks horrendous on untanned limbs.
Recently Queens Park have become part of my family's life due to my son being part of their youth academy. They’re our local club being just 10 minutes away with a fantastic community set up, family orientated with an impressive history, but for me the connection feels more like a good friend rather than true love.
All this brings me back to that coincidental match that triggered this reflection. Subsequently I have reconnected with my uncle and enjoyed reliving those games, turns out he and my grandfather (Charles Stewart) were indeed season ticket holders at Airdrie. He delighted in telling me how his dad threw his cup game ticket in the fire after a heated argument. The farm is long gone, replaced by the Euro Central project and family scattered, but on my way to the stadium I can still see part of a field I learned to drive and subsequently jackknife a tractor in (uncle still doesn’t know ) and a wood I explored imaginatively.
Airdrieonians feels right, feels good and now shines a light on the soul, this old Diamond, Sunbeams, Emeralds and all.