I recently happened across some photos whilst clearing out my old room in my folks’ house. They show my team – Raith Rovers – playing a game at their home ground of Stark’s Park some time in the mid-1990s. The stadium is rammed full of people, many of them standing in the terracing behind the goals and on the flat ground along the side of the pitch.
Stark’s Park was, and still is, a somewhat unique football ground. Located in the west of Kirkcaldy in Fife, rumour has it the main stand is so old it has been granted protected building status and thus cannot be knocked down without good reason. A row of houses looks right over a gap between the stands, so near to the pitch that wayward clearances have been known to sail through open windows. The other side of the pitch is flanked by a railway line, again in such close proximity to the field of play that the team’s success and status in any given season can be determined by the number of trains that toot as they clatter past. Behind each goal is a big, boring modern grandstand – more about those in a minute. The pitch is squint as the result of a botched attempt to remove a significant north-south slope during renovations in the 1990s.
The game from which these photos were taken is one of the last home games before the old terracing behind the goals was pulled down and replaced with identikit three thousand-odd seat stands. The Scottish Premier League’s rules at the time stipulated that every team had to have a ten thousand capacity all-seater stadium to be allowed to move up to the top level (there was a one year grace period, hence the presence of terracing during our first season back in the top flight).
This rule was actually pretty strictly enforced. One February, I remember joining in the inventive chant – to the tune of Go West – of ‘no seats, no SPL’, aimed at a traveling band of high-flying Queen of the South supporters who were in danger of missing out on promotion due to the ramshackle nature of their own ground at the time. On a more serious note, though, the ruling meant many teams were forced to undertake expensive construction projects to increase the capacity of stadia that in reality would only be filled twice a year when Rangers or Celtic came to visit. And the need to erect new grandstands meant that freshly-promoted teams had little left to spend on upgrading their squad, the result being that more often than not they would go straight back down to the First Division and be left with a vastly oversized stadium that would never be filled. Dunfermline, Dundee, Partick Thistle, Raith Rovers and several others all suffered in this way, shouldering large debts that left them languishing in the lower divisions for many years to follow.
Despite the modernisations, Stark’s Park remains in essence a stadium with character, an increasingly rare commodity in modern football. Along with the sign at Hearts’ ground warning spectators to ‘Beware of Pickpockets’ and the stand at Dundee that extends right up to the touchline, the L-shaped stand with its endearing peaked roof is a relic of a different era. Rather fittingly, it is also the place where former Prime Minister and lifelong Rovers fan Gordon Brown sits when he comes to watch games. Even during his tenure at 10 Downing Street, the then Labour leader would occasionally fly in to Edinburgh and be driven over to Kirkcaldy to take in a game.
This was not without its own problems. One crucial fixture which Brown planned to attend was put in jeopardy due to a threat from paternal rights campaigners Fathers4Justice to padlock the stadium gates shut. Although the threat never materialised, the game did go ahead with a significantly increased security presence. Approximately ten minutes before kick-off, my Dad nudged me with his elbow and gestured in the direction of the gentleman two rows in front, for he was not a regular in our section of the stand. He was dressed entirely in black, appeared to be more interested in the spectators than the teams warming up, and definitely did not have a Rovers scarf. From the back of the stand, a paper plane constructed out of a teamsheet sailed over our heads at low altitude and continued on the perfect trajectory to land inside the apparent bodyguard’s collar. My father and I both expected the man in black to leap to his feat, assume the position and blow someone’s head off. But without taking his eyes off whatever he was watching, the recipient of the paper dart raised his right hand, unfolded the paper plane, and glanced at its contents before folding it in four and placing it on the floor under his feet. The only major security threat described on the sheet of paper was that Andy McNeil would be playing in goals instead of Davie McGurn.
On another occasion I pitched up at Starks of a Thursday morning with my brother-in-law from Japan, hoping he might be able to get a wee tour of the ground at short notice. I was very apologetically informed that whilst this would in normal circumstances be no problem at all, the stadium was to remain off-limits for two days whilst COBRA or whatever it’s called conducted a full security sweep ahead of the visit of the PM. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a terrorist attack at the San Starko. There have certainly been attempts at attack from the Rovers forwards that could land one in front of a tribunal in The Hague for crimes against humanity, but nothing that could be described as incendiary, explosive or carrying intent to harm (the back of the net). Whether this is due to the hard work of Her Majesty’s Constabulary or not I cannot say, but the biggest dangers to public safety at Stark’s generally come from much closer to home.
For the best part of fifteen years, a lion-shaped mascot by the name of Roary Rover has patrolled the perimeter of the Kirkcaldy pitch. In theory, his job is to fire up the home support and taunt the opposition. In reality, the seven foot Rovers shirt-wearing feline saunters about before kick-off, then takes up position on the far touchline, arms folded and eyes on the field as he follows every kick of the ball. Approximately ten years ago the head of the lion costume wore out and was replaced with one in a darker shade of brown, prompting chants of ‘what a f**king waste of fur’ from the back of the south stand. It is to my eternal regret that I missed the game when Roary – or at least the gentleman inside the suit – lost patience with the match officials following a dubious decision, and in a scene reminiscent of a Peter Kay comedy was sent to the stand for verbally abusing a linesman.
Going back to the photos, one of the key reasons the San Starko was packed to the rafters for that particular match was that the visitors were a now-defunct outfit from Glasgow by the name of Rangers. I learned a few interesting things the day those pictures were taken, chief among them being called a ‘f**king idiot’ by a Rangers supporter at the final whistle. Such was the absurdity of swearing at a ten year-old supporter of a provincial football club that even at that age, I was not upset but rather baffled by the man’s actions. I also experienced for the first time a phenomenon that affects wee teams up and down the UK, a phenomenon I shall refer to as the Scarf in the Cupboard Effect. Upon the scoring of Rangers’ first goal, half of the home stand leapt up in celebration. Can’t get tickets for the away end when the big team comes to your town? No problem, just go in the home end and hide the scarf for your ‘big team’ under your coat. The stewards have gotten wise to this one in recent years, though, hence my Dad earlier this year being ordered to unzip his coat and open his rucksack so two police officers could check he wasn’t smuggling a Celtic scarf.
That match in March 1996 ended 4-2 to Rangers, but not before Raith had held their own for much of the game, even leading for a brief period of time. A squad featuring Trinidad international Tony Rougier and midfield maestro Danny Lennon probably marked the peak of the Rovers’ footballing prowess, but the large sums spend on outstandingly average journeymen like Peter Duffield and Steve Kirk should have been a warning we were spending unsustainably. There were of course no such worries for Old Rangers. They boasted a starting lineup including Danish superstar Brian Laudrup, then schoolboy hero and perfect sporting role model Ally McCoist, and Englishman Paul Gascoigne, the latter of whom was booed every time he touched the ball.
Just as nobody could have predicted the extent to which Gazza’s personal troubles would take over his life, on that spring day seventeen years ago no-one could have imagined Rangers disappearing completely from the top league and having to start again from the bottom as a new team. If, on the other hand, you’d told us Rovers fans we’d finish that season sixth in the league, be relegated the next, run out of money, have the police arrest one of our strikers on the touchline for breaching bail conditions, be bought by a crazy Frenchman, sold again, reach the semi-final of the Scottish Cup, be pipped to returning to the Premier League by a rival team overspending to the point of total bankruptcy, and wind up back where we were in the early 1980s playing to just over a thousand people, we’d quite happily believe you. Because when you play in a stadium that had one of the world’s first ever recorded pitch invasions and once displayed brand-new cars right in the firing line for wayward clearances, you learn to believe anything can happen.