Surviving the abyss: Cowdenbeath and the meaning of a local, historic club

Surviving the abyss: Cowdenbeath and the meaning of a local, historic club

 

The excellent book Pointless by Jeff Connor charts a season in the life of East Stirlingshire Football Club, scrubbing away at the foot of the Scottish Football League. Pointless refers not only to East Stirling’s paucity of victories in any given season throughout much of the 21st century, but also to the very existence of a club destined to never achieve anything other than fulfilling fixtures and just about paying the bills.

Indeed, a playoff defeat to Edinburgh City in 2016 stripped them of the oft deserved tag of Scottish League Two whipping boys, as relegation into the Lowland League followed. To many, waiting impatiently for the updated league tables to appear on their Saturday afternoon results service of choice, having to sit though scores from the lower leagues of England and Scotland until they do can seem to be a pointless exercise.

Poorly attended matches held in stadiums, the name of which most will never bother to learn, from towns few Premier League supporters will ever visit, can appear to be a complete waste of everyone’s time. A complete waste of time, of course, until you actually pay one of these grounds a visit.

Cowdenbeath, a small team from a small town in Fife, have taken over East Stirling’s mantle in recent years. A final-day relegation from the Scottish Championship in 2015 was followed by a similar fate out of League One a year later.

A third horror season in a row saw the Blue Brazil come last in League Two, surviving a playoff with East Kilbride to preserve their Scottish Professional Football League status. The 2017/18 season has also been a tough one to take for those who call Cowdenbeath’s Central Park ground home.

It is unlikely that the old Central Park terraces, facing down a bitter winter wind and driving sleet on the last day of March 2018, have seen a much worse season in their 101 years.

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A first league win on 12 August was followed up with a second seven months later, on 17 March. This band of lower league journeymen that had pulled on the blue of Cowdenbeath during 2017/18 had racked up 11 points from 26 games before their 3-1 win at home to Elgin City that fateful day in March.

However, another victory the following Tuesday, 2-1 away to promotion hopefuls Stenhousemuir, and a 2-2 draw at Stirling Albion the next Saturday saw the club almost win as many points in a week as they had done all season.

It was a respite, but not enough to offer any hope of salvation to the ageing supporters that propped up the bar in the dim-lit pub around the corner from the ground. Games were running out and they were still 10 points adrift at the foot of the table. Another playoff beckoned against either the winners of the Highland or Lowland Leagues.

They drank through gritted teeth as a small congregation of visiting Stenhousemuir supporters chatted about their chances of promotion, trying to block it out by concentrating on the horse racing playing on the television.

Despite the long-held knowledge that a tough season would end with a playoff to preserve their league status, there was little fatalism inside Central Park. An old man in a bobble hat ran the tiny portacabin club shop with pride, showing off the replica shirts his heroes would be soon taking to the pitch in. A similarly aged man sold their award-winning programme with the same gusto.

A steep set of brightly painted yellow steps, flanked by equally vibrant blue handrails, rose up until finally revealing the Central Park pitch, encircled by a stock-car track and enormous tyre barriers in each corner. A gloomy passageway beneath one of the two old stands on the far side transported supporters toward their seats – and a gloriously obscured view of proceedings. Stanchions, mostly eradicated from modern stadiums, had fans that were bundled up against the cold in Cowdenbeath hats and scarves craning and leaning to follow the play.

Before the game started, a minute’s silence was held to acknowledge the passing of a life-long supporter of the Blue Brazil. The rain that had been rapping on the rafters of the stand began to drum with even greater force; applause amongst the quiet at the countless soakings he no doubt had endured during his years of dedication at the park.

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The barely 300-strong crowd felt sparse among the stands and terraces that had regularly held 10, 20 times that amount in days gone by. Only a handful stayed at their posts on the exposed terracing on the far side, leaning into the wind and rain that morphed into sleet, sometimes snow, before more frequent veils of hail. Others decamped to the back of the stand, watching play with hands buried deep inside coat pockets.

No matter the numbers, the lowly position, this was their match of the day, and had been for more years than they might care to remember. Cowdenbeath is their team; it’s everything. And attacking play from a side that gave their all despite – or maybe because of – their predicament was greeted with cheers and encouragement.

Groans at wayward passes, obscenities at refereeing decisions, seats tipped back as attacks on the Stenhousemuir goal brought people to their feet; the crack-like gunshots as they snapped back down beneath the weight of muttering souls, sinking with the disappointment of a missed opportunity.

Opportunities that looked all the worse when Stenhousemuir broke away and scored against the run of play. Game over – or so it should have been. But pride, desperation and sheer will saw Cowdenbeath back up some genuine samba flair with a goal born out of pure muscle and bluster. Striker Jordyn Sheerin bundled his way through the visiting defence to prod the ball beneath the advancing goalkeeper, sending the Cowden faithful into raptures.

It wasn’t enough to close the gap on those above them, but enough to satisfy all that Cowdenbeath were worth fighting for. They were worth their spot amongst the classified results that would begin to chunter across the country as old-timers raised legs, aching and groaning from the cold, and made their way home. Home past a crowd of vans towing battered stock-cars on trailers that had amassed outside while the football had kept all focused within. They would be the evening’s entertainment as the weather and darkness descended.

Time will tell if Cowdenbeath can survive a fourth year of struggle and preserve their league status. Whether they do or not, it will not dim the importance of this little institution to those who have made it a part of their life. Win, lose or draw, what goes on at Central Park is far from pointless.

By Mat Guy  @MatGuy5

Photo by Weetabliss

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