In the early 60s I knew nothing about football. Hard as it is to believe these days there was minimal TV coverage and in the era of black and white transmission everything looked as if it was taking place in a snowstorm anyway.
So when I turned up for the first time at Station Park in August 1964 I didn’t have a clear idea of what to expect.
The farmer up the road agreed to take me to the pre-season trial match between the Probables and the Possibles.
It was a beautiful summer evening – though my mother made me take my heavy trench coat “just in case”.
I recall going through the turnstile and climbing up the steps, built out of retired timber railway sleepers, and getting my first view of the game already under way. I was stunned. I had no idea that the game was played by grown men. In shorts. I’d never seen the like.
But I was hooked from that moment.
In those days every sense was engaged in the match day experience. The Mert was in daily action and, how can I put it, there was an odour of ordure in the air. On a rainy day suspicious looking brackish puddles used to gather in the cobbles under the railway bridge on the walk up to the ground. It was best not to step in them.
And whoever selected the pre match music had an interesting vinyl collection. Scottish country dance tunes alternated with Manfred Mann and Dusty Springfield over the PA. It hasn’t been easy to explain to friends how a few bars of Dusty’s “I just don’t know what to do with myself” on some oldies radio station still whisks me back to the Station Park terraces.
And then when the teams came out the smell of embrocation caught the back of your throat. Brilliant. The home strip was mostly green and white in those days. I prefer the dark blue and light blue hoops that have reappeared this season.
In those days the home dugout was to the right of the tunnel. I don’t know when they swapped them round. But me and my school chum, Ian Smith, established leaning rights on the roof of the home dugout and week after week ran through our repertoire of incredibly amusing (we thought) jokes about the team and the game and our observations about the playing skills and the moral character of the visitors.
We were so devastatingly witty that on one occasion one of the visitors, Ian McMillan, in the Airdrie dugout, asked the polis to have us removed from the ground or else he would remove us himself. He was nicknamed the Wee Prime Minister after Harold MacMillan who had been PM during McMillan’s heyday as captain of Rangers and Scotland.
The Loons weren’t too successful in the 60s. Our aspiration was to get out of Section 9 in the League Cup format that began each season. In those days there were 8 sections that pitched teams from throughout the two divisions (then) in groups of 4. I always thought it was an exciting format with smaller teams getting the chance of decent gates and a bit of giant killing. Section 9, however, was the makeweight comprising the bottom 5 teams of Division 2.
I’ve seen a few terrific matches over the years but my favourite was a league fixture against Morton in the mid 1960s. The Greenock side had been relegated from the top division the previous season but were run away leaders under the managership of Hal Stewart. Their captain was Jim Kennedy, only recently a Scotland cap. For all I know he went bright red every time he played but he looked as if he was about to explode as Loons’ winger Ian Wyles ran him ragged in what was probably his finest Forfar performance. The whole side burst every lung and strained every sinew and we scored first. The home support in a handsome attendance went wild. We lost 2-1 in the end but for sheer excitement it remains with me.
The players all seemed to be characters back then. None more so than Archie Knox. I recall a Scottish cup tie against Queens Park that was snowed off on the Saturday. In the days before Station Park floodlights the match was rearranged for the next Wednesday afternoon.
I took the afternoon off school (oops. sorry mum!). It was a good game but the conditions were arctic. The snow from the pitch had been piled up on the terraces. I decided to take a walk round the pitch at half time to keep the blood flowing and met my headmaster walking round in the opposite direction. We agreed not to notice each other. The loons triumphed 3-2 with a late Archie Knox thunderbolt.
In season 68-69, my last year at school, I made it to every home match except one – the one in which we beat Stenhousemuir 9-1. That just wasnae fair.
For the next years at university in Edinburgh I was more likely to get to away matches as far as Berwick and Stenhousemuir and, er, Hibs 8 Forfar 1.
I started writing for football mags like Goal and Shoot and persuaded them to let me interview long serving club secretary, Jim Robertson, for a feature. I went to Jim’s house where within 30 seconds he punctured any overinflated opinion I might have of myself by saying, “Come on in. I mind o you. You used to write me letters telling me who I should pick for the team every week!” And what a waste of stamps that was.
When the miracle of the 70s and 80s happened and the remarkable Station Park ‘Boot Room’ was at its peak with the managerial baton passed from Knox to Rae to Hall and McPhee I was turning up to watch them at interesting football outposts. Yes, I was at Burslem for the pre-season friendly with Port Vale. On a dark winter morning in 1979 I drove 7 hours from London up to Innerleithen for a Scottish Cup tie with the local non-leaguers. It was the season we took Rangers to extra time in the League Cup semi final. What could possibly go wrong? Beaten 4-1 by Vale of Leithen the 7 hour journey back with no heater or radio in the car was one of the less cheery chapters in my supporting career.
In 1982 I was working in Oxford and persuaded a couple of chums from Oxfam that we should take a day return on the train to attend the Scottish Cup semi-final fixture with star-studded Rangers at Hampden.
Now some remember that Saturday for the news that Argentina had invaded the Falklands but for me the abiding memory is that nothing – least of all the evidence – will persuade me we shouldn’t have had that late penalty that would have booked our return to the national stadium for the final.
Worse was to come. I was due to fly out the next day on an Oxfam assignment to civil war torn El Salvador. I can tell you it wasn’t easy to get the following Wednesday’s replay score in San Salvador in those days before the internet and texts. A friendly producer with one of the US TV channels got his Washington newsroom to find out for me. 1-3. Ach.
Over the years, under various pretexts, I’ve got Forfar into the Guardian, Observer, Independent, Scotsman, BBC Radio Sport on 4, the Food Programme, Radio 5 Live and anthologies of football quotations as well as soccer mags. It has been a bit of a mission.
Some would assume that you have to be brought up within the sound of the Station Park PA to be a genuine Loon but as the 1990s flew past I was not only able to introduce by sons to Station Park but also persuaded my mother that a season ticket was in fact an interesting retirement gift. She and her sister rarely missed a match for the next 25 years and in the less successful seasons of the 2000s we were on several occasions more than 2% of the entire attendance on our own.
My oldest son, Robbie, ran the Loons Mad fanzine for a couple of seasons and was probably the only student who managed to sell advertising as part of his school media studies project.
It has been an interesting first 50 seasons. All human life has been seen at Station Park in that time. Football and Scottish football has changed in many ways. It is barely credible now to recall that we used to pay £40k transfer fees but I have always been impressed when I have bumped into former players who plied their trade at all points of the football compass that they almost all insist there was something special about being a Loon.
The achievements of the 1980s in building and developing a team over several seasons are unlikely to be repeated. It’s hard to do that when even top clubs only dare offer contracts for a year or 2 at most. But there’s just a sense that Dick Campbell is getting close to it again. Let’s just hope there’s no bloody foreign dictator planning to take the gloss off this year’s cup run.