FANS STANDING IN GARDENS TO WATCH GAMES…A 6-SEAT PRESS BOX…UNKNOWN PLAYERS…AND A TOWN CALLED TARTYKenny MacDonald of the Scottish Sun on the challenges – and fun – of covering Rangers in Division Three
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
PAUL QUINN is not used to 15 seconds of fame, let alone 15 minutes. Under the heading “About Paul” the East Stirlingshire FC web site’s profile on the forward is blank. The 22-year-old signed from Stenhousemuir, is unaccustomed to media attention.
Yet on August 18, 2012, Quinn was doing an after-match interview because his penalty at Ibrox was the first goal Rangers had conceded at home as they started life in the Scottish Division Three. Rangers recovered to win 5-1 but Quinn was, in newspaper parlance, a story. And the reporter interviewing him was from the New York Times. Not the Falkirk News. The New York Times.
Kenny MacDonald, of the Scottish Sun, thought he had been there, seen it, done it and bought lots of T-shirts, but covering Rangers in the fourth tier of Scottish football has “made me see things I’d never seen in 35 years reporting football.”
MacDonald said: “I told Paul after his interview that he probably didn’t expect to be talking to the New York Times. In fact, at every game Rangers have played this season there have been foreign journalists. Canal+ from France, a Dutch TV crew...the interest has been incredible.”
One of the delights of being a football writer is covering a big club when they are drawn away to a non-league team in the FA Cup or Scottish Cup. A new ground...a genuine welcome from everyone proud of their special day...no jobsworth saying “you can’t go there.”
MacDonald said: “When Rangers went into Division Three during the summer we knew our satnavs were going to be in use more than usual. There was some trepidation among reporters about going to Elgin in mid-week in mid-winter. You drive all the way up there and you find the game’s off because they don’t have undersoil heating.
“At the same time we thought we’d been going to Easter Road or Tynecastle four times a season for 20 years, so it will be nice to see some different surroundings.”
MacDonald covered Rangers’ first league game this season at Peterhead, which is the easternmost point in mainland Scotland. He said: “You couldn’t get any further away than this. The furthest we would go in the SPL is Aberdeen, but Peterhead is almost an hour’s drive north. It’s not a great drive, either.
“We would only go to places like Peterhead for a Scottish Cup tie but, this was Rangers’ new world. I’d never covered a game at Balmoor, but had been there for a preview when Celtic played there in the Cup. I remember the drive from Glasgow and thought of Rangers fans getting there this time...for them, Division Three has become a badge of honour, they want to see every match.
“Ibrox is packed for every game, but Division Three grounds hold a fraction of Ibrox. Balmoor’s capacity is 4,000. I asked the Peterhead chairman where the press box was and the expression on his face was one of panic. He showed me the press box which comprised six seats on a passageway at the back of the stand with one electrical point.”
Around 30 football writers including Rangers’ own TV channel were at Balmoor for the historical match. “Peterhead did all they could and put in more seats, but it was a little bit sailing by the seat of our pants.”
Another new ground for MacDonald to cover a game was Annan’s Galabank. “That was an experience,” he said. “Annan are new to the Scottish League. Their stadium holds just over 2,000, but had never even been half full. Suddenly the circus came to town.
“They had to erect a TV gantry outside the ground on a pavement overlooking the pitch. It was a similar story when Rangers played Forres Mechanics in the Cup. Mosset Park in Forres is a beautiful, idyllic Highland setting but the 1,400-capacity ground was completely unprepared for the pantomime about to descend on them. Behind one goal the land slopes down and it was literally people’s gardens. They did a roaring trade for fans who had been unable to buy tickets, charging them a couple of quid to stand in their gardens to watch the game. The punters had a perfect, undisturbed view of the entire length of the pitch.”
Whatever the inevitable practical problems, the welcome Rangers management and players, the supporters and media have received in their new surroundings has been warm and friendly if different.
For the visit to Annan, the Rangers’ coach could not reach the players’ entrance. MacDonald said: “You know what footballers are like, they come off the team bus, headphones on and straight in the door. At Annan they had to walk 100 yards along this pot-holed road filled with puddles which was something new for them.”
Rangers, the only full-time club in Division Three, sold 36,000 season tickets and despite its lowly status, SFL3 is the only fourth tier in world football which has two FIFA- and UEFA-approved stadiums capable of hosting international and European finals – Ibrox and Hampden Park. Ibrox’s press box has wifi and electrical sockets for lap-tops, facilities understandably not available at most away grounds this season.
MacDonald: “I was at East Stirlingshire who play their homes games at Stenhousemuir and reporters without dongles for their lap-tops headed off to the local Subway coffee shop which is half a mile from the ground because it had wifi. We filed our copy having coffee and a sandwich.
“The best by a country mile was Forres. The press room was like a soup kitchen where there was cock-a-leekie soup, coffee, sandwiches and cakes before the game, at half-time and after the match. The local ladies who did the cooking gave reporters a little doggy-bag and waved us on our way with the words, which I’ll always remember: ‘Hope to see you all next week, we’re playing Turriff United.
“But too many SPL clubs are poor in the way they treat the media. I covered Dundee United v Hearts and the post-match press conference was held in a room where the stewards changed. It was dismally unsuitable for what it was being used for.
“In contrast, the way we’ve been treated in the Third Division has been very good. OK, you will get some guy whose seat has been moved to accommodate the press come and say ‘I never saw you on Tuesday night when there were only 200 here...I’ve sat there for 30 years, son, and now you have my seat.’ Unfortunately that comes with the territory, but generally speaking everyone has been great.”
While MacDonald and his colleagues know SPL players well, they are seeing new names on a regular basis now. “This is where there internet kicks in,” he said. “If we are going to Annan or East Stirlingshire we have to do background work on the players. If we’re lucky there will be a player nearing the end of his career who has slithered down the divisions who may have even played against Rangers in the past.
“While SPL clubs have a dedicated media officer, in Division Three you have to ask the secretary or manager to send in one of their players “and can you come in with him in so we know it is him.”
The demotion of Rangers has been a financial windfall for clubs who normally struggle to attract a crowd of 500, but MacDonald pointed out the visiting supporters are not being ripped off by inflated prices. “When Rangers went to Peterhead, the home club charged £12 a ticket, the same as any game. Rangers were worried clubs would hike-up their prices, but most have not done that. They are happy with two bumper gates from Rangers’ visits.”
Despite some disappointing away results MacDonald has no doubt Rangers will win promotion and manager Ally McCoist has been incredibly upbeat despite his club’s punishment. “Ally is a glass half full guy,” said MacDonald. “He’s conducted press conferences on the pitch in the rain, but there has never been any issue with him.”
If Rangers go up they will probably have visits to Cliftonhill, home of Division Two Albion Rovers and a) generally considered the worst senior ground in Scotland and b) located in Coatbridge, a monumental Celtic-supporting stronghold to come.
Some new adventures for Scottish football writers to come. At the moment, apart from his new professional experiences MacDonald has discovered something about his homeland he was unaware of. “I had reached the age of 53 without being aware there was a place in Scotland called Tarty which is a fishing village on the way to Peterhead. I remember seeing the sign and thought ‘if Rangers being in the Third Division has taught me nothing else, it has taught me there is a place in Scotland called Tarty.”