The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 8

July 28, 2009

Matches to Remember No. 15

Falkirk 1 Berwick Rangers 1 Scottish Cup Third Round 25 January 1997

Whenever Berwick Rangers are involved in a Scottish Cup tie memories are inevitably evoked of their astonishing victory over their Glasgow namesakes in 1967. That was such an amazing feat that Berwick still have the reputation as ‘giant-killers’ thirty years on, despite the fact that very few giants have been slain in the meantime.

‘Very few’ is perhaps overstating the position. ‘None’ would be more accurate.

At the time when they met Falkirk on 25th January this year, Berwick had managed to win only one of their 22 league matches in division two, and to all intents and purposes they’d already nose-dived through the trap-door into the bottom division. Put simply, and with suitable apologies to the Redcar Loony, Berwick were real mince. Falkirk, on the other hand, were one and a half divisions above them and were still theoretically harbouring ambitions of promotion to the Premier League. Thus Falkirk found themselves cast in the rather unlikely role of ‘giants’. On paper, this was a home banker, but in the words of the old cliche, football isn’t played on paper. Most of the Bairns fans went along in the reasonable anticipation that Falkirk would win fairly comfortably. Instead of the afternoon of relaxing family entertainment which they expected, they were served up with a triple X horror.

On The Threshold of a Dream

Things started to go wrong after fifteen minutes when Brian Hamilton sustained a compound fracture of his leg. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Falkirk ‘physio’ (wee bald man with a sponge) tried to repair it there and then with what looked suspiciously like a tube of super-glue. Bits of Hamilton’s leg were protruding through his skin at weird angles, but the physio insisted on him standing up to see if he could ‘run it off’.

Inexperienced in medical matters I may be, but I can’t say that I was wholly taken by surprise when Hamilton collapsed again shrieking in agony. Despite this, many Bairns fans were jocularly calling for Hamilton to be kept on the pitch, whatever his condition, because they could see that the sub was the hapless Scott McKenzie, whose recent form had been slightly less convincing than that expected from a one-legged man. So far, so amusing. Up till then the Bairns had been merely thoroughly incompetent, but goals were bound to come, weren’t they?

Yup, sure enough, a few minutes later Berwick scored. The Berwick player had possession in an innocuous position about thirty yards out. All his team-mates were marked and he hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with the ball. I was standing on the terracing behind the goal, looking right into his face, and I could see him thinking, “Ach fuck it, I’ll just punt it in the general direction of the goal and see what happens”. Craig Nelson, the Falkirk goalie, appeared to have something else on his mind at the time. His illustrious ancestor, Lord Nelson, may have famously turned one blind eye, but at least he had the decency to keep the other one open. Unlike Craig, who appeared to have both eyes shut at the critical moment. Generally speaking, I’ve got no serious objections to Craig indulging in transcendental meditation or astral travelling or whatever it is that he does, but I just wish he wouldn’t do it on a Saturday afternoon. On this occasion he was only restored to the present time frame by the sound of the ball swishing in the back of his net.

This unexpected development was the signal for a radical change in the atmosphere amongst the Bairns fans. What had been a benign impatience now became heated anger at the team’s inability to deal properly with inferior opposition. Nelson was the initial target, firstly because of his gaffe at the goal, and secondly because he was the Bairns player in closest proximity to the fans. He had to stand for the remainder of the half just yards in front of people who were abusing him roundly, ‘Nelson, ya fanny’ being about the most complimentary accolade shouted in his direction.

Falkirk stumbled and bumbled towards halftime, and it began to cross my mind that victory wasn’t inevitable. I digress for a moment to note that Nelson was just one of an alarmingly large posse of former Hibs/Hearts players now ‘plying their trade’ at Brockville. In this match the Falkirk team included former Hibees Mitchell, McAllister, McGraw and Tortolano, and ex- Jambos Nelson, Foster, and Hagen, while the aforementioned Brian Hamilton had previously turned out for both the Edinburgh teams. A former Hibee and a Jambo, and now a broken leg. Lucky white heather, or what?

Watching this Falkirk side in action one could only be amazed at how any of these guys (McAllister excepted) ever got beyond pub football, far less played at ‘the highest level’. Brockville seems to have become the football equivalent of Dounreay, a place where everyone dumps all their nasty waste products. Apart from the crew I’ve already mentioned, such former Auld Reekie luminaries as Walter Kidd and Neil Berry have recently turned up at Brockville for ‘re-processing’. Mind you, it’s not completely one way traffic. Just a couple of days before this game came the astonishing news that Hibs had paid £100,000 of real money to take David Elliot off Falkirk’s hands. This was proof, if any were needed, that Jim Duffy has not only lost his hair, but he’s now lost his head as well. And his marbles. You’d need to knock off at least three of those zeroes to discover Elliot’s true value. When Hibs are relegated in May, that transfer will be viewed as one of the events which made demotion inevitable.

Urine Specimen

With the first half wearing on anger amongst the fans was giving way to a squirming embarrassment, as Berwick threatened to increase their lead on several occasions. On one of Falkirk’s apparently random, entirely speculative, and totally un-coordinated visits up the field McGrillen missed an easy chance. One of the boys next to me confided to his pals that McGrillen was “just a wee bag of pish”, which, in fairness, is about as reasonable a summary as any I can immediately think of.

But salvation was at hand moments later when the wee bag of pish scampered beyond the Berwick defence and was hauled down just outside the box by the Berwick goalie who was rewarded for his efforts by a red card. The resultant goal-scoring opportunity was, of course, sclaffed into a nearby car-park, but surely, we thought, it wouldn’t be beyond our heroes to overcome the resistance of a ten-man second/third division outfit in the remaining 55 minutes? We waited for the deluge. Unfortunately, there never is going to be a deluge when your strikers are McGraw and McGrillen, Falkirk’s very own ‘McG Force’. Mark ‘Slowdraw’ McGraw’s main asset is that his old dad scored thousands of goals in the sixties, but apart from that he’s strictly ‘couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo’ material. McGrillen***, on the other hand, can sometimes hit the cow’s arse, but it’s usually the wrong cow. Thus Berwick went in at the interval still safely 1-0 ahead.

After the Goal Rush

I forgot to mention that when the Berwick goalie was sent off, they took off an outfield player and substituted him with a reserve goalkeeper, by the name of Neil Young. Not the Canadian feedback-meister of course, though the way Falkirk were playing Neil Young and Crazy Horse would have had a better than evens chance of progressing to the fourth round. In the second half ole Neil could easily have performed an acoustic set on the six-yard line without any serious interruption. When Neil appeared many spectators were asking rhetorically just how bad you had to be to end up as a sub-goalie for Berwick. As it happened, we never really got a chance to find out, because Falkirk’s ineptitude was such that the goalie never had to make a save. For all I know he could’ve been a Scandinavian tourist who’d conned his way onto the park.

That isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, because it was revealed after the game that the Berwick manager had never even met Mr Young until ten to three that afternoon. Apparently, Berwick thought it would be prudent to have a sub goalie for the Scottish cup-tie and hired Young through Exchange and Mart, sight-unseen, as it were. He didn’t turn up when the team bus was leaving Berwick and only arrived at Brockville during the pre-match warm-up, claiming to have been involved in a car accident. When the crisis arose with the sending-off of the regular goalie, they had no choice but to field the unknown stranger. I still entertain a lingering suspicion that he was a redundant plumber who’d been sent along on a job restart programme by the DSS.

Hey Joe
(where you goin’ with that P45 in your hand?)

The agony continued in the second half. You’ll all have read about Joe Tortolano being booted out of Falkirk in the aftermath of this game, because of a gesture he made to the home fans while he was being substituted. The gesture consisted of him pointing theatrically to his backside. Apparently the referee (who booked him), and the Falkirk management (who sacked him), interpreted this gesture as being an invitation to ‘kiss my bum’. At the time, I merely thought that Joe was gamely confirming what we’d all seen, namely that he’d made a total arse of himself throughout the match. Whenever Joe had been faced with the option of playing a ten yard pass to an unmarked colleague, or slicing the ball wildly into neighbouring gardens, he invariably and boldly chose the latter. At no time did he neglect to make a complete hash of whatever he was involved in. In fairness to him, there was a section of the crowd on his back right from the start. Each time he made a dog’s breakfast of it this small band would launch into a heavily ironic chorus of “There’s only one Tortolano’: The trouble was that the opportunities for such carousing were so frequent that many of the choristers were hoarse by the time Joe made his dramatic and final exit.

Horrifyingly bad as he was, Joe was by no means the worst. Take Andy Gray for example. Yes please. Take him as far away as possible. This is not the Andy Gray of Sky Sports that I’m talking about, though I’m quite confident that the balding Sky balloon would have been much more effective in this game. No, Falkirk’s Andy Gray is a former England International player. Yes, but at what? Not football, obviously. This particular Andy Gray seems to have no interest in playing football at all, and certainly not for Falkirk. His sheer contempt for his colleagues is a constant affront in what is supposedly a team game. OK, his teammates are hopeless, but that is frankly not an excuse for his complete lack of effort.

David Hagen, on the other hand, is a trier. He usually tries to play football. Unfortunately, he usually fails. He does, however, almost always try our patience. In this particular match, David started invisibly and fell away. He suddenly re-appeared on the scene with time running out and Falkirk still trailing. He embarked on one of his lung-bursting runs up the wing. This is usually the cue for the stewards to open the gates, because Dave hasn’t quite got the hang of when to stop. These runs invariably end with him colliding at full tilt with the wall behind the goal, having omitted to release the ball before doing so.

That’s what happened on this occasion as well, and the only reason I mention it is that while Dave was having bits of granite surgically removed from his knees one of the Tortolano wrecking crew enquired in a puzzled voice, “when did Hagen come on?” And let me tell you, he was not joking. It’s really unfair to pick on individuals because the whole Falkirk team were shocking. They were collectively engaged in merrily kicking the ball into the shed in lieu of passing, while attacking the opposition goal appeared to be something they considered to be wholly outdated.

With fifteen minutes to go, it seemed entirely likely that Berwick were going into the hat for the next round, and even the most die-hard Bairns fans couldn’t have grudged them that. However, enter stage left, the only person who was having a more awful game than the Falkirk players, viz, our old friend, referee Willie Young. Willie had pretty well fucked up every decision he’d been called upon to make, bur arguably his eccentric interpretations of the rules had not affected the scoreline until, that is, he awarded a penalty to Falkirk ten minutes from the end. The fact that it wasn’t a penalty is incidental. More significant is the fact that not a single Falkirk player, official or fan thought that it was a penalty. No-one appealed, no-one shouted. Everyone stared in disbelief when Willie went dancing like a dervish into the box, pointing madly at the penalty spot with one arm, while jerking the other like a seriously out of control string puppet, apparently in an attempt to indicate that someone had handled the ball. Many thought that Willie was having an epileptic seizure, and players of both sides gathered round him to see if they could help. It was the turn of the Berwick manager to have a fit when it finally became apparent that a spot-kick had been awarded.

Albert Craig scored and promptly raced round behind the goal gesturing insanely, as though he’d just grabbed the winner in the final itself. His goal and subsequent extravagant celebrations were greeted by polite applause rather than the usual demented exultation. Obviously, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but there was considerable sympathy for Berwick, even among the most rabid Bairns fans who were feeling a wee bit sheepish at the thought that it needed a sending-off and a highly dubious penalty to secure a draw at home with a ten-man second division outfit. (Just what is going on here? we’ve had cow’s arses, dog’s breakfasts, horse’s mouths and now sheepish fans. What do you think this is? Farmers Weekly? – ed.)

I’m sure the small, but highly vocal, crowd of Berwick fans were pig-sick (OK, you’re really pushing your luck now – Ed). Still, it would be hypocritical of me to weep crocodile tears for Berwick (that’s it -you’re fired – ed). The main thing was that Falkirk lived to fight another day with dreams of cup glory intact.

The sequel to all of this is that Falkirk undeservedly won the replay 2-1, and went on to defeat Premier league DunfermIine by the same score in the 4th round. Their performance against the Pars was the complete antithesis of their display against Berwick. Every player was fully committed to the task. Andy Gray was superb. Craig Nelson was awake. David Hagen scored the winner! McGrillen was on the sick, McGraw was on the bench, and Tortolano was on the dole. Another ex-Jambo in the shape of Scott Crabbe had joined the ranks, the difference being that Crabbe is a genuinely talented player. It’s a funny old game. The air of pessimism after the display against Berwick has been supplanted by genuine hope that further progress can be made. At the time of writing they’ve got a home draw against Raith Rovers in the quarter-final. In fact, the way the draw has worked out, it does not require a dose of mescaline to envisage them getting to the final. Or beyond!! When Falkirk take their place in Europe next season the match with Berwick will truly be a match to remember, being where it all started.

First published in TAG 52-March 1997

PS – Obviously at the time when I wrote the last paragraph my tongue was in my cheek. But, but, but…….amazingly enough Falkirk beat Raith Rovers in the Quarter-Final and then BEAT Celtic in the semi-final, before damn-near becoming only the second lower division team ever to win the cup, losing narrowly and controversially 1-0 to Kilmarnock in the Final

PPS – ***As fates would have it, I posted this here on 28 or 29 July 2009 (ie more than 12 years after it was first published) and on 30 July 2009 Paul McGrillen died at the tragically early age of 37. I feel nothing but sorrow at hearing of Paul’s death. I cannot unwrite this article, and can only say that Paul became a hero of the Falkirk support when he scored the winner in the semi-final replay against Celtic that same season. That is the way he will be remembered by the Bairns fans


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