I have a thing for Fife. Its coastline, industry, people, politics and football endear it to me. In short, it reminds me a bit of home, of Yorkshire. Stramash meant engrossing visits there. Last Saturday meant a welcome return.
I went to watch Raith Rovers versus Dunfermline Athletic, The Pars. Those Pars are weighed down by a gloopy syrup of turmoil. They can barely pay their players. Saturday, in gloomier readings of the facts, could have been their last game. I wanted to find out if I could smell death on them. Just what does a club look like, how do its fans behave and sing, as it seems to slip away? Their defiance, their optimism, filled my heart.
In Kirkcaldy, I detour to raise a saluting fist. The memorial to Fife’s International Brigaders is hidden away by a roadside, but it is a thing of poised beauty. It has been updated and enlarged three times; as the years pass they find more and more volunteers for liberty who left these parts. I was here a few months back when we sang in the rain about loss and Jarama. Death everywhere today.
Still in the rain, Kirkcaldy seems more depressed than when last I looked properly at it for Stramash. Now, even the pound shops are struggling. Hardly anyone is about. Grannies, mainstays of smalltown Scotland, have stayed indoors, stayed dry, instead of gathering to talk on corners. At least the Harbour Bar remains as it always was, still purveying exotic ales, if you consider Bolton and Wylam as provenance divine like I do. Four regulars stand at the bar, a gallery of empty tables behind them. ‘Naw, it’s more of a bottom-dwelling fish’, says one. ‘Of course, Sainsbury’s will cut your sole for you,’ replies his friend, not really listening.
Along the wet and wild concrete plain of the Esplanade, the one or two people I pass raise their eyebrows at the weather. The Firth of Forth double double toil and troubles, spitting over the wall like a Buckfasting teenager. Hot dog smells hang around, succeeded halfway along by curry. In this air in this old town I feel unmistakably alive.
To the ground, late. Always a thrill to hear the sounds from outside a ground. Baying Pars and singing Rovers. Public Address muffled waffle and a whistle that may just be signalling the beginning of the end for Dunfermline. Heave the away end turnstile, scale the steps and file sideways along a full row. Late for the funeral?
Ten minutes in and The Pars are playing how you might expect. You pay peanuts you get monkeys. You don’t pay at all you get aimless hoofs that trickle out of play. ‘Ah was nearly greetin’ thinking this might be the last time ah watch Dunfermline,’ says a man behind me, ‘now ah’m here I hope it fucking well is.’ His neighbour picks up the theme: ‘Imagine all the things you could do in your life without having to watch this pish every week.’ Having to watch. I like that. This is a duty alright, one you’ll never shake off. Such gallows humour comes so well to football fans, of course, but it also indicates a defiance and a disbelief – we won’t really die, not my boys. We can’t.
Raith score. ‘Linoleum twats’ shouts someone. Those behind me settle into the regular chat of away games in 1995 where ‘Stevie got thrown oot that bar in Greenock’. Not for the first time it strikes me just how much football is about building a past to belong to. They can take our clubs today, but they will never take what we saw and where we drank and how we laughed. ‘Short sleeves and gloves. I never get that’, says a voice shaking the dreams out of me.
Dunfermline equalise in the second-half. The roars could be funeral hymns or they could be cries for help, but again I look around and see faces which simply don’t believe their club will die. They are the besotted grandchild, staring at Granddad in his hospital bed. As we leave the game I see two fans in their seventies with the slight look of being lost, then I see two grinning toddlers in Pars shirts. Maybe everything will be alright.