Thursday, January 27, 2011

Stramash - Tackling Scotland's Towns and Teams

Ayr, Alloa, Cowdenbeath, Coatbridge, Montrose, Kirkcaldy, Greenock, Arbroath, Dingwall, Cumbernauld, Dumfries and Elgin.

Twelve towns offering a fair snapshot of Scotland’s social and industrial history in the last century.

And twelve towns that keep the ever threatened flames of lower league football in Scotland just about alight.

Losing faith in the magic of his beloved Middlesbrough and Sky’s millions, Daniel Gray set out to reconnect with football through the strange power of Scotland’s lower leagues.

The result is Stramash - Tackling Scotland’s Towns and Teams. Here is Scotland outside the history of Glasgow and Edinburgh, football outside the dominance of the SPL.

It’s a story of industrial decline and the collapse of once thriving towns in our industrial heartlands, of the shattered utopia of our new towns.

Towns, as Gray discovers, with histories rich in incident and humour. And towns that, even if the locals don’t always seem to realise it, are often mirrored by the ups and downs - mainly downs - of their football teams.

Unloved, ridiculed, ignored. Yet thrawn enough to keep buggering on regardless. There is something admirable to be found at every ground, even as the terracing crumbles and the players wilt.

I defy anyone to read Stramash and not fall in love with Scottish football’s blessed eccentricities all over again. And perhaps to wonder where we went wrong. Why did we suddenly stop producing talents who could graduate from Stark's Park or Palmerston and hold their own on football's biggest stages?

It is, of course, easy to be overly sentimental. The very survival of some of these teams is a triumph. But is that enough? Certainly as our elite clubs plan a top down overhaul of the game - a revolution led by the aristocracy - Gray provides a salutary reminder of the “pools towns” that Neil Doncaster seems to have forgotten.

Here are the human stories behind the clubs, the triumphs of their early days, their legacy to our game. If nothing else they are worth more than being the pawns in an SPL power trip.

The book is also funny. Funny enough to bring on involuntary, laugh out loud moments. It’s a good book to read if you want to disconcert your fellow Scotrail commuters.

From an obsession with Midget Gems to a directionally challenged episode in Cumbernauld that plays as an homage to Bill Forsyth’s Gregory, the town’s most famous footballing dreamer, Gray is quick to play it for laughs.

And, more often than not, he carries the humour off.

And there is hope, there is optimism. Alloa are a well run club with a forward looking owner in a town that is beginning to look to the future again.

Ross County remain a community club looking to take the great stride into the SPL.

Where people care, and the right people come on board, there is hope. And where there are football fans there is always optimism. Although, as Gray discovers, that optimism is often hidden by a fatalist humour that makes the extended fallow times easier to cope with.

Gray covers all this and more with a fine lightness of touch. The result is an admirably accessible introduction to Scottish football, our footballing heritage and our rich social history.

Stramash: Tackling Scotland's Towns and Teams by Daniel Gray (Luath Press)