Kings, Queens and Poets

5th May 2019

Prior to yesterday’s last round of the season’s 36 league matches in the Ladbrokes Scottish Championship – the second tier of the country’s professional football hierarchy – four teams (Falkirk, Alloa Athletic, Queen of the South and Partick Thistle) were scrambling to avoid relegation to League One. At the end of the day’s play, the bottom-placed club would be relegated automatically, whilst the second-bottom would need to come through play-offs with three sides from League One in order to survive.

Falkirk began the day three points adrift and, therefore, needed to win their match (against the divisional champions, Ross County ) and hope that the side immediately above them (Alloa) lost to third-placed Ayr United. In that event, Alloa would be related and Falkirk would go into the play-offs. Queen of the South were level on points with Alloa, but had a much better goal difference so, for them, a draw (against Partick) would prevent automatic relegation, but would mean the play-offs if Alloa were to win; likewise, a defeat would also lead to the play-offs, if Alloa were to draw. For their part, a win or a draw for Partick would bring safety, but a loss would take them to the play-offs if Alloa were to join Queen of the South as winners of their respective matches. (As ever with these possible end-of-season permutations, a cold towel and a stiff drink are essential).

When I was a young boy in Leeds studying the league tables before filling in my mother’s football pools coupon – whilst, at the same time, coming to grips with the geography of Britain – I used to look at the names of several Scottish clubs with an air of some perplexity. Where, exactly, were the locations of Raith Rovers and Hibernian and St Johnstone and Third Lanark…? However, I was quite clear that the most romantic name of them all – alongside Heart of Midlothian – was that of Queen of the South. I subsequently learned that the club is based in Dumfries and, so, it was there that I ventured yesterday: Queen of the South versus Partick Thistle at Palmerston Park .

In preparing for my trip, I realised that I was completing a medieval link that I had commenced last year on the other side of the country. In “700-plus years after Edward I – a two-all draw“ (26th February 2018) – my account of attending a match between Berwick Rangers and Montrose – I noted that, above the steps leading down to the platforms at Berwick railway station, is a large plaque marking the spot where, in 1292, Edward the First’s arbitration in favour of John Balliol (rather than Robert the Bruce) in the contest for the Scottish crown was announced.

It was in Dumfries in 1300 that Edward signed a (short-lived) armistice solicited by Pope Boniface VIII, following his (Edward’s) latest invasion of Scotland. In the following years, the town remained central to the political events of Scotland culminating, in February 1306, with Bruce stabbing to death his rival for the Scottish crown, John “The Red” Comyn, at the high altar of the Greyfriars friary. Bruce was crowned Kings of Scots at Scone a few weeks later.

Before the match, I planned (and took) a short town-centre walking tour, courtesy of the information provided by the local tourist office. I walked up the High Street to the Greyfriars Kirk, which dates from 1868 and is roughly half a football pitch from the location of the original Franciscan friary at the top of Friars Vennel. On the other side of the road, a bronze plaque on the wall of an unoccupied shop marks the site of Comyn’s murder. Inside the next shop – a branch of Greggs, no less – there is a neatly mounted display summarising the events of the period, whilst the interior walls contain a number of photographs and historical images. I made a short inspection, largely ignored by the local patrons, who tucked in to their sausage baps and vegan rolls and fizzy drinks.

Outside, in the centre of a half-pedestrianised traffic island, the statue of Robert Burns – a resident of Dumfries for five years until his death in 1796 – looks straight down the High Street. The selection of his verse on the plinth provides a neat – and well-chosen – summary of the poet’s philosophies on life and humanity. I then walked down Friars Vennel and, after pausing briefly in a coffee shop, continued on to cross Devorgilla’s Bridge – the oldest multi-spanned stone bridge in Scotland, dating from the 15th Century – and make my way to Palmerston Park . (The original timber bridge was commissioned by Lady Devorgilla of Galloway, the mother of John Balliol, in about 1280). Take a walk through the centre of any town or city in Britain and there is history everywhere you look.

Partick Thistle won the match in something of a canter. They started the game much more positively that their opponents and took the lead with a Lewis Mansell volley after 14 minutes. A second goal came after just before half-time and a second-half penalty secured a 3-0 victory to the huge acclaim of their 1500-plus travelling supporters (most of whom, it had seemed to me earlier, had been on the two-carriage train that ScotRail had thoughtfully provided for the 1¾ hour-long journey from Glasgow Central). Stuart Bannigan, the captain, had an influential role in midfield and the two centre-backs, Steven Anderson and Sean McGinty, kept a close eye on the prolific Queens centre-forward, Stephen Dobbie.

The 36 year-old Dobbie has scored 40 goals this season – only one behind the club record for a single year that has stood since 1932 – and I was interested to see him in action. However, apart from one early attempt that went outside a post and several nice pieces of linking play, he did not have an impact on the game, as Partick successfully cut off his supply lines.

The final score meant that the long run of disappointing results for the home team – only 2 wins in the 15 league matches since the middle of January – was continued. A Queens-supporting neighbour in the queue for the coach service back to Buchanan Street Bus Station – I had decided to eschew the potential delights of the return train journey – told me that it had been their worst home performance of the season, and he wondered how long the manager, Gary Naysmith, might remain in post.

The consolation for Dobbie – such as it is – is that he now has a couple of additional matches in which to break the goal-scoring record. At the end of the day’s play, Alloa Athletic’s draw at Ayr United meant that Queen of the South would have to line up against Montrose from League 1 on Tuesday evening in the first leg of the play-off semi-final. (Falkirk were relegated, despite beating Ross County. Partick Thistle’s victory meant that they were safe, of course). I wondered if it had been with this next challenge in mind – the player having returned from injury for the Partick match – that Naysmith had taken Dobbie off with a few minutes to go. In the event, whilst Dobbie might feature against Montrose, Naysmith unfortunately won’t. My source (who alighted from the coach in Moffat) had been correct in his speculation; the manager was relieved of his duties yesterday evening.

In the course of my sojourn to watch Queen of the South, I learned that the name was coined not by Sir Walter Scott, as I had previously thought, but by a local poet, David Dunbar, who referred to the town of Dumfries as such when standing for Parliament in the General Election of 1857. The football club adopted the name on its formation in 1919. (It will be an anti-climactic end to Queen of the South’s centenary season if it is marked by relegation). However, in the comfort of my coach seat on the journey back up the M74, as I thought back to the Devorgilla Bridge and the branch of Greggs and the friendly welcome by the stewards of Palmerston Park, it was some of the words of the other poet associated with the town of Dumfries – captured on the plinth of his statue – that came to mind.

****

Man’s inhumanity to man,
Makes countless thousands mourn!

****

Affliction’s sons are brothers in distress;
A brother to relieve, how exquisite the bliss!

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