12th January 2020
In the current season’s fixture lists of the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), the League 2 encounter between Annan Athletic (54.99 degrees north) and Elgin City (57.65 degrees) represents the one with the widest latitudinal difference between the respective teams’ home grounds. The position would change if Elgin were to play Stranraer (54.90 degrees) but, for this season at least, the latter are plying their trade in League 1. (My reference source obviously prefers the decimal presentation, rather than the traditional one of degrees, minutes and seconds).
This is probably taking us into pub quiz territory, but it is interesting (perhaps) to note that the furthest north of the football clubs in England (in the top four divisions) – Newcastle United, 55.00 degrees – is closer to the North Pole than is the southernmost one in Scotland (Stranraer). In England, the latitudinal gap between north and south – 4.61 degrees from Newcastle’s St James’s Park to the Home Park ground of Plymouth Argyle – is larger than the 2.75 degrees in Scotland.
So much for the somewhat nerdish rationale for going to watch Annan Athletic play Elgin City at the Galabank riverside stadium yesterday.
In League 2, the divisional winners will gain automatic promotion and, as things currently stand, this looks to be a straight shoot-out between Cove Rangers and Edinburgh City, who have a commanding lead at the top of the table. The teams finishing between second and fourth will play off with the second-bottom League 1 side for the second promotion place. Prior to yesterday’s game, Annan were fourth and Elgin were sixth, so there was certainly something to play for.
The day was one of grey skies, persistent – occasionally heavy – rain and a gusty wind. After a two-hour train ride from Glasgow, the first sight that greeted me on alighting at Annan was the ruined Central Hotel, with its broken and boarded windows and burned out interior: a sorry introduction to the town. The large sandstone Victorian buildings – many of which are now guesthouses – on the adjacent St John’s Road give an indication of a once more prosperous era.
The rain having eased slightly, I took a short walk through the town to take in a riverside view of the three-arched Annan Bridge (designed by Robert Stevenson in the 1820s), the Town Hall (1878) with its bulbous clock tower fronted by a statue of Robert the Bruce and the remains of the Mote of Annan, the twelfth century motte and bailey castle that was the seat of the de Brus family until they moved this further north to Lochmaben Castle. A broad trench separates the mote itself from the base court and I walked up the muddy path to the top of the latter. The site has a commanding position next to the nearby river and, with a little imagination, it is not difficult to envisage being located at the centre of the medieval stronghold.
I was safely under cover in the Galabank ground’s main stand when the match kicked off and the next heavy downpour began, the rain driving into the faces of the Elgin defenders. Although the early stages of the match were evenly contested, it soon became clear that the visitors had the more efficient passing game as they looked to exploit the pace down the flanks of the left winger, Connor O’Keefe, and the overlapping runs of the right back, Rory MacEwan. The latter, in particular, was composed on the ball and accurate with his passing and looked to be a player of some promise. By contrast, Annan relied largely on pumping the ball forward to their tall centre forward, Russell Currie.
As half-time approached, it looked to have been Currie who had created the opening period’s best chance when, after a smart turn and a strong run, he unleashed a powerful shot that was well saved by the Elgin goalkeeper, Thomas McHale. However, just before the interval, another neat Elgin passing move produced an opportunity for Kane Hester to run through and stroke the ball into the Annan net. The keen home supporters seated nearby – including the middle-aged man in his team’s sweatshirt and woolly hat and the stocky 20-something lad next to me who was kicking every ball and making every tackle – perhaps sensed that this was not going to be their afternoon.
And that turned out to be the case. With the wind at their backs during another long and heavy downpour, Elgin dominated the second half and registered three more goals to win the match 4-0. The result moves them up to fifth place in the league table and, although Annan are still fourth, I would suggest that it is Elgin who are the more likely contenders for the promotion play-offs.
The hospitality at the Annan club was friendly. I took shelter in the clubhouse before the match and retired there afterwards for a pint before making my way back to the station. The MC at the game thanked the crowd – 211 in total – for attending in such miserable weather and hoped that they would support their local team at next week’s fixture at home to Stirling Albion. I have no doubt that the Annan-kitted man and his younger colleague will be there.
On the train, I chatted briefly to an Elgin City supporter. He was about my age and readily identifiable in his scarf with its thick black and white stripes. He was intending to rush from Central Station up to the Buchanan Street bus station to catch the coach to Edinburgh, where he lived. “Every home match is a marathon”, he said. They are of a kind, these supporters of lower league football clubs – keen, loyal, admirable, slightly mad – in whichever league their team plays.
Towards the end of the match, the scoring having been completed, another neighbour in the stand had speculated on what his own preference might be: a 4-0 win followed by a return journey of several hours; or a 0-4 loss and a half-mile walk home for his tea. I suspect that the Elgin City supporters would have emphatically opted for the former. They had had a good day.
And so had I. I had visited a town that I had not been to before and watched two unfamiliar football teams. And, at the remains of the Mote of Annan, I had inhabited the space from which the de Brus family – the Lords of Annandale – had overseen their domain over seven centuries ago.