7th March 2022
It had been some time since I had seen a match in the Scottish Professional Football League (Annan Athletic vs Elgin City in January 2020) and even longer since a game in the Scottish Premiership (Hearts vs St Mirren in November 2019), so on Saturday I travelled to Easter Road in Edinburgh for the encounter between two clubs – Hibernian and St Johnstone – that I had not previously viewed in the flesh.
The Scottish league season is three-quarters of the way through. At the start of play, Hibs were in 5th place in the league table and one of no fewer than six teams covered by only four points between 4th and 9th. With only 4 matches to play before the “split” into the top and bottom 6s (for the last 5 games), there was clearly an intense battle to secure a place in the upper tier and, possibly, a qualification for one of next season’s European competitions.
St Johnstone were not part of that group. Following last year’s success in securing both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup, this season has been a disappointment. The side began the day second from bottom in the table, some 7 points adrift of third-from-bottom Aberdeen. Their main objective for the remainder of the season would appear to be avoiding ending up right at the foot of the table (in the place occupied by Dundee, one point behind with a game in hand), which would bring automatic relegation. Second-from-bottom would secure a hazardous play-off tie against one of the Championship sides.
On the train journey across from Glasgow to Edinburgh, the other seats at my table and all four seats at the one across the aisle were taken by a group of St Johnstone supporters: young lads, perhaps aged 15 to 17 or 18. Their chosen beverages included alcoholic and energy drinks and they were loud and, at times, uncouth, but the aggression of the main protagonists was directed at others within the group, rather than outsiders such as me. Towards the end of the journey, when I engaged those seated at my table in conversation, we had a pleasant chat about football and sport in general. The lad opposite me said that he didn’t know much about cricket, but was aware that a famous cricketer (Shane Warne) had died the day before. He was also impressed that Hibernian had priced his ticket at just £5: good for the club, I agreed, if it were seeking to boost attendance by younger supporters.
My intention had been to secure my entrance to the match at a visit to the ticket office just outside the ground. To my surprise, it was locked when I tried the door. On enquiring with a nearby steward, I was told that the game had sold out. It was not just the Under 18s who were paying £5 for a ticket; apart from those in the hospitality boxes, everybody was. After walking to the other end of the ground, I asked another steward whether there were any returned tickets on sale. “You could try the ticket office”, she replied. I knew then that my anticipated afternoon of watching Hibernian vs St Johnstone would have to wait for another day.
Of course, I do have a track record for attempted sports-watching that has gone slightly awry. The washed-out days at cricket matches are understandable. Less so, perhaps, attempting to watch a rugby union fixture in Bristol at the wrong ground, with the game already having been postponed, and with the added bonus of risking life and limb to cross a busy highway in the process (as reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator).
Fortunately, on Saturday, there was still time for a Plan B. And a good one it was too. A £10 taxi ride took me across the city from Easter Road to Inverleith in plenty of time before the match between Edinburgh Academical and the Currie Chieftains in the Scottish Premiership – rugby union (sponsored by Tennent’s) rather than football (sponsored by Cinch).
I had been meaning to visit Raeburn Place for some time. As I have reported before – “The First Rugby International”, 27th March 2021 – the ground has a unique place in the history of the sport as it was the venue for the Scotland vs England encounter in 1871 that commenced the 150-plus years of international rugby. I had previously been informed that there was a stone monument in the grounds to commemorate the event. What better opportunity to seek it out.
I made enquiries about this in the clubhouse before the game when I button-holed one of the club’s members, who turned out to be Paul Arnold, the captain of the Third XV. He introduced me to the club secretary, John Wright. Like me, John is an exiled Yorkshireman – in his case, from Bradford – and we had a great discussion about the fierce club rugby that was played in that county in the 1970s. Paul told me that he wasn’t exactly sure where the monument was, but, from our vantage point on the balcony of the impressive clubhouse, he pointed out the general area on the far side of the grounds that he thought to be the most likely.
I have to say that, although both Paul and John were in demand from other club members in the remaining minutes before the kick-off, they were both hugely supportive in their responses to the slightly odd request made by a complete stranger. I was left with the strong impression of a welcoming and friendly rugby club.
For both sides, the match was the last one in the regular Premiership season prior to the Top-4 play-offs. As Currie had already emphatically secured the top spot and, likewise, the home side were already guaranteed of at least 4th position, it might have been supposed that this was something of a dead rubber.
That was certainly not the case. There was a full commitment from both teams with the visitors taking the early initiative, when a powerful forward surge brought a try for Gregor Nelson. The Accies responded when a long flat pass from fly-half Vincent Hart put the second-row forward Struan Whittaker on a try-scoring run, only for Currie to retake the lead and head into half-time up by 12-7. Thereafter, Currie were always in control of the match, taking leads of 19-7 and 24-10 before two late home tries narrowed the final score to 24-20. The forward battle was an interesting one: Currie had by far the better of the line-outs until late in the game, whereas the Accies’ ascendancy in the scrum became more pronounced as the second half progressed. I thought that the game’s most influential player was the Currie flank forward and captain Fergus Scott who, in addition to his tackling stint, provided regular examples of skilful link play in his handling of the ball.
I must admit to having missed Currie’s third try early in the second half. At that stage, I was some distance from the pitch on the far side of the Edinburgh Academical sports ground searching for a stone monument in the general area that Paul Arnold had suggested. I met with success. The writing – in upper case – on the stone is not easy to discern, but I can confirm that it reads:
TO COMMEMORATE THE FIRST
INTERNATIONAL MATCH IN THE
WORLD UNDER RUGBY RULES
PLAYED AT RAEBURN PLACE
EDINBURGH IN 1871 BETWEEN
SCOTLAND & ENGLAND
The monument is currently at the edge of a large pile of rubble on which, on this occasion, a group of small children were playing. I do hope that, at some stage, it might be recovered and given its proper prominence nearer to the clubhouse so that the Raeburn Place site can combine the modernity of its splendid clubhouse with this reference to its rich history.
The result of the Edinburgh Academical-Currie match means that the final placings of the (rugby union) Premiership’s Top-4 have been decided. One of the semi-finals in three weeks’ time will be hosted by Currie at their Malleny Park home ground in Balerno – when the visitors will be Edinburgh Academical FC.
Meanwhile, as the rugby match was coming to a close, Hibernian and St Johnstone were playing out a 0-0 draw at Easter Road. The lads from Perth would probably have been pleased with the outcome, although Dundee’s draw at Motherwell means that it is status quo at the foot of the (football) Premiership table.