Is It Really So Strange?

The Scottish Cup, established in 1873, might be the one of world’s oldest cup competition but it still has the capacity to surprise, even now. Since Scottish football moved to a four-tier league format in 1994, this season’s quarter-final stage will be made up by representatives from each division for the very first time. Inevitably, teams from the Premiership and Championship make up the majority of the competitors while Rangers fly the flag for League 1, but the final side is, without doubt, the most eye-catching: Albion Rovers are the first club from the fourth tier to reach the quarter-finals since Peterhead in 2001.

Rovers’ route to the last eight began with a home tie against Spartans in October and although they began the match as the bookmaker’s favourites, they hadn’t won a cup tie – Scottish, League or Challenge – since November 2009. Supporters didn’t exactly go into the contest brimming with confidence, but a solitary Mark McGuigan strike was enough to ease the Vers through. The same player would go on to repeat the feat in the third round 1-0 victory over Devronvale.

The history of the Scottish Cup is not exactly replete with acts of giant killing (perhaps because the country doesn’t really have many giants) but Albion Rovers’ victory over Motherwell, courtesy of Gary Phillips’s injury-time winner, probably hasn’t been given the praise or the context it deserves. At the time, the Steelmen were in third place in the Premiership, while Rovers were ninth in League 2; given the disparity between the two, the result is perhaps only comparable to Fraserburgh beating Dundee in 1959 and Berwick Rangers’ defeat of Rangers in 1967 in terms of a genuine, distinguishing cup shock.

Rovers’ progression continued after a 2-0 fifth round victory over a dismal Stenhousemuir side, with Ross McMillan’s spectacular own goal and another from Phillips ensuring their passage to the quarter-final. The current vintage have emulated the Rovers side of 80 years ago, who reached the last eight after wins over Kilmarnock, Ross County and wonderfully named Vale Ocoba. They were eventually beaten 0-6 by Motherwell, but not before a 1-1 draw at Cliftonhill.

The Vers will now face Rangers at Ibrox on Sunday and while most of the media attention in the build up to the match has focused on their success in 1933-34, it would be wrong to assume that these have been their only flirtations with the latter stages of the competition: in 1920, Albion Rovers reached the final of the Scottish Cup.

 

THE ATHLETE

As the Great War ended in 1918, Rovers were playing in the Western League Championship but club president Hugh Thom had far grander designs for the team. Thom had joined the Vers in 1903, becoming treasurer in 1908 before taking over the presidency two years later and he had ambitions for the club to join the Scottish Football League. As it happened, the League were intending to admit another team but Thom recognised that Rovers needed a new ground – their park at the time, the Meadow in Whifflet, was too small, drained poorly and would be seen as a significant obstacle to their plans for admission. On 8 March 1918, Thom outlined his proposal to supporters and explained that the club had agreed the lease on six acres of land at Cliftonhill which, should their application be successful, would become their new home.

Cowdenbeath had also applied to join the League, and the the governing body met on 3 April at their AGM to discuss the merits of both candidates. The vote was split down the lines of east and west: Cowden had the support of the clubs from Edinburgh and Dundee, as well as Aberdeen and Raith Rovers, while the Vers were preferred by teams from Glasgow and Lanarkshire. With the vote ending in a ten-ten tie, the League chairman, St Mirren’s Tom Hart, was given the final say and, perhaps unsurprisingly, came down in favour of Albion Rovers.

Rovers’ admission to the 22-team First Division in time for the 1919-20 season brought into focus the hard work that lay ahead. Development began on Cliftonhill later that month and the ground was intended to be ready in time for their first league game in August. As the new term drew closer, completion became increasingly unlikely and an agreement was put in place with near-neighbours Airdrieonians to use Broomfield for the time being.

One fan suggested that directors should meet 15 minutes before the end of each match and decide whether or not the it had been worth the price of admission and if not, every supporter should receive a voucher that entitled them to money off at a local pub

The invitation to the league also forced Rovers to increase in admission prices and their season tickets were available for 15/- (75p) for access to all parts of the stadium or 10/- (50p) for entry to the ground only. The new pricing did not go down well with everyone: one fan was so incensed that he wrote to the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser with a novel way of how supporters could get more value for their money. In his letter, the fan suggested that 15 minutes before the end of each match, the directors should meet to decide whether or not the game had been worth the cost of admission and if not, every supporter should receive a voucher that entitled them to money off at a local pub. If the game was particularly poor then presumably some free pints would help forget it.

While the construction of Cliftonhill was an ongoing concern, assembling a team capable of competing in the new division was probably even more pressing. As their inaugural match of the new campaign approached – Aberdeen at Pittodrie – the Advertiser published a full squad list that only included ten names. On the cusp of their trip to the Granite City, however, five new players were quickly sourced by the selection committee – the club wouldn’t employ a manager until the following year – and added to their roster. The build up to the game was described in detail in both the Advertiser and the Coatbridge Express by the same sports reporter, writing under the pseudonym “Athlete”. The excitement (and the jingoism) of his season preview was palpable:

This time a year ago, we watched football played half-heartedly and many wondered why the game was even played in such times. The war was staggering and the world appeared to be almost toppling over. But we won, and now that the pent-up feelings have been let loose on the wings of victory we can all the more enjoy the facsimiles of pre-war fights on the football fields that helped to make our men tenacious and fit to thrash the unspeakable Hun.

Despite losing 0-2 at Aberdeen, Albion Rovers enjoyed a fine start to the season and won three of their next five fixtures with John Hart, signed from Rangers, playing a central part in their early success. Their encouraging run was brought to an abrupt halt after a 0-4 defeat at Ayr United in September, a match that was strangely scheduled for 10:45 on a Wednesday morning. It seemed to stymie their good form and the impressive opening gave way to a more prosaic sequence of results. The slump was eventually arrested with a 2-0 win over Queen’s Park, a match which saw the Vers begin the match with nine men after Davie Duncan, William Ribchester and Bobby Young failed to show up in time for kick-off. The committee were able to round up a handful of reserves in the players’ absence and Rovers grabbed an unlikely win.

Crowds remained reasonably sizeable, despite playing their home matches in Airdrie. Around 8,000 took in a 1-1 draw with Motherwell, while more than double that figure took in their 0-4 defeat to Rangers. Their fans weren’t always well behaved, however, and fighting on the terraces was reported during a 1-1 draw with Falkirk at Brockville. Cliftonhill was eventually finished in time for the visit of St Mirren on Christmas Day, but the Buddies spoiled the festivities with a 2-0 win in front of a crowd of over 8,000.

At the beginning of January 1920, Rovers made one of the most famous signings in their history with the purchase of John White from Bedlay Juniors. Within two years, the Coatbridge-born forward would become the first and only footballer to represent their country while playing for Albion Rovers when he made his first appearance for Scotland in a 1-2 defeat to Wales. White eventually moved on to Heart of Midlothian for £2,700 and became the Gorgie side’s top goal-scorer in five consecutive seasons, scoring 102 times. In 1922-23, White was the top scorer in Scotland and in 1925-26 he netted four goals in three successive matches. These feats in front of goal saw him transfer to Leeds United for £5,600 and become one of the most expensive British signings of the era.

 

THE MOTOR CHAR-A-BANC

John White had joined in time for the start of Rovers’ Scottish Cup campaign, a first round home tie with Dykehead on 24 January 1920. At this point, the Vers were second last in the division and in the middle of a run that would eventually see them go nine games without a win. None of the Lanarkshire clubs fared well in the opening round and Athlete described the region’s performance in his own inimitable style:

“Fate has taken up her duster and wiped from the slate certain clubs that were expected to be found amongst the winners. So some clubs’ disappointments and glorious uncertainty of football is so nourished. Lanarkshire was swept clean of any interest in the contest, with Airdrieonians, Hamilton Academical and Motherwell all on the scrapheap, and it is still a matter of debate whether Albion Rovers or Dykehead will pass into the second round.”

The teams had drawn 0-0 at Cliftonhill and despite Rovers dominating, they couldn’t find that elusive goal. Indeed, their inability to score had dogged them all season. “As we have seen, Albion Rovers are by no means testers of the strength of goal nets,” wrote Athlete.

The replay took place in Shotts the following Wednesday. Around 1,500 Rovers fans made the journey, but their numbers would have been far greater if the specially commissioned trains hadn’t left half-an-hour ahead of schedule. Supporters also travelled through by motor char-a-bancs, an early form of motorised open top bus – hardly the warmest mode of transport in the middle of a Scottish winter.

Those who were able to take in the match saw William Ribchester open the scoring on a park which, in parts, resembled a quagmire. He then turned provider after John White forced home his corner to double Rovers’ advantage. Ribchester almost added a third when another corner swung directly into the net, but it was disallowed because rules dictated that someone had to touch the ball after the kick had been taken. Dykeshead pulled a goal back and despite their pressure, Rovers held on to progress to the second round.

They were drawn at home against Huntingtower but, as occasionally happened, the Perthshire club withdrew due to the prohibitive travelling costs. Rovers were awarded a bye and went straight into the third round against St Bernards. The match at Powderhall, Edinburgh, finished in acrimonious circumstances – Willie Hillhouse’s shot appeared to have been scooped away by Saints goalkeeper McNaughton before it crossed the line, but the goal was awarded and the tie finished 1-1. At the replay on 25 February 1920, Rovers won their first ever match at Cliftonhill and thrashed their opponents 4-1 courtesy of John Hart’s hat-trick and another from Andy Ford.

The quarter-final saw them tied at home with Aberdeen. In the build up to the match, played in early March, Rovers were rock bottom of the division with 18 points from 29 matches (with wins yielding two points). The Dons might have been favourites for the contest, but they were hardly in sterling form themselves and sat in 14th.

The meeting between Albion Rovers and Aberdeen coincided with the installation of Cliftonhill’s new press box, and the the sports reporters had plenty to write about

The meeting between the sides coincided with the installation Cliftonhill’s new press box, and the sports reporters certainly had plenty to write about. Rovers went ahead within the first minute though Bobby Young – the striker was gifted possession almost straight from the kick-off and after side-stepping a challenge, he crashed his shot beyond Anderson in the Aberdeen goal. John Black added a second shortly afterwards and the calibre of the performance impressed Athlete:

“The Rovers were showing just how to win. Nippy individually, they never hugged the leather but instead kept it travelling fast and free. Two goals up and only 20 minutes gone and our boys travelling as though they would add more.

Rovers kept it at two and held on despite Aberdeen inside-right Connon pulling a goal back in the 51st minute. A semi-final tie against league leaders Rangers lay in wait.

When the sides met at the neutral Celtic Park on 17 March, the length of the whole division separated them. Rovers were still bottom but the complexity of their cup run had left them with four games in hand over Hamilton in 21st. Rangers, meanwhile, were seven points clear of Celtic and had lost just one league match all season. Their record was fearsome: in 31 games, they had scored 83 goals and conceded just 16. Rovers were looking to become the first team to score against them in the competition (just like this season, as it happens).

A crowd of 30,000 turned up, paying around £1,100 in gate receipts and, as expected, Rangers took a first half lead through Patterson. William Ribchester repeated the feat from the first round by scoring directly from a corner but once again, the “goal” was disallowed. Although Rangers played with a strong wind behind them after the interval, Rovers were the better side and equalised via the penalty spot which, according to Athlete, “Ribchester turned to account without ruffling a feather”. The match finished as a draw but there was a nagging feeling that Rovers had failed to take full advantage of their play. A second replay was required after 40,000 took in a 0-0 draw the following Wednesday, again at Parkhead.

Rovers’ congested fixture list was becoming problematic. The second replay with Rangers was arranged for Wednesday 7 April, despite Rovers having to face Aberdeen in Coatbridge two days earlier. The selection committee made full use of the squad and made nine changes to the squad that drew 1-1 with the Dons.

A crowd of 53,000, a record for an evening match in Scotland, packed into Celtic Park to see Rovers race to a two-goal lead through Willie Hillhouse and Guy Watson. Despite their best efforts, Rangers were unable to break down their opponents and the unfancied Rovers progressed to the final against Kilmarnock. It was a remarkable achievement and in commemoration of the result, Coatbridge’s finest sports reporter began his match report with one of the most splendid paragraphs ever committed to print:

What do you think of a wee county team drawing with the football flowers of the land twice and smashing them? Great, isn’t it? South-west Glasgow wears crepe

Well, what do you think of it? What do you think of the Rangers getting their last rupees out of the Scottish ties? What do you think of a wee county team drawing with the football flowers of the land twice and smashing them? Great, isn’t it? South-west Glasgow wears crepe. The second city has nothing to do with the final now, except to look as cheerful as possible under the circumstances and pay up to see a pair of game county teams play a great game on 17 April. That two provincial sides should reach the last lap is one of the best things that could have happened to Scottish football.

 

THE COATBRIDGE GONG

Between the semi-final and the final, Rovers had to play another two league fixtures (even although the cup ties were only ten days apart). Both matches came at a cost when half-back Rankin Noble picked up a knock and then Davie Duncan, their best defender, was ruled out of the final through injury. James White, John’s brother, was brought into the starting XI for his fourth match in League football, having recently been sourced from the junior ranks.

More than 95,000 supporters attended the final at Hampden, a record for a domestic fixture at the stadium (thousands, however, were locked out, despite the same venue hosting more than 127,000 for Scotland’s previous fixture against England). Rovers opened the scoring after five minutes when James White released Ribchester down the right flank for Guy Watson to poke home the cross. The goal was welcomed by the noise of the Coatbridge Gong, a giant metallic plate inscribed with the words “The Death Knell”, which had been taken to the national stadium for the occasion. Its din was dampened ten minutes later when Killie’s Culley brought the scores level.

Kilmarnock took the lead two minutes into the second half when a mistake in the Rovers defence allowed Matthew Shortt to prod the ball beyond his namesake Joe in goal (brilliantly, Joe was reported to have spent the previous night in a police cell for drunken and disorderly behaviour). Killie pressed their advantage and the sustained barrage suggested that Rovers’ exertions of the previous weeks was taking its toll on the players. Against the run of play, however, Hillhouse reacted quickly to turn in Wilson’s cross with a lovely finish and he celebrated his equaliser with his own unique version of the hornpipe dance. Parity did not last long though and JR Smith, a former Rovers player, scored the game’s final, decisive goal after fine play by Culley. The match had been an outstanding contest and Rovers, their starting XI featuring three players who began the season in junior football, were worthy competitors.

They had to play their remaining seven league fixtures over 17 days; they would win just once, in their final match of the season against Third Lanark. The Vers eventually finished the 1919-20 season in last place and their poor form was lamented by a melancholic Athlete:

Since the Rangers tie, Rovers have been somewhat broken. That had been the feeling but it was a wrong one, for no-one can say what is going to happen in football when a batch of players turn out with hearts bursting with determination. It is propounding no new maxim of the game to say that teams are made or marred by the strength of their backing, and there was where the Rovers were stabbed. The loss of Noble was bad enough, but to lose Duncan was like snapping a spinal cord.”

Albion Rovers were eventually relegated from the First Division after the 1922-23 season, a campaign that effectively ended Hugh Thom’s association with the club. Thom’s involvement gradually declined and he was voted off the board in 1925. He continued to attend Rovers games on a regular basis while pursuing his other passions with the local brass band. His family’s plastering business would remain a regular source of employment for Rovers players for years afterwards. The club might not have lived up to the lofty proposals he outlined in 1918, but Thom’s efforts afforded him the honour of presiding over their finest hour, even if it did end in defeat.

Barring an astonishing turn of events, Albion Rovers’ Scottish Cup run is likely to end on Sunday, but many experts believed it would reach its conclusion when they faced Rangers in 1920. The chasm between the the Vers and the Gers has grown immeasurably over the intervening decades and if the League 2 side can triumph, it would surely surpass anything they achieved during that glorious run to Hampden almost 100 years ago. One can only imagine if Athlete would have had enough adjectives in his vocabulary to describe a victory for James Ward’s side.

 

The sources used in the research for this article were RW Marwick’s excellent The Boys From The ‘Brig: The Life And Times Of Albion Rovers and archived editions of the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser and the Coatbridge Express.

Also, if anyone can shed any light on the identity of the wonderful “Athlete” then please do not hesitate to contact us.

Shaughan McGuigan

Shaughan McGuigan

Shaughan is a Raith Rovers fan, still recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder induced by Claude Anelka's spell at the club. He is a contributor to the club website, compiling match reports, previews and interviews.

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