Who could have imagined that a grey day in Methil almost seven years ago would yield the beginning of one of the most remarkable journies in modern Scottish football?
In a match between East Fife and Stenhousemuir on 12 November 2005, the 16-year-old David Templeton was introduced as a substitute midway through the second half for the visitors. At the time, the Warriors trailing by two goals and the young forward instigated an astonishing comeback, assisting twice and scoring the winner in the final minute.
With Templeton having transferred from Heart of Midlothian to Rangers in the very early hours of Saturday morning, the player will return to grounds such as Ochilview, Links Park and Borough Briggs, the very environs where he began his career. When he left Stenhousemuir in 2007, few could have imagined he would ever return to the basement of senior Scottish football.
At the beginning of August (and well before the move to Ibrox), I met with Des McKeown, Templeton’s former manager at the Warriors, with the intention of writing an expansive feature analysing his two-and-a-half years in charge of the club. The article will be crafted over the coming weeks, but given recent events, it seems churlish not to dedicate a separate article to one of the most gifted forwards to have played in the Third Division. We spoke at length about the forward’s contribution at Stenhousemuir and McKeown still speaks highly of him.
“David Templeton?” he smiled. “The wee guy was just brilliant.”
At the age of 14, Templeton had been rejected from Aberdeen’s youth side. Coaches at Pittodrie expressed doubts over his ability to develop physically and, ignoring his precocious talent, opted to release him from his contract. The player returned to boys’ club football with Wolves BC and after a series of impressive performances, he was contacted in October 2005 by Campbell Money, Stenhousemuir’s then-Head of Youth Development, who invited the player to train with the club’s academy team.
“Campbell said to me: ‘Listen, this guy’s got a chance, have a wee look at him’,” explained McKeown. “So I sent him away with the reserves to play at St Mirren and Stevie Kerrigan, the reserve team coach, came back to me and said: ‘He looks decent. The boy’s got a chance’.
“To cut a long story short, I thought fuck it, let’s get him into the squad for the first team.”
I asked how the youngster assimilated into the first team squad and how he performed in training.
“He was really quiet,” McKeown said. “He was a kid. Well, he was a wee kid! He was 16! A baby-face. He trained with us maybe two or three times. I thought he had great ability – great balance and a lovely style about him – but could he actually show that ability on a pitch where you’re up against guys who are trying to boot you from the knees up?
“But we took a wee chance on him and put him on the bench for the match against East Fife.”
The match at New Bayview on 12 November was quite extraordinary and certainly, in this author’s eyes, a truly outrageous spectacle. East Fife flourised throughout the opening exchanges, while Stenhousemuir toiled badly. A crisp finish midway through the first half from Stephen Fortune and Craig Smart’s neat chip after the interval gave the home side a deserved lead. The visitors were slack in midfield and toothless in attack; Jim Mercer and Tommy Sinclair had played poorly throughout and were withdrawn in favour of Paul Murphy and David Templeton on the hour.
“The rest is history,” smiled McKeown.
While Murphy provided ballast and solidity to the Warriors’ midfield, Templeton’s unpredictability brought a new dimension to his side’s attack. Given a free role, the young forward drifted from flank to flank and dropped into the space in front of East Fife’s backline. The opposition were unable to match his intelligence and movement and his presence quickly unsettled a previously resolute defence.
Fifteen minutes after his introduction, Templeton’s cute ball control drew a foul on the edge of the penalty area; Colin Cramb deftly headed home the resultant set-piece. Two minutes later, the substitute’s chipped cross was met by Paul McGrillen, who tied the score-line with a sublime close-range volley.
With the match drawing to a close, Templeton gathered the ball on the left touchline, cut beyond the East Fife full-back and clipped a shot on goal. The ball swerved beyond John Dodds, but gently bounced against the post and back into the goalkeeper’s grateful arms. Moments later, he would go one better.
Joe McAlpine drilled an adroit pass down the left flank into the forward. Once again, he skilfully beat his marker, skipped towards the penalty area, but this time, poked his shot underneath Dodds and into the net to secure a remarkable victory.
“I remember when he scored…” McKeown’s eyes lit up. “Myself and Paul Smith [Stenhousemuir’s assistant manager] were rolling around the track! And I mean rolling around the track – he jumped on top of me and knocked me over and the two of us were rolling around on the red ash just cuddling each other!”
The following week, the player scored twice in a 6-2 victory over Montrose. In January, he scored in a 5-0 win against East Stirlingshire and another two late goals in a home victory over East Fife. Templeton was beginning to attract a significant volume of interest from a host of clubs – in late March, Rangers’ Ian Durrant and John Greig scouted the player as he scored two goals in a 7-0 dismantling of the Shire at Firs Park. McKeown was protective of him and worked hard to secure his immediate and medium-term future.
“I was taking phone calls from English clubs and Scottish clubs,” said McKeown. “I had meetings with different SPL clubs, I had meetings down in England regarding him – he even went on trial at Newcastle. There was a real buzz about him.”
Templeton continued to train with Stenhousemuir over the summer and at the beginning of the 2006-07 season, McKeown reconfigured the player from an orthodox striker into a wide attacker, the player quickly adapting to the role with aplomb. Despite unrest and apathy at Ochilview (McKeown resigned in October following an series of indifferent results) Templeton’s performances continued to improve, both in attack and out wide.
His last match for Stenhousemuir was in a 1-1 draw with Queen’s Park at Hampden on 25 November 2006. Six weeks later, the player joined Heart of Midlothian for an initial fee of £30,000. After a relatively mediocre start, hampered by injury and poor form, Templeton developed into one of the most exciting attackers in Scotland.
“He’s worked ever so hard,” said McKeown. “He forced himself into the Hearts side and at times, you can see everything we’re talking about, and there’s other times where he’s inconsistent and you think he’s not powerful enough.
“He’s still early in his development, though. There’s plenty of time for him to hold down that position and develop – hopefully into a Scotland international.”