Once in a Lifetime

As soon as the ball left Paul Paton’s foot, everyone knew it was over. The full-back’s shot, struck on the half-volley from 30 yards with laser-guided precision, flew through a crowd of players and crashed into the corner of the net. As Paton charged towards the gleeful Queen’s Park support, the East Fife players stood, hands on their hips, in disbelief. Four minutes into the match and the tie was as good as finished.

“And that was it,” grins Steven Canning, Paton’s team-mate. “Party time.”


 

Queen’s Park have had good teams before and Queen’s Park have had good teams since but none have captured the imagination in the same way Billy Stark’s promotion-winning side of 2006/07 did. At their very best, this youthful team played a compelling style of football that could quicken the heart and take the breath away.

At a level of football where pragmatism and practicalities almost always triumph over art, to see a team succeed through their principled desire for the game played the right way is a rare and ornate thing indeed. The ball would be smuggled conspiratorially in the middle of the park, the befuddled opposition only realising they were part of some grand scheme when their goalkeeper picked the ball from his net. East Fife, defeated by an aggregate score of 7-2 in the Second Division play-off final, could not help but look on in wonderment at what befell them.

It was a period in Queen’s Park’s history where all the stars and all the planets aligned perfectly. Stark, an intelligent, thoughtful manager, arrived at the club when a large core of talented youngsters all emerged at once. He took the raw clay and moulded it in his own image, turning God-given ability into something tangible.

When studying that year’s squad it is difficult not to be taken aback at a now familiar list of names. Paul Paton is perhaps the most recognisable, still playing in the Premiership with St Johnstone and winning two caps for Northern Ireland, while Stuart Kettlewell and Paul Cairney would also go on to compete in the top flight. David Weatherston, Alan Trouten and Mark Ferry all enjoyed varying degrees of success in the second tier and Mick Dunlop, Steven Canning and David Crawford established fine careers at part-time level. The average age of their regular starting XI that year was 23.

In fact, taking all things into consideration – their youth, their amateur status, the quality of their football, their achievements in winning promotion and maintaining their Second Division standing the following year – this Queen’s Park side might just be the greatest lower-league team of all time.


 

Billy Stark was appointed the manager of Queen’s Park on 27 August 2004. The position had unexpectedly become available after Kenny Brannigan resigned following a bizarre altercation with a player’s father in a defeat at Elgin City. Having previously managed Greenock Morton and St Johnstone on a full-time basis, Stark was unsure of taking over the Spiders but after encouragement from a friend, Queen’s Park director Andy McGlennan, he successfully interviewed for the role.

“It was quite a big decision to join Queen’s Park,” explains Stark, “but I felt with the history they had, even although they’re amateur and the attendant problems that come with it, I should give it a go. Luckily enough, they thought I’d be a good appointment and that was me, in and ready to go.”

Since relaxing the club constitution in 1998 to allow former professional players to join, Queen’s Park had appeared to abandon the romanticised ideals that set the apart from their peers. Although the Spiders won the Third Division championship under John McCormack in 1999/00, their first title in 19 years, it was achieved through long-ball football, percentages, raw aggression and hard graft rather than the passing game on which the club was founded. When taking up the manager’s post, Stark was encouraged to develop youth and re-establish and reinvigorate Queen’s Park’s Corinthian values; it was the only way he knew how.

“I worked under Sir Alex Ferguson for almost half my career and his basis was always possession of the ball with penetration,” Stark says. “I wanted a team that had legs and mobility. What you get with part-time players, especially with amateur ones, is enthusiasm. These young boys had it in abundance. That makes everything a lot easier, so it was just about trying to do the things that can make you successful – having a sound defensive base and trying to play football within that, and, at the same time, making chances and providing a threat. That’s what I set out to do when I got the job.”

Training quickly changed as Stark imparted his philosophy on the team. The new manager placed a greater emphasis on keeping the ball and introduced a host of possession-based drills including “Ajax games”, 11-a-side contests with two footballs. Every training session was designed with Saturday afternoons in mind and making the most of Hampden’s expansive pitch. Stark also sought to improve the discipline within the squad – formerly, the Spiders had one of the worst records in the country, and players were discouraged from arguing with referees and linesmen. He also banned the wearing of earrings and baseball caps around the club. It was one of the great paradoxes: despite their amateur status, Queen’s Park were one of the most professionally run teams in the lower leagues.


 

Billy Stark inherited a very decent group of players from his predecessor. Queen’s Park began the 2004/05 Third Division season with a team mostly made up of callow, talented youngsters including Stuart Kettlewell and David Weatherston, all of whom had already played a reasonable number of first-team games, and fleshed out by veterans like Paul Harvey, Johnny Whelan and the hulking Ally Graham. They were immediately impressed by their new manager.

“Everybody knew Billy Stark was a great football man and bought into what he was trying to do”
     Damiano Agostini

“Billy Stark was a big appointment for Queen’s Park,” says Damiano Agostini, the barrel-chested centre-back who served the Spiders with distinction over two spells. “He’s instantly recognisable and most of the team were happy with him. Everybody knew he was a great football man and bought into what he was trying to do. He had a clear vision of how the game should be played, what his expectations were and how to achieve them.”

Steven Canning, an accomplished all-rounder who spent eight years at Hampden, agrees: “Historically, the lower leagues can be a bit smash and grab but, from the word go, everything we did was all possession-based and about getting the ball and moving it on and getting it up the pitch. That’s the way I like to play football.”

Even although Stark dismisses what he describes as “the cult of the manager”, it is difficult to ignore the admiration in which his former players regard him. Alan Trouten, the diminutive attacker who flourished under Stark’s tutelage, describes him as “a great guy and an unbelievable coach” while Mark Ferry, the new manager’s first signing, laughs about how his team-mates referred to him as “Mark Stark”, such was their closeness.

“I haven’t heard anyone with a bad word to say about him,” says Canning. “He had time for you, for all of us. Looking at this guy who’s played for so many amazing teams, for him to have a five-minute conversation with you felt a bit special.

“He actually came to my wedding. That’s the kind of guy he was. You might think he’s too big for that but Billy was the kind of guy who would turn up and be part of everything.”

“As players, there’s certainly a large part about the manager on the touchline,” Agostini explains. “It’s probably unspoken but you want to be inspired by who’s telling you to do things. It was brilliant – he had that star quality and that aura about him.

“I suppose, at the time, Queen’s Park was made for Billy and Billy was made for Queen’s Park.”


 

Queen’s Park finished the 2004/05 season in fourth place. The campaign had its moments – they defeated record-breaking champions Gretna as they began their unnatural ascent through the divisions – but the side were unable to piece together a consistent series of results to challenge for promotion. The team improved their points tally the following year but a disappointing run over the final months of the campaign prevented them from reaching the first play-off contest. Despite the lack of tangible success, Stark was pleased with his side’s progress, particularly the development of his younger players.

“They were all different characters, but they were all receptive,” he says. “You need to have patience and the understanding that there are some ways you might suffer because of their inexperience, but I was getting total commitment on the pitch, a total commitment to the game.”

With every passing match, their intricacies and inconsistences were being slowly eradicated, giving way to heightened in-game intelligence and a greater understanding of how to handle the rough and tumble of the Third Division. By the summer of 2006, Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Canning, both in their early twenties, had played around 150 first-team games between them while teenagers Paul Paton and Alan Trouten, signed the previous year, made an immediate impact and helped form the backbone of the team.

Mark Ferry recalls the squad’s improvement over his first two years at the club: “I’d been used to playing at a higher level with St Johnstone and when I joined I thought there were a lot of young boys with potential, but they still had a lot of learning to do. Billy had a massive part to play in that and the improvement over time was remarkable. It wasn’t long before the boys were all up to speed and playing out of their skins.”

Arguably the most eye-catching player of Billy Stark’s reign was David Weatherston. A jet-heeled striker with a shaggy crop of blonde hair, he remembers how Stark brought out the best in him, transforming him from a potent-but-inconsistent prospect into one of the most exciting forwards in the lower leagues.

“Pace was 100 per cent my main strength, that and a willingness to run in behind,” Weatherston says, “but Billy taught me about the other parts of the game like linking play and coming short for the ball.

“I remember being disappointed I didn’t score more goals [in the 2005/06 season]. I sat down with Billy at the end of the year to talk about it – he told me not to be stupid and he showed me a list of Queen’s Park’s top scorers over the years. It was pretty much the same as me. He said, ‘you’re 18, you’ve scored this number of goals compared to these guys, next year you’ll go on to score more’. That gave me a lot of confidence.”

While the team developed on the pitch, they bonded and grew close away from it. A large group of players, all in their late teens and early twenties and local to Hampden, referred to themselves as the Fun Club and enjoyed regular nights out.

“It was like a social club with games at the weekend,” says Alan Trouten. “There were Saturdays when you didn’t need to speak to any of the boys – you could turn up at a certain pub and bump into half the team. It was great, all the boys were really good. They worked hard and played hard.”

“It doesn’t sound too professional but it was a bit like the Rangers nine-in-a-row era – a team that drinks together, wins together,” smiles Ferry. “The long away trips in the Third Division, if we’d had a good result, Billy would let us have a couple of beers on the bus and stop for a fish supper. Some boys would be like, ‘aw, I’m not going out’, but after a few beers everyone’s texting their missus and telling her they were away out on the town!”

Although some observers might question why a manager would reward his players with alcohol and fast food, Stark is quick to point out their part-time, amateur status and his eagerness to foster a positive spirit.

“Why would you want to come in and be a sergeant major who tells them how to live their lives?” he asks rhetorically. “Eat this, don’t eat that, it’s ridiculous. You could be at a full-time club and have lunch set up and all the rest of it and the players could just go to Greggs in the afternoon. It’s about guidance and trust that they do what they do.

“If you don’t pitch it right, you’ll lose the players. It was about letting them know there was a line they couldn’t cross. For me, taking that job, with the record I had as a player and a manager, there was a respect from most people and it was up to me to lose it.”


 

Before the start of the 2006/07 season, Queen’s Park spent eight days at a training camp in Germany. The squad took part in double sessions, working on their fitness and core strength and developing their tactics and shape for the year ahead. By the time they returned to Glasgow, the players were in peak physical condition – even Steven Canning.

“Stevie used to come back to training a wee bit overweight,” laughs Mark Ferry. “He’d never tell you that himself. He’d always have a good summer and have to work hard, but in Germany he was ripped – well, ripped for him anyway! He’d be in the sauna with a bin bag around him. He was off his head.”

So positive was the team’s experience in Germany, everyone believed the forthcoming campaign would be successful.

“I fully expected us to get promoted,” David Weatherston asserts. “We had pretty much the same team, a year older, a year more experienced. Whether it was through the play-offs or winning the league – and I genuinely thought we could win the league – we knew we had a right good chance.”

Weatherston and his team-mates had every right to feel confident. Billy Stark’s squad was supremely well-balanced and it provided the manager with the exact qualities he was looking for when he joined the club two years previously. With David Crawford and Mark Cairns sharing the goalkeeping responsibilities and a variety of dominant centre-backs to pick from, the manager had the tough defensive base he required. Canning and Paul Paton filled in at full-back and supported the midfielders in bringing fluidity and dynamism to the team while Weatherston, paired alongside either the returning Frankie Carroll or the venerable old workhorse Paul Ronald, gave the side its incendiary attack. The team had vibrancy, a sense of adventure, and a growing maturity.

Stark talks excitedly about his squad and goes into detail discussing its capabilities. He is enthusiastic about its constituent parts but he reserves special praise for his young midfield; it might just have been his side’s greatest strength.

“There was a very different sort of dynamic in there,” he says. “With Stuart Kettlewell’s energy, he’d run through a brick wall for you. He had drive and ambition and wanted to do well, lead by example. He was a tremendous asset to us, the work he would get through in a game. Alan Trouten was as quick running with the ball as he was without it. He had a lovely bodyswerve. Ferry would keep the ball well, he had a great idea about the discipline and the shape, and Paul Cairney, with that wee hunchback style of his, was full of energy. With him it was about cutting that string – he would overdo it, run the ball up his own arse at times, but he could take players right in and beat them.

“It’s not a great defensive line-up when you think about it but right early doors, I told them the minute it broke down they had to get behind the ball and back into a shape so they can still do a job. Mark Ferry was brilliant at that.”

Ferry himself jokingly refers to the team as “the Galacticos”; in relative terms, he probably wasn’t too far off.


 

Five other teams had genuine designs on the 2006/07 Third Division title. Stenhousemuir were perhaps the obvious favourites after adding five players from last season’s runners-up Berwick Rangers to an already capable pool of talent. The Wee Gers, meanwhile, were a stolid, uncompromising prospect under the arch pragmatism of John Coughlin and had regrouped well after their unexpected departures. John McGlashan’s Arbroath were built on a hard-faced defensive unit and the offensive excellence of Barry Sellars and Paul Tosh; East Fife might have been unfairly dismissed by some quarters as a typical Dave Baikie side, full of big lads sourced from junior football, but there was a smattering of quality here and there; and relegated Dumbarton were keen to make an immediate return to the Second Division.

Queen’s Park began the campaign by welcoming Arbroath to a sunny Hampden in early August but, despite the team’s optimism, they delivered a bloodless performance and succumbed 3-0 to the Lichties. They were far better three days later in a first-round League Cup tie with Hamilton Academical – Billy Reid’s team, a very decent First Division side with a young James McCarthy and James McArthur in their ranks, were expected to progress but a glorious extra-time lob from Richard Bowers saw the Spiders advance.

Elgin City were dispatched the following weekend, despite the second-half dismissals of Richard Sinclair and Mark Ferry, while Paul Paton scored an astonishing solo goal in a 5-0 thrashing of East Stirlingshire in the Challenge Cup. Dumbarton were narrowly vanquished next to complete a four-game winning streak, putting the team in a good position for their next encounter: a League Cup second-round match with Aberdeen on 22 August 2006.


 

As Hampden Park prepared to host a Rolling Stones concert, Queen’s Park decamped to Partick Thistle’s Firhill Stadium for the fixture. The team had the opportunity to train on the Firhill pitch beforehand and familiarise themselves with their new environs; with its lush, spacious playing surface, it wasn’t entirely dissimilar to what they were used to.

Even so, Aberdeen were fully expected to triumph. Although Jimmy Calderwood’s side had made an inauspicious start to their SPL campaign, they were replete with intelligent footballers like Russell Anderson, Stevie Crawford and Barry Nicholson and, given their full-time, top-flight status, they should have possessed the wherewithal to see off the Third Division amateurs.

In the build up to the game, Billy Stark did his best to inspire his players. “You need to try and instil a bit of belief in them, make them think they can do something,” he says. “I would never say to a team, ‘don’t lose a goal in the first 20 minutes’. If they do, what do you do next? I always made sure they kept it tight but I didn’t put that on them. It was just about them knowing their jobs.

“I told them to be prepared to run their legs off for as long as they could. It would be a 14-man job and everybody would be used, so don’t save anything.”

On the day of the match, Damiano Agostini arrived at Firhill before his team-mates and happened to bump into his manager in the stadium car park. “On a personal level, as a senior player, you could talk to Billy,” he remembers. “He gave me a wee pep talk and told me I needed to be on my mettle, that I had to get close to them. Without wishing to make Billy sound like a messiah figure, those few words stuck out. It sowed a seed with me.”

Not only was the defender quietly inspired by Stark, he also took assurance from his captain, Stuart Kettlewell, as the teams stood alongside one another in the tunnel before kick-off.

“I was next to Stuart,” Agostini continues. “He was quite slight – he still is, the lucky so-and-so – but he looked at them and said: ‘they’re not that big’. There were about half a dozen of our boys within earshot – some of them were younger guys who were maybe a bit more impressionable, but you could see their chests all puff out, you could see them think they had a chance.

“Those two things, Billy and Stuart, they really stood out for me. It’s easy to look back and think they were the catalyst – if we’d lost 4-0 I don’t think we’d be talking about them – but those two things really brought my confidence up.”

The match, played under a balmy late-summer sky, was a cagey affair, low on any moments of genuine quality but fast-paced and energetic. Aberdeen might have seen more of the ball but they struggled to find fluency and could not break down their hosts’ well-organised, obdurate defence. Agostini and Richard Sinclair kept the Dons’ attackers at arm’s length while Kettlewell, Mark Ferry and Steven Canning harried and pressed their opponents all evening.

“We weren’t like other Third Division teams – we were all young and fit and could get around the park”
     David Weatherston

“As the game went on we were hanging in there but we had good enough players,” states David Weatherston. “We weren’t like other Third Division teams – we didn’t have old guys who couldn’t run anymore. We were all young and fit and could get around the park.”

Agostini agrees: “We were playing a brand of football where we could go and do it against any team. We weren’t intimidated by Aberdeen or their history. We were so well drilled in the way Billy wanted us to play that we could keep the ball and wouldn’t have to do any chasing. With them being full time they had more in their legs but the longer the game went on, I was utterly convinced we could get a result.”

It was Queen’s Park who came closest to scoring with Richard Bowers’ long-range effort testing Derek Soutar, but the 90 minutes finished in stalemate. Aberdeen still could not breach the Spiders’ defence in extra time and the game marched inexorably and unexpectedly towards penalty kicks.

The team hadn’t made preparations for a penalty shoot-out (“We didn’t think we’d play Aberdeen for two hours and take them to penalties,” says the manager. “We often did it at training just as a wee lark at the end.”) but the calibre of their spot kicks was extraordinary. Canning stepped up first, slamming his penalty high into the net. Darren Mackie struck for Aberdeen but he skewed his effort horribly and whacked it into the muddy bing behind the goals. Ferry thumped in Queen’s Park’s second and although Souter got a hand to Robert Dunn’s third, the ball spun off his gloves and over the line.

There was some confusion as to who was taking their fourth penalty. “I remember turning to the boys and going, ‘who’s next?’” says Canning, “and I turned round and saw Mark Cairns spotting the ball! He was the slightly overweight goalie at the time!”

It had been Stark’s plan all along. “For me, Mark was always taking one,” says the manager. “He was a great striker of the ball. I can’t remember who it was but someone wanted to take one – now, you don’t want to shatter a player’s confidence, so I just custard pied it and ignored it. We rhymed off the takers. I knew Mark would leather it. And what a penalty it was! You couldn’t even catch it on the way out. He just lashed it.”

“Who could ever forget it?” smiles Ferry. “That’ll go down in the history books. The boys were absolutely wetting themselves, he’s away celebrating and forgot to get back in the goal! Big Mark was a great guy and he helped us a lot.”

With Cairns having converted his effort, and Barry Nicholson, John Stewart and Stevie Crawford scoring for Aberdeen, it was left to Alan Trouten to take Queen’s Park’s ultimate, decisive penalty. “He’s got ice in his veins when it comes to penalties, great composure,” says Ferry, “and we knew if it got to that stage then Alan would be the only man we’d want in there.”

“I’d had a wee joke with Robert Dunn on the halfway line,” grins Trouten mischievously. “I told him I was going to dink the goalie. Robert said, ‘if you dink the goalie and it doesn’t come off, I’ll punch your fucking head in’.” Trouten waited until Soutar made the slightest motion to his right before gently placing the shot into the opposite corner. “And luckily for me there was no violence shared!”

Trouten’s penalty prompted wild scenes of celebration among the Queen’s Park players and support. The victory over Aberdeen is still regarded as one of the best results in the club’s modern history and it cemented the side’s belief in a prosperous year ahead. “It validated what we were doing as a team and showed we were heading in the right direction,” says Agostini. “It galvanised us and gave some of the players a taste for success. It showed us if we kept on doing things the right way we could have a good season.”


 

After the defeat of Aberdeen, Queen’s Park struggled to find consistency and won just one of their next eight matches. Both management and players try to explain their lack of form going into autumn, with Billy Stark suggesting the side perhaps lost focus after their famous result. “Players can find it difficult to recover after a game like that,” he says. “It might have been down to that – quite rightly, they got their photo in the paper the next day – and I recognised at the time we’d have to fight against it. Sometimes it just overtakes you.”

Mark Ferry agrees: “It was euphoric, we got a lot of publicity afterwards. I don’t think anyone started to believe the hype, nothing like that, but you can get right up for a match like that in front of a good support, and then the next week you’re playing away at Albion Rovers.”

Damiano Agostini, meanwhile, is more prosaic: the team were simply knackered. “There was a bit of a fatigue there,” he says. “The Aberdeen game was our sixth in three weeks and by the time we played St Johnstone [a Challenge Cup second-round loss in late August], I was dead on my feet. It was high-intensity stuff and I think it was just mental and physical fatigue.”

A much-needed two-week break at beginning of October gave Queen’s Park the opportunity to recover and consolidate. The side responded magnificently after their rest, avenging their opening-day defeat to Arbroath with a solid 2-1 victory at Gayfield, and the positive result was the first of a five-game winning sequence that propelled them up the table. But the good run didn’t last, and a tepid draw with Stenhousemuir in late November preceded another lull, with the side collecting just seven points from as many matches. Although the Spiders remained among the throng of teams challenging for the title, they had now slumped to seventh.


 

On 20 January 2007, Queen’s Park took on Montrose at Hampden. Despite their indifferent form, the Spiders were still favourites to beat a down-on-their-luck Mo side, but few could have predicted they would do so in such devastating fashion. Steven Canning’s 15th-minute penalty started the rout and strikes from Mark Ferry, Alan Trouten, Tony Quinn and an own goal completed the annihilation.

“That result gave us a lift, it gave us confidence,” says Ferry. “It’s momentum – you know what momentum’s like in football, especially with young players. It gives them a bit of confidence and they think they can rule the world! That happened to us. We took off and we were blowing teams away.”

The victory over Montrose was the catalyst for an outrageous series of results and Queen’s Park went on to win 10 of their following 11 matches. The inconsistencies that had pockmarked the first half of the campaign were gone and the young players were performing with guile and resolve every week. Stark was able to select largely the same starting XI for each match and the team grew and hardened together on the pitch.

Perhaps even more satisfying was how the run was accomplished: the side had finally matched Billy Stark’s vision for the club. The ball was carried out from the back and into the midfield, florid passes crisscrossing the pitch, all one and two touches, before working its way toward the opponent’s goal. With an electric David Weatherston buzzing in and around the penalty box (“Davie had me looking like Andrea Pirlo!” remembers Ferry), Queen’s Park were as aesthetically pleasing as they were effective.

“We didn’t fear anybody in the league. We turned up to games knowing we were going to win. It was probably the only time I’ve ever felt like that”
     Steven Canning

They didn’t play long-ball football like many of their Third Division counterparts because they didn’t have the personnel to do so; keeping the ball was the only way they knew how, and opposition teams could not contain them. “We didn’t fear anyone in the league,” Canning says. “We just turned up to games knowing we were going to win – that was the mentality we had at the time. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever felt like that. Training was brilliant, we were all friends off the park… It was a great place to be around.”

While Queen’s Park’s swashbuckling attack was their most obvious quality, their defence was equally as important to their success and goalkeeper David Crawford broke the club record for consecutive clean sheets, going seven games without conceding. “Even accepting for the fact that all ‘keepers are a wee bit crazy, DC took it to new levels,” says Stark. “He had ability, he was agile, but he had big lapses in concentration. You have to hand it to him for the record, though. Everyone wanted to protect it. I don’t think it made us more defensive but we were pushing ourselves to keep it.”

Damiano Agostini remains proud of his part in the breaking the club’s clean-sheet record. He magnanimously praises his team-mates’ role in the achievement but he reserves special acclaim for his centre-back partner Mick Dunlop. “Playing alongside Mick was a dream,” he says. “We had a telepathic understanding, dare I say it. We knew each other positionally, we knew each other’s territory and what we’d go and attack. I’m sure there were even games we went through without talking to each other – we both knew what was expected and we both complemented each other excellently. We had each other’s backs. We were proper defenders who enjoyed defending.”

The clean-sheet record was eventually broken by East Stirlingshire’s Derek Ure at the start of April in a 2-1 win. “When the ball went in the net there was a sense of disbelief because it had been so long since we lost a goal,” Agostini laughs. “We were waiting for the linesman to put his flag up! For me, keeping a clean sheet was the best thing ever, and that run was fantastic, but it was always going to come to an end at some point, so I didn’t lose too much sleep.”


 

Berwick Rangers won the 2006/07 Third Division title. John Coughlin’s team had performed consistently well over the opening months of the campaign before embarking on their own remarkable run, winning 18 of their final 23 games. Although not often the most attractive side to watch, the Wee Gers were always solid and stubborn opponents and they deserved their championship.

Queen’s Park finished in third, seven points behind. Despite their flawless form from January onwards, it was not enough to unfix Berwick at the summit of the table. Billy Stark, however, was content with his side’s effort over the year. “There were various points in the season where, with the talent we had, we might have pushed Berwick a wee bit closer,” he says, “but in terms of third, I was happy we’d got into the play-offs after having just missed out before, so I wasn’t trying to be greedy that way.”

They entered the play-off semi-final against runners-up Arbroath. The Lichties too had been largely stellar over the season but a defeat at Berwick on the penultimate weekend ended their title aspirations. With the exception of their opening-day encounter, the games between the sides over the year had been close, separated by the odd goal, but the Spiders were confident they would prevail. “We were on a good run and we thought we were the best team,” says David Weatherston. “We knew if we played well we could do it. We expected… Well, we didn’t expect anything, but we fancied our chances.”

The first leg, played on a midweek Glasgow evening in early May, was in keeping with their previous meetings and was tense and tetchy. Queen’s Park, as they tended to do, kept the ball well but they couldn’t find a way to break down a well-drilled defence, while Arbroath were unable to get the better of David Crawford on their forays upfield. The match suddenly jolted into life midway through the second half when Andy Reilly was tripped by Paul Paton as he strode into the penalty box. Former Spider Willie Martin took the resultant spot-kick but Crawford read his intentions and dived to his right to slap away the ball.

Crawford’s save proved to be the turning point and it emboldened his team. Queen’s Park began to play with greater audacity and they took the lead on 77 minutes, Weatherston turning home Paul Cairney’s header from six yards. In the final minute, Weatherston incisively darted into the Arbroath penalty area but his run was halted by Steven Rennie’s clumsy foul. Rennie was sent off and Alan Trouten, just as he had done against Aberdeen, waited until the goalkeeper flinched before rolling his penalty into the bottom corner.

A bullish Queen’s Park took their two-goal lead to Gayfield four days later and their progress to the play-off final was assured before half-time after Weatherston and Trouten both netted again. “That cemented everything,” affirms Stark. “You’d have to have a total disaster to lose it. I felt reasonably comfortable in the second half. I’ve not had that feeling in Arbroath too often. I’m usually trying to stay upright in the wind!”

The Arbroath supporters were gracious in defeat, with one fan even wandering onto the Queen’s Park team bus to pay tribute. “He came over from Tutties Neuk,” Damiano Agostini remembers. “He was steaming drunk but he was in good form. There were about 12 of us on the bus and he said we deserved the win and wished us all the best. It was nice of him to say that. It’s a memory that sticks out.”


 

Queen’s Park faced East Fife in the Second Division play-off final. The Fifers, who had relegated Stranraer in their semi-final, ended Queen’s Park’s 12-game unbeaten run the previous month in a bad-tempered meeting at Bayview in early April. While Billy Stark was fully focused on winning promotion, he was also keen to get one over on Dave Baikie and his assistant Graeme Irons.

“The assistant, he was mouthy and he wanted players hurt,” grumbles Stark. “It was junior stuff because they were junior. I remember there being one or two wee verbals. You try not to get involved with them. We’d lost up there before the end of the season and I was thinking, ‘that’s fine, that lets them think they’ve got the upper hand’.”

With Hampden Park unavailable once again, the stadium being furnished for the forthcoming UEFA Cup final between Sevilla and Espanyol, Queen’s Park flitted to the northwest of Glasgow and back to the familiar settings of Firhill. David Weatherston believes it was written in the stars. “I think because we’d beaten Aberdeen there, the whole thing was meant to be,” he smiles. “It’s weird – normally, if you’d been sent away from your stadium, there’d be an issue but because we’d been to Firhill before it was like, ‘we’re going to Firhill, it’s alright, it’s fine’.”

On a pleasant Wednesday night in front of an expectant support, Queen’s Park turned in their finest performance of the season. From the first kick to the final whistle, the young Spiders were relentless and played with unending verve and industry, knocking the ball between themselves as if they were participating in some private game before bounding forward on the attack. East Fife had the occasional spell but there were times during the match when they looked utterly dumbfounded.

“It was unreal,” recalls Damiano Agostini. “I was a bit heavier than those 10-stone whippets and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t keep up at this pace’. It had got to the point where you’d see somebody make a pass and before your eyes had caught up to where the ball was, there had been another couple of passes. Every time we went forward it looked as though we would score.”

“It was an amazing game,” Steven Canning adds. “I think we tore East Fife apart that night. It was like men against boys.”

Weatherston, watched by a number of scouts, was particularly captivating and whenever he gathered possession out on the flank, he compelled the crowd to sit that little further forward in their seats (“I used to like going out to the left – I’d kid on to my friends I was like Thierry Henry!” he laughs). After half an hour, one of his runs from the wing won his side a free-kick just outside the penalty area. Canning, who had made an indifferent start to the match, swung a low ball into the box; it somehow snaked through the crowd of players and into goalkeeper John Dodds’ far corner. “It was a cross, I’ll be honest,” Canning says sheepishly.

Just before the interval, Mick Dunlop doubled Queen’s Park’s lead after getting his head to a well-worked routine from a corner kick. “We had practiced a few set-pieces before the match and to score one, especially before half-time, was really satisfying,” beams Stark.

His side started the second half as tenaciously as they finished the first, forcing East Fife deep into their own territory and creating numerous chances. In the 54th minute, Paul Cairney was hacked down on the edge of the box. Canning stood over the ball once more but his shot was poor and it blootered off the wall. No matter: he collected the rebound on his knee and with the inside of his foot, he sent a gorgeous parabola over the wall, over Dodds and into the net. “It’s probably the best goal I’ve ever scored,” he grins.

East Fife unexpectedly scored six minutes later, with Lloyd Young capitalising on some poor defending to convert from close range. Cairney restored Queen’s Park’s three-goal advantage shortly afterwards but Jonny Smart netted the Fifers’ second with a towering back-post header. For all his team’s offensive excellence, Stark was frustrated by their late concession. “It was a wee bit of a rollercoaster after the match,” he says. “I wondered if it was going to cost us because I knew East Fife would get wired into us up the road. A two-goal lead isn’t insurmountable and if they got one back early doors it might have been panic stations. I remember saying to them to play our game with composure and discipline – just play the way we could and we’d be alright.”


 

If Billy Stark was approaching the second leg with caution, the players travelled to Bayview in good-natured optimism: Steven Canning filled his training bag with bottles of champagne while Richard Sinclair even had celebratory t-shirts printed. The squad listened to Al Pacino’s famous speech from Any Given Sunday in the dressing room before kick-off, its message of self-sacrifice for the good of the team resonating with the young players, and they took to the pitch, fired up and fully expecting a physical, attritional battle with East Fife.

But the onslaught did not come. Although the Fifers seemed in confident mood in the tunnel, the whole thing was as good as over almost as soon as it started.

Four minutes into the contest, Mark Ferry collected possession out on the left flank and tossed the ball into the opposition penalty box, but it was headed away from danger and trundled some distance from the goal. Alan Trouten and then Stuart Kettlewell considered bringing it back under control until they heard a shout coming from a long way behind them: Paul Paton, galloping forward from full-back, smashed it goalward with all the power and ferocity of an Exocet missile. The ball struck the back of the net before John Dodds could even move.

“It was unbelievable… Unbelievable!” David Weatherston laughs incredulously. “I still think it’s the best goal I’ve been involved in and been a part of. As soon as it went in, that was that, four minutes and we were up.”

“Our confidence was sky high that day and nobody was going to stop us”
     Alan Trouten

“That was the game done,” says Alan Trouten. “Our confidence was sky high and nobody was going to stop us.”

Even Stark knew the goal confirmed his side’s promotion. “I don’t think a manager ever allows himself to think to that degree, but…” he puffs out his cheeks and grins. “I’d have taken a three-goal lead to East Fife, so… It was psychological – Paul’s goal, the nature of it, it knocked the stuffing out of them. A spectacular goal like that makes them think it isn’t their day. I don’t think East Fife recovered from it.”

Queen’s Park strolled through the match and knocked the ball around in comfort, the players laughing and joking among themselves. The home side, meanwhile, huffed and puffed but their spark was gone. “Fair play to East Fife,” nods Stark, “they had that bit in them that they could have just started losing their discipline and all the rest of it, especially with the ones leading them, that wee assistant, so it was a sweet moment.”

Trouten netted a second with 16 minutes to go, finishing from Weatherston’s cutback, and Frankie Carroll added gloss to the scoreline with a clinical counter attack at the death; Canning and Mick Dunlop celebrated the goal by diving into the ecstatic away support.

The referee brought the game to its conclusion moments later: Queen’s Park’s young side had won promotion to the Second Division. The team, wearing Sinclair’s printed t-shirts, celebrated in front of their fans by spraying champagne and dancing in a conga line. One player even tried to hoist the manager up on their shoulders.

“It’s something that’ll live with me for the rest of my life,” says a proud Ferry. “The way we played on a big occasion like that when we knew all eyes were on us, we stood up and played the way we knew we could. That was good. Our style of play, people liked to watch it. The happiness you’ve given to these fans, it’s fantastic seeing the joy you’ve brought to people who have supported the club for a long time. What a night we had, what a night… What a few days!”

“Other boys might call it a social club; I’d say it was more like a family in some respects,” Damiano Agostini says. “Over the course of the season you spend so much time with these boys, you form strong bonds with them and for me, as much as anything, to see those guys happy, the management happy, the committee, the fans, to see them all happy like that, it makes it all worthwhile. It was an incredible day.”

Speaking to journalists after the match, Stark hailed the side’s promotion as his greatest achievement in football. Ten years later, does he still feel the same way?

“I don’t know. Sometimes you can get carried away,” he muses. “It’s up there, without a doubt. When you get a bit older and think more deeply about your best moments and your worst moments, you put a wee bit of perspective on it, you know? There might have been a wee bit of self-promotion in that statement, if I’m being honest. But equally, I was trying to make people appreciate that this was a young amateur team that’s won promotion. I truly believed that group of players deserved it.”


 

Four days after winning promotion, Billy Stark agreed a new three-year contract with Queen’s Park and quickly set about trying to secure last season’s key players for the year ahead. The manager was well aware of interest in his team from other clubs but he remained sanguine about keeping hold of them.

“My thinking, and this wasn’t a totally consistent way of thinking through the club, was that if a boy had the opportunity to go full time then I wouldn’t stand in his way,” he says diplomatically. “I would discourage them from going to other part-time teams – I mean, I could understand if they went to another part-time club to get some money or whatever, but if they had ambition and wanted to play football at a reasonable level, I’d tell them they were better here at Hampden and playing in the first team.

“That was the big selling point: get 100 appearances for Queen’s Park and you’re in better shape to go and get full-time football.”

Only David Weatherston and David Crawford were lured away from the club. Weatherston moved to Owen Coyle’s St Johnstone while Crawford was tempted to trials in the English lower leagues before eventually joining Dumbarton. During an end-of-season holiday in Magaluf, the remainder of the squad, the Fun Club, agreed to stay together for another year.

“Billy didn’t really do anything to keep us,” remembers Steven Canning. “He knew the circumstances at Queen’s Park but he built that professionalism and made it a nice place to play. He created that atmosphere.”

“We had such a great team spirit. It was like a brotherhood – I know that sounds like a stupid American thing to say but it was!” Mark Ferry laughs. “At the end of the season I was thinking about buying a house, I thought I should go and earn some money from football, but after we got promoted I had to stay. We thought we’d give it a bash in the Second Division.”

While many expected Queen’s Park to make an immediate return to the basement league, the side, virtually unchanged from the previous year, believed they could make another assault on the promotion play-offs and they instantly acquitted themselves to their new surroundings. Brechin City were thrashed 3-0 on the opening day, Ayr United were defeated by a thrilling last-minute Alan Trouten goal, and title favourites Ross County were beaten at Hampden. “People didn’t know what to expect from us and we surprised them,” remembers Ferry.

Although they were unable to sustain their good form, Queen’s Park finished 2007 in mid-table, some distance from the top four but comfortably above the relegation places.


 

Billy Stark left Queen’s Park in early January 2008 to manage Scotland’s under-21 team. The SFA’s George Peat and Gordon Smith had attended the play-off final at Firhill and headhunted him to replace the departed Archie Knox. Despite the promise of working with the country’s elite youngsters and the role’s associated benefits, Stark took some time contemplating the decision.

“I was totally torn about taking the Scotland job. Totally. Totally,” says the manager. “I agonised long and hard over it, my wife as well, she could see that I really enjoying it at Hampden. I was content where I was. People might say I lacked ambition but ambition doesn’t have to mean you want to be the king – ambition’s about wanting to be the best in your job and that was enough to carry me, certainly at that point.

“I couldn’t turn down the SFA. It was a chance to serve your country, in a way”
     Billy Stark

“But I obviously couldn’t turn it down. It was a great opportunity – I wasn’t fortunate enough to win international caps so it was a chance to serve your country, in a way.”

Although disappointed to see Stark leave the club, the team were pleased for their manager and many players wrote him cards and letters wishing him luck. “I’m sure it meant a lot to him,” says Mark Ferry. “He left a mark on these young boys’ lives. We all felt he belonged at a higher level and there was not one person who held a grudge when he left.”

Stark recalls his final night at training: “I remember, it was just typical of the squad, they were warming up, wee Bobby Dickson was taking them, and they were shouting, ‘Billy, how ye doing?’ They used to call me boss and all the rest of it but there they were, right onto my first name to see the reaction they would get. It was quite touching it ended that way.”

His last match as Queen’s Park manager was against Alloa Athletic on 5 January 2008; his side won the contest 2-1.


 

Former Partick Thistle assistant manager Gardner Speirs was selected as Billy Stark’s replacement. Although most of his players speak well of him, both personally and professionally, Speirs’ appointment divided the team. The new manager took a stricter approach to training and squad discipline while treats, specifically drinking on the team bus after matches, were forbidden.

“Gardner just didn’t get it,” grouches Steven Canning. “He didn’t get the way we went about our business. He took away a lot of the wee things Billy had let go. As a lower-league player, you’re travelling around the country, sometimes you’re leaving at 10 in the morning and not getting back home till 10, 11 o’clock at night. Billy would let us have a drink, even if we got beat, we would still get a couple of beers on the way home and have a laugh and joke.”

“Anybody following Billy was going to have a hard job,” Mark Ferry tactfully acknowledges. “I could see where Gardner was coming from but I think that was one of the things Billy did brilliantly – he realised we’d been working all week and we weren’t getting paid and he let us off the leash a little bit; Gardner came in and stopped all that. But he was good with me, Gardner, he played me and he gave me a lot of confidence.”

Speirs maintained Queen’s Park’s competitiveness over the latter half of the season and an exceptional run of five wins from seven matches between March and April pulled the side away from any lingering danger of relegation. The Spiders would finish the campaign in eighth, consolidating their Second Division status for another year.

By this point, a number of players had already made arrangements for the next season. Canning was the first to signal his exit, signing a pre-contract agreement with Brechin City, while Paul Paton and Paul Cairney were set to join Partick Thistle. “We knew we couldn’t replace those players,” says Ferry. “We knew the next year was either going to be a struggle or a mediocre season. We’d taken the club as far as we could. The boys were getting to that stage as well where they were looking to move into their own house, get married, have kids, etcetera, and the extra money was going to be needed. It was just the way it went.”

Ferry moved to Raith Rovers and went on to win the Second Division title; Stuart Kettlewell and Alan Trouten transferred to John Brown’s Clyde; and Mick Dunlop signed for Dumbarton. The core of the promotion-winning side was gone.

Damiano Agostini was one player who remained at Hampden. The big stopper had a strong affinity with Queen’s Park and didn’t see himself playing elsewhere but he found himself falling out of favour with Speirs. Working in financial services at the time of the global credit crunch, Agostini was often late for training and could not attend the club’s pre-season camp in Germany, leading the manager to openly question his fitness and dedication.

“As the season progressed I played a fair bit up until Christmas and I thought I was doing well but then Gardner went in a different direction,” he explains. “I was under a fair bit of pressure at work and then you’re heading across to training and you’re starting to wonder if it’s really worth it. We’d worked hard to get to a high standard and he was bringing in players that weren’t up to scratch, and he was trying things that weren’t working.

“I ended up leaving before the end of the season because I was cheesed off with how I felt I was being treated. I felt like I had a lot to offer the team; it was tough to watch from the sidelines.”

Queen’s Park finished the 2008/09 season in ninth and were relegated via the play-offs.


 

When Billy Stark pauses to reflect on his three-and-a-half years at Queen’s Park – his young team, their progress and their development, the quality of their football, their accomplishments – only one word sums up his overriding emotion: happy.

“I wouldn’t associate that word with other jobs,” he smiles warmly. “There was probably less pressure and that allowed me to stick to my principles and beliefs. There have been other jobs where I’ve been satisfied and content – and I felt like that at Queen’s Park – but I was happy with that bunch of boys and what they achieved.”

His players also look back on their time at the club with great affection. “From the first minute to the last, I absolutely loved it,” says Alan Trouten while David Weatherston, looking back on the play-off final with East Fife, stops to exclaim: “I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it!”

“It as the best spell of my career,” Mark Ferry says. “I remember when Billy would try to get you to stay at the end of the season, he’d say, ‘I remember when I was at St Mirren, we played some fantastic football and you don’t get that very often in your career’, and, looking back on it now, he was 100 per cent right. The football we played, it was just… I made some friends for life there. It was great! Some fantastic times. I loved my time at Queen’s Park.”

Damiano Agostini, a self-described purist, perhaps says it best: “You want the game to be played the right way, you want to go to the football and be excited by great players and great goals. The way Billy wanted the game played was absolutely in sync with my thinking. If I was the Queen’s Park president sitting down, I would rather sign up for winning a promotion with a team like Billy’s once every 10, 15 years than any other way.”

Queen’s Park have had good teams before and Queen’s Park have had good teams since, but Billy Stark’s young side of 2006/07 might just be their very best.

 

This article originally appeared in Nutmeg Magazine. The quarterly periodical is a must-read for any fan of Scottish football and features great stories told by great writers. Subscribe to Nutmeg here.

Craig G Telfer

Craig G Telfer

Craig is a keen supporter of Stenhousemuir and still harbours romantic notions towards the club's infamous 2005-06 season. His fictional heroes include Daniel Plainview, John Marston and Pat Mustard.

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