It’s rare for a pre-season friendly to rise above the humdrum. Other than the first glimpse of a new player or two or the first appearance of a brand new strip, meaningless summer games hold little appeal to event the most ardent fan. One fixture in July, however, had a little more resonance than most.
The match between Selkirk and Stirling Albion might only have piqued the interest of supporters of a certain age, but it had been arranged last summer as a tip of the cap to one of the most extraordinary games in British football history. The fixture was a little unusual in its own right, with Stirling dispatching their Lowland League opposition 5-2 courtesy of four penalties (three of which were dispatched by Binos striker Sandy Cunningham), but it would have taken something much more significant than a handful of spot-kicks to outdo the last meeting between the teams.
Thirty years ago today, that Scottish Cup first round tie featured 13 more goals than July’s friendly, and they were spread far less evenly: Stirling blitzed their non-league opponents 20-0. The winning margin is still the biggest victory in British senior football since Preston North End’s 26-0 win over Hyde in the 1887-88 FA Cup.
Stirling Albion’s side of the 1980s was, much like their modern equivalent, a yo-yo club (although with just three, larger divisions, there was slightly less toing and froing between the leagues). The Binos seemed betwixt and between – occasionally too good for the basement tier but unable to resist its pull during their brief forays in Division One.
The club were managed by Alex Smith, who would eventually go on to lead St Mirren and Aberdeen to trophy success and is currently part of the backroom staff at Falkirk. As a player, Smith operated as an inside-forward and was, for better or worse, a journeyman – he began his career at Kilmarnock but left without making an appearance before going on to represent Stenhousemuir (twice), Stirling, East Stirlingshire and Albion Rovers.
Smith’s second spell at Ochilview between 1968 and 1970 would be his last as a player and he was appointed the club’s player-manager in 1969 when he was just 30. He had the honour of becoming the Warriors’ first ever manager as they moved away from committee process. Smith’s remit was to keep the club on an even keel and during his five years in charge, Stenhousemuir never finished higher than tenth in the bottom division.
Alex Smith replaced Frank Beattie at Stirling Albion, who retired to run a newsagents in Cambusbarron
Despite his limited achievements at Ochilview, Smith was selected by the Stirling board to replace Frank Beattie, who had decided to leave the club to run a newsagents in Cambusbarron after just one season in charge, in September 1974. Smith enjoyed his first taste of managerial success by winning the Division Two title in 1976, and would lead the club to fifth place in the second tier 12 months later. Their First Division status for the remained of the 1970s was reasonably secure, but the first season of the new decade was one of the most embarrassing in their history.
Stirling picked up a 1-0 win against Dunfermline Athletic at East End Park on 31 January 1981 – it was not just their final victory of a campaign that still had 13 fixtures remaining, it was also their final goal. The team went more than 21 hours without scoring and their season’s total of 18 league goals is the lowest ever recorded by a Scottish club. (It is also the joint-lowest ever in Britain, with Loughborough Town registering the same number across five fewer matches in the 1899-1900 English Football League.)
Throughout the early 1980s, Stirling began each year as one of the favourites to win promotion but they had appeared to lose their lustre under Smith. More so, and perhaps more precisely, they were also losing their best young players. During the 1983-84 season John Colquhoun was sold to Celtic for £60,000, the highest sum the club had ever received for a player. Four months later and the figure was trumped when John Philliben joined Doncaster Rovers for £65,000.
As such, ambitions for the 1984-85 season were suitably tempered (and subsequently lowered further when 20-year-old midfielder Brian Grant was transferred to Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen for £65,000). Around £12,500 was invested in Stenhousemuir forward David Thompson but their record signing failed to have much of an impact in a struggling Stirling side. Their first victory of the year didn’t arrive until the tail-end of September and they sat in eighth in Division Two with four wins from 17 as their Scottish Cup tie with Selkirk approached.
The whole affair had something of a mismatch about it. Selkirk has almost gone out of business the previous year after racking up debts of almost £34,000 – an extraordinary sum for a club bringing in around £20 per week through a grant scheme. As a consequence, Selkirk withdrew from the East of Scotland League and joined the Borders Amateur Second Division. The club had the good sense to retain their SFA membership (at the cost of £1 per annum), which allowed them to continue to compete in the Scottish Cup.
Unbeknown to his wife, the Selkirk manager Jackson Cockburn took £150 of his own money to pay the club’s outstanding electricity bill
Selkirk were expected to lose to Glasgow University in the cup’s first qualifying round but a 1-1 draw forced a replay at their dilapidated Ettrick Park. The tie was thrown into doubt when their electricity was cut off after a dispute with suppliers over an outstanding bill of £304. Selkirk manager Jackson Cockburn, unbeknown to his wife Anne, took £150 of his own money to help pay the debt while sponsorship cleared the rest. While the subterfuge might have thrown his marriage into crisis, Cockburn was vindicated with a fine 3-1 victory. Anne, meanwhile, was none the wiser.
Selkirk went into the second round against Annan Athletic, who had gone two years without defeat in the South of Scotland League, as overwhelming underdogs. Yet they recorded another unexpected win by another 3-1 score-line to qualify for the Scottish Cup proper. Their progress earned them over £1000 in prize money, a sum that would sustain the club for the next few seasons. The tie with Stirling Albion at Annfield might even have felt like a plum a draw at the time.
Although the Binos entered the fixture as the obvious favourites, Smith was taking nothing for granted. His side had been knocked out of the competition by Highland League outfit Inverness Caledonian in the third round the previous year.
He needn’t have worried. A photograph of the Selkirk team taken just before kick-off shows a group of players looking pensive and anxious. Only two of the 15 men are smiling – had the image been captured at the end of the match, there would presumably be two smiles fewer. Goalkeeper Richard Taylor – one of the shortest men in the squad – has his shirt smeared in mud already; it would be a lot filthier at full-time.
The rout began after six minutes when Willie Irvine guided a Robert Dawson cross into the left-hand corner of the net. Scott Maxwell added a second after 12 minutes and by half-time the lead had been extended to five after Jimmy Ormond, David Thompson and Dawson got on the scoresheet.
The second half was calamitous and Taylor had to pick the ball out of his net a further 15 times. Thompson obliged himself to double hat-trick, while Irvine took his tally to four. Keith Walker managed two, the second of which (and the 13th of the match) was a comedy of errors – Taylor caught Walker’s lob but then fell backwards over the line, carrying the ball with him in the process. At least the goalkeeper wasn’t credited with an own goal. Further strikes from Gerry McTeague, Charlie McNeil and a brace from Neil Watt saw the score-line eventually rest at 20-0. For a team that had once gone 21 hours without scoring a single goal, they were rattling them in at an average of one every three minutes during the frantic second half.
In an interview with the Borders Telegraph, Jackson Cockburn explained what happened immediately after the match.
“After the game, I sat in a small room with Alex Smith taking interviews over the phone,” he said. “The calls were coming from all over Britain and even abroad. After an hour, Alex said, ‘Have you had enough?’ and I said, ‘Aye’, so we sat down and drank a bottle of vodka between us.
“What can you say about the match? At least one of their goals was offside.”
If Richard Taylor thought his day couldn’t have gone any worse, he was sadly mistaken. After the game, he was presented with the match ball (a token gesture that presumably he’d rather have not received) and upon returning home several hours later (on the Selkirk Cricket Club coach, which the team had commandeered for the day), the goalkeeper discovered someone had stolen the license plates from his brand new Skoda.
The match was to be Alex Smith’s last real high point at Stirling. After 12 years in charge of the club, he joined St Mirren in December 1986 and would lift the Scottish Cup six months later after Ian Ferguson’s extra-time goal saw off Dundee United 1-0.
While 8 December 1984 is remembered as Selkirk’s darkest day, the club are in good stead now. Selkirk, currently sitting in 11th place in the Lowland League, now reside at the floodlit Yarrow Park and boast impressive training facilities and a reserve side; none of this would have been achievable without their Scottish Cup run.
Maybe even Richard Taylor can find some solace in that.
The sources used in the research of this article were:
Stirling Albion FC: 1945-1988 by Allan Grieve and John Turnbull
The Border Telegraph
The Stirling Observer