THE board of directors had announced the club were to make a journey across the border on a so-called “floodlight tour”, playing English clubs in friendlies to celebrate new floodlight installations. As East Fife were one of the biggest sides in Britain at the time, they were seen as an attractive opposition for English sides wishing to draw large crowds for the novelty of watching matches under the glare of the light bulbs.
Despite protests from fans, East Fife left Scotland on Sunday 15 February to play non-league Gloucester City on the Monday, winning 6-0. The next day they travelled to Worcester and won 7-2, returning to Fife by train on the Wednesday.
Supporter anxieties on the fitness-sapping nature of the midweek jaunt appeared unfounded to begin with, as East Fife comfortably beat Aberdeen 4-1. However, a solitary point from the next two games – against Dundee and Partick Thistle – led to disgruntlement amongst the Methil support.
Deciding to ignore the early warnings, the board announced another set of friendlies. Sunderland were hammered 3-1 at Roker Park in front of 38,000 fans on 4 March. The next midweek saw another double-header, with Bristol City beaten 2-0 in front of a capacity crowd of 27,000 and then Swindon Town defeated 3-2 the following evening. A further trip down south at the end of March ended in a 2-2 draw against Carlisle. This meant that in six matches against English opposition, East Fife had won five, drawn one and scored 23 goals in front of an excess of 100,000 fans. It was an extraordinary achievement during an extraordinary time for the club.
Despite the midweek exertions, their league form remained steady. Celtic were thumped 4-1 at Bayview and Third Lanark were also beaten by three goals at Cathkin Park. After the win over the Hi-Hi, Symon announced he would be leaving at the end of the season to take over at Preston North End. He would return to Scotland after just one season before becoming one of the most succesful managers in Rangers’ history.
Although Symon’s announcement was disappointing news, the Leven Mail did not seem overly concerned at the timing of the event. The newspaper indeed proclaimed that “the league championship flag should still be fluttering from the Bayview pole at the end of the season.”
The newspaper’s confidence seemed well founded and a 7-0 demolition of St Mirren – including five goals from the prodigious Charlie Fleming – seemed to suggest that the title was indeed about to head to Methil. Incredibly, the board arranged two more mid-week journeys to England. The first was a visit to Notts County where they won 5-2 in front of 13,000 fans. The second trip in the following week saw East Fife lose their first match on English soil, a 4-1 defeat at Newcastle. The date of the Newcastle fixture was the 15 April and was justifiably the source of consternation among East Fife fans – they had a game at Celtic Park on the 18 April and a potential league decider against Hibs at Easter Road two days later. The last league match of the season was at away to Hearts.
Going into the final three matches, East Fife were joint-top of the league with Rangers. A 1-1 draw at Celtic Park was enough for them to stay just ahead of Rangers and Hibs. The penultimate match of the season at Easter Road was vital to East Fife’s championship hopes. Although they were ahead of Rangers in the league, the Ibrox side still had a game in hand. Only a win against Hibernian would suffice.
Despite a spirited performance from the visitors, Hibs ran out deserved 2-1 winners in front of a crowd of 47,000. The result meant the league race was all but over for East Fife. A last day defeat to Hearts saw them finish third, meaning they failed to qualify for that summer’s Coronation Cup held in Glasgow. Rangers and Hibs were tied at the top, but in the days before goal difference, Rangers were crowned champions due to a better goal average.
While many blamed the exertions of the “floodlight tour” for the loss of the title, the sudden drop in form was probably due to a combination of factors. Late-season nerves and the timing of the announcement of Symon’s departure played a part to an extent, but the ridiculous timing of the match against Newcastle was crucial.
The failure to land the league title was not the end of East Fife’s time in the sun – the following season’s League Cup campaign ultimately ended in glory. Under the stewardship of former Rangers and Scotland goalkeeper Jerry Dawson, the run to Hampden saw them knock out Aberdeen and Celtic. In an incredible two-leg match against Dunfermline, Fleming scored eight times over the tie in a 9-4 aggregate win.
The League Cup final saw East Fife take on Partick Thistle in front of almost 90,000 fans. Frank Christie scored the winner in a 3-2 win, with the local press describing the goal as “…screaming from his boot with the speed of a jet into the rigging, it was a goal. It was THE goal.”
Unbelievably, it was East Fife’s third victory in a competition which had only existed for eight seasons.
This was to be the Methil side’s last hurrah. Their stay in the top flight would end four years later in 1958, after ten largely successful seasons. East Fife have since only returned to the top flight once during a three-year spell in the seventies, and it involved a constant struggle to avoid relegation.
While it is unlikely East Fife’s modern generation of supporters will ever be able to enjoy cup wins or the exploits to match those achieved by Charlie Fleming, they can at least bask in the knowledge that for now – and the foreseeable future – they are still the Kingdom’s most successful team.