If the contemporary Scottish football fan was to consider the fortunes of the clubs in the Kingdom of Fife, they would see four clubs not exactly burdened by the pressure of success.
Raith Rovers have assumed their normal position of a lower to mid-table First Division team, and Cowdenbeath are indulging in one of their infrequent visits to the second tier. Dunfermline, meanwhile, are suffering somewhat of an identity crisis between a First Division title front-runner and an SPL bottom feeder. Indeed, some of their supporters are more contented with the former situation, believing a two or three-way battle for a title to be preferable to the more mundane existence of a relegation scrap involving an inability to win at home.
Last of all is East Fife, a club which appears to almost sit in an achievement vacuum, seemingly doomed to forever wander between the two lower leagues. Admittedly, their last experience of the rarefied air of the First Division in 1996-97 will possibly put them off being there again, finishing as they did with just 14 points and a goal difference of minus 64.
This current snapshot has been, with a few notable exceptions, typical for football in Fife for at least a generation. For fans of a certain age, it must seem as if it has always been like this. Of course it hasn’t, but it requires some research through Scottish footballing history to sieve out the deviations from the norm.
The sixties saw a Dunfermline side (led first of all by Jock Stein and eventually by George Farm) win two Scottish cups and enjoy some wonderful European nights. The Pars defeated Olympiakos, Everton and West Bromwich Albion among others. Most famously, Dunfermline drew 6-6 with Valencia on aggregate after winning 4-0 at East End Park. However, before the advent of the away goals rule, Dunfermline lost the resulting play-off.
Raith Rovers enjoyed sustained success under Bert Herdman throughout the fifties. The club punched above their weight during a 14 year stay in the top flight which saw them finish as high as fourth in 1957, above both Celtic and Aberdeen.
However, those noteworthy achievements are undeniably out-shone by the brilliant accomplishments of East Fife. Whilst footballing history is littered with provincial sides whose flame has burned brightly but is extinguished almost immediately, East Fife’s success straddled not only the Second World War, but well into the fifties. It made them not just the most decorated team in Fife but – at the time – one of Scotland’s most glamorous clubs.
The beginning of East Fife’s golden era possibly began with what is still their finest hour – the 1938 Scottish cup final win against Kilmarnock. The 1-1 draw and the following 4-2 replay was watched by a combined attendance of 170,000 spectators, who witnessed the shock win by the Second Division side against their more fancied Ayrshire opponents.
We will never know if the Methil side could have progressed significantly from there, because the outbreak of World War II saw top-level football suspended in the country. Nevertheless, peace-time saw East Fife pick up where they left off – under the stewardship of Scot Symon they achieved a double in 1947-48, winning the Second Division and the recently formed League Cup.
The League Cup would be won again in 1949-50 after a victory against local rivals Dunfermline, while they reached the Scottish Cup final in the same season, losing to Rangers. A fourth place finish in the old First Division cemented their reputation as not just a cup team, but one of the country’s finest sides.
Only one bauble was missing from the Bayview trophy cabinet: the league championship. A third place finish in 1952 behind Rangers and champions Hibernian saw the denizens of Methil approach the next season with quiet confidence. What followed was a season of “what if…” and “if only…” as East Fife came as close as they ever would to becoming the champions of Scotland.
Manager Symon had cultivated a formidable team built around the goal-scoring exploits of Charlie Fleming, who had signed from Blairhall Colliery in 1947. Fleming scored a remarkable 169 goals in just 241 appearances for the club and would eventually go on to replicate his phenomenal exploits at Sunderland (71 in just 122), as well as playing in the FA Cup semi-final. Fleming’s form saw him capped by Scotland in the 1953-54 season when he scored twice against Northern Ireland in a 3-1 win. Curiously, he was never selected again.
Alongside Fleming in attack was Ian Gardiner, who scored over 80 goals in two separate spells at the club. Gardiner also enjoyed success at Motherwell and Raith Rovers and won a solitary Scotland cap in 1957.
The final player in the Methil side’s goal-scoring triumvirate was inside forward Jimmy Bonthrone, whose nine seasons as a player at the club saw him score 112 goals in 222 games. His reputation as a gentleman of the game was underlined by the fact that during his Bayview career, Bonthrone was never booked nor sent off.
East Fife’s 1952-53 pre-season plans were thrown into disarray when a planned tour of Portugal, Spain and Gibraltar was cancelled at short notice. The club was unable to arrange any games against clubs from Portugal, despite a newspaper advertisement being placed in prominent Lisbon newspapers and a cable being sent to the bigger clubs in the Portugese league. As a result, the games which had been arranged – two matches in Gibraltar and a prestigious friendly against Valencia – had to be shelved.
The cancellation did not seem to adversely affect the team as they started the campaign with exhililrating pace. The first match was a resounding 7-1 win at home to Clyde, helped in no small part by a hat-trick from Fleming. After six matches, the club was top of the table with 11 points from a possible 12.
The visit of Rangers to Bayview was supposed to derail East Fife’s unbeaten start at the beginning of October, but a 20,000 crowd saw a Jimmy Bonthrone-inspired Fife triumph 3-2. The reporter for the Leven Mail described it as “one of the finest games I’ve ever seen…It made the crowd gasp and gasp again”.
East Fife would remain top of the league until November, when a 5-3 reverse at home to nearest rivals Hibernian saw them exchange places in the table. None of the challenging pack were in consistently good form and the Fifers went top again at the start of December after a 3-1 win against Third Lanark. By the end of 1952 they were two points clear of Hibs, Celtic and St Mirren and five clear of Rangers (who were trailing in seventh place).
The Leven Mail sport editorial on 14 January 1953 pondered the possibility East Fife winning the league. It left the readers in no doubt that if they could just maintain their form then there was no reason to doubt it, considering the other sides’ propensity for dropping points. However, directly below the column was a small article that would have a significant impact on East Fife’s title ambitions.