Midway through Eric Paton’s second Stenhousemuir debut against Airdrie United at Ochilview two years ago, I turned to my friend sitting next to me and said: “This guy’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen at Stenny.” A late strike from Stevie Murray secured victory for the home side and the performance – full of spunk, spark and dominated by Paton from the first kick of the ball to the last – had been their finest of a difficult league campaign. “Fantastic play by the Warriors!” purred Campbell Hughes, the effervescent Warriors TV commentator over the match highlights. “This is some of the best football I’ve seen all season!”
Eric Paton then. And Eric Paton now.
It was little surprise to see the 34-year-old midfielder leave the club, but the sudden, brisk manner of his departure caught many off guard. When Stenhousemuir announced the termination of Paton’s contract last Thursday, there was a palpable sense of resignation and an inexplicable sadness at the news. While his current campaign had been pockmarked by injuries, false starts and a lack of form (Paton had only made eight first team appearances this season, accumulating a total of 445 minutes of playing time), the importance of his contribution during his first six months at the club cannot be overstated: without Eric Paton, Stenhousemuir would have been relegated from the Second Division at the end of 2010-11.
Of course, Davie Irons’s shrewd management and the spectacular collapse of Alloa Athletic were also major factors in the Warriors’ survival, but extolling the virtues of a player like Eric Paton does not over-romanticise the issue. Before joining the club for a second time from Dundee (Paton had spent the second half of the 1997-98 season on loan at Ochilview from Hibernian), Stenhousemuir were replete with determined, hard-working midfielders, but whose limited ability rarely worried opposition defences. They looked more comfortable without possession than they did with it. They were an easy team to play against, and they were in trouble.
For example, the 0-1 defeat at Alloa on 13 November 2010 – one of John Coughlin’s final games as manager – highlighted the team’s glaring deficiencies. The Wasps’ Scott Walker was dismissed on 40 minutes after collecting two bookings, but the Warriors were unable to press their advantage. The majority of their play seemed to go through centre-backs Jordan Smith and Gary Thom (making them the side’s de facto playmakers) and Alloa, realising their opponent’s limitations with the ball, sat back and allowed them to pass it purposelessly from side-to-side. Stenhousemuir rarely threatened, and Bryan Prunty’s decisive strike midway through the second half gave the home team a deserved victory.
They were a different beast with Paton. Deployed throughout his career at right-back, he relished his reconfiguration to a deep-lying playmaker and performed in the middle of the park with florid beauty. There was a swashbuckling abandon about Paton as he swaggered across the pitch; it wasn’t arrogance – to describe him as such would be to misjudge the man – but just a complete assurance in his own ability. Regardless of the hurly-burly going on around him, he would always make himself available to collect the ball and deftly move it further upfield – never again did the Stenhousemuir defence have to shell aimless punts towards the strikers with Paton in the side. He would drop deep to receive short passes, silently telling his teammates: “Don’t worry lads, I’m here. Leave it to me, I’ll sort it out.”
Paton provided a number of extraordinary moments throughout his 18 games that season, an unbroken series of successful gestures: it was his 80th minute penalty kick that instigated a thrilling comeback against Dumbarton; it was his swirling stoppage time set-piece which spun beyond the Ayr United defenders and onto the head of Michael Devlin to give his side a 2-1 victory; and it was his exquisite freekick – the second goal of a 3-0 defeat of Peterhead in the final game of the season – that knocked the stuffing out of the beleaguered opposition and guaranteed an eighth place finish.
And yet, while that win at Balmoor ultimately secured Stenhousemuir’s Second Division status, his most important contribution that season – and arguably the most vital contribution in the Warriors’ recent history since Andy Brand’s decisive penalty against Cowdenbeath in the 2008-09 play-off final – was the winning goal against eighth placed Alloa on 23 April 2011. With two games left to play, the gap between the sides would have been insurmountable if they had lost or drawn, but Grant Anderson’s drive and Paton’s freekick reduced the deficit to a single point. Alloa would go on lose their next two fixtures and slide into the Third Division via the play-offs.
In the summer of 2011, Paton agreed a lucrative two-year contract with Stenhousemuir, a decision warmly applauded by the support. Over the course of the following season, his influence had waned – not because of his own declining performances, but simply because Irons had recruited better footballers to play alongside him. Centre-backs Ross McMillan and Martyn Corrigan were far more comfortable in possession than their predecessors and capable of adeptly moving the ball out of defence; Paton was no longer required to drop as deep to collect it as often.
Even so, the midfielder still turned in some of his finest performances for the club that term. As well as scoring a sublime freekick in a League Cup tie against Falkirk, he was outstanding in the 3-1 victories over Cowdenbeath and East Fife; in the latter fixture, such was his control and mastery in possession that the opposition players went for long periods without so much as touching the ball.
After a Boxing Day defeat to Cowdenbeath, the second half of his season was disrupted by niggling injuries with the player only making two appearances between January and the beginning of March. By this point Stenhousemuir’s season had begun to unravel. There were a number of factors in their collapse, including the loss of Paton and Corrigan (who had ruptured ligaments in mid-January) and Irons’s own work commitments and subsequent abandonment of his eye-catching passing style of football. Paton would return in March, but his performances lacked their usual level of fluency. Playing with painkilling injections to carry him through games, every challenge on the player was a cause for mild panic. Alas, his reintroduction was not enough to save the club’s bid in securing promotion.
Before Stenhousemuir’s match with Arbroath on Saturday, Paton was invited onto the pitch to address the home fans. He quietly thanked them for their support during his two years at the club, particularly through the disappointing final six months. He left the park to a gracious, deserved applause. It is uncertain whether or not the player will retire from the game just yet.
A fully fit Eric Paton would be an enormous asset to any SFL club. Those glorious months at the beginning of 2011 were testament to a hugely skilful player and an innate passer of the ball who was too good to play at Second Division level. His ability – even in the final years of his career – belonged in the upper echelons of Scottish football. Although his talents might not be fully appreciated beyond the support of the clubs he featured for, he was – and still could be – a wonderful player.
On a recent away trip, a group of Stenhousemuir supporters were engaged in a debate about who was the better player between current flavour of the month Bryan Hodge and Eric Paton. Mitigating for the former, one fan claimed that Hodge’s overall technique and use of the ball made him the superior of the two. I dismissed any such notions. Great players are marked by great moments. As fine a player as Hodge is, he has yet to truly deliver one: Eric Paton did.