It’s the end of a second long season of ground hopping and thus time to present awards to the best pub and greatest club I’ve visited during the 2018/19 campaign. This year the choosing the winners has become a harder task due, in part, to me stepping up my game visiting more boozers and grounds that ever before. The standard has been higher for pubs and social clubs too as I put in a bit of extra research before match days this season, trying to avoid missing out on the best places to visit in any town I arrived in. Despite the increased competition I believe the pub & club I’ve picked this time are clear winners in their categories and I have full confidence the right guys have won the prizes.
As I stated last year ‘Pub of the Year’ and ‘Club of the Year’ sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well actually it isn’t simple at all; having been to dozens of pubs and visited over twenty clubs this season what gives one club superiority over another? How can one pub be rated above the rest? To help I’ve looked back at the little bit of criteria created last year.
- A pub of the year needs a few essentials namely a good pint, friendly atmosphere, swift service, decent prices and it must be clean. In addition to those vital components I like a fitba pub on match day, local club memorabilia on the walls and fans propping up the bar. Craft beer, a good selection of malts and a packed jukebox are bonuses.
- In terms of a top club I need a ground with character, a good side on the pitch playing braw football and a warm welcome. Bonus points for great pies, a good group of supporters and a bar or social club on site. I’m a sucker for a side with an interesting story to investigate too.
So having looked at the criteria lets find out who our winners are and who else were in contention for the crowns.
The Fitba Nomad Pub of the Year 2019: Shettleston Juniors Club
For the first time this award goes to a social club instead of a pub and those with a stereotypical view of such places may regard my choice with an element of cynicism. To many social clubs today are seen as an anachronism, a type of venue which belongs back in the sixties and seventies, closely connected to heavy industries that no longer exist. Over the course of my travels I have encountered a few such places whose heyday was long ago; clubs that have huge mothballed function suites, years having past since they hosted the last christening party or wake, leaving the few remaining members using only the wee bar at the front. These social clubs are almost always in a certain state of decay or disrepair with many having cabinets full of ancient tarnished trophies, won in competitions long since held. Finally there is guaranteed to be a sign saying ‘All Visitors Must Sign In’ but no one ever asks you to.
Our winner Shettleston Juniors Club has not gone down the route that so many social clubs have taken and is the perfect example of how such places can thrive in the modern day. Entering through a reception, passed a manned desk and display case of polished trophies, you encounter three main rooms. The first is a vast, immaculate function suite; recently refurbished with a stage for regular band and karaoke nights plus multiple flat screens advertising upcoming events. On Parkhead match days Shettleston have a great gig going with busloads of opposition fans arriving pregame to spend loads of money on food and drink; it was Aberdeen supporters when I visited and there must have been two hundred of them. The next room is the wee ‘Members Bar’ that had over-spill from the throng of Dons next door but also regulars, committee members and other club officials. This is where all the old programmes, photographs and pennants are displayed; making it part bar part club museum. Finally we have a large dining room, closed today, that does (I believe) bar meals during the week and often match day hospitality. The place was buzzing when I was there but there is every indication that it’s very much alive when the fitba isn’t on as the number of upcoming events advertised is huge. It seems like a real community hub too, that still holds all the traditional family events other social clubs abandoned hosting decades back.
All that stuff is great but there was also a number of little things that impressed me. Yes it was mobbed when I went but getting served was easy; loads of talented and friendly staff ready & willing. Those same staff were also responsible for another thing that caught my eye. Two hundred Aberdeen fans don’t leave behind clean toilets, in fact they left a bombsite. Returning for a pee at half time however the bogs were pristine with no sign the red shirted hordes had ever been there. Finally there aren’t precious about the place. On a stag do once the group I was with found ourselves at a working men’s club in Dundee. While the place was lovely there were a whole host of rules to follow; drinks always to be carried on trays was one strange example. At Shettleston however visitors can relax, it is efficient and immaculate but it’s also a place to feel comfortable and at home.
Overall Shettleston Juniors Club stood out a mile when looking back at the ‘Pre-match Pints’ sections of my blog. Like so many other social clubs it could be shit; either largely abandoned to the passage of time or host to rule enforcing, jobsworth mini-Hitlers, yet it chooses to be excellent. The amount of work and effort being put in to keep it excellent is worthy of multiple awards and praise alone.
Two other social clubs stood out this season the first being the Hibernian Football Social Club, a members only place where I was kindly given access to last August on my way to Easter Road. Once again it was gorgeous and relaxed this time with priceless Hibbee artifacts adorning every wall. Secondly Dundee North End has a vast social club on Fairmuir Street that The Dokens have kept in proper vintage sixties style. The real jaw dropping element here are the first floor windows overlooking the park, shame they have to close the curtains during play.
In terms of pubs The Coaledge Tavern (near Crossgates Primrose) was awesome for both it’s vintage decor and the legend behind the bar. The landlord here is none other than Dunfermline Athletic 1961 Scottish Cup hero and Rangers ’67 Cup Winner’s Cup finalist Alex Smith who I was lucky enough to chat away to over a couple of pints of Guinness. Edinburgh has to be one of the best cities for quality beer in high class establishments and Brandon’s of Canonmills as well as The Athletic Arms are two of the best, both far off the traditional tourist trail. Brandon’s is your modern hipster type place, a vital stop for anyone off to see Craigroyston play, where excellent beer is only trumped by stunning wee plates of food. The Athletic, also known as ‘Diggers’, is a real old school ale house away down near Gorgie on the way to Tynecastle Park. Cask beer and rare malts are all the rage here, while opposition fans mix rage free. Before I move on let me just say that if you visit beautiful Paisley The Bull Inn is not to be missed, in central Dundee Trades House has a dizzying array of draught beer and if you find yourself on the banks of the Tyne in Newcastle The Free Trade Inn is perfect for an afternoon pint any day of the week.
The Fitba Nomad Club of the Year 2019: St Roch’s FC
Okay forget the criteria for what makes a ‘Club of the Year’ as listed above, while St Roch’s fulfils it all, the real reason The Candy Rock are being awarded this coveted prize goes way beyond a nice ground, tasty pie and braw football. Quite frankly the work that St Roch’s Football Club does for people in its own community of Garngad as well as for those in need across its home city is incredible and that’s why they are this year’s winners. Yes many clubs in Scotland, if not all do something for charity over the course of a season but The Candy demonstrate philanthropy on a scale that would be impressive from an SPFL club while residing in the West Region SJFA Championship. Plus they do it despite being far from rich and well resourced themselves in the hand to mouth environment of non-league Scottish football.
Let’s look at some examples of the good work that St Roch’s do:
- Collect food & clothing at home matches to be sent to local foodbanks & charities.
- Give sixty local kids free football summer training schools at James McGrory Park.
- Work with amazing Glasgow homeless charity The Invisibles to help the city’s most vulnerable and inviting rough sleepers in for a fish tea.
- Get local pensioners round for a free Christmas dinner.
Now I am aware that many other clubs do similar things but the above list only scratches the surface. At a recent home game against Irvine Victoria a bucket collection was held to assist a local lad needing funding to go to a scholarship he has earned in the US. According to his Mum they raised £630, a staggering figure considering there was likely less than two hundred souls in attendance and testament again to the generous nature of all involved with the club.
Perhaps the greatest work the club is doing is in partnership with Glasgow University. Pupils at a local secondary school are offered free after school tutoring ahead of SQA examinations in order to help those young people maximise their education and the opportunities it brings. As an educator myself I think this is an awesome endeavour and it has certainly borne fruit as this year the school is sending their first ever pupil to university in Oxford; a place few, if any in this community will have gone to before.
Putting philanthropy to one side and going back to the criteria The Candy Rock have everything you’d want for a great match day; from a rich one hundred year history that includes ex-players like Celtic legends McGrory and Stevie Chalmers, to a braw wee ground that contains pro-refugee graffiti art, an excellent playing surface and a lovely modern bar area. The welcome is warm too as I was treated like a visiting dignitary rather than the fat school teacher that I am, doing his weekend hobby. I had to force the entry fee into the turnstile keeper’s hand while arguing about not being allowed to put my hand in my pocket most of the day. Futhermore it is the only place on my travels where a group of supporters have invited me into town afterwards for drinks, which was very kind indeed.
So there we have it a team that works tirelessly for the community they belong to and who welcome all to a great match day at their cracking wee ground. Yet it is even more impressive that they don’t seem too bothered about who is aware of it. Yes while there is certainly a pride in the club regarding what they do, they definitely don’t go blowing their own trumpet about it all over social media. It is this humility they have towards their own brilliance that makes them real winners for me.
For the longest time my first trip of the year to Hibernian was set to yield the ‘Club of the Year’. I felt that everyone going to Easter Road was very relaxed and friendly while I was also impressed by the team on the field. I was also surprised by the large amount of women present; in large female only groups as well as mothers taking daughters as dads take sons. I left wondering if Hibs have a successful SWPL side because of the high levels of female support or the other way round.
My day in Largs was one of the greatest in all my travels and while the sea, sun and fish tea help make the day Largs Thistle were an important part also. Being at that big old ground packed to the rafters for a huge all Ayrshire Scottish Cup tie was special indeed. Great result for them too, the final of the Scottish awaiting them in a fortnight.
Finally a wee nod to a places like Oakley United where they have straightforward football in simple surroundings mastered. Kilwinning Rangers are well supported and I’m glad I got to see Abbey Park before it closed. Then last but not least Sunnybank felt like a homecoming and Bovril presented in china mugs was genius.