Seasons Greetings from Saracen Park

I really enjoyed my Christmas but with visitors pushing the population of my home from the usual one to five human beings and a puppy it wasn’t the most relaxing. Add to that the hosting of eight people for Xmas lunch then the same again for Boxing Day dinner and you can understand that perhaps an element of stress became involved. Thus I had a lovely plan in place for a hassle free adventure today; a wee trip to Blantyre Victoria to see Billy McNeill & Joe Jordan’s old side take on Craigmark Burtonians in the SJFA West Region Premiership. Alas I was already on first leg of my journey when Twitter told me The Vic’s Castle Park pitch was waterlogged, game off. Plan in tatters and stress levels rising again I looked for another match, but one soon caught my eye. It was another West Region Junior fixture, way down at League Two level, it was however an opportunity to see one of the grade’s most decorated sides in their own stomping ground; Ashfield versus Vale of Clyde at Saracen Park.

Ashfield were formed in 1886 at the heart of the Possilpark area, North Glasgow. In the beginning they were a massive club winning the Scottish Junior Cup four times, before celebrating 25 years of existence, and making another two final appearances the last coming in 1921. Almost a century may have passed since that last cup final, a 1-0 loss to Kirkintilloch Rob Roy, but even today The Field have the joint fourth best record in cup history out of of those still taking part. Ashfield are behind Auchinleck Talbot, Cambuslang Rangers and Petershill, but are still level with Rutherglen Glencairn.

The 1920-21 season was the end of the glory days for Ashfield as it marked their last of six Glasgow Junior League Championships. No major silverware came their way until a duo of Central League titles in the 1950s as well as a trio of Glasgow Junior Cups, two in the same decade and the last in 1963. Despite the halcyon days behind behind them it hasn’t stopped several major names turning out for them over the decades.

In 1957 ex-Celtic prospect John Quigley joined Nottingham Forest direct from Saracen Park. He played 236 league games for Forest, was the club’s first player to score a post-war First Division hat trick and supplied the winning goal against Aston Villa in the 1959 FA Cup semi-final on the way to winning the trophy that year. After leaving the City Ground he had good spells at Huddersfield Town, Bristol City and Mansfield Town before retiring in 1970.

We all know Walter Smith as the nine in a row league winning two time Rangers gaffer and one time Scotland manager but I’d bet few remember his move from Drumchapel Amateurs to Saracen Park and Ashfield. Turning senior with a move to Dundee United he spent time on loan at Dallas Tornado (nope, me neither) before two years at Dumbarton and a return to Tannadice. Overall his playing career gained him just a single Scottish Cup runner’s up medal, thankfully he made up for his lack of playing silverware as a coach.

Pre-match Pints

One of the biggest advantages of today’s original plan falling apart was the opportunity to visit and report on one of Glasgow’s, if not Scotland’s most iconic boozers; The Horseshoe Bar. I enter this magnificent establishment on Drury Street just at opening (11am) and am taken aback by its glory; in the middle we have a massive bar composed not of one horse shoe but three, meaning it forms the shape of a mammoth triskelion to become what they claim is the longest bar in Europe. At the back we have a gigantic mirror emblazoned with the pub name and there are a couple of ornate fire places carved into the shape of stallion’s footwear, further accentuating the overall theme. The place is spotlessly clean at opening the arces of dark old wood shining.

In terms of booze the choice is plenty, four cask lines included. I go for local and have a great pint of West’s St Mungo’s Lager, top notch despite being the first pint pulled of today. As I sup I note that the place ain’t perfect; the ceiling could do with a coat of emulsion, a couple of damaged spots are covered with chipboard and instead of old vintage radiators we have modern ones painted brown to camouflage them into the walls. All easy fixes but would you? In a place such as this flaws are also known as character and doing a place such as this up might just make it generic. As it stands just now there ain’t anything generic about The Horseshoe Bar, it is as good as they say and long may it remain.

Next up we have a bar that really shows what a difference a decade can make. Circa 2010 I was on a Stag Do in Glasgow where we stumbled into my next pub Denholm’s, which was at the time perhaps the roughest boozer I’d ever been in. That night the place was minging as karaoke raged on around semi-conscious customers. The back windows were barred and two polis were in when we arrived and still in attendance when we left. Drink was dirt cheap too and the best man thought it would be funny to put the cost of a vodka and Coke, in the form of loose change, into the bottom of the gent’s massive urinal. I tell no lies by saying every last copper coin was lifted out of the four inches of pish, water and urinal cakes within twelve minutes.

Today I returned for the first time and was shocked, the place was completely different. Yeah it had a similar layout but it has been done up braw; seats reupholstered, beautifully framed local pictures on the wall and each table having a vase of faux white flowers (chrysanthemums, roses and lilies). At a bar where you could previously get tuberculous and consumption you can now get craft gins, single malts and fancy rums. The beer selection is grand as well with Heineken, Budweiser and Moretti on draught, with a good pint of Tennents costing me just £3.60. Enjoying my pint I note the cleanliness of the place and its finest feature of all; a mural going round the top of the pub depicting what I presume are staff and regulars, something that looks great and that will mean a lot to those involved. As I said, what a difference a decade makes.

Ashfield were kicking off early today at 1pm and thus I only had time for one more before heading up to the game. Walking back up Hope Street The Toby Jug caught my eye with a range of offers few could refuse. A medium sized bar lined with booths was busy at noon, but why shouldn’t it be when bottles of Tuborg are but 98 pence a piece and Beck’s, my choice along with a Highland Park, is just £1.25. There must be over a hundred of bottles of sub one pound lager out on the bar or tables, whomever decided to put that deal in place is on to a real winner.

The Ground

It’s just five minutes from Queen Street Station to Ashfield and just a £1.90 return ticket before short walk gets you to Saracen Park, home of Ashfield Football Club since 1937. Upon arrival I find that it isn’t really Saracen Park at all, not even a football ground, rather I see before me The Peugeot Ashfield Stadium home of speedway side Glasgow Tigers. Dual purpose ain’t new to this ground as the Ashfield Giants speedway team raced here between ’47 & ’53 before nearly half a century of greyhound meets. In 1999 The Tigers relocated from Shawfield and made the place their own.

I really mean they made it their own and repeat this is a speedway stadium not a fitba ground. The whole place is clad in the Tigers colours and while racing supporters  have a half dozen turnstiles to choose from The Field’s fans pay a fiver at the rather smart cafe/bar which contains the racing team’s Hall of Fame display. Entering the ground there is a six foot fence surrounding the sodden red ash circuit with standing areas most of the way around and an area of covered terracing on one corner next to Saracen Park’s old main stand. The stand itself is a classic wooden & pitched roof affair, modernized with a new metal exterior and luxury padded benches inside. The seating is elevated so one can see the action over the track to a pitch that is almost an afterthought. Dugouts on wheels are dragged out next to a surface where the corner flags kiss the edge of the racing circuit.

Apart from a couple of signs there is nothing to say this place has been Ashfield’s home for some eight odd years and this makes me sad. It is a braw set up and I’m sure it’s a fine racing venue but the club seem like a fitba cuckoo in a speedway nest. Given the history of the side this should simply not be, regardless of their status today.

The Match

Very much a game of two contrasting halves today, so different they could have come from separate matches. Vale of Clyde came out of the changing rooms appearing strong with a couple of players looking like they’d hit the weights over the festive period. Five minutes in they had the lead too, a poor ‘Field defence giving them a goal I could have scored. From here however Vale weakened and the home side began to dominate, first with wayward shots and misjudged bicycle kick attempts before tightening up to get real chances to equalise. Then just before half time as many headed for a pint Crumlish scored and Ashfield were level, a goal that may very well have changed how the second half panned out.

At half time I was told that scouts were in attendance (Ross County & Airdrie perhaps) to see the Ashfield number nine in action; Callum Graham, twice bicycle kick attempter of the first half. Plucked from Motherwell based King’s AFC of the Strathclyde Evangelical Churches Football League (nope, me neither), he has allegedly been the star of the show at Saracen Park this season and certainly took centre stage in the second half. Accompanied by fellow ground hopper Donald McCrorie I went out for the rest of the game.

Almost from kick-off the home team were awarded a penalty which Graham confidently converted and heartily celebrated. From that came a deluge of ‘Field goals and the end of the game as a competitive fixture. Graham doubled his tally and completed his hat trick with goals from Doherty and Graeme Hearton in between. 6-1 Ashfield, a five goal second half, what a change from the break. I was left to wonder what happened to the team that played in the first half. Vale of Clyde will have to reflect on this doing, yet look to have the squad to recover soon enough.

The Aftermath

It wasn’t the plan but an impromptu day in Glasgow both in old boozers and in the company of a grand old Junior club sure relaxed me after the trials and tribulations of a busy Christmas time. I’ve been wanting to visit and write about that Horseshoe Bar for a while now and am very glad I did. It warms the heart to see ancient institutions such as this still on the go and reminds me very much of the excellent Trades in Dundee or the fabulous Grill on Aberdeen’s Union Street; it is in that elite bracket. Denholm’s on the other hand was a place I went to in order to give this article a bit of colour, however I was very glad to see a total dive completely transformed. Flowers on the tables, I’ll expect tablecloths, candles and a comprehensive wine list next time folks.

As for Ashfield it was great to see a dominant victory that harks back to their glory days that no man alive ever saw, in the second half today they were as strong a side as I’ve seen all season. Equally impressive was the boy Graham, I really hope for his sake scouts were watching. Today I perhaps saw a star being born. Finally though I need to state my belief that The Field need out of The Peugeot Ashfield Stadium, it isn’t a fitba ground and it really has the feel that the football team is squatting here one Saturday every fortnight. Glasgow Perthshire‘s rather basic Keppoch Park is right next door; move in together, build a wee stand and enjoy playing in a fitba ground again. While such a move won’t bring back the glory days it might inspire the current side to create some history of their own.

 

 

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