No one can ever call my auld Maw daft. When asking her how she fancied being treated to a weekend in the luxurious Mercure Livingston Hotel her instant response was to enquire “Why, what game is on in the vicinity that Saturday?” For Mum and I the deal is mutually beneficial, she gets a couple of nights away while her favourite (and only) son gets to visit a ground in a part of the country that is difficult for me to reach as a non-driver. Via public transport it is relatively easy for me to get to far flung places from Clackmannanshire like Dundee, Aberdeen or even Largs. Getting to West Lothian however to visit clubs like Fauldhouse United, Bathgate Thistle or even Livingston is much more of an ordeal, even with its vastly closer proximity to home. So today after a hearty hotel breakfast, I got in the passenger seat of the Toyota Aygo belonging to my ‘logistics manager’ for the brief journey to Central Park where East of Scotland’s Whitburn Juniors welcomed the Lowland League’s Gala Fairydean Rovers in the 2nd round of the South Challenge Cup.
Founded 1934 ‘The Burnie’ grew out of Whitburn Amateurs, a club founded sometime in the twenties, and applied to join the Midlothian Junior League. Their first game was played at Central Park against the similarly brand new Musselburgh Athletic on the 28th of July that year, 700 folk witnessing an exciting 2-2 draw. Since then they have consistently brought back silverware to the town situated almost exactly halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, including five Brown Cups, six East of Scotland Junior Cups and seven East Region Premier Division titles. In 2000 they reached the pinnacle of their achievements thus far and won The Scottish Junior Cup in their third appearance at a final for the Holy Grail of Scottish fitba. Whitburn’s first final came in 1966 when the likes of St Rochs, Blantyre Victoria, Sunnybank and Beith were dispatched en route to Hampden Park. 19,430 watched them draw with Bonnyrigg Rose on the 21st of May before the New Dundas Park side defeated them six goals to one a few days later. In 1995 Camelon Juniors bested Burnie 2-0, in front of 8000 plus at Motherwell‘s Fir Park. Third time lucky is certainly true for this club however as the aforementioned final of 2000 saw them finally hold that beautiful old trophy aloft. Wins against Neilston, Sporting Club Arbroath and Benburb meant Whitburn faced Johnstone Burgh at Firhill and after a 2-2 draw Burnie earned the cup with a 4-3 victory on penalties.
As for those who have worn the claret and amber of Whitburn Juniors, I have struggled to find a great many names. A man who does stand out is one of the town’s most famous sons, the cigar aficionado, pigeon fancier and legendary Partick Thistle gaffer John Lambie. The full back played almost 200 league games for Falkirk from 1958 to 1969 before participating in about half that number for St Johnstone. Another top flight manager, the current Livi boss David Martindale, is also a former Burnie player too. Spending his whole playing career in the West Lothian Juniors scene, he arrived at Central Park after spells at Linlithgow Rose and West Calder United before finishing up at Broxburn Athletic. Finally, twice nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year Award, Broxburn born Terry Wilson won five medals at Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and is ‘reported’ to have played for Whitburn. The centre back also had confirmed spells at Spartans as well as Rushden & Diamonds.
Deposited in possibly the longest Main Street in the universe I pass the usual kirk, Co-op and bookies before arriving at my first drinking den, The Double Five, where I was instantly struck by a very ‘colourful’ ceiling display. Between rows of Union Jack bunting are large flags of the home nations, with the Saltire, Red Hand of Ulster, Cross of St George and Y Draig Goch all present. I started thinking this may be a Rangers pub with my theory confirmed by the blue baize on the pool table, the bottle of ’55’ vodka proudly displayed behind the bar and the punters wearing a large chunk of the Castore catalogue. This aside it is a neat, traditional little boozer where I enjoy a pint of Tartan Special while Nadiya Hussain bakes a braw looking cake on the telly. Interestingly, on the way to the toilet I pass the jukebox and upon pressing the ‘Most Played’ button it turns out to be Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl rather than the expected Turner or Orbison.
Next up is the much more subtlety staunch (if at all) Olde Market Inn, where the solitary Union Jack is on a boy’s tammy and the only mention of Ibrox is a poster advertising the chance to win tickets. A hauf & hauf is ordered here, only because the large oval beer mats seem designed for it, and drinks are promptly served by a perfectly friendly but intimidatingly hard looking barkeep. Sitting down, alas not at the occupied central table which appears to be a converted font, I am surprised to see canvas prints of filled wine glasses and craft beer flights adorning the walls as ordering such things would probably draw funny looks from regulars at the bar. There were a few guys in, clearly headed to the Rangers vs Hearts game in a bit and we watched the start of the Watford game on a telly so big William Shatner probably saw it from orbit earlier in the week.
Finally in my whistle stop tour of Whitburn boozers is one I know is home to a RSC, yet there is no reference to Rangers anywhere inside The Cross Tavern (more blue baize aside). This busy pub has clearly had a lot of cash spent on the decor and the expensive interior clashes beautifully with the corny Halloween decorations that were just being put up. Friendly, swift service and a comfy ambience are all present, quickly demonstrating why one wall is covered with a decade’s worth of Best Bar None Awards plaques. The place is packed, forcing me to sit way at the back with a pint of Bud Light, but as soon as my arse is planted the vast majority head off for the big game making me look like an anti-social loner. Despite that it really is a lovely place, the one venue in town I could have taken my mother into if she had insisted on joining me. A decent wine and cocktail list meant that getting her back out again of here again may have been a little bit problematic.
I’ll cover Central Park in two parts starting with her social club, which enjoys a great reputation in ground hopping circles and it is easy to work out why. Upon entry there is a large wooden board listing the club’s achievements over the last eighty odd years, a trophy cabinet they confess is a little light on contents at the moment and a gallery of many players from the club capped at Junior international level. Obviously references to the 2000 cup win are everywhere, from newspaper clippings to framed photies. Into the bar and it is resplendent with more squad snaps and a huge telly. There is a large selection of drink available, including a club’s own ‘Burnie Best’, but I have half a lager and a brandy since it is getting a wee bit cold outside. Everyone is friendly and looking forward to the game, with a big travelling support expected from the Lowland League visitiors.
Into the ground itself and Central Park has had a pretty good makeover since the most recent images online I had been looking at. Completely surrounded with houses, she is literally in the centre of town with the grass embankments at each end and some netting the only things stopping windows from getting panned in. Around the pitch is a breeze block wall, recently painted claret and on the entry side is a new small stand containing maybe twenty odd seats, a modern changing room block and a wee terrace of freshly laid chuckies. On the opposite side is a large covering that has been given a nice face lift, running three quarters of the pitch fresh slabs have been laid underneath and a long section of seats three deep added. Overall the place is immaculate, maintained to the highest standard with not a weed in sight.
Extra bonus points must be awarded to the pie stall too, for in there along with the usual steak and scotch a new pie that has become somewhat of a thing this season across the country was being served; the donner kebab & chilli sauce pie. Yes folks hot donner meat and spicy sauce crammed into a pretty high quality pie casing, it sounds both awful and fabulous but I promise you it was only the latter.
Many including myself might have fancied Lowland stalwarts Gala to win easily against East of Scotland new boys Burnie, however many of us would simply have been wrong. As the Borders side struggled to adapt to the lush yet undulating surface Whitburn came out firing on all cylinders, getting the first clear chance after ten minutes before going ahead at the quarter of an hour mark. It easily could have been two or three nil to the home side as they controlled things prior to the half hour when Fairydean finally produced a couple of chances of their own, the latter forcing a good save from the goalie. Gala had a free kick in front of goal denied as some frustrated fans vented their anger and the half ended with a fine attempt at the visitors goal from twenty five yards and an excellent free kick from the Galashiels side. Despite all the action however, it was still 1-0 at the whistle.
Play had resumed as I emerged from having a swift pint and the half was barely five minutes old when Whitburn should have been 2-0 up. With a clear shot on goal a claret and amber clad striker took his time but still smashed it over when scoring might have been easier. Just after the hour a Fairydean player was stretchered off with an apparent serious injury, but this unfortunate incident was the catalyst to a comeback from the Lowland men. After the restart a hand ball from a desperately cleared corner gave Gala a penalty, which was converted, the visitors could clearly smell blood in the water and pressed on to attack. In less than ten minutes Burnie were 3-1 down and it was game over. I felt a great sense of pity for the Whitburn boys, for at least an hour the Conference X side were more than a match for Gala Fairydean Rovers yet they finished with nothing to show from a splendid effort.
A trip to Whitburn Juniors perfectly encapsulates what a trip to a Scottish non-league game should be. There is the unique ground at the heart of the community, a hardworking committee who keep the club moving onwards, a bunch of friendly fans willing the team on (including a young team, whose mothers would leather them if they heard their language, providing a bit of humour) and a top class social club selling draught beer. Add to that an exciting, hard hitting cup tie in front of a a bumper crowd as well as a DONNER KEBAB PIE and it really is a day that footballing dreams are made of. Having not seen anyone else in their division this season it is hard to make a prediction about how Burnie will fare this campaign, but based on this performance (and them being only a few points off the top after eleven games) I would fully expect them to be title challengers. Having spent time at the club I really hope they get something for their trophy cabinet soon, as a reward for all their efforts, both on and off the pitch.