Presiding Over the Pennypit

The Omicron variant of coronavirus wiped out football during the whole of December for me. Firstly it resulted in my scheduled appearance at Airdrieonians to be cancelled and then it put me off going to another game as I was hosting the family Christmas and thus really needed to avoid getting into a situation that had me self isolating over the festive period. With Yuletide over and a new year begun I took the earliest opportunity to get back to my travels, opting to return to a county I’ve recently fallen in love with as well as a town famous for murals, a doocot, a tower and a battle; Prestonpans. The local team are East of Scotland Conference B side Preston Athletic, a highly recommended club to ground hoppers like myself, who welcomed Hawick Royal Albert United to Pennypitt Park.

Founded as a Junior club in 1945 by a committee who were mostly involved in the local mining community ‘The Panners’ began life with a semi-nomadic existence. First up they played at a pitch vacated by Prestongrange Rovers, who folded during the war, but with the pavilion burning down and the players forced to change in the Black Bull pub some distance away it wasn’t suitable for long. Preston then moved to Links Park, where they enjoyed bumper grounds throughout the 1950s, before they were turfed out so Cockenzie Power Station could be constructed upon it.

I don’t have the exact dates, but moving to their current digs at The Pennypit in the early sixties may have roughly coincided with the arrival of the Buckleys at Preston Athletic. Around that time Paddy Buckley began coaching at the club, a man who had been a fantastic striker in his day at Bo’ness United, St Johnstone and Caledonian. Paddy’s most legendary spell came at Pittodrie as his prolific goal scoring helped Aberdeen win both the league and League Cup in 1955. The three time Scotland internationalist brought his son Pat to the Pennypit with him and his performances for Preston led to him going on to bigger & better things at the likes of Third Lanark, Wolves and Pan-Hellenic down in Australia.

After almost fifty years of being a solid, if not incredibly successful, Junior outfit Preston Athletic entered a new era of ambition in 1994 by turning senior and joining the East of Scotland Football Association. This resulted in silverware almost instantly as The Panners lifted the Alex Jack Cup at the first time of asking. Not willing to settle there, the club earned their full membership of the Scottish Football Association and applied twice to be elected into the Scottish Football League proper. Preston felt that being in only one of three local authorities never to have a league side their chances were good to be selected for the big time. However in 1999 Highland duo Elgin City & Peterhead were picked instead of them, while in 2002 they lost out to the original Gretna. Despite these setbacks they were finally chosen to become Lowland League members for the inaugural season in 2013, finishing a respectable ninth in that first campaign and playing three more years in tier five before dropping back to the EoSFA where they remain today.

Pre-match Pints

Arriving in town quite early I find the place, around the station at least, quite well to do. There are fine old houses, cast iron direction signs with gilt lettering and matching bus shelters. While the grounds around the tower and Mercat Cross are beautifully kept. However, there is one issue that separates Prestonpans from Musselburgh and Dunbar, getting a pint before noon is rather difficult indeed. In the centre of town there are just two pubs, one not open until after twelve while the other (The Railway Tavern) I am told is permanently closed. Luckily I didn’t have to settle for a bag of cans doon the front as there was a fine alternative option the the form of The Prestonpans Royal British Legion. I’ve never visited a Legion in all my travels, but from the minute I was buzzed through the front door I was glad I gave this one a shot.

Beyond the door we have a large hall with no great indication to which of the two double doors lead to the bar. In this foyer we have a couple of puggies, a vast trophy cabinet that boasts the usual darts & pool trophies as well as some poignant Remembrance stuff and a cool Gurkha dagger. Working out my way in, I find a massive bar freshly painted in magnolia & taupe with newly upholstered booths and chairs. The furnishings and TV sets all look relatively new, so I would guess a lockdown revamp happened in here. To let you know you are in a Legion we have framed prints of aircraft carriers, pictures of Remembrance Days past and a group photo of soldiers in a desert providing a warning to Saddam.

Back of eleven and a few older customers were enjoying pints, while guys younger than me play pool. Everybody clearly knows each other but are friendly to the stranger who has just waddled in. Recent Covid restrictions mean table service has returned and a pint of Guinness is quick to arrive at only three quid. Comfortable and relaxed, I chat a bit with those around me and enjoy a fine pint in front of Sky Sports News. I even stay for another so I can tap my foot to the likes of ‘Forever in Blue Jeans’ & ‘The Gambler’ on the jukebox. After pint two I tell our lovely server that I’d have to go as I was in danger of planting myself there for the rest of the day.

Next up just along the High Street is The Goth or The Prestongrange Gothenburg as she is known in full. Only the second Gothenburg pub on my travels (see my trip to Kelty for the history of these establishments) this one is a stunner both inside & out, offering excellent food as well as drink. The exterior looks ancient, despite the 1908 plaque, and is in the mock Tudor style with entrances for separate ‘Tavern’ and ‘Bistro’. Of note is a massive totem pole in their car park opposite, a 2006 gift to the town from the Cowichan people of British Columbia and designed by the children of Prestonpans.

Inside we have a stunning Charles Rennie Mackintosh inspired bar, with art noveau influences in the green tiles, white woodwork and on the mantle of a well maintained fire. Plonking myself in front of said fire I discovered I’d hit the jackpot, as this place doubles as a micro brewery that produces its own real ales by Faking Bad Brewery. Twelfth Night may have passed but their hoppy Christmas ale ‘Myrrhaculous’ is still great and I enjoy it while staring at a painted ceiling containing unicorns, angels, harpies and, rather strangely, a teapot. A second pint, this time ‘Brownian Motion’, is accompanied by lunch; first up a plate of lentil soup so good the recipe could only have come from a highly competent Scottish granny. After that steak pie and chips that were totally gallus. Make no mistake this is a truly magnificent shoap, I must return to see some much advertised live music at a later date, but most importantly they aren’t taking the piss with prices. Two course lunch (and remember the special lunch menu is not available at weekends) plus two pints of their own beer was just twenty quid. Braw.

The Ground

Preston Athletic play at The Pennypit, an unusual name that links the ground to an abandoned colliery directly beneath the pitch, with there being two beliefs (one more popular than the other) as to how this superb sobriquet was settled upon. Firstly legend states that early 20th century miners were paid just a penny a day for bringing coal out of the pit, thus it became a local nickname for the mine and then the official moniker of the park. A less supported theory claims that the club was kept afloat in the early days by local miners donating a penny each from their weekly wage, that generosity becoming immortalised in the ground’s name. Whatever the reason Pennypit Park is much more than just a pretty name, in fact she has plenty going for her besides.

Firstly a two quid premium on my £6 match ticket grants me one of fifty spaces (limited by covid) in a tidy social club plus a pie and a tin of Belhaven Best, excellent value for money. It is one of those simple prefab buildings but beautifully put together, with the obligatory rivals pennants and seating created from old church pews. I receive a warm welcome (and a warmer bobble hat) as three officials including the chairman and secretary seek me out and stop for a chat. Also, as I have come to expect in East Lothian, the fans are very friendly and by speaking to them I hear their great wealth of knowledge about the club as well as a passion for football in general. Good to see Prestonpans Hearts Supporters Club in too, taking in a local game while the top flight is on winter hiatus.

Outside The Pennypit would be unremarkable if not for one thing. Three sides are neat, large grass embankments but on the west touchline we have a modern seated stand, somewhat elevated over the pitch with room for 313 backsides. It is beautiful, but there is one issue, as instead of plastic seats or wooden benches spectators sit on metal rails. It is perfectly comfortable, but in January if I haven’t already inherited my faither’s haemorrhoids I would have developed them by half time by remaining seated. I note I good few others like me choose to stand at the back instead, if you go in the winter months take a cushion.

As for the pitch, despite recent cycles of frost and rain, it looked perfect at kick off. While it did start to cut up during the game, it held up well and remained very playable. Someone here knows how to maintain a grass surface. Finally the club clearly isn’t bothered about giving the action away for free as opposite the grand main stand is a row of houses where residents can loiter at their back garden wall with a superb vantage point for all the action. Many committees across the land would have been dicks about this and built a fence, at Preston Athletic no one begrudges them the cost of a free fitba experience.

The Game

My first game of 2022 and it didn’t take long for me to see a goal, as just seven minutes in Marc Forsyth put away a Craig Innes corner. It was a clear signal that Hawick Royal Albert United were going to be in trouble today as they looked clumsy at the back while goal kicks were being returned straight back to their exasperated keeper. More and more chances fell to a dominant home side and the advantage was doubled around the twenty minute mark as Brandon Archibald scored from a peach of a through ball. At this point a rightly confident Panners side started getting a little cocky, with attempts to lob The Albert goalie from distance being made, this perhaps leading to Hawick’s best chance of the game on the half hour mark. Preston were far the better team however and showed it by killing the tie stone dead with two more scored before the break. Half time and game over, I returned to the bar in awe at the home side’s dominance and ability.

Second half and same story, Preston pressed forward and Hawick’s opportunities were few and far between. It didn’t help the visitor’s captain went off injured just after the break, reminiscent of WWE Superstar WALTER, the big man was a large presence in defensive midfield and his departure almost certainly helped Athletic to the rout that followed. Firstly a howler from the unfortunate Albert keeper let Malloy in for a fifth, before three more were put away (including two by the wonderfully named Byron Archibald, a youngster to look for in the future) making it eight. 8-0 it finished, apparently a club record scoreline and one that was very much deserved.

The Aftermath

Another trip to East Lothian and another thoroughly great day out, yes I wasn’t spoilt for choice when it came to boozers but the couple I made it to were certainly worth the visit. As stated I have never been in a Legion before, but if The Prestonpans Royal British Legion is any indication of what these places are generally like I will certainly seek out more of them in the future. So clean, comfy friendly with a level of service as good as any social or working men’s clubs I’ve been to. The Goth on the other hand is a special shoap indeed, little wonder is is known about far beyond the town limits. If anyone is planning a night out there let me know and I’ll join you.

As for Preston Athletic Football Club, I can certainly say they are one of the friendliest sides I have been to in five and a bit years of being The Fitba Nomad. I had a chat with everyone from chairman to chaplain and season ticket holder to occasional visitor. There is a real passion for the club, with fans well versed in their history and reasonably confident about their future. Given what I saw on my visit that confidence is well place, as they have a very good team playing fine football in a beautiful set up. After this match they sit four points behind Conference B table toppers Glenrothes but with three games in hand. The Panners are a club that should be in the East of Scotland Premier Division and with everything going for them expect them to be there promptly.

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