Rocketing to Robertson Park

“Hey Robbo, I love you to bits but you are still only the second-best player to come out of Viewpark!”

I arrived in the town of Viewpark, North Lanarkshire with a dual purpose. Clearly my primary mission was the usual; to check out the town’s pubs and fitba club, but it was also something of a pilgrimage too. This small ex-mining & manufacturing community is famed as the birthplace of two Scottish footballing icons, a pair who between them have amassed three European Cups and many other honours besides. The first was born in 1944 and is perhaps the most gifted player to wear the dark blue of Scotland or Celtic‘s iconic hoops, I am of course talking about James ‘Jinky’ Johnstone. It went from him dribbling balls round milk bottles while winning trophies with St Columba’s Primary to being an integral part of the Parkhead side’s first ‘Nine in a Row’ team and attaining immortality as a Lisbon Lion. After Jinky came John Robertson, a man recently voted the greatest ever to play for Nottingham Forest despite being transfer listed when the mercurial Brian Clough arrived at the club. From humble beginnings at Drumchapel Amateurs he won two European Cups at The City Ground, but even though Robbo doubled Johnstone’s tally he is generally regarded as inferior to the Celtic great. The quote above showing that fans were never reluctant to remind him of that fact.

Those are the town’s greatest sons and while Viewpark’s football club is perhaps not a household name like them, Thorniewood United have a lengthy as well as storied history as (until recently) a Junior side. Founder in 1924, The Wood originally played in the nearby settlement of Tannochside. While in their original locale they managed to win the Lanarkshire League twice, then enjoyed another two championships and Lanarkshire Cups in the decade after their 1957 flitting to current ground Robertson Park. All these honours came under the management of “Mr Thorniewood” himself William Cowan, however his departure began an era very thin on silverware. After the 1965 Lanarkshire Cup win it took another fifty years exactly to lift another trophy, the Euroscot Engineering Central League Cup, by pure coincidence this afternoon’s opponents Blantyre Victoria were beaten by The Wood in that final.

As for former players, while no one has gone on to win The Champions League, The Wood have produced and welcomed a number of big names. Two are products of the Robertson Park side, with the first John Ogilvie leaving our hosts in 1948 for Hibernian becoming an important part of their ‘Famous Five’ era and playing twenty three games in their league winning 1951 campaign. After a long spell with injury he resurrected his career at Leicester City, before seeing out his time at Mansfield Town and Bedworth United. Harry May was of the same era, leaving Viewpark the year Ogilvie did to sign for Cardiff City, his time there was short however and he is most remembered for a long successful spell at Barnsley. In more recent times Celtic‘s winning goalscorer in the 1980 Scottish Cup Final had a loan spell at Thorniewood. George McCluskey won three league titles at Parkhead, before starring for the likes of Leeds United and Kilmarnock, but strangely was never capped for Scotland.

This century two names stick out for me one being the man with more clubs than Faldo & Stringfellow combined, the current Annan Athletic goalkeeping coach Jon Connolly. The big man, who started out at Albion Rovers and replaced Andy Goram at Motherwell, had two spells with The Wood in a career that saw him play for somewhere in the region of twenty odd sides. The other is former Scotland Under 21 starlet Kevin Harper who came out of retirement to play for Thorniewood after building a legacy at Hibs, Derby County, Portsmouth and Stoke City. Upon appointment to the managers post at Cliftonhill in 2018, Harper was the SPFL’s first black manager in fifteen years.

Prematch Pints

The closest railway station to Viewpark is over the county border at Uddingston. Rather than make the half hour walk straight off the train my companion for the day decided a pint at the nearby Two Chimneys would be a fine idea. You know what, it really was. This was a characterful wee auld shop, probably unchanged since the seventies, with the 360° central bar a stunner. Around it there are little tables, chairs and booths for punters, one occupied by a group of older regulars enjoying a late morning pint. They were on Tennent’s while I had a four quid pint of Heverlee Lager, sat back and enjoyed.

While drinking I admire a few more things; the stained glass windows carrying the bar’s name, a Lion Rampant from the ’74 World Cup and two pieces of amazing signed sports memorabilia. In this tiny, humble establishment we have a Brazil shirt with Pele’s signature emblazoned upon it and a boxing glove marked with the autograph of one ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Haggler. Both seem out of place but are wonderful to see. One day someone will come along and refurbish this place, replace the chipped bar top with polished oak, possibly put in a real ale pump and it would probably attract more custom in this seemingly well to do town. They shouldn’t though, the place is perfect as it is and making any changes at all would be a great loss to the town and the bar’s current regulars.

After trekking to Viewpark and paying my respects at the rather impressive Jimmy Johnstone statue (not one of Robbo, yet) we arrived at The Rolling Barrel. The slick modern facade, boasting the venue as being ‘Bar & Bistro’ puts me off somewhat but inside was a great family friendly place. It is modern and immaculate, probably a lock down refurb’, with the wonderfully ornate bar being thankfully kept intact. Not usually a Corona drinker, but the novelty of it being on draught makes it a must. It’s a good pint, much better than the bottled stuff, although it comes at a premium price so be warned.

Seating is largely in booths, each with a menu and condiments on the table. I note that the food is excellent value for money, with the eighteen piece scampi and chips being less than a tenner. We are the day’s first customers, but soon two local women arrive and order a jug of some fantastically coloured concoction, followed by a man with his three children arriving for lunch. The Barrel isn’t my sort of haunt; but cleanliness, service and value for money makes it perfect for casual drinkers, families and ladies who lunch alike. It is the kinda place every community needs and should have.

Finally, despite a local’s warning that I must be ‘brave to enter’, we nip in quickly to The Stables Bar. Despite the name, it isn’t an old converted horse home but a modern flat roof pub no one should fear to visit. Inside it is massive, with fitba playing loudly across numerous screens and many in attendance watching. At the long bar it is ‘hauf n hauf’ time, Tennents & Jack, before settling down to watch the action too. At a large round table I enjoy seeing a bunch of auld yins engrossed in a game of cards (one which I don’t recognise), clearly a weekly ritual, with the competition fierce. Like The Rolling Barrel it is modern and immaculate, but that is all they have in common. This is the town boozer and a popular one at that.

The Ground

Robertson Park can be best described as an aging beauty, much like Joanna Lumley, but instead of crow’s feet or laughter lines we have crumbling terracing and a rusting perimeter fence. Payment is made, not at a turnstile, but a customised garden shed and beyond a glorious sight awaits; three sides are grass embankments and behind one goal is that treacherous old concrete terrace. On one touchline we have a small pavilion, similar in style and placement to the one at Colony Park up in Inverurie, that contains changing rooms, ref’s office and a pie stall that was doing a roaring trade. Opposite is an old stand made of girders, corrugated roof and an earthen floor, painted in the red, white and black of The Wood. While sturdy it looks ancient, surely this only shelter from the elements in the entire place is a 1957 original feature?

This ground is both gorgeous and unique, fitba Park fanatics would pay hard cash for a good look round it regardless of whether a game was on or not. One thing missing however is a social club. There is however a club on site called Thorniewood Park, with fresh signage on a grim communist concrete exterior offering it as a venue for birthdays, weddings and such things. I wonder if this previously belonged to The Wood and was recently sold off to a third party? Certainly seen it at other sides (notably Camelon Juniors) so it seems quite likely here.

The Game

The Kilmarnock Pie West of Scotland League Cup game kicked off and a thrilling ninety minutes unfolded on a pitch that has suffered through winter but has been expertly kept playable. The first twenty were pretty even between the Premier Division and Conference B sides but the remainder of the half saw The Wood defend solidly, master attacking on the break and capitalising on defensive errors. This resulted in Alistair Small smashing it past the Vics keeper to give them the lead before Adam Watt rounded the unfortunately goalie to double the tally. The Woodites in the bumper crowd were delighted with the show as more and more chances came, 2-0 at half time but in reality it should have been more.

It really was a game of two halves as the second period largely saw Blantyre on the front foot, looking to rescue the tie. Of note were the two hardcore Thorniewood supporters in the stand, with one emboldened by the tonic wine they roared on their boys throughout while giving the opponents and officials ‘frank assessments’ on their performance. Fitba needs characters and they fill that role expertly. As the action continued Vics simply could not score with great defending meeting every wave of attack. Then they caught a break and earned penalty, only for the much delayed spot kick to be leathered comically over the bar. A second penalty, with much weaker provenance, was then awarded and smartly converted leaving The Wood’s lead on a knife edge. However a change of tactic and the bringing on of Brian McClair’s nephew saw the hosts come to life again. The match concluded as an end to end stramash yet no more goals were scored. Thorniewood United caused an upset and progressed, deservedly so.

The Aftermath

I really enjoyed my afternoon in the birthplace of footballing heroes, much more than I might have expected. Two towns in two Lanarkshire and the first (Uddingston) was much more well to do than expected, even though The Two Chimneys was an excellent, earthy auld shoap. As for Viewpark the two pubs visited were very opposite and invite rather different clientele, but both are excellent at what they do and are important, necessary community hubs & hangouts. Friendly folk in both too, a couple of skinhead strangers got no ‘who the hell are they’ stares.

As for the game, I’ve seen many one sided contests this season and expected another since the visitors were top flight competition. What I got though was a cracking game, where The Wood genuinely impressed. Passionate, determined, skillful and well managed they have to be serious contenders for reaching the top division next season. The fans were thrilled to see such a performance today and I’d expect them to see more of the same this season. Therefore I recommend you go see Thorniewood United this campaign if you can, it will be the best six quid you’ll spend this year.

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