Back when I were a lad Airdrieonians were a bloody good team. Under ex-Hearts gaffer Alex MacDonald the Diamonds spent 1991 to 1993 in the Premier Division, played in two Scottish Cup Finals, won the ’95 Challenge Cup and went toe to toe with Sparta Prague in European competition. After the second cup final defeat in ’95 (a 1-0 loss to Celtic) the sense of disappointment must have been great yet, with the Broomfield side perennial contenders for promotion back to the top flight and plans for a fancy new all-seater stadium in the works, there was every reason to be optimistic about the future of the club. Trudging home trophyless from Hampden there was no way any supporters could have anticipated that over the next few years things would go totally tits up for Airdrie, but they did and rather massively so.
Of course Airdrieonians weren’t just a ‘bloody good team’ for only half the nineties, the North Lanarkshire side have enjoyed a number of good spells since being founded in 1878 under the moniker of Excelsior FC. Undoubtedly the greatest of periods in club’s history came during the 1920s when the acquisition of Hughie Gallacher from Queen of the South, Pollok‘s Bob McPhail & Willie Russell of Benburb provided the catalyst for some of the Diamonds most impressive campaign performances to date. With that fearsome trio upfront Airdrie finished second in the league four seasons in a row, including the loss of the 1925 title to Rangers by only a slim three point margin. Silverware would not elude them completely however, because in 1924 they finally got their hands on the Scottish Cup when two goals from Russell was enough to see off Hibernian in front of near 60,000 fans at Ibrox Park. If this decade is regarded Airdrieonians’ zenith then without a doubt seventy odd years later came their nadir, a low which ended in their eventual demise and rapid Christ like resurrection.
As unbelievable as it sounds, only eight years after that cup final defeat to the Hoops, Airdrieonians Football Club became the first Scottish Football League side to fold since Third Lanark in 1967. The reasons for going from golden era to (brief) extinction in such a short space of time are pretty straightforward and easy to explain. Auld Broomfield was sold in 1994 and a Safeway was promptly built in her place but, due to difficulties finding a site and the cooncil dicking about before finally granting planning permission, the swanky new Excelsior Stadium wasn’t ready until ’98. Thus the Diamonds endured four years at Clyde‘s Broadwood, spending big on new digs while losing income from the lack of home crowds. Even when ready the Excelsior was more burden than boon due with the 10,000 all-seater failing to attract the crowds that would fill her stands. Understandably some Airdrie fans lapsed due to the extended time the team spent out of town, while others fell out of love with a club spending cash on bricks & mortar instead of a new generation of top flight cup finalists. With losses mounting KPMG arrived as liquidators of the 122 year old side in February of the year 2000 and the bulk of the players & staff were swiftly made redundant.
Death wasn’t instant and too be fair it wasn’t always painful either, as the expiring side actually managed to enjoy some more success before the end. First former Barcelona striker Steve Archibald took charge and used his Spanish contacts to bring in quality talent such as Broto, Fernandez & Calderón. Together they were able to clinch the Diamonds second Challenge Cup before KPMG terminated their deal with ‘Archigoles’ near the start of 2001. Then Ian McCall was able to build another squad that incredibly retained the previous season’s trophy and remarkably just missed out promotion back to the Premier League. Airdrie finished second, behind First Division champs Partick Thistle, with Owen Coyle the campaign’s top scorer. All this effort was in vain however as the Diamonds were still deep in the red, meaning the club played their last ever game (at Somerset Park) on April 27th 2002 before going out of business altogether four days later on May 1st.
This end was to spawn a new beginning however, thanks to local accountant Jim Ballantyne. Forming a ‘phoenix club’ he attempted to have his side elected to the now vacant spot in the SFL, a place that instead went to English Northern Premier League stalwarts Gretna. Running out of options Ballantyne took control of Clydebank, who themselves were in dire financial straits after selling Kilbowie, and to the utter despair of Bankies fans gave their league spot to the ‘new’ Airdrie United. This club was the one I headed to see this weekend, a team who have won a Challenge Cup of their own, that took back the Airdrieonians name & badge in 2013 and who many opposition fans insist are a completely separate entity to the one founded in 1878. However the Airdrie fans I spoke to ahead of my visit were adamant that the club so well served by Gallacher, McPhail, Sandison & Fashanu is the very same as the side Vareille, Prunty & Fordyce have represented. If the supporters hold firm in that belief who am I to argue? After all I’m a great believer that a church is the congregation and not the building made to house them.
Airdrie isn’t totally a new one on me, long ago I knew a local lassie and am thus aware the town has a serious amount of boozers. Taking to social media for recommendations I was given a list of three that most regarded as Airdrie’s best and my day started at opening time in The West End Bar. A perfectly normal looking shoap from outside upon entry I was blown away by a simply stunning interior, a 2018 refurbishment that must have cost a fortune. Floors are a mix of wood, black & white parquet tiles and a tartan carpet, walls red brick or oak panelled and large tellies all over the place were still showing Saturday Kitchen. Whats more the place is immaculate, not just to look at, but in terms of feel and smell too.
Sitting down with a pint of Italian birra Menabrea, I enjoy a chat with the landlord as he unloads a Cash & Carry shop. He laments that I’ve arrived before any of his regulars have turned up, while I explain that most pubs I visit are early in the day and that empty bars for me are often the norm at this time. That said I bet this place is buzzing of an evening and note that they must be expecting a bumper Valentines night as cases of prosecco were being herded into the cellar. As Rick Stein stumbles around a vineyard I finish my pint and leave with regret, would love to return some day, work through the malts on display and meet the locals (a landlord who actually wants visitors to meet his regulars is not a common thing!). Who knows, if I ever meet another Glenmavis gal this is where I’ll take her.
Next up is a bit of a rairity for me, a pool hall with the rather clever name of Cue Here, where ironically there is no hanging about to get in. This place is awesome for a number of reasons, but perhaps the top one is the huge amount of music memorabilia coating every wall. We have pictures of Dolly, tickets to The Eurythmics, Bob Marley flags and record sleeve or posters featuring any act you can imagine. There are seven pool tables, with all but one in action as the place is mobbed at only half twelve. These are serious players too, bringing their own cues in expensive looking cases. I fully expected to see Paul Newman & Tom Cruise walk in and take on all comers as this place is straight out of ‘The Color of Money’.
Sitting at a half hexagonal bar I enjoy a pint courtesy of the gaffer and have a chat with regulars about my day and the match ahead. Really friendly folk and relaxed vibe here, with the blinds down there is no indication of what time it is. Could be quarter past one in the afternoon or two in the morning. Having a rare second drink (can’t leave without parting from some cash), I really enjoy watching the pool and having a chat, if I lived in town I’d be here often despite not knowing one end of a cue from the other. Best pool hall I’ve ever been to and a truly unique boozer indeed. The hospitality and welcome a cherry on a rather splendid cake.
Finally the last pub before the ground, despite still being some distance away, was The Albert. A proper auld shoap with a modern twist that is bustling with fans ahead of kick-off. I didn’t get much time in here due to my enjoyment of the previous establishment but can confirm that the Guinness was excellent. Perfect pints of the black stuff are like hen’s teeth, but in The Albert the pint is bitter & velvety, just as it should be. Also the person behind the bar seemed to be on their tod in the face of many a punter, they weren’t phased however and doled out the drinks with ruthless efficiency and a smile.
Airdrieonians played at Broomfield, in the heart of the local, community from 1892 to 1994 and she was as beautiful & steeped in history as the likes of Somerset Park, Cappielow & Gayfield are today. With the rules in the nineties changing so that only clubs with 10,000 all-seater stadiums could play in the top flight the old ground went the way of Brockville and is now sadly a Morrisons. What we have today is the Excelsior Stadium (or Penny Cars Stadium for sponsorship reasons) and it is a very different beast altogether. Out side she is a little generic, with the diamonds above the main entrance the slightest nod to the top of the glorious auld pavillion at the club’s previous home. To the right of that entrance we do have a lovely wee bar selling cans, bottles and spirits as well as furnishing the less tech savvy with match tickets. I would like to see more club memorabilia on the walls however, there is some stuff linked to The Diamonds but mostly it’s shirts signed by players unconnected to the club that are framed and displayed. Although gear signed by Pele, Maradona & the England ’66 side is cool, where’s the ’92 or ’95 cup final shirts or pictures of Paul di Giacomo holding the Challenge Cup aloft. Club bars should always double as club museums, a place to boast about your history.
Inside the main ‘Jack Dalziel’ stand is a beauty, big crowd filling plenty of seats with Diamonds given three quarters of its length and Montrose fans occupying the last section. Single tier, there are a row of hospitality booths along the back and grand views for all. It is a bigger version of Dumbarton’s stand, but unlike The Son’s stadium we have another three stands sitting completely empty and it is a sad sight to see. I wonder how often the other stands are used? Given pre-covid average attendances were some where under a thousand, I’d imagine not very often. Upkeep of this place must be massive too, no wonder it has been more of a millstone around the club’s neck than a boost to the side’s fortunes. Thankfully they were wise enough to install a plastic pitch as the revenue from Celtic Women, Celtic B and WoSFL’s Glasgow University games must do a lot to keep the lights on. Overall the place is not without its charms, but she ain’t the grand old lady Broomfield was.
Another reason for the plastic pitch being useful is, on a weekend when Partick Thistle hosted Dundee United on a pitch that looked like a monster truck derby had taken place on it, both teams here were able to play football on a surface unaffected by weather or season. There was some nice stuff from both sides to begin with. Montrose perhaps had more of the early chances but it was Airdrie who took theirs when this generation’s Gallacher, Callum scored two in quick successon just after the half hour. The ex-Ranger’s first was the best, a drive from outside the box that Montrose goalie Fleming didn’t have a chance with. That wasn’t the end of the first half action as Montrose fought back to flop one just over the bar, before Graham Webster slotted away a penalty just before the break. Half time and all to play for.
In the second period Montrose went for it, both strikers coming close. However just after the hour and against the run of play Fraserburgh native Craig Watson gave The Diamonds a third. It was game over in seventy minutes when Adam Frizzell nodded in a rebound from a fantastic Fleming save. Montrose for all their good work were pumped by a side who made their chances count. Fans of the North East side may complain that their side had more possession and chances, as well as having six corners to nil. Bollocks to that however, fitba is about scoring goals and Airdrie were so good at it they got a scoreline that made a hard game look like it was a stroll in the park.
I am very grateful to the good people of Airdrie, never have I had such support and interest from fans of an SPFL club ahead of a matchday and on the day itself so many people made the effort to stop and speak to me. The pub recommendations were spot on too, each was a stunner of a shoap, high above the average standard of boozers across the country. Is every pub as good or did the kind folk of the town keep me away from less salubrious surroundings? I guess a visit to Gartcairn is on the cards now so I have an excuse to try The Mason’s Arms or Cellar Bar.
As for the fitba, as said the scoreline made it look easy when it really wasn’t. It literally was a funny old game, but in fairness the right team won and as it stands Airdrieonians and second in the table, comfortably in a playoff spot and hunting down Cove Ranger at the top. Clinical shooting like today will keep them in that hunt and may well see them play Championship football next term. Even as a neutral I am forced to say I bloody well hope so.
Before arriving in Airdrie I said that I felt like I was going to see the team founded in 1878 not 2002. Having now been there I can fully say I believe I did. Forget what opposition fans say, I’ve just seen the Airdrieonians who won the 1924 cup and who entertained me in my youth with Fashanu, Smith, Lawrence & more. No one now can tell me any different despite any evidence they want to wave in my face. This paraphrased old Klingon proverb sums it up beautifully for me:
“The only question is if you believe in the legend of Airdrieonians or not. If you do there should be no doubt in your mind that they are one and the same club”