When I was a young man the local cool kids, not satisfied with the night life of nearby Stirling, regularly got buses to Perth’s Ice Factory or Bathgate’s Room at the Top on a Friday and Saturday evening. Never being part of the ‘in crowd’ my trips to either place numbered zero and since then opportunities to visit the West Lothian half of that duo have been non-existent. This afternoon however the time finally came to travel to the town that gave us Doctor Who star David Tennant, Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti and obstetrical forceps inventor Alexander Russell Simpson. While I intended to sink a few pints, there was to be no clubbing as I’d be heading to Creamery Park home of EoSFL Conference X side Bathgate Thistle who’d be facing local rivals Whitburn Juniors.
Bathgate Thistle were founded in 1937, probably as a direct replacement for the original Bathgate Football Club who played the beautiful game between 1893 and 1932. Certainly it cannot be coincidence that the Mill Park side, who represented the town in the Scottish Football League for seven seasons, finally dissolved as an entity just months after Thistle came into being. This new team, unlike many non-league sides I’ve visited, have had success arrive not at the beginning of their history but in more recent times. Bar a brief rosey period in the forties most of the Creamery Park club’s silverware was won this century, including the 2001 St Michael Cup, the East of Scotland Junior Cup in ’07 and the 2010 Fife & Lothians Cup. Not only that, they made it twice to the final of ‘The Scottish’ in the first decade of this millennium. The first in ’06 saw them defeated by the indomitable Auchinleck Talbot, however two years later the famous trophy would be theirs after a 2-1 victory over Cumnock Juniors.
It is also normally the case that when writing about an ex-Junior club’s former players I look at those who left in their youth to go on and find success in the senior ranks. However Thistle are different again, with many a successful ex-senior enjoying a spell at Creamery Park towards the end of their playing days. Paul McGrillen is a perfect example, having won the Scottish Cup with Motherwell in 1991 then the Challenge Cup with Falkirk seven years later, he would sign on at Bathgate in 2008 and famously score the winner in that year’s Scottish Junior Cup final. Sadly this would be the final stop in a great career as the much loved striker took his own life just a year later. Another example is Eddie Annand, an Ayr United and Dundee cult hero who also won a FAI Cup with Sligo Rovers. A prolific goalscorer, his first retirement came at Bathgate before a brief return at Arthurlie. Finally we have former Scotland U21 & Rangers starlet Steven Boyack who had decent spells at both Dens Park and Tynecastle. Finding chances limited at the likes of Livingston, Boston United and Blackpool later in his career he wound up playing at Thistle for a time.
With my Logistics Manager driving me to and from West Lothian today, due to previously reported difficulties about getting there from Clackmannanshire, she demanded to be taken for lunch and the only place my Maw deemed suitable for dining in was Cafe Bar 1912. It turned out to be an excellent choice as the place was a fabulously smart & classy cocktail bar serving tremendous food. As is the fashion 1912 has a bit of a BrewDog industrial minimalist feel to it, with bare girders, stainless steel bar top and lights hanging on heavy chains. However the addition of plastic topiary and expensive looking lampshades soften the whole aesthetic. My favourite feature covers the entire wall with the stairs to the mezzanine; a ginormous advert for Smokehead whisky containing a very empowering image of a tattooed young women about twenty feet tall.
Sat at a wee table, there is a glorious view out the front window down the Glasgow Road, alas tho there is only one beer on draft but at least is a quality £5.75 a pint Moretti. Scran choice is much more complex however, with their being pizzas, burgers, wraps, sandwiches and even steak pie on offer. I went for the gorgeous ‘Croque Monsieur’ (or cheese toastie for those who didn’t do Standard Grade French) and the auld dear had a massive club sandwich, both were the best sarnies we’d eaten since the Starlite Deli in New York circa 2018. If this place added a Beavertown tap it would be perfect and, rather fittingly since I was with my mother, Prof Simpson’s forceps wouldn’t be able to drag me out of here.
After abandoning my Maw all alone in a town she’s never been in before, I pop up to meet a couple of fellow groundhoppers at the New Royal Bar. This place is a wee auld man’s shoap in, what one of my new companions decides, the faux mock Tudor style with black beams crossing a white ceiling. At the bar we receive friendly service and excellent pints of Belhaven Best, before taking our seats to admire a fine looking pool table and other plus points in a rather lovely establishment. Halfway through our pints we spot a bottle of Hanky Bannister whisky (the ‘heritage blend’ no less) and while I wasn’t even aware of it’s existence the senior of the two I’m in with pronounce it to be excellent dram. Before I can blink we each have a 35ml measure of it in front of us and while I wouldn’t usually entertain a blend without cola I have to say it was a fine drop indeed. Hanky Bannister may sound like the name of a Hogwarts house elf, but in future I’ll be searching for it in shops and bars.
With coupons put on at the local Ladbrokes there was time for one final stop, the boozer closest to Creamery Park, The West Port Tavern. A perfectly fine, but rather unusual place. On first glance it was totally normal; bunch of happy regulars, bookies slips on tables and televisions showing racing as well as fitba. From an absolutely standard array of drinks on offer we grab three good pints that comes to exactly ten quid. But then we have the decor; silver painted wooden seats, booths upholstered in crushed silvery velour studded with plastic diamonds and white table tops with an opalescent sheen. Even the imitation brick work wallpaper had a layer of glitter over it and seeing workies in high vis vests drinking comfortably at the centre of such an environment was really jarring. The West Port is literally a normal regular’s Scottish bar fused with Elton John’s living room and to be fair there ain’t nothing wrong with that. At all. It really was a comfy place and if time had permitted we certainly would have stayed for another two or three.
Creamery Park was another ten minute walk away and upon arrival we found a rather simple set up that really has a lot going for it. A former home to Rangers Reserves back in the day, the pitch is a large flat surface that is in absolutely splendid condition when one considers that a harsh winter was just coming to an end. Three sides of the pitch are just rough grass embankments, one goal having an astro seven-a-side behind it, the other the local cemetery and the far touchline a row of houses from a decent looking scheme. As I said all rather simple, however there is a lot more to her including large modern dugouts, a full floodlight system, tannoy and a large covered stand known as The John Strachan Enclosure. Sure the enclosure is standing only, but with three tiers of concrete it would provide shelter and a fine view for hunners on a busy match day.
Sadly, given the lack of nearby pubs, there is no social club to quaff in at the Creamery. There is a large building containing toilets, changing rooms and a very well appointed committee room, but no bar. This is something that really should be rectified as there is money to be made from even the most modest room selling just cans and bottles, particularly with no competition for half a mile in each direction. That said, it is a small flaw in a great ground. I wondered as the game was about to kick-off how close they might be to meeting the standards for an SFA License, I’d bet Thistle ain’t that far off and are probably closer than many in the leagues above.
Twenty four games into the inaugural Conference X campaign and Bathgate sit rock bottom of the table with four wins, a single draw & nineteen defeats. This season they must have been battered by Bo’ness Athletic, walloped by West Calder and smashed by Syngenta. Christ knows what Pumpherston might have done to them. Thus my expectations of witnessing a Thistle win against a quality Whitburn side, that I’ve already seen play very well this season, were low. Despite this Thistle started well in front of approximately 200 fans and were as good as their rivals from just four miles away in the first quarter of the game. Then however it all started to go Pete Tong for the East of Scotland basement boys when a Burnie boy absolutely blasted the ball home for the opener. Five minutes later and poor defending had the visitors 2-0 up, while the lack of impetus from the hosts meant the lofty Whitburn goalie never say the ball for a good fifteen minutes. With halftime looming the guests grabbed a third and an excellent goal it was too; the most amazing through ball left number seven an easy square ba’ for an even easier tap in. Bathgate were already beaten, but might have had a way back if a late chance hadn’t been utterly ballooned over the bar.
There after unfolded a second half that didn’t leave much to write home about. Whitburn, knowing the win was in the bag, did push forward but initially provided little threat to Thistles diminutive but decent keeper. On the hour mark we almost got a full twenty two man orgy of violence however, as virtually every player got into a rammy near the middle of the park. Amazingly not a card was issued, but it was a relief to see some fire in the bellies of the Bathgate men even if it didn’t lead to them making a comeback. In the end Whitburn struck two more times once from a corner where it must have been the players birthday, as the ball was further from the flag than I was in the stand. Thus it ended 5-0 to the visitors, a result I could have very much predicted had unfolded right in front of me.
As the late, great American Dream Dusty Rhodes might have said Bathgate Thistle are facing some hard times. Which is a real shame because they have a tremendous set up in a pretty damned excellent town. In that town I found a cocktail bar good enough for the bright lights of a big city, but without the pretentiousness. The 1912 was an absolute stunner and there is no way I’m getting a lift to Armadale Thistle or Blackburn United in the future without taking my mother to lunch there again. The other two pubs were tip top too, with the traditional auld haunt of The New Royal being the only known source I have of Hanky Bannister and the glam innards of The West Port being one of the most original I’ve ever seen.
As for Bathgate Thistle, this game was another tough shift in a season that has so far been full of them. At least they can take solace in the fact that by being at the very bottom the only way they can go is up. They have a lovely ground with plenty of mod cons and I’ve been well assured that the club is backed by a hard working and dedicated committee. On the park some work clearly needs done, but the players seem capable and perhaps only need a large injection of passion and determination. Yes they may well finish bottom of Conference X this season, but it is a highly competitive division of largely West Lothian sides (an area of historically strong fitba teams). When the conferences are reorganised next season Bathgate will find the going a bit easier and victories will come, if wins generate confidence then there is no telling of how fast the Thistle might rise again.