“A feeling of healthy laziness is probably the purest enjoyment it is given man to enjoy.”
This quote from Cumnock’s most famous ever resident, the Labour Party founder Keir Hardie, is the perfect description of a day out at the fitba for me. It is very much a feeling of healthy laziness to be out in the fresh air watching a game unfold, all the while sitting on your arse and munching upon a pie or two. After a tough week slaving away at the coal face, those ninety minutes are certainly the purest enjoyment indeed. While I haven’t been able to find anything regarding Mr Hardie’s thoughts on the beautiful game, as a champion of the working classes you can bet he appreciated the chosen sport for those he represented and might have enjoyed the odd game himself. For my final adventure of this season a friend with a car was willing to accompany me anywhere, offering carte blanche when it came to picking the fixture. Having long wanted to head down into darkest Ayrshire, the town Hardie loved so much seemed an ideal choice, especially with Cumnock Juniors set to face bitter rivals Darvel at Townhead Park. A huge local derby is always enough to get me excited, but the fact the outcome of this game potentially had serious ramifications for the conclusion of this year’s WoSFL Premier Division campaign made my final trip very much an essential one.
Cumnock Juniors arrived into this world in 1912, just three years after arch enemies Auchinleck Talbot and a almost two decades prior to the formation of neighbours Glenafton Athletic. While not the first team to grace a pitch in the town (a senior Cumnock side featured in the early dawn of the 19th century Scottish Cup), our ‘Nock are generally regarded as a giant of the Junior game given the frankly ridiculous amount of silverware accumulated by the Townhead Park club. There have won eleven Ayrshire League titles, fifteen Ayrshire League Cups, seven Ayrshire Cups and another twelve trophies of notable distinction. What’s more impressive is that accolades have been earned in every decade of existence, showing that they have always been a strong, competitive side.
Of course in Junior fitba local titles were grand, but as we know they were merely fancy baubles compared to the ultimate prize that was the Scottish Junior Cup. Since no Junior giant could claim to be so without winning ‘The Holy Grail of Scottish Fitba’, it’s a good job Cumnock managed to win it twice. The first time came in 1979, a fortnight after the ascension of the distinctly unHardie like Thatcher as Prime Minister, at one of the last Hampden finals. A decent crowd of 13,692 saw Jimmy Flynn score the only goal as The Nock bested the East’s Bo’ness United. Then ten years later with Maggie struggling to maintain her Premiership the Townhead Park side did it again, beating Ormiston Primrose of East Lothian by a goal to nil. This time Derek Love was the goalscorer as eight thousand plus travelled to nearby Rugby Park.
Hardie died three years after Cumnock’s creation, so it is doubtful he ever saw a Nock game in person, if he did it is even less likely he enjoyed some pre-match pints given his membership of the temperance movement. I was however not going to honour him by avoiding a couple of pints myself and after a two hour drive my mates and I are straight into The Craighead Inn, Cumnock’s oldest pub. Stripped back to the original sandstone the exterior has been restored to match surrounding buildings (in auld pictures it is whitewashed) and upon entering up some perilously steep steps we find inside smartly done up too. Surprisingly modern, the long narrow galley style boozer manages to fit in quite a lot. We have a big bar area with a wide selection of standard drinks, a full size pool table, darts oche and plenty of comfortable seating. At the far end from where we entered is another door that goes flat out onto the street, my concerns that the old and infirm needed winched in & out of the place placated.
It is eleven thirty, still morning, but I count seventeen in with my group making it twenty one. Healthy numbers indeed. Easy to see why though; the shoap is friendly, the beer is good and our first round is about twelve quid. The Tennent’s is lovely, all are in agreement with this, but the star of the show is the McEwan’s 60/-. A beautiful pint, which should be more accurately described as a traditional English mild, most of us had it in the second round and absolutely loved it.
Next up is a brief pit-stop at The Royal Bar, a fusion of swanky hotel lounge bar and local regulars’ haunt. Thus along with fancy furnishings & smartly uniformed staff we had a generous puggie and fitba on the TVs. Scottish Cup semi-final day and Heart of Midlothian were up against city rivals Hibernian as we watched in very salubrious surroundings. The John Smith’s pours well and is a fine pint, alas I wasn’t buying so don’t know what they charged. More than the Craighead? Probably, but not by too much as the regulars here would be over the road like a shot if it was much cheaper. One criticism I will give however is the large open windows, yes they provide light and suit the aesthetic, but in the middle of the high street nae man can hide from his missus in here. Even those casually walking by will be able to gaze in and go “Christ there’s Barry on his fourth already and it is no even one o’clock yet!”
Finally along Townhead Road and just outside the ground is The Nok’s own Cumnock Juniors Social Club. She is a beauty indeed, with a bar on your right after entry that had a wide selection of draught beer, a lockdown revamp and Premier Sports on the telly. Never said this before about a social club, but the place even smells lovely with a few dozen punters’ aromas completely hidden behind a veil of floral cleaning product. A round is £10.30 and the sixty shilling is as good here as it was along the road. Busy too, the staff will be working hard but making the club money hand over fist.
The bar is just a small part of the place with there being much more to see. Given a tour I am shown a monochrome mural in the main corridor depicting the two Junior Cup wins then a vast and immaculate function suite that is utilised more than weekly for a wide array of events. Twenty four hours after my arrival they anticipated a full house for the second Scottish Cup semi between the Glasgow giants, from what I’ve seen in the town I’d imagine green won’t be the predominant colour on display. This place is a licensed to print money, one that folk are working tirelessly to keep going well. The best social club in the West? Certainly the best I’ve ever seen.
Add Townhead Park to that social club and simply put; Cumnock Juniors have one of the very best set-ups outside of the top five tiers of Scottish football. This grand old lady was some sight to see and it was an honour to be in her. No seats here but they are not missed with stands covering the terraces on one touchline and the far end, with grass embankment/stepped slabs running the length of the other side of the pitch. At the goal end upon entry there is a vast slabbed ‘patio’ area, where fans of both persuasions were mingling and where a fully stocked club merchandise shop was operating from, almost a unique feature in my travels, it really works. Then behind that patio is another building, one containing offices, changing rooms, a hospitality suite and the pie stall. I loved the high rickety bridge players need to navigate to reach the pitch, not as much as I loved the steak & haggis pie however.
At the centre of this old, beautiful ground we have something completely modern and relatively new. Stubborn traditionalists may cry and lament but the synthetic turf here at Townhead Park is another strength of this marvellous set-up. As plastic pitches go it looks a good one and is surely preferable to play on than some of the tattie fields that emerge in post winter Scottish football (even at SPFL level). One of my company pointed out that they had never seen so many kids in a non-league club’s gear and part of that will be down to the youth being able to train and play on this futuristic surface. Being able to hire it out too is another area of revenue for this club to exploit and remember in a West of Scotland Premier Division where many a club, including Darvel, face a backlog of fixtures The Nok do not. If clubs at this level can afford it they should bloody well go for it.
While now only Junior in name only, the Nock are still a top side in the new West of Scotland set-up and given their opponents today were still in the hunt for the Premier Division title a cracking game was expected. Anticipation and reality were different things however, as a rather stop start affair (due in part to some rather ‘over eager’ refereeing) unfolded before us. It was by no means a bad game an started brightly with a home penalty claim in the first two minutes, YouTube highlights made me think it was a hand ball but the officials saw something different. There was then a second, more dubious, penalty call for Cumnock that was waved away once more. After this the visitors relaxed into the game and started playing some good football, two well earned corners are squandered however when the home goalie Kieran Hughes plucks the ball right out of the air. A great chance for Darvel to take the lead comes in the nineteenth minute only for the striker to totally smash it over the bar from close range. Not everything went Darvel’s way however as a great strike at goal drew gasps from The Nock faithful and the game became more of a fifty fifty style affair. That said, it was the visitors that drew first blood with Jordan Allan scoring in the thirty eighth minute from a free kick that we though Hughes should have reached. The keeper’s failure to save however was explained by him coming of injured after a further dive left him unable to continue. Adam Strain taking his place for the remainder of the half and the rest of the game.
At half time we had a discussion about the build of the Darvel players, each one with bulging biceps and rounded pecs. What are they feeding them up the road? Cumnock’s players all look fit and well but the Recreation Park title chasers look like the cast of ‘Magic Mike’ (so I’m told anyway). Moving on, the second half began with Cumnock finally getting a penalty. It was a fair decision, Jordan Moore easily slotting away his eleventh of the season and delighting the bumper crowd. It was probably the final moment of joy for Cumnock fans however as The Nock were not to be the side to foil Darvel’s title aspirations. After holding The Vale back for a good thirty minutes Lewis Morrison was gifted the ball just outside the box and with no one on him he had an extra touch before pinging it in. 2-1 it should have finished, but alas it did not. In the ninety third minute a Nock player decided to throw a shy to his own keeper and Strain, who had been excellent since being unceremoniously thrown on, made an arse of a clearance he never should had to have make. Gratefully receiving the ball, a Darvel man couldn’t have avoided making it three.
My first trip to darkest inland Ayrshire and it was well worth the journey. Cumnock is a charming wee place with a smashing big Farmfoods and a couple of pubs that are great shoaps for a pint or two. The Craighead Inn was really good providing value for money, friendly atmosphere and a great source of exercise (given you have to climb the face of the Eiger to get in one of the two doors). The Royal Bar is a different place altogether but very comfortable, injecting a wee bit of class into the town. It was a shame to see TCS Bar shut down, as usually I like at least three pubs to visit on an adventure, however the other two more than made up for it.
I will say with some certainty, Cumnock Juniors have the best set up in the West, I mean it as a great compliment when I say it is Highland League quality. That social club is immense, Townhead Park is utterly beautiful and everything from pie stall to ‘patio’ was pretty much perfect. It was great to see a good crowd in too for the final home match of the season, not just men either but girls, boys women and rather noticeably dugs were heavily represented. Fitba ground and community hub rolled into one, awesome stuff.
While the Cumnock side I saw play are not the team of their Junior Cup winning heyday, they are a quality team. The Nock would not have been favourites against the rippling muscle men of Darvel but it didn’t show, it was a dead rubber for the hosts but they didn’t play it like that against a side still in the title hunt. With a couple of tweaks we have a club that would certainly be a welcome addition to the Lowland League in a few years, less if the fifth tier gets its finger out of its arse regarding promotion and relegation. The shiny new floodlights seem to indicate that might be an ambition and I believe it is one they are very capable of achieving. Everything about The Nock is pretty special in my eyes and thus I wish them every success.