Sunday, 1 May 2016

Alloa Athletic 0-1 Raith Rovers, Scottish Championship, October 17 2015

The mission had originally been to visit Arbroath’s Gayfield Park, consistently lauded as one of the most beautiful grounds in the world and the closest to the sea in Britain. But a farcical ticketing mix-up at a provincial arts centre (as Half Man Half Biscuit might call it) meant the destination needed to be within an hour of Glasgow.

I considered going to watch Motherwell-Celtic, eventually being dissuaded by the suspiciously generic look of their ground, extortionate ticket prices and the fact that it was Mark McGhee’s first game in charge (those later Withdean memories, like welts, will never fade.)

In times of uncertainty, a Saturday coupon and the Football Ground Guide are invaluable. Eventually I struck upon the 19th century Recreation Park, and the chance literally paid off. Approaching a roundabout near the station, a man in the colours of The Wasps (their emblematic insect bears a camp smile and protruding biceps) met a request for directions by immediately offering me his absent mate’s season ticket before reeling off various tales of his life in a Bruce Springsteen tribute band.

Despite his generous offer of a drinking session after the game, I left his group (and, temporarily, abandoned my cynicism about the state of the modern game) to take in the beauty of this ancient ground with its brick walls, creaking turnstiles, shallow terrace and lovingly-curated club shop. The team, which escaped Championship relegation by overturning a 3-1 deficit on home turf in the final game of the previous season, were faring little better this time around, although they have an ex-Premier League striker in Michael Chopra upfront, who can apparently be seen driving a battered old motor around the town having fallen upon hard times in recent years.

Both teams played neat football. For Raith, Mark Stewart looked clever and pacy, drawing a brave save from the keeper with a thundering half volley straight at him from the edge of the area. He then met a clever diagonal ball to square to Jon Daly, whose dive edged the cross into the jeering home terrace. The female assistant referee received almost non-stop advice from the home fans, with the cry of "you have to give that" regularly audible along with such time-honoured gems as "you've got him in your back pocket, Kyle".

Chopra was invited to be the hero in front of the home fans 15 minutes into the second half, but sent a straightforward header straight at the keeper when unmarked from three yards. A brilliant, lightning run by Michael Doyle down the right then allowed Chopra to chest and volley from the edge of the six-yard box, but a defender got in the way.

Raith missed a simple header from a crossed free kick 15 minutes before the end, and the hardcore nearest the dugouts were fuming with the ref after what they saw as a "fackin’ assault" of a 50-50 collision near the away penalty area. Their mood worsened as Raith grabbed the winner following a foray down the left ending in a fierce shot which the ‘keeper could only palm to Grant Anderson, who finished to the noisy delight of the away enclosure, visible in front of a KFC drive-through.

The highlight of the afternoon, though, was the catering, which included macaroni pies and Bridie pastries. A starchy slither of a potato in a buttered bun more than hit the spot for £1.20. Exceptional stuff.