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Old ways that give hope for the future

THE wonderful, multi-coloured edifice that is Cliftonhill stands unwittingly as a monument to old football.

Chairman John Devlin, right, and chief executive Frank Meade have made tough business decisions to keep Albion Rovers afloat.  Picture: SNS
Chairman John Devlin, right, and chief executive Frank Meade have made tough business decisions to keep Albion Rovers afloat. Picture: SNS

Across a field of genuine, lumpy and scarred grass walk two men who adhere to traditional values but must wrestle with modern realities. Ironically, the struggle has been made easier as the sporting challenge becomes more difficult.

Albion Rovers have become part of the rolling news, part of the insatiable desire to instil romanticism in an industry where figures have largely replaced fantasy. Albion Rovers, once the punchline, have become the story.

John Devlin, chairman, and Frank Meade, chief executive, yesterday strode across the field where Stenhousemuir had been vanquished in the Scottish Cup and looked with some anticipation to the quarter-final meeting with Rangers at Ibrox next week.

The match, of course, must be addressed in financial terms, but it also offers an opportunity to discuss the philosophical inquiry oft posed of many a parent: what are Albion Rovers for, Daddy?

The history of Cliftonhill is obvious. The claustrophobic tunnel, the bare terracing, the stark wall that divides the Coatbridge club from the rest of the world forms part of a sporting arena that should simply be retained for future generations if only to state without apology: "This is where real football was played."

Inside, the flurry of movement around the Jock Stein lounge is a wordless testimony to past, present and future. Stein found immortality in Lisbon, but occupation in Coatbridge. He played for the Rovers for eight years and the spirit of his greatness on a chilly Monday morning is gilded by the substance of glory. Stevie Kirk wanders in from the cold. He scored the winner in the 1991 Scottish Cup final for Motherwell and is now the commercial manager for Rovers.

"I have jumped the divide," he says with a grin, acknowledging the present while talking of the past. "It will always be with me," he says of his headed winner at Hampden against Dundee United.

The stadium is also home to volunteers who address the reality of the present by clearing the detritus from the celebrations of the Stenhousemuir victory. It hardly rivals scenes from after the MTV awards party. There are some glasses bearing the stain of red wine and some tired crisps.

Fatigue is absent from the volunteers and from the board. The media have descended on Coatbridge and the Rovers have a tale of invigoration, of even hope, to tell.

This is the story of the future. This once had a fragile quality.

"We were working from week to week," says Meade, a retired accountant, who joined the board nine years ago when the club was in financial danger. "We were very, very close to going bust," he said of debts that were rising to £500,000. "We owed HMRC and VAT and we were being served seven-day notices that demanded attention every week. The bank was ringing to see if we had enough money for wages."

Rovers' plan was drastic, painful and perhaps instructive to the professional game as a whole. "We made some decisions," says Meade. "The club was full-time and that was ended. We had an extensive youth development programme that was bleeding the club dry and was not producing players. We had to bite the bullet and close it down.

"It was an easy business decision, but we got a lot of flak because many parents felt it was a betrayal of young players."

The bills were paid, the creditors satisfied and the club was saved. It now needs £5000 to £6000 a week to survive and tight controls means this rebuilding was achieved with Reigart Contracts, a demolitions business.

This is emblematic of the sort of paradoxes that have allowed Rovers to prosper. They have a business-like board, but it is full of supporters, including one from the supporters' trust. They have lost the academy but have invested in youth by acquiring young players from the juniors rather than relying on old pros coming down a division for one last payday.

They adhere to tough, business principles but are sustained by the efforts of volunteers such as Eddie Hagerty, a retired teacher, who was found cleaning the carpets in the Jock Stein lounge as the media caravan passed through.

The quarter-final against Rangers could give the club the sort of cash that Meade regarded as a pools win on Sunday. "It has the potential to significantly change the way we operate," he says more soberly one day on. "We would like to do some development work here. We are committed to staying here."

The club's website carries one dolefully poignant paragraph: "Rovers, whose team included Jock Stein, did manage to clinch promotion in 1948 if only for one season, amassing only eight points and an immediate return to the 'B' Division. This was to mark the effective end of the Rovers as any sort of force in Scottish football."

Ah, the glory days. Rovers now play in front of a "hard core" of 400 fans with the ambition to be a solid, SPFL League 1 team and the dream of perhaps even becoming a Championship side.

"We have the potential in terms of the size of the local population ," says Meade, who has supported the side since 1961 when he came along as a schoolboy to barrack a teacher who played in the first team.

Devlin, who has become chairman in a season of two lucrative meetings with Rangers, the other in the Ramsdens Cup, speaks hopefully of raising the regular attendance to between 700 and 800.

The mood, of course, was bright and optimistic yesterday, but it could not disguise an underlying ethos of hard work, even struggle.

The effort to keep Rovers alive is considerable. Their achievements since 1882 have been, well, limited. This is their first Scottish Cup quarter-final in 80 years.

So what is the point of Albion Rovers?

"It is a fair question," says Meade. "I would answer it in this way: the community aspects of football are underplayed. This is a way for people to connect with something and something that is part of the local area. Junior football is particularly good at this. Clubs such as Albion Rovers are also useful in giving youngsters somewhere to play. Young players can be thrown on the scrapheap at 15, but we can offer them a level to play the game and perhaps even progress."

Hagerty, clearing up the rubbish, was as quietly passionate as only a fan can be. "It is about pride," he says. "This town has been wilfully misrepresented. There are a lot of good people in Coatbridge and a lot of distinguished people have come from here. The club is part of a wider world and we are determined to keep it there. We believe in the club."

The commotion of camera crews, photographers and pressmen has invaded what is normally a peaceful Cliftonhill Monday.

Outside, almost unnoticed in the hubbub, is a memorial garden in tribute to "all those who have passed here".

The message has a mischievous ambiguity, citing both football and life. But the message is unmistakable. Albion Rovers are still alive, still determined to grow.

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