Scattered beneath their main stand are the holiest relics from one and a half centuries of Stranraer FC’s steadfast permanence. Old photographs of stalwart teams and club legends emerge round every corner of these inner sanctums.

There, on a wall beside the club secretary’s office, is Jim McCabe, described to me by Bill Paton, one of Stranraer’s longest-serving committee members, as “the best player I’ve ever seen at this club”.

Alex McAnespie, their beloved former manager, is just over there across the corridor. And, of course, John (Lolly) McCutcheon, “the strongest shot in Scottish football” whose post-war tally of 238 goals in 239 games may be described as Ronaldoesque. Another photograph provides a curious note of dissonance. It’s from a Scottish Cup tie against Celtic at Parkhead in January, 1988. It shows Bruce Cleland, Stranraer’s big, rangy striker missing his shot at glory.

Stranraer, then the second worst team in Scottish football, had turned up in Glasgow’s East End to face a Celtic who would win Scotland’s league and cup double that year. After Frank McAvennie had opened the scoring, we had all expected those floodgates to open once more.

Stranraer were having none of it. Instead, they got right tore in about Celtic’s international stars. Big Cleland was having the game of his life, rampaging hither and yon against Celtic’s wearying defence.

The Herald: The dressing roomThe dressing room (Image: free)

Then came his personal apocalypse. He missed a penalty and, a few minutes later in front of an open goal, he contrived to strike the bar as the rest of us were contemplating a midweek trip down that sinewy A77 for what would have been a lucrative (and well-earned) replay at Stair Park.

Yet, seeing this photograph amidst images of Stranraer’s fleeting glories was uplifting. Here, surely, was the ultimate representation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same … In the modern idiom, Stranraer have opted to own that Parkhead moment; not be imprisoned by it.

Something of that resolute spirit is evident once more this week as Stranraer FC prepare for arguably the most important game in their history. Founded in 1870, they are the third-oldest senior football club in Scotland and one of the 20 oldest in the world. If they lose to East Kilbride FC today they will drop into Scottish football’s quicksand leagues for the first time since their formation.

Once there, it’s very difficult to get back out as Albion Rovers, East Stirling and Berwick Rangers have recently discovered. Stranraer find themselves here after finishing at the foot of Scottish League 2. This required them to face East Kilbride FC, the recently-formed (and absurdly well-funded) winners of the Lowland League who have spent lavishly on their fast track to the edge of the big time.

Bill Paton is sanguine about these Stranraer’s troubles as they confront their mortality. He was taken to his first Stranraer game as a ten-year-old and now commits to helping our around Stair Park wherever he’s needed.

“We’re in this position because we conceded too many last-minute goals,” he said. “But we’re a much better side than our end of season position suggests. We showed that by beating Stenhousemuir (the league champions) a few weeks back.”


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He doesn’t want to contemplate what defeat will mean – “we did well to hold East Kilbride to a 2-2 draw in the first leg at their place” – but points to how tough life has been for other senior sides who have walked the plank.

“East Kilbride are well-funded by private means and can pay wages that we can only dream of,” he says, “and good luck to them. But we must cut our cloth according to our means. We rely on the takings of the Fitba’ Bar in the centre of the town, some loyal local businesses and whatever we can bring in from our small home attendances.”

He invites me into the home team dressing-room and I’m a wee boy again. In every football club in every league in the world, the dressing-room is the Holy of Holies, consecrated by the sweat and blood of long departed football warriors. You must never cross this threshold unless invited to do so.

Mr Paton has the credentials to issue my invitation: it’s him who hangs up the blue and yellow tops and who washes their training kit and packs the equipment on Fridays prior to away trips.

Later, he walks me out onto the park and lets me take pictures among the empty stands. Stair Park is a crisp and trim wee stadium with views out towards Loch Ryan and the Firth of Clyde. It’s been here since the 1930s and looks sufficiently sturdy to be here for a few decades more. The playing surface is immaculate and a stunning montage of old Stranraer football images, created by the artist Nish Walker, adorns the entire wall behind the west terracing.

The Club Chairman, Iain Dougan is a railwayman whose first Stranraer game was in 1970/71 before he became a ball-boy for a few years. “Your team’s your team,” he said, “and I was born and raised here. One of the biggest challenges we’ve always faced has been one of demographics.”

Changing patterns of work have been exacerbated by a sense of Stranraer becoming increasingly more isolated than it already was at the end of a two-hour trip road trip from the Central Belt and 72 miles from Dumfries. There is no direct train link to Glasgow. The loss of the ferry terminal in 2011 was an industrial and economic blow which an entire generation of local politicians have failed abjectly to address.

“We’ll probably take as many supporters to an away game as our home games,” says Mr Dougan. “Financial migrants have moved from Stranraer to the Central Belt. We took 150 to East Kilbride last Saturday and had 795 at home for the Stenhousemuir game, 200 more than our highest attendance this season.

The Herald: The club have a tidy stadiumThe club have a tidy stadium (Image: free)

“People tell us we should have a share issue, but you still need a big man with big purse strings to underwrite it. Until we get an alternative we can only run the club through our committee and with the goodwill and generosity of all the volunteers. Our only paid employee is our part-time groundsman.

“Several buses leave here each week to watch Celtic and Rangers. I’ve no problems with that. But it would be great if they could make Stranraer their second club and watch us when Celtic and Rangers have away games. There’s always that feeling of: ‘I’ll need to go to the football one day’. It’s always one day, but life gets in the way.”

Yet, in these dread moments there are signs of hope. “Average attendances have risen slightly over the last 18 months,” says Mr Dougan. “I think people are experiencing that sense of not fully appreciating what they have until it’s gone.”

The football strategy for clubs in Scotland’s lower leagues follows an old pattern: secure some good young players who’ve been released by bigger clubs and offer them a chance to get their careers back on track. Add in a handful of seasoned semi-professionals who know the territory and “can look after themselves”. Stranraer’s problem as its geographical marginalisation has proceeded is that increasingly fewer of these players are happy to make the long journey south.

Mr Dougan is defiant about what the future may hold, no matter what this Saturday brings. “There will always be a Stranraer FC. We don’t take financial risks. We wouldn’t do it with our own money, so we won’t do it with the club’s.”

As you walk around this old town, still handsome in its desiccated, civic grandeur, you sense that the local people have become alive to its football club’s current jeopardy. Romano Petrucci who owns the local fish and chips emporium, has led efforts to revive Stranraer’s economic fortunes, principally with the annual staging of the Stranraer Oyster festival.

He believes the year-on-year success of this event holds out hope for Stranraer FC’s future. “This football club means everything to Stranraer,” he says. “And I expect that more than 1,000 will turn out for Saturday’s game.


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“We need to look at agencies such as South of Scotland Enterprise, who have been great for the development of the Oyster Festival. They’re very active in Stranraer, but we’d need a very detailed business plan for the club that would envisage how to facilitate remuneration for future coaching and playing infrastructure.

“I think we can make the apparent disadvantage of the geography into an asset by marketing it to the villages and small towns round here, all of whom have a passion for this town to succeed.”

When he was interviewed after the game about the miss heard around the world that day in 1988, Bruce Cleland said: “I phoned the Samaritans last night, but they were engaged. It’s been that kind of day.”

Similar stoicism in the face of adversity is driving this club in their midnight hour.