IN Coatbridge at Cliftonhill Park, the wizened crucible of Albion Rovers FC, a group of old men gathers each month to scavenge for memories.

They felt most alive on these raucous slopes and thus the remembrances of them remain after all others have departed. Similar ventures are in operation at other senior football clubs in Scotland. These rough arenas offered respite from a grimy and perilous working week and the echoes of precious hours spent in them can defer the thickening mists of dementia.

The football players and the clubs whose colours they wore carried the pride of entire working class communities: no one owned them on these terraces and the princes and magicians they came to watch were neighbours or the sons of neighbours.

Few of these grounds now exist in their original state and even fewer that are as old as Cliftonhill. Albion Rovers have existed since 1882, the last 100 of this stretch in this place. A collection of black and white photographs taken of Cliftonhill and the supporters who bring it to life every two weeks forms the centrepiece of an exhibition at Coatbridge’s splendid Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life to mark Albion Rovers’ residency at the stadium.

A Game of Two Halves features the mesmeric and evocative work of the award-winning photographer, Iain McLean who was reared on the streets that surround this little park and who re-discovered his childhood love for the club while making them. McLean uses the shifting light of grey skies to capture the simple act of attending a football match and to make them seem timeless. Some of these images could have been taken 60 or 70 years ago and capture the enduring simplicity of football’s appeal. His pictures are accompanied by a short film by the documentary-maker Wilma Smith, who spent an afternoon recording the ebb and flow of a game through the terracing shouts of the supporters.

Albion Rovers is a club whose name suggests inclusivity and where all that is tribal must depart. Other clubs across the UK have ‘Albion’ or ‘Rovers’ attached to their place-names but none have both together. Nor is there any such thing as a ‘Wanderers United’ and so Albion Rovers is something unique in British senior football: its name is not narrowed by geographical boundary or city limits, yet few other clubs are embedded in the community that formed them more than this one.

Every picture in McLean’s Cliftonhill portfolio tells a story that built this year towards something unforeseen and operatic. Towards the end of season 2018/19 Albion Rovers’ faced the biggest existential threat of its 137-year existence as it performed a danse macabre for its tormented supporters with the spectre of relegation from League Two. It escaped this fate with the assistance of a benign intervention as the careless whish of an administrator’s pen and the improper registration of an opposition player bequeathed the club three unlikely points and an advantage that was to prove priceless.

Ronnie Boyd who, until recently, was Albion Rovers' chairman recalls this uncertainty with a chill. “It’s vital for Coatbridge that Albion Rovers retains its senior status. If we had dropped down into the leagues below it wouldn’t have been the end of us but it would have dealt a serious blow to our confidence and to the sense of pride that the community retains for this club.”

Rovers attract a mere 300 or so supporters at home games and keeping the lights on and the wolves from the door is a week-to-week challenge. “The club is run on a firm financial footing,” says Boyd “but nor are we carrying any padding. We are never more than something like a floodlight failure away from a financial crisis and must rely on the services of a team of volunteers who donate several hours each week to the cause of keeping this club afloat and among Scotland’s senior leagues. Them and our sponsors who also go above and beyond.

“Many people in Coatbridge refer to us as their ‘second club’ which causes some angst amongst the board. The eternal challenge, I suppose, is to persuade some of them to make us their ‘first’ club. I don’t really resent this. There are many competing attractions and lots of other small clubs find themselves in our position. ”

Yet, the task the club faces in this is much more daunting than most other small, community clubs which strive for the right to co-exist with giants. Four Scottish Premier League clubs lie within a dozen miles of Coatbridge, including the two biggest of all: Celtic and Rangers. Celtic Park lies less than nine miles away and each week coachloads of its supporters leave the town which is still steeped in its Irish/Catholic heritage.

Occasionally, when a sparsely-populated terrace is captured on camera a wise-cracking, metropolitan commentator will smirk about naming the crowd as well as the teams. There are 125 season-ticket holders at Cliftonhill and Ronnie Boyd reckons he could probably name them all. Part of this is also due to the fact that Coatbridge possesses family roots that run through several generations and that this is one of those neighbourhoods where no one can remain a stranger for long. But it’s also due to this being one of the few senior football grounds where the chairman and his board are often to be seen personally greeting supporters at the entrance and thanking them for their continued support at a time when the directors of other clubs are obsequiously dispensing sauvignon to small tycoons.

Along the M8, meanwhile, Rangers, who were put into liquidation in 2012 for over-reaching itself faced criticism from its own supporters for charging stiff prices for their games in the Europa League. Celtic, the richest sporting organisation in Scotland, couldn’t bring itself to pay its lowest-paid workers the National Living Wage and when it was shamed into doing so the directors first removed the annual staff bonuses. Yet here is Albion Rovers, their poorest and most humble cousins treating its own few supporters like royalty. This seems to be appreciated and they return the love with interest. One of Iain MacLean’s most vivid images is of volunteers fighting a losing battle trying to sweep mounds of snow from Cliftonhill’s playing surface for a Scottish Cup tie against St Johnstone in January last year.

McLean said: “When the St Johnstone fans turned up and realised there was a risk to the game they got on the pitch with the rest of us to clear the snow. The spirit of this place is infectious and gets under your finger-nails. In my recent experience any who turn up here for the first time are captivated and form a deep attachment to Albion Rovers and to Cliftonhill.”

Another is taken during a particularly dispiriting 4-0 home defeat to Peterhead last year. On the condensation of a Perspex home dugout a supporter has written in perfect mirror text “SCORE PLEASE”, a polite request which elsewhere might have been a profane demand.

At the start of this season Bury FC, twice winners of England’s FA Cup and a founder member of the English football league shut its doors after 134 years of existence. The faces of three generations of its supporters were crumpled in grief as they began to realise that the pride of their northern, working class community was being thrown out of a league they had helped form. Not far away from Bury is Bolton Wanderers, the club of mighty Nat Lofthouse, the Lion of Vienna and which remains locked in a mortal struggle for its own existence. Financial analysts have predicted that several other English Football clubs are just one more breached overdraft away from perdition. These clubs are also hemmed in by an assortment of the richest football teams in Europe but not a scrap from the tables of these most egregiously capitalist enterprises is permitted to nourish its distressed old neighbours. Albion Rovers meanwhile is kept alive by the endeavours by a small volunteer corps of fans and directors who provide graft and services for free. The stadium sponsor is local firm Reigart Demolition and a flotilla of other sponsors gathers each season to ensure that the bills are paid and the part-time players and coaching staff receive some form of remuneration.

Albion Rovers may now be eking out a twilight existence but without dreams football is reduced and this old club still retains some of its own. In 1920 they reached the Scottish Cup final before being defeated by Kilmarnock in a 3-2 classic in front of 96,000 spectators at Hampden. Cliftonhill’s record attendance of 27,381 against Rangers in 1936 will stand for all time.

This was where Jock Stein, the greatest club manager in Britain, played for a few years in the early 1950s. In the last few years the club has established a Hall of Fame that now has seven members, including Tony Green who left Coatbridge in 1967 to join Blackpool for £15,000. Green also adorns Blackpool’s Hall of Fame as well as Newcastle United’s.

More recently, in the mid-1980s Bernie Slaven left to join Middlesbrough where he too became a household name. Despite scoring more than 30 goals for Albion Rovers all the top Scottish clubs disdained him for his humble surroundings and were subsequently made to look foolish.

Turning up occasional pearls such as these and selling them on to larger Scottish and English outfits traditionally provided sustenance to prudently-run smaller clubs. Now, the big clubs have ‘academies’ which they use like football’s equivalent of a scallop dredger, trawling the old feeding grounds and sparking dreams in hundreds of working class households before tossing the overwhelming majority overboard in the years to come in the world’s most ruthless pruning exercise. By then, many are ruined by the brief excess of their associations with the big clubs, a time during which they could have developed better habits at clubs like Albion Rovers.

Ronnie Boyd says the current board of directors are determined to ensure that they never again risk being demoted to the lower leagues and is hoping that the exhibition at the Summerlee Museum will renew local interest. Next weekend, between September 27 and September 30, the museum will host a Celebrate Albion Rovers weekend to commemorate 100 years of the club at Cliftonhill. This stadium was also the home of speedway and greyhound racing, those other two great pastimes of the British working man and these will be celebrated with classic films and an exhibition of memorabilia from those blue remembered days.

The silence of an empty football stadium at repose, even one as gnarly as Cliftonhill, is like a cathedral. For a football-mad supporter like me, who would have given everything to have played just one half of a game at this level, these places are mesmerising.

Ronnie Boyd still has the keys to Cliftonhill and, sensing my expectation, invites me for a guided tour of the old ground. After unlocking the front gates he leads me up into the dressing-rooms and through the warren of rooms and passages that lead out to the main stand and the pitch below. The hospitality area is all tombola-stall decent and the wooden seats in the stand are still shiny in the new season’s red, yellow and black paint. Only one terrace is in use but the club has resisted the urge to pull down the other two which have long since been rendered obsolete by health and safety regulations. Thus, they remain largely as they were: monuments to old heroes and immortal deeds and still capable of stirring some echoes even as the light begins to fade in old eyes.

A Game of 2 Halves (a photo journal of Albion Rovers) by Iain Maclean is running until October 27. Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life is free to visit, and is open 7 days a week: from March 1 to 31st October, 10am to 5pm; from November 1 to February, 28/29, 10am to 4pm.