Rooted to the bottom of the Scottish League, East Stirlingshire play off on Saturday for an end-of-season reprieve. Ninety minutes from doom, can the club that gave Sir Alex Ferguson his first break in management survive? Tony Dawber speaks to Shire director and supporters’ representative Ian Fleming.
For generations, East Stirlingshire FC have appeared as ‘East Stirling’ on pools coupons across the land.
This may be about to change. No, many south of the border will still assume that ‘The Shire’ play in the same former Scottish capital as Stirling Albion. In fact, they come from Falkirk.
And on Saturday, this famous old football club may drop out of the Scottish League altogether – for the first time since 1900.
The decider takes place in an old mining village on the northern edge of Scotland’s Central Belt, Stenhousemuir, The Shire’s shared home since 2008. Before, East Stirlingshire played at Firs Park, a tight, traditional ground hemmed in by the housing and industry of central Falkirk.
‘There isn’t a particular area from which we draw our support,’ says Ian Fleming, chair of the supporters’ trust and a Shire club director. ‘Our fans don’t tend to be concerned with the ambitions of Falkirk or the big-city clubs. They just want to follow their team.’
Meanwhile, city rivals Falkirk FC face Hibernian for the chance of a play-off with Kilmarnock and a place in the SPL and league football with the likes of Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen.
The Firs Park site now lies sadly derelict. What remained was demolished in 2012. The Shire have been mired in the basement of its lowest tier since many can remember. Their own play-off, with Edinburgh City, is for league status. No longer do the league’s lowest finishers hobble along on a wing and a prayer season after season. The new automatic face-off gives the top team from the Highland or Lowland League a crack at the Scottish League. Last Saturday, Edinburgh City played out a desperately hard fought 1-1 draw with The Shire in the capital’s Meadowbank Stadium.
On Saturday, the action moves to Ochilview Park, Stenhousemuir. Whatever the result, the groundshare is set to continue with no immediate prospect of a new stadium in the offing.
Relocation and seasons of stoic struggle may have eroded Shire support but the ones who are left are as loyal as any. Saturday should bring a four-figure crowd.
‘We’ve a fan who has come back from Florida where he now lives,’ says Fleming, ‘and he’s been staying for the week so he could see both legs. There’s a guy from Cardiff who comes by bus as he can’t drive. He was there last Saturday and he’ll be there for the second leg’.
Few would remember the last derby against Falkirk FC. The second of only two top-flight seasons was back in 1963-64. But if East Stirling are known for anything, it’s as the club who gave Sir Alex Ferguson his first break in management.
While the great man is unlikely to attend on Saturday, there is one celebrity rooting for The Shire on the big day.
‘Alex Ferguson was only here for a short time,’ explains Fleming. ‘We don’t have much connection with him apart from the occasional signed piece of memorabilia for fundraising events.’
‘But Jeff Stelling kept mentioning us on his Sky Sports show. We wrote to him and he agreed to join our Trust. He even contacted us, unprompted, the following year and asked if he could renew his membership.’
So the faithful from near and far are rallying round, but it promises to be a long, fraught day.
‘I don’t think I can say that we’re confident,’ continues Fleming. ‘It’s a one-off game. Anything can happen. Edinburgh City are very well organised but on Saturday we came back to level it after conceding an early goal. We played well in the second half and we’re hoping with our support behind us, we can do it.’
But the game won’t be decided on the terraces. ‘The pitch was very poor last Saturday,’ explains Fleming. ‘The one at Ochilview is an artificial surface which we are used to. We hope that will be to our advantage.’
Fans of Burnley, newly promoted back to the English Premier League last week, look back fondly on a similar game in 1987 when victory over Orient preserved their league status as a turning point in their history.
Can East Stirlingshire do the same?
‘We’re not on that scale,’ concludes Fleming. ‘But if we win, we’ll just have to wait and see if the fans who have come back will stay with us or drift away again.’
And if the worst comes to the worst, Fleming confirms that East Stirlingshire will battle on, entering the Lowland League as the new route back to league status.
Saturday will go to the wire. As someone once said: ‘Football! Bloody hell!’