In November 2016, an item appeared in the business pages of the Scottish press, little noticed by the outside world. Solid fuels group Fergusson was folding. Parts of the operation had been sold off and jobs would be lost at head office in Stirling.
The article mentioned that the company was ‘a third-generation family business, founded in 1926 by Thomas Henry Fergusson, who had 90 years’ experience as coal merchants’.
It omitted to say that Thomas Henry Fergusson was also the energy behind modern-day football in the former Scottish capital. ‘Without Tom Fergusson,’ says the website of the flagship club of this historic city, ‘there would be no Stirling Albion’.
One of Scotland’s biggest tourist draws and most prestigious destinations, Stirling has a relatively low profile as far as football is concerned. It may be home to a castle and a coronation church, Mary Queen of Scots and Billy Bremner, but it cannot hold a candle to the likes of Dundee or Aberdeen in terms of footballing achievement.
Not for the want of trying – at least as far as Fergusson was concerned.
Having lost part of his leg in World War I, Fergusson worked down the mines before setting up his own company in 1926, delivering coal by horse and cart. Football in his home town was centred around King’s Park FC, named after the historic royal hunting ground where Stirling Golf Club is gloriously sited – and where this somewhat modest football club first played.
Formed in 1875, King’s Park entered the Scottish Cup four years later and made the quarter-finals in 1894. By then they were playing at Forthbank Park, close to a loop in the River Forth and near the site of today’s Forthbank Stadium, home of Stirling Albion since 1993. The new-build is not at the exact same location as its pre-war predecessor, rather named in its honour.
Many felt that the new ground, or at least one of the stands, should have been named after Tom Fergusson – who soon comes into the story.
Becoming secretary-manager of King’s Park, Fergusson presided over a beloved local football club whose revenues had been cut when the Scottish FA banned its use as a track for greyhounds and, bizarrely, cheetah racing.
King’s Park had not long missed out on promotion to the First Division by one point in 1928. Travel expenses to fulfil fixtures in this 20-team lower league were considerable, with journeys to Dumfries, Arbroath and Montrose. Debts mounted.
When war broke out, the league was suspended. Stirling was spared the worst of the Blitz, except for one bomb that fell on… Forthbank Park. With this stray hit from the Luftwaffe, local coal mogul Fergusson was looking at the end of one era – and the start of another.
With Forthbank Park unplayable, he looked into buying land on the Annfield Estate, liquidating King’s Park and creating a new club entirely. Annfield was set in a once separate and equally historic settlement, St Ninian’s, a mile south of Stirling town centre. The church there had been blown up by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s retreating army in the 1740s. The local namesake football club, St Ninian’s, competed in the Stirlingshire Cup but they, too, folded in 1940.
Right after VE Day, Fergusson gathered five prominent local entrepreneurs at his head office on Wallace Street and presented his idea. All five contributed funds straight away and Stirling Albion – not Stirling Villa, one proposal – were born.
Adopting the red-and-white colours of their forebears, the club attracted immediate criticism for inheriting a league place but not due liabilities.
With some spectators perched on Fergusson’s coal trucks before a main stand was built in 1946, Annfield became Albion’s home until 1993.
Fergusson died in 1967, still on the Board of Directors, a decade and a half before a bankrupt Stirling Albion were forced to sell Annfield to the town council – and 50 years before his own firm collapsed.
Today’s Forthbank Stadium not only hosts the lower-tier exploits of Stirling Albion but the up-and-coming efforts of Stirling University. Admitted to the new fifth-flight Lowland League in 2013, The Greens relocated to the main stadium and achieved a third-place finish under female manager Shelley Kerr in 2016.
From the terminal at Edinburgh, a tram every 10min from the airport takes 15min to Edinburgh Park station (£5.50), where a half-hourly train runs to Stirling (40min, £8). The train calls at Edinburgh Waverley and Haymarket before stopping at Edinburgh Park.
From Stance 1 outside the Glasgow terminal, Glasgow Airport Express bus No.500 runs every 12-15min to George Square by Glasgow Queen Street station (online £7 single, £9.50 open return, journey time 15min). From Queen Street, a direct half-hourly train takes 30min to reach Stirling or there’s an equally frequent stopping service (40min, each £8).
Stirling station is close to the city centre but bear in mind that everything in the historic quarter behind is a steep climb. The ground is further round the river away from town, a bit of a hike on foot. As Forthbank is by the Springkerse Business Park, from Goosecroft Road at the station the Park & Ride service, overseen by Stirling Council, is frequent.
Note that the PlusBus levy to your train ticket for Stirling (£3) only applies to First buses, not the Park & Ride service.
For all timetable and ticket information, see Traveline Scotland.
Located behind the station, Stirling Taxis (01786 343 434) also offer airport transfers.
The nearest hotel to the ground, walking distance away, is a Holiday Inn Express, functional lodging with free parking in Springkerse Business Park.
For more of a feel of historic Stirling, a grand Victorian building houses wedding fave Colessio, 40 luxurious rooms, an upscale grill restaurant and cocktail bar.
In similar ilk, the Highland Hotel provides a four-star comforts wrapped up in a stern-looking school building from the 1850s, with a pool, health club and decent restaurant.
Equally known as a traditional inn but providing three-star rooms on the second floor, The Portcullis dates back even further, to the 1780s, its steep vantage point offering grand views right below Stirling Castle.
Even the Youth Hostel looks like something out of Harry Potter, right in the historic quarter, with private rooms as well as dorm beds.
The city centre is full of drinking houses, particularly in the parallel streets of Murray Place and King Street/Baker Street. It heaves at weekends, when a 1am closing time is imposed.
Arguably the most prominent, No.2 Baker Street, offers real ales, live music, pub food and has a TV over the bar. Also on Baker Street, tastefully conceived Nicky-Tams Bar & Bothy dates back 300 years but attracts a chatty young clientele with its ale variety, continental food and live acts. There’s a TV if you need it.
Also close, The Corn Exchange, with a more clubby atmosphere, is a lively place to watch the match, live music/DJs featuring at weekends – but again, 1am closing.
Over on Murray Place, The Cold Beer Company is a big-screen football haunt, with plenty of cold beers and company, plus DJs and live music, all filling a large former post office. Molly Malones is more chatty, its relaxed clientele warmed by the fire, entertained by pub games and sport on seven screens.
Live sport is the focus at Oz haunt the Kilted Kangaroo, with its beer garden and superior bar food. Set just outside the historic centre by the Thistles shopping centre, it stays open until 2am.