After a Saturding morning spent hanging wallpaper, my father-in-law and I head to Kirkcaldy for my first football match. The weather has turned and it feels like summer: the sun blazes and the sky is blue. I feel a little cheated – there’s no need for a scarf on such a day. But we take my hand-made offering anyway, a symbol of our intention. On the way we discuss where to sit. Being contrary, Jeff favours the away end. The fans willing to travel for away matches are die-hards, the camaraderie between them wrought in the boozy furnace of the hired bus. I am cautious: I suspect I may already be in a minority at Stark’s Park. A young woman from the south of England going to her first Scottish football match with her nearly Geordie rent-a-dad because she knitted him a scarf: do we really need to sit with a trusty few who too are strangers at the ground? In the end, the weather decides for us. By 2pm the North Stand is bathed in bright spring sunshine, and we realise that we won’t be able to see much squinting into the light. It’s the home end for us.
In preparation for today Jeff has leant me Saturday, 3pm. Author Daniel Grey lists fifty reasons why people love going to the football: chief among them, it seems, is ritual. The clothes you wear, right down to lucky boxers, are key. Jeff is bang on the money in his Dad jeans. I don’t enquire about what lies beneath. So this is what today’s about: learning the rituals from Jeff, from the Raith fans, putting together our own set of Saturday afternoon ceremonies in preparation for the game.
We kick off our day out with pre-match burgers and beer. Jeff is keen that we go to the supporters’ pub: for Raith Rovers fans, The Novar seems to be the spot, and we’re pointed in its direction by the Stark Park ticket seller. On route we pass a little blue-and-white take-away opposite a car wash, where we buy rolls, burgers, chips and cans of juice from someone who looks just old enough to have left primary school. Sitting outside in the sunshine on the wooden bench marvel at our lunch – in the words of my father-in-law, it’s ‘almost two courses for a fiver’ for us both.
More a bar than a pub, the Novar is showing the Dundee match on its big screens, below which Rovers fans gather, decked in team scarves and shirts. I squeeze my way to bar and come back with two pints of Tenant’s, which we drink outside in the sunshine with the smokers. The atmosphere is electric: Jeff grins from ear to ear and I’m surprised to find I don’t feel in the least bit scared. Quite the opposite; the fans’ good mood is contagious as we sip our pints in the sun against a backdrop of afternoon chatter.
Pints polished off, we follow the departing fans back to Stark’s Park, tagging along behind a gaggle of blokes in jeans and jackets. Jeff got the dress code right. Once at the park I pick up a copy of Rovers Review, the club’s matchday programme. I hand over two pound coins and in return am handed a bundle of thirty-five shiny pages. Manager’s Notes from John Hughes, a piece on the two Gordon Wallaces who’ve played for the club, a run-down on the history of Raith vs QotS matches. Opposite the ticket office the huge McDermid stand towering above us. Bestselling crime writer Val McDermid is a life-long Rovers fan. Her father having scouted for the club, she sponsored the away end in memory of him.
We queue at the turnstiles, slipping between the rotating bars and climbing the concrete steps to the South Stand. ‘Here comes the good bit’, Jeff says, turning to me with a smile, and together we emerge into the mass of a thousand Rovers fans, the green stretched out below us. The noise of the crowd rushes around me, and my heart lifts. The sheer proximity of so many people, gathered together for a common purpose, is electricifying. Looking to the other end of the pitch, the away stand is almost empty. I’m glad we sat this side. ‘One hundred and twenty-four Queen of the South fans’ crackles the announcer – from across the pitch it doesn’t even look like that many.
‘We should sit near a pair old gadgies’, says Jeff, ‘so you can hear the banter.’ We edge in between two groups of older men, wrapped in hats and scarves even on this hot day. Before us the Raith mascot, Roary the Lion, is dancing and posing for the crowd. Beside him stands a wee boy in a Raith strip, a tiny lad making his dad or grandad proud by leading the team onto the pitch. Queen are playing in red, Raith in navy. I study the programme: the two sides have met 11 times in three seasons, with Raith the victors in five of those encounters.
After a minute stood silent in memory of the victims of the Westminster attacks earlier in the week the whistle is blown and the game is on. The bubble of chatter grows to a roar ten minutes in, when Rovers’ forward Ryan Hardie scores a goal, and a few reps of ‘He scores when he wants’ goes round the home crowd. It’s all lookind good for our guys, but before we know it Queen have equalised, a controversial kick that seems to bounce off the bottom of the goal post and career off back onto the pitch. The Rovers’ fans are incensed, on their feet and shouting, but the goal is awarded.
Suddenly it’s half-time and everyone streams from their seats to the makeshift cafe under the stand. Jeff and I split a mince meat pie, washed down with a cup of tea (him) and a Bovril (me). It’s my first cup of this savoury drink and it goes down a treat, watery gravy for a greasy grey pie. Once again we have change from a fiver. I’ll say this for a game of football: match sustenance is light on the pocket.
Back in place for the second half and the mood at the home end is one of resignation. The Rovers seem unable to keep the ball on the ground, heading and kicking it into the air instead of along the ground. Stark’s Park is bordered on the east side by a road and on west by the train line. In the course of the final forty-five minutes the road and the tracks see more action that either goal, with three balls soaring out of the ground. This proximity to the railway is an added bonus for my father-in-law: an afternoon of trains, pies, beers and football is going to be difficult to beat, whichever way the game goes. In a beautiful micro-film by Alan McCredie, Daniel Gray, author of Saturday, 3pm, give an insight looking into Raith’s ground from the train:
Behind us the gadgies are loosing patience with the team. ‘Come on, Rovers!’ they exhort, the voices ratcheting up the despair with every cry. ‘Start looking at the ball’, one man mutters. Another asks ‘Which team deserves to loose the most?’, the question hanging unanswered in the air. Someone near the front starts up a chant: the words are lost to me, but I don’t think they flatter either side. Ninety minutes comes and the score is still one apiece when the whistle goes.
The stands empty quickly. Jeff and I divert to the club shop, pawing over placemats, hats and shirts. Jeff inspects a coaster, printed only slightly off centre. ‘Reduced from two pound, no, two-fifty’, the salesman half-heartedly offers . Jeff hands over a pound and we move off, out into the sunshine. Back at the car we toy with hanging the scarf out of the window as we drive home, but decide against it. Scarves, beer, burgers, chips, Bovril, pies – the actual football has only been a sliver of the day’s action. It’s a day out, being part of the crowd, that we really came for.