Tom Wilkie settled at a table in the back room of Sloans Cafe with a glass of beer. His hand was shaking as he took a deep gulp of beer. It had been a strange day. In fact it had been a strange time since that eventful match in Port Glasgow. He really needed a drink to calm his nerves. It wasn’t every day that a working man from the east end of Glasgow met the President of the Scottish Football Association, never mind being interviewed by the whole SFA committee.
It wasn’t a normal occurrence, drinking alone in a pub in the town on a Wednesday night. Tom thought that was what men without jobs did: the unemployed or the bosses – drinking in the howffs or the fancy hotels.
Usually he couldn’t wait to get home after work, transporting coal from the pits at Parkhead and Shettleston down to the ships on the Clyde or other goods from the railway goods yard at Haghill, to have dinner with his wife Eliza and daughter Marion. Kick off his boots, and wash away the grime of the working day.
The exception was on a Tuesday and a Thursday when he would leave work and jump on a number twenty-five tram, from almost directly outside the shed where he and his father kept their horses and carts in Camlachie, for training with his Partick Thistle team mates on the pitch on the banks of the river Clyde, below towering cranes; a hellish glow coming from the furnaces in the shipyards, particularly when the fog and smoke combined. That wee break from the domestic routine, and the camaraderie of meeting with his team mates always relaxed him after a hard day’s work, took his mind off his worries.
On match day Saturdays he would walk to the same tram stop from his Dalmarnock home in Harvie Street, meet up with his dad, and get the same tram to Partick Cross to join his mates to play matches at their Meadowside ground. Away games normally meant meeting the team in Glasgow to get trains around the country to visit away grounds.
After games the boys might have a quick beer. Their favourites were the Pointhouse Inn, not far from Meadowside, and they occasionally visited Sloans after away games.
The fans who paid their threepence admission might have thought that Tom’s life was an exciting one, as a professional footballer – and a goalkeeper at that – playing against Scotland’s best players in the First Division. But, to him, it was just a thing he did, a thing he was good at. Recent events, though, had made him start to question whether it was really worth it. Was he falling out of love with football? He had seen the game unleash demons. He couldn’t get a thought out of his head – what would happen to Eliza and Marion if he was injured so badly he couldn’t work to support them.
His life had seemed simpler, just weeks before: home and work, work and home. He had felt lucky he had been able to add football into this routine a few times every week – in many ways the highlight of his week. He was no longer so sure.
The last few weeks, since the game at Port Glasgow, had disrupted his normal routines, and he wasn’t happy about it at all. Tom liked the quiet life.
There was no warning that Tom’s normally predictable life was going to take an unusual diversion when he met his mates that day two weeks ago at Central Station. The game that day was away to Port Glasgow Athletic. Athletic were by no means one of the big teams in Scotland but there was a little bit of history between the clubs. Tom didn’t see it as animosity, but there was a bit of rivalry. Games at Port Glasgow had more of an edge than games against Athletic’s neighbours, Morton. Tom reckoned it went back a couple of years, to when Thistle and Athletic went head-to-head, both trying to win the Second Division. Thistle missed out on winning the competition, but were rewarded with promotion, as were Athletic. The two point gap might have been bridged had Thistle not lost to their rivals at Meadowside. The following season, just last year, Thistle got revenge, convincingly winning both home and away.
The two teams had already played once this season, in August at Meadowside, and Thistle had won the game, but Athletic were not happy. Their left winger Galbraith had fractured his arm after a robust challenge from tough Ayreshireman, Big Bob Campbell.
Team mates joked that they might be facing a rough game as they got on the train down to Port Glasgow. Big Bob, burly with stooped shoulders, and Sam Kennedy, always dapper with his Victorian moustache, just caught the train as it pulled away from the platform, after getting a train up from Ayrshire.
‘For God’s sake lads, I thought you were missing the train,’ laughed Tom, rolling his eyes. ‘Did you get lost in the big city?’
‘Never mind your worrying, Tommy son. Here, I found a copy of the Port Glasgow Express on the train this morning. Just listen, the paper says that the Port players were knocked about like nine-pins in the game at Meadowside last month,’ scoffed Sam.
Locals kids lined the platform as the Thistle players’ train arrived, jeering as they recognised that the visitors were a football team. Arriving in the Port after the train journey was always a little daunting, thought Tom. It wasn’t that he wasn’t used to seeing poverty, living close to some of the worst slums in Glasgow, but here the town felt dark and claustrophobic: hemmed in by the hill on one side and the shipyards on the other. The blackened cranes, massive steel hulks of the boats and rickety scaffolding towered over the north side of the town and seemed to block out the sun. The rattling noise of the riveting and the steel beating could be heard all the way across the rooftops. Tom knew that building ships with steel, not iron, was the way of the future, but Port Glasgow still seemed to be set in the past.
They walked through the town, past the Star Hotel and the tall tenements which gave way to a sprawl of low slums as they approached the river. Water from standpipes lay in stagnant pools and there was a smell that hung over the town, a mix of rubbish and decay from the houses and the stench of heavy industry from the shipyards.
‘Jeez, I thought The Gorbals was bad,’ thought Tom.
His thoughts were disturbed by a loud hooter, and the huge wooden shipyard gates of both the Lamonts and Fergusons shipyards slid to the side. Out poured an army of blue overalled workers, filthy faces topped with cloth caps, their shifts finished. Even though they were free for the weekend there was no happiness in the faces of the Port Glasgow shipyard army.
Willie Gray was usually calm. But even he was anxious as he whispered to Tom and Sam. ‘Boys, someone just threw a rivet at me. Let’s get a move on.’
The light-hearted attitude the players had had in Glasgow was quickly disappearing.
In the safety of the Clune Park pavilion Tom was concentrating on his warm up: stretching and strapping up his wrists, looking forward to the game, the best part of the week. Willie, still worried about the missile thrown at him earlier, had grabbed Sam’s copy of the local paper. ‘Oi lads, this is what the paper says about the game at Meadowside,’ he shouted to the team: ‘ “We have seen many a rough game at football, but never such a downright disgraceful exhibition of deliberate kicking, hacking and tripping as Port had to put up with.” It says that we roughed up the Morton players last week too. Maybe we need to be careful out there? This mob seem to think they have a score to settle.’
Bob, the tough Ayrshireman snorted. ‘I saw that earlier. I’m nae gonnae let anyone girning change my game. I’ll play the way I always do.’
‘Aye, me tae,’ said Andy Wilson.
Willie looked at Tom and shrugged his shoulders.
Just ten minutes into the game Tom reflected that perhaps Willie had been right. Both Andy and Bob were true to their word, and held nothing back from some early tackles. Boyle and Ross from the home team responded and tempers began to fray on the pitch. The referee, Mr Russell, seemed unable to control any of the players.
‘Have a word with their players, ref, and try to calm them down,’ said Tom, but he secretly hoped that the ref would have a word with the Thistle players too. The last thing Tom needed was one of his backs sent from the field.
The atmosphere was similarly antagonistic on the sidelines as the four thousand home fans’ verbal abuse got louder.
‘That’s the ref’s fault too,’ Tom pondered as the play moved to the other half. ‘Almost every decision is wrong. Port think they’re suffering more, but he’s rotten for us too.’
Into the second half, Thistle were leading 2-1, thanks to two goals from Sam. There weren’t many players on the field who hadn’t been guilty of a tough tackle or two. Harry Wilson, in particular, had been guilty of a foul against Clark that Tom reckoned Harry had been luckily not to be sent off for.
‘Even so, we’ve been the better team,’ thought Tom, reckoning that the game must be nearly finished. ‘I’ll be glad to get off the park.’
Just then Bolton, the Port Glasgow centre-forward, broke through with a strong run over the penalty line towards goal. Tom steadied himself, trying to guess whether his opponent would shoot or dribble on. In a flash Big Bob slid in from right back, knocking both the player and the ball into the air.
‘Ah Bob, that’s a penalty,’ sighed Tom.
All of the home players and the majority of the crowd shouted for a penalty, but Mr Russell refused. Tom ran from his line to grab the ball.
It took just a few seconds before the rivets and stones from the terracing started landing close to Tom.
‘Ref, ref! They’re chucking stones at me,’ shouted Tom.
‘They are throwing stones at me, tae,’ replied Russell, ducking to avoid a stone. The referee began to run towards the pavilion, signalling the end of the game only as he neared safety.
Tom still had the ball in his hands as he looked behind him. A surge of angry fans, hell-bent on catching the referee rushed onto the pitch from behind the goal. Tom panicked and dropped the ball.
All of the players, and the linesmen, too made a dash for safety.
The target of the fans’ fury had changed from the Thistle players to the referee, but for those who couldn’t get near the ref, the opportunity to have a kick or a punch was too tempting. Men were jumping onto the pitch from all sides now.
‘Got to get off, got to get off, got to get off.’ As he ran Tom saw Sam and Willie in trouble, some of the home players helping them to get away.
Suddenly, Tom felt a thump to his head. He fell to the ground and was surrounded by thugs taking kicks at his prone body. He could do nothing but cover his head with his arms and hope for the best. After what seemed like an age he heard a shout and felt a hand on his arm. It was Bolton, the player who had been denied the penalty, coming to his rescue. They both ran to the pavilion unharmed any further, Tom dizzy and limping heavily – a sharp pain in his right knee.
Two weeks later, Tom was still limping. He had felt all right a few days after the game in Port Glasgow, and had played the next two games, but then the pain in his knee had come back, and he had lost his place in the team to Willie Howden. Unable to work for a few days, or train, he sat in the house and Eliza got annoyed with him, getting in the way.
‘I cannae believe what happened,’ he told Eliza. ‘Those bastards have spoiled the best day of the week.’ He hadn’t told her of the recurring dream that woke him in a sweat where the life was being kicked out of him.
He had also been called to appear in front of a Scottish League committee meeting arranged especially to discuss the complaints of the referee and Partick Thistle about the Port Glasgow crowd’s behaviour.
Tom had taken his Sunday suit to work that morning, not taking a cart out that day, got changed, then took the tram into town and walked up West George Street to number two hundred and twenty-seven: the imposing offices of Mr MacAndrew, the League’s Secretary and Treasurer.
There he met his team mate, Willie, the referee, Mr Russell, who, Tom thought, looked more nervous than him, Richie Robertson, the Thistle board member who had been running the line at the game, and Alex MacFarlane, the Port Glasgow Athletic secretary. Mr MacFarlane was the last to arrive but immediately apologised to all present for the behaviour of his club’s fans.
Tom was nervous. A simple carter from Dalmarnock didn’t get to visit fancy Glasgow offices, even if he was a professional footballer. He was expecting to give evidence in front of the full League committee. So it was a bit of a relief when Mr MacAndrew came out of his office and told them all that the meeting had been cancelled.
‘Gentlemen, the accusations against the home club are so serious that they must be heard by the full committee of the Scottish Football Association,’ announced MacAndrew – a little pompously, Tom thought. ‘Tonight’s meeting is adjourned.’
A few days later Tom was back in town, again in his Sunday best, this time to visit the even grander, opulent offices of the SFA at Carlton Place. He was early, and nervous as hell, having walked around Glasgow Green for half an hour to kill time. That was probably foolish, given his sore leg. He expected to see the same witnesses as the previous meeting, but neither Willie, referee Mr Russell, Richie Robertson nor Mr MacFarlane from Port Glasgow had arrived. Some of the SFA committee passed him in the entrance hall: high heidyins from clubs and associations around the country, most nodding at Tom as if they knew him. Of course he knew they had no idea who he was, and it was all for show.
Eventually Willie arrived.
‘Thank God you’re here, son. I was starting to think I was going to have to do this on my own,’ whispered Tom.
‘I reckon they are going to close Port Glasgow’s ground down for this,’ said Willie, ‘they’ve been in trouble before.’
A few minutes later Robertson and MacFarlane arrived and explained that the referee had been given dispensation not to attend. Soon the five were ushered into a grand meeting room. They sat inside a semi-circle of committee members, with Captain R.M. Christie, the President of the Association, opening the meeting.
‘Gentlemen. Thank you for your attendance. This evening we will hear two complaints from the Partick Thistle Football Club in relation to the match at Clune Park against Port Glasgow Athletic on the 19th September in the year 1903. I will now read the complaints, and then we will hear from the witnesses.
‘Complaint one: that missiles were thrown at Mr Wilkie, goalkeeper, and Mr Robertson, linesman…’
Tom snuck a quick glance to his left at Mr Robertson, who was staring ahead. He could still hear those rocks thudding into the mud around him.
‘… and complaint number two: that at the finish of the match spectators roughly treated Partick Thistle players notably Mr Gray who received a nasty kick on the knee.’ Willie winked back when Tom looked over.
‘How the hell can he be so calm?’ wondered Tom nervously, as his sore knee throbbed.
In his absence, a letter was read from referee Russell stating that the language of the spectators was bad but he only saw one stone thrown. What was that all about? Russell had shouted: “They’re throwing stones at me, tae.” Should he raise his hand? Robertson gave him a look that said ‘let it go, lad.’ The referee’s letter continued that spectators had invaded the field at the finish and threatened him but he had seen no Partick Thistle players kicked or abused. Tom looked at Willie and they both shrugged in amazement. ‘Had he forgotten what had happened? Surely he couldn’t have been got at? We’ll never know. He isn’t hear to ask.’
‘We will now hear the evidence of Mr William Gray and Mr Thomas Wilkie, of the Partick Thistle club.’
‘Thomas? Only my old dear calls me that. And Eliza, if she’s annoyed at me,’ laughed Tom to himself.
Willie in particular made sure that the committee knew about the unfriendly welcome that the players had received before the game.
Tom was next, and he stood, his stomach churning.
‘Did you alert the referee to the stone throwing from behind the goal area?’
‘Of course I did, but he knew fine well what was happening. In fact he said “They are throwing stones at me, tae.” ’
His nerves had gone. He felt calm now and in control, and angry at the referee’s revised version of events.
Mr MacFarlane was the last to give evidence, and Tom thought he seemed ashamed as he apologised on behalf of the club and explained that the Port Glasgow players and committee had made sure that the referee had made it off the pitch in safety, despite being furious with the some of Mr Russell’s decisions. MacFarlane ended his statement by offering that his club would arrange to post bills throughout the ground warning spectators that anyone guilty of rowdyism would be arrested by the police.
‘You had to admire the man’s dedication to his club. If anything saves Port Glasgow from having its ground closed it’s going to be him,’ thought Tom.
‘Thank you, gentlemen. We have heard enough. Thank you again for your time,’ said Captain Christie.
‘By God, I need a drink,’ thought Tom, pulling on his coat, heading towards Sloans Cafe.
The very next evening Tom got back from work. Marion ran to meet him.
‘Father, your name is in the paper,’ she shouted excitedly.
Tom grabbed the Daily Record from his excited daughter and sat down in front of the fire, without even taking off his boots and cap.
“The SFA sat for three hours last night, and Greenock and Port Glasgow bulked largely the proceedings. The spectators in that district at club games are drawn principally from the shipyard element, and they have novel ideas of their own as to how they ought to comport themselves. Port Glasgow especially has earned an unenviable reputation. The language of its people is neither refined nor classical, and visiting teams, according to the complaints of Partick Thistle, are subjected to such playful abuse as having ‘daunders’ and other missiles hurled at their heads from the horny handed Clune Park supporters, kicked on their way to the pavilion and abused off the ground.
“A string of witnesses, including Tom Wilkie, the Thistle goalkeeper, who appeared to have been the special target for the tributes of the local enthusiasts, and Mr Ritchie Robertson, the linesman, made out a pretty strong case against the club. After a long inquiry… it was decided to censure the club and to send a Committee of Inspection to visit the ground and report.”
‘Thank God that’s this carry-on over and done with,’ he thought.
Marion who had been hovering nearby, came to sit on his knee.
‘So what’s for dinner Eliza?’
Tom didn’t play again until February because of his injury, then playing most of the remaining games till the end of the season in place of Willie Howden.
The following season he played just a handful of games before leaving Meadowside. He didn’t play professional football again until 1907, with East Fife.
This is a fictional story, based on factual events at the match against Port Glasgow Athletic and subsequently. Thanks to Steve Kay for advice and editing.
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