Scottish Cup matches tend to stick out in the memory more than any other for East of Scotland League footballers. All the more so if they end in a rare victory.
It is something Coldstream have achieved only twice in their 116-year history, which underlines the size of the task facing the current team this weekend when we make the 306-mile trip to Caithness to take on Wick Academy of the Highland League.
One man who knows what it takes for the Streamers to pull off a win in the world’s oldest cup competition is Reg Fairbairn, who was a member of the Coldstream team who in September 1954 made the very same journey to take on the same opponents and returned with a famous 4-2 win. It was Coldstream’s first ever victory in the Scottish Cup, and other than a 6-0 home win over Whithorn two years later it has never been repeated by the club since.
Now 80 and a resident of Birgham for 30 years, Reg was Coldstream’s right-back that day 57 years ago when George McElwrath, a forward better known to his teammates as Spuddie, scored all four goals and stand-in goalkeeper George Rutherford pulled off a series of wonderful saves to secure victory and make the mammoth journey worthwhile. It was a trip and a match as memorable as anything he enjoyed in his 15 years as a Coldstream player.
Although it was reported in 2001 that Threave Rovers from Castle Douglas were undergoing the longest-ever Scottish Cup journey when they travelled to Wick, officials at Home Park still contend that Coldstream retain the record, more miles having been covered on their 1954 trip because the Forth Road Bridge wasn’t yet open.
Reg recalls the team leaving by bus on the Thursday night for a Saturday match and not returning until late into Sunday evening.
“We were in one of the busses that used to go regularly from London to Edinburgh. They had toilets on them and a window at the back,” he recalled. “We left in the early evening, travelled overnight and we didn’t get there until the Friday morning. Two old ladies owned the hotel and we had breakfast when we got there.
“Most of the committee travelled. My father was one of them. We had a few supporters on the bus too. It was full. It was quite a journey. We saw nothing on the way there because it was dark most of the time, but there was a bit more to see on the way back. I didn’t sleep well on the way up, but some of them did. We stopped on the way up and it was in the days when the lads were not frightened to have a couple of pints a night or two before the game.”
In the match itself, Coldstream fell behind twice, but on each occasion they were level within minutes. “I remember struggling early on because I thought this is not such a bad side,” said Reg. Wick went ahead midway through the first half, only for McElwrath to equalise. Wick went in front again, but McElwrath levelled again with “a beauty with his right foot.”
When he then notched his hat-trick, Wick hurled everything at the Streamers defence. “We actually put them under pressure to attack because Spuddie had scored three, so they were playing right up the field,” said Reg. “We left Spuddie up the field as a poacher.
“Spuddie was a better player than the level Coldstream were at. He could have played for quite a few clubs. His goals put them under pressure to attack and they left themselves open. Spuddie kept running up the field and slotting the ball into the back of the net.”
McElwrath’s fourth goal settled the tie, but he was not the only hero that day. “As far as the forwards were concerned Spuddie was a star. His legs were all varicose veins, but he could play,” Reg explained. “George Rutherford, the plumber from Coldstream, was a stand-in goalkeeper that day and we were a bit concerned. Our regular goalkeeper, couldn’t play because of the harvest. But George actually played a blinder. He saved some unstoppable shots.”
While his memories of the match itself are vivid, things are a bit more hazy for Reg when it comes to recalling how he and his teammates celebrated their win.
“I can’t remember. Got pissed probably,” he said with a smile. “I can remember being at the dancing in Wick.”
When the bus had passed through Brora on the way to Wick in the early hours of Friday morning, club treasurer, John Fairbairn, was heard to joke that “this is where we play next”. But his tongue in cheek remark turned out to be true when the draw for the next round was made on the Monday morning. Coldstream were back up in Caithness a fortnight later to play Brora Rangers and lost 2-0.
But that wasn’t the end of the trips north of Inverness, because just one year later Streamers were drawn away to Ross County in Dingwall in the first round, and lost 4-2. “It was strange that three times we were up there in the Scottish Cup in the space of a year,” recalled Reg. “We never got a home draw for a good few seasons. They had done away with the Qualifying Cup for a few years and that meant you were straight into the first round proper.
“It was quite an adventure and it was something special for us, just a bunch of local lads. Nowadays they’re all wanting paid. But we bought our own boots and got half an orange at half time. We did a fair bit of training, but fitness didn’t seem to be the most important thing. It was the social life, which was quite amusing. We had quite a few players from Berwick and some from north Northumberland as well. There were some farmer’s sons played.
“Coldstream will have a better team going up there this time than what we had. We didn’t really have a strong team, compared to some of the teams that we had later on.” Wick themselves are a far stronger team now than they were then and go into this weekend’s tie as strong favourites.
So if Reg could pass on one piece of advice to the class of 2011, what would it be?
“My advice is to keep cool,” he says. “And don’t listen to the committee...”