Mike Whalley explains a bizarre Cup tie of multiple postponents and managerial intrigue
Glaswegian striker Alex Williams's career has taken in ten clubs over the last decade, mostly in Scotland's lower leagues, but also including teams in Australia and Ireland. But, even if he stays only briefly in the Scottish Second Division with Stenhousemuir, he will be remembered for sparking one of the oddest Cup sagas in recent memory.
Stenny were one minute away from going out of the Scottish Cup when they hosted South of Scotland League side Threave Rovers in a third-round tie on November 20. Then Williams scrambled in a late goal to force a 2-2 draw and the fun began. The replay at Threave's Meadow Park was called off no fewer than 15 times as winter bit deep in south-west Scotland. For more than a month, the pitch was frozen. When a thaw came, it was waterlogged. At one stage, it looked as if the game might challenge the all-time postponements record, set in 1979 when Inverness Thistle's Scottish Cup tie against Falkirk was called off 29 times.
But on Wednesday, January 12, a full 53 days after their first meeting, Threave and Stenhousemuir finally replayed. And by that time, the game had a significant edge to it, because Rovers player-coach Davie Irons had defected to become Stenny's manager. At 49, Irons was the oldest man ever to play in the Scottish Cup when he figured for Threave in the first game at Ochilview. A career which began at Queen of the South in 1979 saw him win promotion to the Scottish Premier League with Dunfermline, Partick Thistle and St Johnstone during the 1980s and 1990s, and he was still turning out in midfield for Gretna in the Third Division a couple of months short of his 44th birthday.
It was at Gretna that Irons went through his most significant and difficult period in management, overseeing their promotion to the SPL in 2007 after Rowan Alexander was forced to step aside, then resigning as the club began to disintegrate, their funding cut off with benefactor Brooks Mileson's health failing.
After Greenock Morton sacked him in September 2009, Irons may have been marking time in non-League football (with a brief spell as an assistant at Partick) while waiting for another manager's job. But the manner of his departure from Threave at the end of December left such a nasty taste that they reported Stenhousemuir to the Scottish FA. Rovers claimed they still held Irons's playing registration, and that Stenny therefore should have obtained their permission to speak to him. Martin McNairney, Stenhousemuir's chairman, denied any wrongdoing.
Threave let down by Irons departure screamed the back-page headline of the Galloway News. Their manager, David McVittie, told how he felt betrayed, having discussed tactics for the replay with Irons and let him take training sessions. "I'm sure the fans will give him a hostile reception," McVittie told the Daily Record. As it turned out, the hostile reception for Irons was most noticeable in Threave's match programme. Editor Bobby McCleary didn't hold back, writing: "If ever Threave Rovers FC needed any motivation to win tonight's match, a photograph of the Stenhousemuir manager pinned to the home dressing room wall would give David McVittie his easiest ever team-talk. I won't even name him."
Meadow Park, though, is too homely a place for a crowd to maintain that level of ire. No football venue featuring a groundsman's shed half-a-dozen yards from one of the corner flags could ever be a cauldron of hate, and Threave's fans left Irons to concentrate on plotting from the touchline. Perhaps his inside knowledge of the Rovers set-up was an advantage, though, as they won the replay comfortably. Ross Clark scored two identical free-kicks before half-time to put Stenhousemuir in control. Andrew Donley headed Threave back into contention after the interval, but Williams then scored twice, effectively finishing what he had started seven-and-a-half weeks earlier. Captain Jordan Smith rounded off a 5-1 Stenhousemuir victory.
"I'd like to think I would get an OK welcome here, because over the years, I've done a lot for Threave," Irons said while munching on a post-match banana and contemplating a fourth-round tie against Stranraer, which Stenny would lose, again after a replay. "I brought Gretna and Morton to Threave for pre-season games when I managed those clubs, and I've played here. And I'd like to think they'd look beyond the fact that I left for a club who are playing them in a Cup competition." McVittie suggested it would take longer for him to forget the episode. Asked how his relationship with Irons was, the Threave manager kept his answer short. "So-so," he replied.
From WSC 289 March 2011