Small may not be all that beautiful in Scottish football, but it is no less intense. Geoff Leonard investigates the neglected passions of Dumfries and Galloway
Inter-city rivalries sound like fun, where the proximity of large conurbations lends an edge to clashes between clubs such as Newcastle and Sunderland. City ones look even better – Dundee’s clubs divided by a street, Liverpool’s by a park and Glasgow’s by centuries of intolerance.
However, derbies can also exist outside these models and in south-west Scotland there is a thriving example. While the Highlands are revered for their scenery and whisky and the south east is famed for rugby and dubious knitwear, the region of Dumfries and Galloway is largely neglected by Scotland’s city dwellers. The M74 motorway sweeps down its edge and un- less you are catching a ferry to Northern Ireland, or are a Wickerman fan on a pilgrimage, you’re unlikely to head west. It’s against this rural backdrop that we find two senior football teams: Stranraer’s prosaically named outfit and the more romantic-sounding Queen of the South, from Dumfries.
Stranraer is much the smaller of the two towns and in some ways it’s remarkable that it has a credible team at all. The town has a population of barely 11,000, yet has sustained a football club since 1870. Admittedly, Stranraer FC had to wait until 1955 before they were allowed to join the Scottish League, and it took a while thereafter for them to make much impression. But working-class Stranraer is a football town, and in the last decade they’ve enjoyed their best times. Traditionally one of the very least successful clubs in Scotland, they became an established Second Division side in the Nineties. In fact, they have even had a couple of brief shots at the First and they lifted the Challenge Cup (for those outside the Premier) in 1996. This is a club doing some serious punching above its weight.
Here in Dumfries, a town of almost 40,000 souls, and with a more populous surrounding area, we have to content ourselves with a suitably scaled down version of “sleeping giant” status. Having enjoyed prolonged spells in the top flight in the Thirties and the Fifties (occasionally attracting crowds of over 20,000), Queens have now underachieved for a long time. To be locked in the Second Division – a league which usually replaces 40 per cent of its teams annually – for over a decade can safely be regarded as some sort of stagnation.
The happy upshot, however, is that Queens and Stranraer now inhabit the same footballing universe, an essential ingredient in any derby. Otherwise, Manchester United fans would hanker after a crack at Bury. The other, more obvious part of the equation – geographical proximity – is less evident.
Seventy-five miles divide the towns and they are not even each other’s closest neighbours. Ayr is only 50 miles from Stranraer, but for their fans a derby means Kilmarnock. Even if Queens ignore Carlisle for obvious reasons, they can still find Hamilton within 60 miles or so. Again though, Accies are surrounded by clubs in central Scotland’s sprawl and have no need to look south. Stranraer and QoS are rivals then, partly because nobody else wants them and everyone needs somebody to loathe.
But there’s more to it than this. Both towns fall within the same local authority and the Scottish media, when feigning an interest, always refer to the fixture as a local derby. Similarly, the teams are always paired by the Scottish League on the traditional New Year derby day.
Most significantly of all though, the fans of both Stranraer and Queens regard each other as natural rivals. There is resentment in Stranraer towards the larger, more prosperous regional capital to the east, while many Queens fans find Stranraer’s recent footballing supremacy as incomprehensible as the accents of the locals. Message boards on various websites would leave no casual visitor in any doubt as to where mutual enmities lie. Both clubs get better crowds for the derbies too. Queens, in fact, got their best league gate in 15 years (3,083) when the pair met last October.
Another factor in Scotland, of course, is that we tend to play each other every couple of months. The system whereby teams clash four times a season was introduced to the Premier in the Seventies in order to provide more of those delightful Old Firm games; a case surely of contempt breeding familiarity. It’s since filtered through to the other leagues so there is now no shortage of trips along the A75 for both sets of fans. Whether this bolsters or diminishes our version of the derby though is certainly debatable.
With this many matches, a few inevitably stand out. Queens’ 11-1 Cup victory in 1932 sounds pretty memorable, and the New Year game of 1983 yielded nine goals, virtually all of which, if memory serves, were absolute gems. Controversy has also played a welcome part. Recent examples would include the game where Queens defender George Rowe stole the points and sealed his hat-trick with a punch visible from the moon. There was also the 3-3 clash in 1994, when a Stranraer forward earned a late equalising penalty with a dive more ostentatious than any Klinsmann post-goal parody.
It’s difficult to tell at which point between the towns partisanship for one team switches towards the other, but it’s fair to say that support in the region is fairly equally divided between the two clubs. Sadly though, the clubs in question come from Glasgow, while supporters of the local sides are regarded by most local residents as lovably or laughably eccentric. That QoS have more such people has been of little recent help on the pitch.
An unorthodox rivalry like ours does have its advantages, however. For instance, nobody suggests mergers or ambitious groundsharing plans at a midway point like the village of Gatehouse of Fleet. No, they just suggest killing us off, as we, along with most of the others, somehow continue to hold Celtic and Rangers back in Europe. Significant and valuable as the south west derby is, though, I’m afraid we can’t claim the credit for this. Pity.
From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month