David Ogilvie’s only regrets about Stirling Albion’s finest hour are that he wasn’t there and that he has never seen the 20th goal. And yes, you read that right
In a year when Liverpool won the European Cup and Scotland’s rugby team won the Grand Slam, and in the month that Bob Geldof went from being a pop singer to the man behind Band Aid, an unremarkable football club also made headlines nationwide.
The biggest win of the 20th century in British senior football was recorded by Stirling Albion, in the first round of the Scottish Cup on December 8, 1984. Non-League Selkirk came from a town more famous for rugby and Scotland legends John Rutherford, Iain Paxton and Iwan Tukalo all played for the local club. Appropriate, then, that the football team should be on the end of a rugby-like result, losing 20-0.
It’s just a shame I wasn’t there. Marooned 40 miles down the road at my grandparents’ house in Edinburgh – as an 11-year-old I had little choice in the family entertainment of a weekend – I had to make do with the vidiprinter. And yes, I am still bitter at missing out.
This, remember, is Stirling Albion. A side who won only three of their first 16 league games in 1984-85 and finished a mere sixth in what was then Scotland’s basement division; a team who have never ventured beyond the Scottish Cup quarter-finals in their entire history and who, on the 17th anniversary of this momentous victory, contrived to lose 1-0 to another non-League team, Gala Fairydean.
But nothing can take away the fact that this remains the biggest win in British football since Preston battered Hyde 26-0 in the 1887-88 FA Cup. We had a scare in 1993-94 when Ross County marched into a 9-0 interval lead against St Cuthberts in another Scottish Cup tie, but they only managed two more in the second half – no staying power.
It’s remarkable that Stirling are the record holders at all. Alex Smith was the man who guided the club into the history books in 1984, but he had already done so in 1981 in less impressive circumstances, when Stirling went 14 successive games without scoring a goal. In 39 Division One matches in 1980‑81 his charges found the net a pitiful 18 times – two fewer than they later clocked up against Selkirk.
Smith was worried before the game, partly because he had overseen a disastrous defeat to non-League Inverness Caley a year earlier and partly because his scout had watched Selkirk stroll into a 3-0 lead in their last match before the cup tie. He left before they shipped five goals in the closing stages.
By a stroke of fortune the BBC covered the occasion as part of a documentary on the 100th Scottish Cup. And fair play to the Beeb, they just missed one of the goals. The 20th was witnessed only by the 371 punters who braved a filthy, freezing winter’s afternoon, as the cameraman was changing the tape.
Two things strike you from the highlights. One is that floodlights back then were rubbish – you can just about make out the players through the gloom – and, second, Selkirk’s offside trap wasn’t exactly an early version of George Graham’s Arsenal archetype.
It was only 5-0 at the interval but, shooting down the precipitous Annfield slope, Albion rattled in goals at the rate of one every three minutes after the break. Chief to profit was winger Davie Thompson with seven, while Willie Irvine bagged five. “I’d have scored a lot more but Davie was a big, greedy bugger and wouldn’t pass,” said Irvine, who went on to play for Hibs. Eight different players got in on the act, among them Keith Walker, later to become a big favourite at Swansea.
Poor Selkirk keeper Richard Taylor. The 23-year-old textile worker had a nightmare. Those who say he kept the score down are being generous. Stirling didn’t miss much and Taylor, who wasn’t the tallest, chucked in a few. But it wasn’t all his fault. The defenders from the Border Amateur League team literally seemed to get stuck in the mud as a bigger, stronger Albion side brushed them off. Stirling manager Smith famously lost count and thought it was “only” 19-0 while the Selkirk bench held up all the substitute boards in a gesture of mock surrender.
Selkirk had arrived on a bus borrowed from the local cricket club, which transported the players and a few supporters, most of them relatives, into the worst afternoon of their sporting lives. Player-boss Jackson Cockburn would have been forgiven for emigrating – and he did, though not until many years later. Now back in Selkirk after a spell working in Qatar, he knows his place in football infamy is assured: “Every year I hope that someone loses 21-0. You can’t take away the fact it was the worst result of the 20th century. I just wish it had never happened.” And no wonder.
Selkirk have been back in the Scottish Cup twice since the disaster of two decades ago, beaten though not embarrassed by Arbroath and Cowdenbeath, but the pain lingers. Plenty has happened to Stirling, too. Albion got as far as round two of that season’s competition and lost 2-1 at Cowdenbeath. Boss Smith left for St Mirren in 1986 and won the Scottish Cup both there and at Aberdeen. He’s just been awarded an MBE – and been sacked by Ross County. Annfield is sorely missed. It was sold for housing in 1992 when the other clubs voted out the plastic pitch, installed in 1987, and the council, who owned the ground, preferred to help build a new venue on the outskirts rather than revert to grass on a lucrative site.
I can see Forthbank across the river from the window of my flat and still go all the time, but it doesn’t inspire quite the same, although it has been witness to stunning wins over Kilmarnock – 6-2 in the League Cup – and Hibs – 2-1 in the Scottish Cup. The best spell in recent years was under ex-Rangers and Norwich striker Kevin Drinkell, who had the team playing fine football in Division One in 1996-97, having overseen a 27-game undefeated sequence en route to the Second Division title. It couldn’t last and Drinkell was sacked. He’s now an agent but still lives here and writes a column for the local paper.
With West Ham legend Ray Stewart in charge the club finished below even hapless East Stirling in the disastrous 2001-02 campaign, but under the stewardship of ex-Hearts and St Johnstone winger Allan Moore they were a respectable fourth in Division Two last term.
With Partick, Gretna, Raith and Morton all in the same league, most of us fans would settle for survival this time round, particularly in light of chairman and benefactor Peter McKenzie’s intention to stand down and the huge debt that burdens the club.
Not everything has changed, though. Dynasty, Ted Rogers’ 3-2-1 and Tarby and Friends were three of the televisual “treats” on offer on December 8, 1984. Saturday night telly was as rotten then as it is now – it’s just that anything seems good when you’re on a post-match 20-0 high. Even if you weren’t there.
From WSC 222 August 2005. What was happening this month