Ten years ago Terry Christie led a club with a century of underachievement behind them to a perfect day in Perth, beating Dundee United to delight Scott Harvie
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, Armstrong, Haddow and Sprott.” While this version of the traditional rhyme may not have much meaning outside Ochilview Park, many Stenhousemuir fans would want to rewind repeat Guy Fawkes Day 1995 as their version of Groundhog Day. Until then Stenny had recorded 111 years of footballing existence without a national trophy to their name. Given their decline so far in the 21st century, you can safely speculate that even the youngest babe in arms at Ochilview won’t be around to celebrate their next such success.
Yet the mid-1990s saw one unlikely triumph after another, then Celtic boss Tommy Burns even commenting after a Scottish Cup draw: “At least we avoided Stenhousemuir.” These were heady days, when the club knocked loudly on the door of promotion to the First Division, an unheard of ambition. A succession of Premier League clubs – St Johnstone, Aberdeen and, especially sweet, local would-be “giants”, Falkirk – were left licking their wounds after being dumped out of the Scottish Cup by the team from the toffee factory town. Hearts were taken to a penalty shoot-out. However, it was the capture of the Challenge Cup that marked the pinnacle of the Muir’s achievements.
Without doubt, the catalyst for Stenny’s sudden upturn in fortunes was the appointment of Terry Christie, a former Meadowbank Thistle manager, as boss in 1992. A decade earlier, Christie had arrived at Thistle, previously renowned as a joke side, then led them to two promotions, a League Cup semi-final against Rangers and second place in Division One (in the first season when there was no reward in terms of promotion or a play-off place). Unfortunately, business interests became involved. Ambitious plans alienated fans and led to Christie’s messy departure.
On taking over at Stenhousemuir it was clear Terry had a point to prove and, during his first couple of seasons, several old lags from Meadowbank were recruited. By day, Christie was a grammar school headmaster and displayed a preference for players with solid occupations. Goalkeeper Jim McQueen was a fireman, centre-back Pete Godfrey a prison officer and winger Adrian Sprott reported for duty each day with Lothian and Borders police (albeit in the lost property department). Combined with fortyish veterans such as captain Graeme Armstrong and former Chelsea midfielder Eamonn Bannon, Stenny were the stuffiest of outfits, grinding down their opponents through organisation, athleticism and discipline.
The Mighty Muir side of 1995, however, also contained a faction of unChristie-esque players. Towering striker Miller Mathieson and gap-toothed midfielder Lloyd Haddow, survivors from the previous regime, were living on borrowed time with Terry. Indeed Haddow later complained that he was ostracised and shunted out for hiding his manager’s socks. However, the creative tension between the two sets of players seemed to work in Stenny’s favour, finding just the right mix in their Challenge Cup campaign.
Conceived five years earlier as the Centenary Cup with a prize resembling a sherry decanter, it was a mystery why the competition survived after B&Q ended their sponsorship. Although restricted to non-Premier sides, the 1995-96 Challenge Cup did contain some big names, specifically Dundee and Dundee United. It was anticipated that these two would deliver a derby showpiece final, enticing new sponsors.
These hopes were extinguished at the quarter-final stage when Stenny travelled to face Dundee and romped home 3-1 with Miller Mathieson striking a wonder goal after a 70-yard run. While United moved fairly smoothly to the final, the Muir had to hang on grimly against Stirling Albion to claim the other spot.
In the run-up to the final, mention was made of how 18 months before Dundee United had celebrated a long-awaited Scottish Cup win, beating treble-chasing Rangers. Being stick-on favourites to beat Muir on a November’s day in Perth offered little compensation for their intervening slide and, as soon as the game began, you knew that United were highly uncomfortable in this environment. Play followed the classic Christie game-plan: messy, mixed-up, bogged down in midfield. The few chances there were fell mainly to Stenny, while any attempt by United’s play-makers to get things going ran aground against their opponents’ defensive wall. As it became clear there was to be no ritual slaughter, the Stenny fans became ever more exuberant. United’s frustrations only grew as the 90 minutes plus extra time failed to produce a goal.
Craig Brewster, United’s goalscoring hero from the Rangers final, took the first penalty and missed. Since all else had gone to the Christie script, it was not a surprise when all of Stenny’s kicks were converted. What was surprising, however, was that the decisive kick was entrusted to loose cannon Lloyd Haddow. For now all was forgiven as raucous celebrations began in Stenhousemuir High Street.
The glory of that Bonfire Day couldn’t last. Stenny faded from the promotion race, while United scrambled back to the Premier with a last-minute play-off winner. The anti-Christie players who gave the 1995 side their bite were soon jettisoned, Mathieson in particular being a big loss. As at Meadowbank, expectations of success grew apace. Even in the midst of the celebrations Terry was asked by a prominent Scottish journalist: “How do you top all this?” “I just want to enjoy the moment, don’t ask such daft questions,” Christie replied. I’m sure he knew the answer. Three years later, Stenhousemuir were relegated. Christie left for Alloa. The Muir slid deeper into the mire, going through a string of managers. They are currently rooted in the lower reaches of the Third Division.
Perhaps the saddest feature is that Terry Christie is currently out of football. He was the first choice of most Raith directors to clear up the mess left in the wake of Claude Anelka’s tempestuous spell earlier this season but boardroom politics blocked him. If I was on the committee of a lower-league Scottish club, I would be beating a path to Christie’s door. Putative bids to sign Gazza may generate some short-term media interest, but any club with long-term ambitions would do well to remember November 5, 1995.
From WSC 217 March 2005. What was happening this month