Nestled between the primary school and main street, and overlooking parkland and modern bungalows, “New Central Park”, as its name suggests, is in the middle of the Fife town of Kelty. It’s the home of Kelty Hearts, currently top of the Lowland League, and we’re here today because two of our lads in the Hibernian Development Squad are playing on loan for visitors, Gala Fairydean Rovers.
Until fifty years ago, this village, whose population once reached 9000, was, like its Fife neighbours in Hill of Beath, Lochore, Blairadam, and Cowdenbeath, surrounded by coal mines. The Lindsay and Aitken pits were most closely associated with Kelty, but all of this area, including the lost village of Lassodie, was literally built on coal.
Where they still remain, you can spot the former pit villages: straight streets, an Insititute or Miners’ Welfare building – converted to other uses, a Co-op, a primary school, a few rows of NCB “four in a block” houses, a few pubs, and a couple of churches. Nearby there is usually a cemetery, with at least a clutch of gravestones with the words “Pit disaster”.
In places where the mines survived as late as Thatcher, there are often the signs of “urban renewal” – unexpected areas of green, with thin saplings recently planted, seeming to point to their man made origins. Not far below the grass in these areas you can find the detritus of decades of mining – coal dust, bits of shale and dross, the crumbled brick of an engine house or pit head baths. They have tried to cover up the signs of men’s industrial endeavour, but, as is the case with the folk who live here still, the past is still present, it’s too deeply engrained to vanish completely.
However, woe betide anyone who seeks to sentimentalise coal mining. Above villages like Kelty, like the spoil heaps which used to make the landscape mountainous, the dark clouds of the industry contain words and phrases like “firedamp”, “pneumoconiosis”, “seam collapse”, “Mines Rescue”and “redundancy”. Coal mining was never less than hard and demanding, was often a career choice forced on local men in the absence of any other, and it was dangerous and risk ridden. As an employee you knew it was central to all aspects of life in these villages, so when a pit closed, the implications for individuals and communities was cataclysmic.
Walking up to New Central Park in a chill wind, it’s not difficult to imagine the place football has had in Kelty’s history, despite the current club only dating back to 1975. Everyone knows the history of Scottish football and mining communities – Glenbuck and Bill Shankly, Bellshill and Jock Stein, Jim Baxter at Hill of Beath and the legend of shouting down a mine shaft to find a centre half.
As it was true of footballing legends, it was true of the ordinary miners who worked a hard physical week and then sought release in playing or watching the football. There must have been many a hard battle: man against man replacing man against coal seam, for at least a couple of hours a week in the blessed fresh air.
The sign welcomes us to Kelty Hearts. For we Hibees, there’s a tad too much maroon about the place, but the welcome is warm. The gateman asks my son: “On your own today? We can supply a friend if you like!” It brings a laugh but in a sense it’s true.
There are those who patronise local football teams and their grounds, dropping in to marvel at the quaint ways of the lower leagues, like the aristocracy praising the skills of the village blacksmith. It’s an ironic approach, because, in many ways, these are the arenas which are still most in touch with football in a real sense.
My position is a long way from patronising. In the sixties, I lived in the north of England and first fell in love with “going to the match” by following my local side, Southport FC, in the old Fourth Division. Within an hour of my house, Best, Law and Charlton were plying their trade at Old Trafford and, in the middle of the decade, a silky Everton side were champions of England, but it never occurred to me to be anywhere than at the neat Haig Avenue ground with the other 4000 supporters. I still travel down there often, and still recognise that sense of connection which is just as palpable here at Kelty, as we head for the refreshment stall.
We walk past the dressing rooms and queue for our pies next to the compact social club: “Room for 100”. I’ve noticed we passed a Bayne’s baker’s in the town and I’m not disappointed when one of their excellent steak pies is handed over, in a thoughtfully provided paper bag. The guy next to me in the queue starts chatting. Noticing my jacket he reminisces about Pat Stanton. He’s a Dundee Utd fan himself, but often comes to Kelty. His team are nearby at East End Park today, so he must really enjoy his visits to Central Park.
The ground is tidy. With two new standing enclosures on one side and a small but neat seated enclosure opposite. As we approach it, we see the sign stating it is for season ticket holders and life members, though a £1 transfer seems available. “Just walking past, lads?” a steward enquires, and waves us through.
At the far end we stand behind the goal. The council and club committee have invested effectively in the facilities, the 4G pitch looks in good fettle and there is a buzz around the place. This is the first game as manager for ex Ranger, Barry Ferguson. “Look , Dad, the media are here!” says a young lad passing by, as three cameramen cluster round the dug out to capture Ferguson’s entrance.
The game is not spectacular. Kelty are a big and strong side, well drilled and already looking a good bet for at least the play offs. Gala are not so physical, and their midfield struggle to influence the play, and eventually the Borders outfit lose by two first half goals.
However, there is more to our day out than the quality of football. Applause, individual comments, and the murmur of conversations provide the aural backdrop, rather than terracing chants and insults. You would find it difficult to play or officiate here without knowing exactly what the crowd thought of you – but it’s pretty routine football banter – good humoured and without rancour.
There’s an exit door in the wall near by, and a steady stream of folk entering and leaving. One man comes in carrying a bar stool which he sets up by a barrier to give himself a comfortable vantage point. There’s a guy with two dogs who stands behind the goals and then transfers under cover when the rain starts. The dogs look like season ticket holders – they know their place and look alternatively mildly interested and fascinated by what’s happening on the pitch. At times they turn their back on the game entirely – as all regular match goers feel like doing from time to time. Other dog owners appear and there’s a brief catch up between owners and between dogs.
There are many youngsters here – some fixed on the game, others just pleased to be out and about. One youngster kicks a ball about in a corner of the ground with his dad, others shout encouragement to the team or catch up on school gossip. There is a sense that this is a crowd of people who know each other, families who have maybe connected through generations. The Saturday game is a point of contact. Many of the lads on the pitch are familiar, some local. There’s Stephen Husband in the maroon of Kelty, after a career at Cowdenbeath, Livingston, Hearts, Forfar, Blackpool, Stockport County and Dunfermline.
The position of the ground adds to this sense of connection. Primary school pupils grow up seeing the ground over the wall from their playground, folk hanging out washing in the gardens of the douce bungalows nearby can hear the shouts on match days and on training nights and register “That’s our lads” – whether they follow football or not.
Every week dozens of local boys and girls take part in Kelty Hearts Community initiatives – social involvement that works in both directions.
Put simply, football here is a part of the community, and a vehicle for cohesion, for belonging, and for pride in each others’ achievements. This club deserves success and promotion, but I’d be willing to bet they will not move far from their foundations – however high they rise.
Sadly, the events of the past week have lent an edge to this description of grassroots football. Leicester City’s owner was seeking to re-connect, albeit with a 21st century model, and it was ironic that his death and that of his colleagues came about in such an iconic corporate manner.
The moronic nonsense at Tynecastle, and some of the witless reactions to the events, remind us that there are those in our society who will use football for their own selfish ends. Young men at football matches metaphorically beating their chests in macho posturing suggests a major deficit in their lives, and all of us need to consider that. In addition to that, the almost ritualised blaming of victims for being targeted is, of course, a major part of ongoing problems we have in Scotland.
One disaster in Kelty’s Lindsay pit was caused when an illicitly lit cigarette ignited underground gases – a reminder, perhaps, that young men will always take risks and act inappropriately, but, in a genuinely caring society, perhaps we should be finding ways of safeguarding them, and us, from rash decisions and impulsive actions. Older and wiser heads, parents, teachers or those in authority, have a major responsibility.
I loved our visit to Kelty. It was a reminder that football, at its best, like all sport, is a part of our shared humanity, about coming together to celebrate, interact, and form memories and relationships.
Without that basic humanity, football is pointless.