EDINBURGH'S OTHER DERBY

EDINBURGH'S OTHER DERBY

The Playhouse Theatre stands pertly next to the bulgingly prominent Omni Vue cinema complex within the cultural and commercial hubbub of Edinburgh’s New Town. The two beacons of entertainment dominate the top of Leith Walk; the longest street in Scotland. The street may find pride in length, but essentially traversing it feels like a slow, sloping descent towards madness, or Tesco. On Sunday April 12th, much of this part of the city would be decked out in green or maroon as Hibernian met their great rivals Heart of Midlothian for the final time this season.

Venturing away from this milieu and off east down London Road, you will end up at Meadowbank Sports Centre. This is a half-hour walk from the centre of town, offering ample distance to avoid any startlingly overt juxtapositions, for as jovial as Edinburgh’s city centre can be, this is a place strictly reserved for hard work. This is where Chris Hoy began track cycling and countless boxers started slinging leathered fists.

Here on Saturday afternoon; the day before Hibs got one last chance to deny Hearts the glee of unceremoniously fucking their hopes and dreams for a second consecutive season, Edinburgh City played host to Spartans. This is a local derby, but it’s not the local derby. As such its taking place was lost on the majority of the local populace, but not me.

Spartans are on the back of an extended Scottish Cup run in which they beat professional opposition for the first time. This drew my attention and, while watching highlights of their win over Greenock Morton, I noticed a certain William Bremner. No, not the former Leeds captain, but my former university pal. It turns out that, despite what his Facebook page had suggested, he hasn’t moved permanently to Ibiza and instead scores important goals in illustrious competitions.

City, meanwhile, have risen to the top of the Scottish Lowland League and were recently pronounced champions, earning them the right to play-off for a spot in Scottish football’s fourth tier next season. It’s potentially groundbreaking stuff. More importantly, one of their players works at the gym my mate goes to. As much as Hibs versus Hearts may attract, I was compelled to attend City versus Spartans.

Turning up at Meadowbank I skipped the waiting around and took my place in the stand. I didn’t forget to make that plural; Meadowbank only has the one. Built in 1970 for the Commonwealth Games, City moved in here upon the death knell of Meadowbank Thistle; soon to be Livingston, in 1995. Less than 10 years prior to Thistle’s unpopular name change and relocation, they had come close to a second consecutive promotion that would have ushered them into the Scottish Premier League, where they would have rubbed shoulders with the twin Glaswegian behemoths; Celtic and Rangers, but were denied due to the restructuring of the division. From there the club gradually descended into a perilous financial state.

The last time I was in this stand I was running up and down it, sweating buckets, panting and questioning my sanity as part of a dogged pursuit to personally acquaint myself with what is known as the sweet science. Ultimately I realised that partaking in pugilism was not for me; it’s much nicer to sit down and watch some football.

It turns out that you shouldn’t be so eager to sit when it’s this cold, though. By half-time I would decide to have a walk about not to explore the sights, but to reassure myself that my arse, legs and feet were in fact still connected to my upper body. The stand offers little protection; allowing the atmosphere to drift out and the baying wind drift in, slapping me in the face like a lover scorned.

The regulars know the nooks and crannies of this place and have come far better prepared for the chill. While I huddle myself up in my jacket, hands in pockets, I watch enviously as they arrive in their hats and gloves, cradling warm brews and joking about the temperature. “Will it be warmer over there?” one rhetorically asks another before letting out a wheezing laugh.

By five minutes to three, both teams had finished warming up and faced the long walk back to the changing rooms. There was a solemn air as the players made their way off the pitch, over the running track and out of sight with nothing but the sound of their studs to fill the air. Watching them disperse so quietly I almost wondered if I’d ever see them again. My doubt was disproved as Spartans re-appeared, emerging to form two symmetrical lines. They were giving City a guard of honour, something Hibs would refuse Hearts a day later.

Upon the commencement of the game I realised it had been months since my last live match. I had gotten used to watching football from the realms of Serie A and La Liga, gazing at all their tactical innovation and technical wizardry from the comfort of my TV. I found myself whimsically comparing standards and hated myself for it. Football is football. It must be said, though, that from first impression there is nothing ‘false’ about the number nines in the Lowlands.

Spartans, playing in their blue away kit, had the better of the early proceedings in spite of the wind blowing directly into them. City initially struggled to get going due to the weather, with several of their long diagonals sailing harmlessly out of play. Eventually the hosts assumed a stronger grip on the game, however. Their lively forward Ortega Deniran confirmed the champions’ ascendancy, hanging in the air to head home a well-placed cross.

Deniran has had a strange career, travelling much of the globe on a path befitting an international journeyman. In the early to mid-naughties he spent time with Lagartos de Tabasco in Mexico, which was followed up by a spell in Guatemala with Club Deportivo Suchitepequez. He left Latin America for China in early 2007 but within months found himself in Bulgaria with Spartak Varna. He was on the move quickly again, making his way to the capital of Sofia, where he would sign for Slavia. He later spent time on loan at city rivals Levski before moving to Armenia with Banants but, by the summer of 2012, he was back in his home country of Nigeria with Dolphins FC, around 200 kilometres southeast of Warri, where he was born.

This is not Deniran’s first time in Edinburgh, either. In 2011 Jim Jeffries; then Hearts manager, ran the rule over him as a trialist. He was never signed, but found himself back in Scotland’s capital, with City, in 2014. After a few misplaced touches early on it soon became evident that he had played at a higher level; his movement and ball control making him extremely difficult for Spartans’ defence to handle.

The opening goal acted as a call to action for City, who so nearly put themselves out of sight in the proceeding quarter hour. They hit the post twice; once after a flowing passing move, once after a long, floated ball. Unlucky not to have trebled their advantage, they at least doubled it before half-time.

A late challenge from a Spartans forward; a striker’s tackle in every sense of the word, produced a penalty for City. Up stepped Ross Allum, City’s top scorer. Allum hadn’t hit the net for a while, something affirmed by the portentous comments of one fan sitting two rows in front of me. “The boy hasn’t scored for six weeks. If he misses this…”. Allum ignored the vague speculation, lashing home with abandon to collect his 22nd goal of the season.

The wind showed no signs of abating in the second-half. On instances when the ball was sent into the air its course was entirely unpredictable; even those sitting well adjacent of the pitch behind the protective glass windows of the sports centre café had fear in their eyes.

Errol ‘The Peril’ Douglas hit the post for Spartans as they briefly threatened to get back into the match, but soon they were at a further disadvantage. Aggrieved by set piece decisions going against him on two consecutive occasions, Spartans’ Alan Brown howled with laughter at the linesman’s decision making, slamming the ball to the ground. The reaction earned him a second yellow card for dissent and he made the long, quiet walk over the running track.

From there the game became fairly one-sided as City dominated possession, working some nice chances and passing up further opportunities to add to their lead. The two teams seemed accepting of the scoreline, as did the respective fans; content to watch attentively amongst each other in spite of their differing ideal outcomes. The support was clear and there was no lack of clarity in showing it, but there also existed a relative peacefulness I had not yet experienced at a football match, certainly not at a derby. The calm yet competitive atmosphere was perhaps due to the fact that both clubs, while lingering in the shadows of their more iconic neighbours, have had categorically positive seasons.

City applied for Scottish Football League membership in 2002 when Airdrieonians went bankrupt, but were pipped by Gretna. They repeated the process again six years later, with Spartans joined them as Gretna went under, only for Annan Athletic to be given the spot. Both clubs have since moved on, undeterred by the rejections and buoyed by the light offered of promotion with the re-structuring of Scottish football in recent times.

As this season’s Lowland League victors, City are poised for a play-off with Highland League champions Brora Rangers. The winner there will face Montrose; Scottish League Two’s bottom-placed team, for a place in the Scottish Professional Football League in the 2015/16 season. And while Spartans’ cup form hasn’t manifested itself in the league this season, they are traditionally one of the strongest teams in the Lowlands; in 2010 they even won a quadruple of the regional league and three cups. There is plenty of reason for optimism.

Shuffling toward the exit at the final whistle, I saw an older fan wearing a City hat turn in the direction of the youngsters behind him and say, “Win or lose, I’ll see you next week.” I felt as if the moment had been planted into the setting, to the point where I expressed uncertainty of including it in this piece. The cynical part of me wants to think he had seen my note-taking at half-time; that surely such typical statements could not just coincide with me having been drawn here to this match, and these teams. Such cynicism was borne of my being self-conscious in strange surroundings; the probable reality is pleasantly reassuring. He didn’t notice me, and he wouldn’t recognise me if he saw me again. He was merely watching his team with fellow supporters, enthusiastic about the prospects that lay ahead, but not about to let his support be defined by them.

The match, along with that moment, gave me a warm feeling of vindication regarding my decision to turn up on the day, but by the following afternoon normality had resumed. I sat in front of my laptop and watched Hearts and Hibs duke out their last derby of the season. It was feisty and frenetic with a tinge of vitriol, and it felt a world apart from what I had already experienced that weekend. Hibs salvaged some glory with a 2-0 win; Hearts will be unencumbered by the result having already sewn up the Championship. The big two have had their successes but, for one day at least, my attention was grabbed by the lesser known.

Blair is @TheBlairNewman

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