Thursday 26 July 2018

Border Boys

Anyone and everyone is welcome at Galabank, from the man who's travelled up from London for his first experience of football in these parts, to the group of West Brom fans who looking for a second team to follow closed their eyes, put a pin on a map, and ended up here. Then there's me, this my also my first visit and I've travelled from Newcastle to be here.

I'm here at a stadium where some ten years ago 22 men took the field in what was a historical moment for the team plays here, it's loyal supporters, and indeed the small borders town in which they are based. The town is Annan in Dumfries and Galloway, south west Scotland, and the club in question is Annan Athletic of Scottish League Two.

A decade ago at the start of the 2008-09 season having just made their Scottish Football League debut with a 4-1 win away at Cowdenbeath, Annan Athletic played their first ever home game inside the top four divisions of Scottish football, with 1152 spectators in attendance to witness this historic occasion. It was 9th August 2008, a rainy Saturday afternoon, and despite visitors Stenhousemuir taking the lead on four minutes, the hosts playing in their traditional black and gold colours were level tso minutes later when Mike Jack slid the ball home. Having from the penalty spot scored the clubs first ever league goal at Cowdenbeath a week earlier, Jack had now scored the clubs first ever home league goal. Stenhousemuir had a man sent off on the hour mark but Annan failed to to take advantage and their first ever home game in the league ended in a draw.

As part of it's match report from that famous day, the Daily Record wrote of a notice on the wall in the ground's social club stating there would be an open meeting held to try and form a supporters club, and that 'depending on numbers' a bus would run for fans to attend the clubs next away game at Montrose. Annan Athletic had finally arrived. 

Yes Annan had arrived, but some eight years after originally applying to to join the league. Although in recent years there has been a play-off system in place involving the bottom team in League Two, not so long ago the league was a closed shop, and very rarely were new clubs admitted. In 2000 a league expansion saw Elgin City and Peterhead join the league with Annan's application unsuccessful, but eight years later and it was however a different story. The financial demise of near neighbours Gretna saw a place open up for admission into the league and this time out of five teams who applied it was Annan who were the successful applicants. 66 years after they were originally formed, Annan Athletic had for the very first time become members of the Scottish Football League.

Galabank is a modest stadium, a modern looking all seater stand runs along one side of the pitch with open air terracing for the away fbehind one goal ans to its left, whilst to its right home fans have been able to stand undercover behind the other goal since 2013 when new covered terracing was constructed. The pitch slopes down towards the covered end, and this end has a clubhouse situated behind it. On a matchdays you will find the clubhouse a hive of activity with visiting officials being offered a warm welcome inside, and home supporters sat watching the lunchtime kick-offs on the television as they enjoy a few pre match pints. Once they've finished their pints, left the delightful clubhouse building and headed inside the ground for kick-off, those supporters can soak up their alcohol with a bite to eat, choosing from a selection of food including what I found to be one of the best meat pies I've ever tasted. 

The stadium itself has been the home of Annan Athletic since 1953 when the club were a Scottish team playing in an English league. However in 1977 Annan left the Carlisle and District League and rejoined the Scottish Football Association where pre 2008 they spent their days in the South of Scotland League and then later the East of Scotland League. 
Annan's first two seasons in the league's bottom division League Two saw seventh and eighth placed finishes, with the latter also including a Scottish Challenge Cup semi final, whilst their third season saw the clubs first real promotion push.

22 May 2011 was a key date in the history of Annan Athletic as they hosted Albion Rovers in the second leg of a promotion play-off final. A fourth placed finish had seen Annan face up against second bottom in League One Alloa Athletic in a the semi final and the men in Black and Gold won 2-1 on aggregate to set up the tie with Albion. Having won the first leg 3-1, Albion went into the second game clear favourites and went 1-0 up after 24 minutes.  But Annan would not go down without a fight. The 1,165 strong crowd that afternoon saw Bryan Gilfillan find the net twice in the second half and the home fans started to believe. Annan pressed forward looking for a winner but this however was to no avail and dreams of promotion were dashed.

Promotion has yet to follow with second and third placed finishes in 2013-14 and 2016-17 respectively both ending with play-off semi final defeats. 2012-13 however brought another historic moment in the clubs history, a 2-1 victory over the mighty Glasgow Rangers.

One half of the big Old Firm rivalry that is made up of the two most successful clubs in the history of Scottish football, Rangers had reformed after financial meltdown and were forced to start their new life in the bottom division of the Scottish leagues. That season Rangers won the title with a 24 point margin, but they didn't have it all their own way as events on 19th Mach 2013 showed. Undefeated at home in league up to that point, Rangers got the shock of their lives after a visit from those men in Black and Gold, in what was probably the biggest moment in Annan Athletic's 70 odd year history.

Crowds of 2,517 and 2,441 had seen Rangers twice visit Galabank with the first game ending 0-0 and the second a 3-1 win for the visitors. A 3-0 away defeat for Annan against the Gers was sandwiched in between, before a fourth game between the two sides and that historic afternoon at Rangers' Ibrox Park home.

Annan had been struggling in the league, new manager Jim Chapman had failed to win any of his first seven games in charge, and a visit to Ibrox for match number 8 wasn't expect to bring anything other than defeat. All assumptions were thrown out the window however when Annan found themselves 2-0 ahead with two goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half. An Ally Love backheel in 47 minutes was followed by a David Hopkirk header 8 minutes later, and for the visiting supporters this was what you call 'dreamland'. Yes Rangers quickly pulled one back, but it mattered not as Annan held on for a famous famous victory. 

Although Annan have failed to advance from League Two in the ten years since they joined the division, they are now a well established name in the Scottish leagues. Taking us up to the present and the 2017-18 season has seen Annan finish in seventh place meaning they will remain in League Two for another season at least. When I visited them towards the end of the season they were playing a Stirling Albion side who despite sitting in the play-off positions were enduring a rotten run of form. Annan ran out 3-1 winners, and the home fans amongst the above average 507 crowd seemed to rather enjoy themselves on what was a warm sunny afternoon, making lots of noise, particularly when the goals went in. Despite the noise, the fans did however fail to drown out what is one of the loudest PA system I've ever came across, with defeaning music accompanying every goal.

That there ends my introduction to Annan Athletic, and I leave you with some final thoughts. A neat little stadium and welcoming hospitality awaits anyone who ventures over to Galabank, and hopefully this family friendly club will continue to thrive both on and off the pitch so that their stay in the Scottish leagues can last well into the future years ahead.

A key border town in the wars between England and Scotland during the middle ages, Annan Castle was home to the Bruce family who were the Lords of Annandale, and took a very active role in Scottish independence (all this obviously many many centuries before Sturgeon and co tried to secede from the United Kingdom). Since the Acts of Union in 1707 however, Annan and its inhabitants have lived a much more peaceful life, and Annan with a River of the same name running through it for many years became known for it's ship building. Nowadays the town has a population of about 8,500.

Popular attractions within the town include Annandale Distillery where you can take a tour of the site and take part in whisky tasting, the Victorian Town Hall which was built in 1878 and sits at one end of the high street, and also Bridge House which is considered one of the finest Georgian Town Houses in Scotland. Bridge House was used by Annan Academy between 1802-1820  where writer Thomas Carlyle was a notable pupil and there are currently plans to restore the Grade A listed building and open a museum there. Although no longer in existence, the site of what was Annan Castle forms part of Galabank Park that sits by the river, whilst opposite the entrance to the park a plaque marks the cottage where the renowned artist and painter to Queen Victoria William Ewart Lockhart was brought up.


Getting to the Stadium
The ground is barely a 10 minute walk north from the town's main train station which is on the Carlisle to Dumfries line.

Eating and Drinking
There is a clubhouse at the ground, but that aside you'll need to walk into the town centre which is just under a 10 minute walk away. On the High Street there is the excellent Blue Bell Inn pub whilst the nearby Cafe Royal is popular for food.

Buying a ticket
Matches generally don't sell out and you can pay on the turnstiles.
Admission prices for season 2017/18 were as follows.
Adults: £12
Adult & Child (under 12 years): £12 (Accompanied Children U12 free entry)
Concessions: £6 (Concession entry covers Senior Citizens (65+), Juniors under 16

As featured in July 2018 issue of Football Weekends magazine

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