Monday 30 October 2023

Football by the Railway Lines as Dunbar United Aim to Go Full Steam Ahead in the Scottish Cup

I am trying to think if there are any football grounds closer to a railway line than Dunbar United’s New Countess Park? Okay, off the top of my head, both Hartlepool United and Raith Rovers have railway lines behind one of their stands, but unlike at Dunbar, the trains are not visible from the pitch.

Of course, there is also that ground in Slovakia, now famous thanks to videos on social media, where a one-track train line with occasional steam train runs in front of a seated stand set into the hillside. But in the UK the best alternative I can come up with from my knowledge and experience is Birtley Town. 

At Birtley whose ground, like Dunbar’s, sits alongside the East Coast Mainline, trains are also fully visible behind one side of the pitch. Unfortunately, when I visited the Northern League Division One side last season there were engineering works on that part of the line with no trains passing on that particular afternoon. No such problems at Dunbar when I visit, however.

New Countess Park must surely be a trainspotters paradise as sitting next to the main east coast line between London and Edinburgh it offers a perfect view of all passing trains on what is one the busiest lines in the whole of the UK. If you also love semi-pro football then welcome to heaven my friend the main course is usually at 3pm every other Saturday with occasional midweek sittings.

Of course, New Countess Park and Dunbar United are not just some novelty item or something reserved only for football fans who love trains. The sixth tier Scottish side are a thriving club moving in an upward trajectory with their home ground, complete with a 200 seat grandstand and an extremely spacious clubhouse, more than befitting of a team at this level. 

Based in the quaint seaside fishing town of the same name that sits 30 miles east of Edinburgh, on the day of my visit Dunbar sit second top of the East of Scotland League Premier Division, having been promoted back at the first attempt last season. Not only that but they are preparing for a Scottish Cup second round tie with League Two side East Fife that very afternoon.

Founded in 1925, the club spent most of their history playing what in Scotland is known as junior football which is confusingly played by adults. Ran by the Scottish Junior FA and a kind of equivalent to non-league football in England, the club left junior football in 2018 and joined the East of Scotland Football League. That league traditionally was always one of only a few non-junior essentially senior leagues outside of the main four division SPFL, the others being the Highland League, South of Scotland League, and the more recently introduced Lowland League. 

Since then major restructuring has seen junior and senior football linked and somewhat mixed with full promotion and relegation and a fully fledged pyramid structure similar to that across the border. This has also seen many junior clubs become Scottish FA members and therefore eligible for the Scottish Cup each season including Dunbar.

According to their matchday programme, Dunbar first entered the Scottish Cup in the 2021-22 campaign. Each of those two cup appearances before this season have seen them reach the second round on both occasions but no further. Competing in a preliminary round this has seen two ties won before in 2001 losing to Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale who sat in the same division as them and last year to the University of Stirling who, at the time, sat two levels above them. Today I am here as they hope to go one better having already beaten Vale of Leithen and Edinburgh University, the latter actually one level higher than them in the pyramid. If they reach round three they will be joined by clubs from League One and the Championship with Premiership clubs entering in the fourth round.

I arrive in Dunbar about three hours before kick-off on the big day. The many puddles about suggest a plethora of rain having fallen in recent days so the fact that Dunbar United social media are assuring spectators the game is most definitely on is a huge testament to the hard work the club’s ground staff must have put into making sure the pitch is playable.

Turning up early gives me a chance to walk around the town which, in my opinion, has an almost Nordic feel to it. Some of the shops on the main high street briefly entertain me before I find myself wandering past the fishing boats of the harbour and admiring the castle ruins perched to one side above them - Dunbar Castle was apparently once one of the strongest fortresses in Scotland much like the town’s football stadium has been a fortress for its resident club so far this season.

Having seen the delights of the town I head off to the football ground which is about a ten minute walk from the train station, if that, with the station itself being barely a few minutes walk from the top end of the high street. 

I appear outside the ground at 1:50 only to be told by the man at the turnstile that he’s not allowed to let anybody in until 2pm although he does sell me a £2.50 programme to read whilst I wait. The glossy programme has limited content but the text that it does have is nonetheless informative and it is a more than acceptable offering for a club like Dunbar if a little pricey compared to similar efforts elsewhere. 

A group of East Fife supporters soon join me and they are the first I spot from what is a healthy away contingent. That away following includes a small group of young lads that have an impressive looking rather loud drum with them which is more than can be said for home fans whose own equipment is rather poor. All the small group of Dunbar ‘ultras’, if you can call them that, have to reply with is a battered upside down bucket covered in gaffa tape and a couple of pipes of some sort to bang it with. This makes a rather tame sound in comparison. Maybe I should have started a whip round to get them a proper instrument?

Aside from the lone seated stand there are various benches situated around the pitch for spectators to sit on. The clubhouse bar, which judging by the rugby pictures adorning the walls is shared with the rugby club whose pitch sits next door, can only be accessed by leaving the ground but is nevertheless worth a visit. You do not need to leave the ground, however, for food or soft drink refreshments whilst along from said refreshments, before you arrive at the seated stand, there is a stall selling club merchandise. 

Obviously, you cannot visit Scotland without tasting some of its rather interesting cuisine and having experienced my first macaroni pie several years earlier I decide to see how Dunbar’s version stands up and as far as these things go I would say it is rather decent. I do not know what the steak pies are like but the fact that I hear several people throughout the first half complain that they have sold out suggests they might have been worth a try.

The match itself kicks off with the constant din of the aforementioned drummers only interrupted by the passing trains of which there are numerous. The standard of play is a little underwhelming but the game is nonetheless enjoyable to watch particularly as the spectacle progresses. The hosts find themselves 1-0 up at the break thanks to a penalty right on half time. This brings plenty of noise from the 794 strong crowd albeit those around me are fairly silent as I seem to be standing amongst the East Fife supporters.

In the second-half more trains pass and the drummers don’t stop (not as loud as the Dortmund drummer sat in the away end above me at Newcastle several nights earlier, mind) whilst East Fife begin to get desperate for an equaliser but Dunbar soak up the pressure. Dunbar then have several late chances of their own albeit some of them rather poor with one break forward looking like it could prove to be deadly only for the player to fall over the ball. They do force a few corners, however, and although they don’t score they still have that 1-0 lead which proves invaluable and the match ends in a historic victory for the hosts who march on to the third round for the very first time. 

More trains whizz by and eventually the cheers and applause die down and I head out of the ground. Back to the station and back home for me. 

There is a charming little pub next to the station if you ever have a bit of a wait for your train and the signer playing acoustic guitar as I walk past provides a lively atmosphere for any supporter who might want to continue their celebrations. There are several more pubs in the town centre as well as the stadium clubhouse, of course, and they won’t be short of locals wanting to celebrate with a pint or two this evening. But the fans of Dunbar United have every reason to celebrate! 

I end my day in less euphoric circumstances, however, on an overcrowded train trying, and at times failing, to get a signal so I can listen to commentary of my beloved Newcastle United away at Wolves.

I want to, however, end this piece with something more appropriate for the jovial day I have just had than poor radio reception and a busy railway network so I will leave you with the following. Upon leaving the ground I came across a part open window from which inside was the home dressing room. Stood outside I managed to hear the players in full party mode belting out I’m Feeling It (In the Air) a popular hit sung in recent times by supporters of Glasgow Rangers when they win. The players were clearly ecstatic, much like the club’s supporters, and isn’t it wonderful to see how much football means even at this low level? Football is about far more than just prima donna millionaires and if you want to experience that in its truest form then come to Dunbar - and don’t forget about all those trains many many trains!