A Once A Year Love with Dunfermline Athletic Football ClubFriday, 30th Jul 2021
Dunfermline fan and writer Robert Westcott recently sent in a fantastic letter which we are sure will resonate with Pars fans ahead of tomorrow`s season kicking off.
A Once A Year Love with Dunfermline Athletic Football Club
In April, 2009, Dunfermline Athletic were comfortably beaten 2-0 by rivals Falkirk in the Scottish Cup semi-final, in front of a sparse Hampden crowd of 17,124 spectators. For most Pars fans, it was a game to quickly evaporate from memory. For me, it was a game I will never forget, for I shall forever be intertwined with this defeat. It was my Dad’s last ever football match.
As a child, I would often feel a sense of embarrassment as my Dad, confident and articulate, would respond to the pointing towards the badge on his football shirt with ‘guess?’ For years I would look sheepishly to the ground as a series of strangers would incorrectly respond with Darlington, Doncaster, Dundee and Dumbarton. Years later, the awkward, shy child had grown into a teacher and a football coach, repeating my Dad’s response. In between these days, I had entered into an everlasting once a year love affair with Dunfermline Athletic Football Club.
The football club did not play a significant part in the relationship between my dad and I. In the twenty-five years that we shared this earth together, we only attended three Pars matches. A combination of shortness of money to travel to Scotland, and choosing to support our local English team led to the Pars mainly existing in the fragments of my imagination.
At the age of seven, names like Leishman, French, Kozma and Westwater were footballing deities, symbols of transcendent greatness within this mystical club with the lengthy name. My Dad, a proud Fife man who was born in Dunfermline in 1954, never ceased his love for his home town team, despite moving to England in the worst possible year, 1966. Subconsciously, this love was passed down to me, although in the embryonic stages of my footballing life it was a curiosity rather than the heartfelt emotion that I held for my own team.
Finally, in 2003, we travelled to Dunfermline together. It was a poignant moment for both of us, a geographical and historical rite of passage, as I wandered the streets of the town my Dad had spent his formative years. The curiosity of my childhood had morphed into a sense of gratitude and respect for a place that had shaped his identity.
A 3-0 victory over Motherwell was the first and only time that my Dad and I saw a match at East End Park together. I wrote to the club, asking for a small message to be placed in the programme about a man who had left the town as a child and who was now coming back. I was surprised and grateful to see the message, as well as the programme editor making a joke about not having to witness the Pars in the 1970s.
A year later, his joyous, childlike glee at Andrius Skerla’s goal in the cup final against Celtic will be a memory to treasure until my last breath. Stuart Dougal’s inability to see Bobo Balde’s handball, coupled with the genius of Henrik Larsson, ensured that the joy was a temporary beauty. We watched subsequent Hampden disappointments to Celtic, before returning for the Falkirk match.
There is a photograph of my Dad that I took before the game, sat there in his retro 1960s Pars top and holding a black and white flat cap with the badge and the name Dunfermline emblazoned across the itchy material. Hindsight is an obvious predictor, but he doesn’t look well at all, a gaunt expression a physical sign of the cancer that was surging through his body. Just over four months after this final Hampden experience, and a mere six weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer, my Dad passed away, aged 55.
Reflecting on my childhood, I could not picture my Dad without seeing him playing football with me whilst wearing a Pars shirt, most notably an early-90s pinstripe classic sponsored by Landmark Home Furnishing. With the cancer spreading to his brain, I wanted to buy him one last gift, yet was apprehensive that his declining faculties wouldn’t recognise the 2008/09 home shirt. Amidst the cancer and the confusion, there lay clarity. My Dad recognised the badge straight away, and his eyes immediately filled with tears. There was no need for me to ask him to guess the team, his brain could still remember the Pars. He wore that shirt as he lay in his coffin.
My personal relationship with the club began a year later. I had driven up to Dunfermline around Easter of 2010, with the idea of scattering my Dad’s ashes in the grounds of Dunfermline Abbey. Springtime in Scotland can make Siberia seem like the desert, and so I decided to return to scatter the ashes when the outlook was less bleak.
During this visit, I did see the Pars play Dundee on a Tuesday night, which to this day remains the coldest I have ever been at a football match. Prior to the game, as I desperately sought warmth in the club shop, there he was, one of the immortals from my youth, Jim Leishman. In the latter stages of grief, I started telling him about my Dad, to which he immediately started asking about his life and his experiences. You cannot create a second first impression, and the man was even more remarkable than the visions I had formed of him.
Having seen this match, my first Pars experience without my Dad, I made a pact to myself to return every year to watch a game. Over the subsequent years, various friends and family members have accompanied me on this once a year love affair, and like every relationship, there have been moments of great euphoria, most notably the 2-1 victory against Fife rivals Raith Rovers in 2011, which all but guaranteed promotion, and the 3-1 victory over Brechin City in 2016 which secured the League 1 title.
There have also been moments of despair, such as the 2-1 reverse to Airdrie in 2013 which condemned the club to the relegation play-offs during a period of the club’s history in which dying was a real possibility.
Football can be a matter of life and death, and having watched my Dad die, I was now watching the club that had enabled me to progress from grief to remembrance on life support. Thankfully, Pars United saved the club, transferring the Pars to a fan owned entity.
At the Brechin game, I was sat with people who had fought to save the club, and who had devoted time, energy and finance to ensuring that the club didn’t disappear from Scottish football. There were tears all around East End Park that day, and as I celebrated promotion, I looked to the sky and felt my own tears arrive.
My relationship with the club took another turn in the summer of 2014, when I was half-way through a Masters degree. I had the idea to write a dissertation on the relationship between Dunfermline Athletic and the coal mining community in the 1980s, largely because my dad was also an ex-miner. Within a week of my initial contact, I was a guest of the club for a Challenge Cup match against Raith Rovers, was given a private tour of the stadium, and it was arranged for me to interview Jim Leishman.
On this occasion, I was more composed, and enjoyed a thirty minute conversation with the greatest Pars manager of my lifetime, who was every bit as impressive as he was during our first encounter four years previously.
Dunfermline Athletic Football Club is the vehicle in which I keep my Dad close to me. He does have a headstone, but there is an impersonal element to a mass graveyard. The football club has enabled me to feel part of a collective community since 2010. A personal journey that began on a cold Tuesday night in March 2010 has led to a copy of my Masters dissertation being kept with the fantastic Dunfermline Athletic Heritage Trust at East End Park.
Like all of us who have suffered the heartache of losing a parent, there isn’t a day that passes where I do not wish my Dad was here to experience the Pars, but knowing that his club have served to make me feel that I truly belong to the town of his birth means that his memory will burn bright within.
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