(Ed. - I still love to write, but rarely have much time at present, so please enjoy a short effort summing up the rise of East Stirling - MD)
The Burning Homefires
(Please forgive my brief homage to a treasured place)
The celebration swirled around him as Robert Ballyntire vacantly stared at the stream of Rangers faithful leaving Ibrox with the brisk tread of swiftly exiting from the joyful knot of boisterous East Stirling travelling fans. At Pittodrie, Celtic faltered and Aberdeen rallied from two goals down for a 2-2 draw behind ex-Shire striker Scott Davidson who equalized late in the second half. The final score shown on the scoreboard as injury time started and the small group of East Stirling supporters began their raucous celebration, while the visitors finished out their determined defensive effort in the 3-0 shut-out of the home side. The day culminated a wild three-week swing for East Stirling and ended the Celtic reign of 15 consecutive SPL titles as the Shire reached the pinnacle of Scottish football.
Ballyntire seemed numb to the chaos as he shook the hand of Rangers' Head Man Steve Mandana and barely heard the murmured congratulations. Memories of ten years bygone streamed through his thoughts, moments popping in vividly in a selection of highs and lows. The ride to the hospital with his badly burnt leg causing intense pain until the injection took him away. He didn't know what whim had caused he and his girlfriend to slip through the barricades and be walking by Notre Dame as fire took it and brought pieces down on them. Fortunately, she had escaped unscathed, but fortune hadn't shone as brightly on him as the fiery scaffolding crashed into him. He hadn't felt fortunate at the time, despite surviving, as his career was gone in an instant. The months of healing had brought him a new opportunity as East Stirling was seeking a manager to take over when they moved back into Scottish League play.
A tumultuous first season flashed by in his mind, as the Shire fought their way to 3rd place in League 2, but suffered the bitter disappointment of losing in the first round of the Promotion Playoff. Watching Kyle Gourlay continually claim crosses in our stellar second season as East Stirling soared into 1st place and promotion to League 1. The fateful loan of winger David Duncanson from Dundee, as the 18-year-old single handedly kept East Stirling up in League 1 as our strikers faltered- we finished 4th and lost again in the first Playoff round. Our second season in League 1 where, as a returning loaner, Duncanson boosted us to promotion with a first-place finish thanks to his dominant free kicking and leftwing play.
Duncanson, now signed on free after release from Dundee, DCs Shaun Want, Liam Donnelly and keeper Gourlay spearheaded our romp through Championship into promotion directly to the Scottish Premier. The arrival of bookend winger Ronan Hughes as he and Duncanson partnered to keep the Shire up as we managed an initial 8th place SPL finish despite a horribly leaky defense, only clinching avoiding a demotion Play-off in the next to last match of the season. Shaking off that trying first season in SPL as we added Senegal DC Kader Diagne, Liverpool loaner DC Sam Brown, fullbacks Liam Hegarty and Nicky Muir to solidify our defense and Duncanson went into beast mode as he earned Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year, Scottish Writer's Player of the Year, Scottish Writer's Young Player of the Year and Leading scorer in Premier as a 21 year old to send us into Champions Cup play with our 2nd place finish.
Playing in Champions Cup, as we made it through two rounds of playoffs before losing to Bayern Munich on aggregate in Best Placed Playoff, combined with the sale of young wonderkid Jack Mullin to Manchester United for 5 Million and the boost from reaching the Scottish Cup Semi-finals finally provided continual financial security and allowed us to add young Italian Keeper Antonio Zanotti from Catanzaro to further improve our defense. We looked on our 3rd season in SPL with optimism, but found only struggles as a surging Aberdeen easily bypassed us for 2nd place in SPL, while Celtic remained almost unbeatable- losing only one match on their way to their 15th consecutive SPL title. Their riches and talent remained daunting as my tenure with East Stirling entered its 9th season as they had a 47.4 Million Payroll to our modest 4.69 Million totals.
Despite never having beaten Celtic going into the season, I felt optimism as our defensive unit remained solid and we managed to loan Scottish forward Calum MacLean from Arsenal, along with returning loaners Sam Brown and Gareth Ward- center mid from Tottenham- these gave us a promising base with which to challenge for at least a top 2 spot. Joining them were two developing young Scottish talents- center mid Craig Sheerin and right-winger Michael King and this core gelled quickly, staying close to the top with a strong August and September. Ajax cut our European Cup competition short, winning on aggregate, despite a solid performance against the storied side. Losing hurt our morale, but helped us avoid the cluttered schedule that Celtic faced. Our challenge for a top 2 spot really lifted off in October with four league wins. Celtic surprisingly stuttered out of the gate with stunning losses to newly promoted Dundee and arch-rival Rangers. When we battled them to a 2-2 draw in early November at Celtic Park, it was the beginning of our belief that we could play with them talent-wise and the result allowed us to remain just in front of them atop the SPL.
December saw Celtic rising past us to the top rung and Rangers clawing into 2nd as we struggled in listless draws against lowly Motherwell and Kilmarnock. A stinging 2-0 road loss to Aberdeen by Celtic boosted our hopes that we could stay in the hunt. The opening of the transfer window saw a strong addition to our lineup, as striker Ben Beechey joined us from Chelsea to provide a strong pairing with Maclean. The highlight of our season saw us taking our first ever League win against Celtic in defeating them 2-0 behind a stellar defensive effort and a brace from Calum MacLean at Falkirk Park. The win lifted us into first place in SPL, a spot we wouldn't yield until April.
Rangers title bid faded in suffering a poor February and losing three matches. The pressure of hard-charging Celtic matching us win-for-win weighed on us, but the schedule splitting the top and bottom SPL squads found us clinging to our slim two-point cushion. Facing Celtic in mid-April at Celtic Park, I remained optimistic and hoped to earn a draw, only to see a disastrous effort- the worst of the season- as the rampaging home side crushed us in an easy 4-0 win. I certainly thought they smashed our title hopes, as Celtic looked unbeatable in defeating us.
The script flipped in the beginning of May as rivals Rangers celebrated a nervy 2-1 win over Celtic at Ibrox with a late strike. Our gritty 2-0 win over Hibs, sporting two set piece goals and withstanding withering pressure, suddenly vaulted us back into the top spot heading into the next-to-last match of the season. Celtic travelled to Aberdeen with blood in their eyes, while we faced a daunting match at Ibrox against resurgent Rangers.
Our difficult start, as Rangers swarmed our area and the quick lead that Celtic grabbed over Aberdeen worried me. A lightning counter-attack boosted our spirits as Calum MacLean rocketed a long cross that picked out Ben Beechey ghosting past defender Oscar Torres and slotting home beyond Caique's late dive. Celtic added to their early lead with a second marker, but we felt more confidence after absorbing another round of Rangers pressure. We earned a penalty when Craig Sheerin suffered a crashing tackle by Rory McCrorie in the area and Gareth Ward converted the penalty. The rest of the first half was a blur as Rangers surged and circled our area, but Zanotti was equal to any difficult shots in maintaining our 2-0 lead to halftime. Celtic led 2-0 as well at half, but suddenly found themselves pegged back as Aberdeen scored in the opening moments of the second half. We settled in and denied Rangers any uncontested space in our area. Michael King added to our lead when he collected a loose ball after a poorly headed corner and drilled an off-footed shot past Caique. With the 3-0 lead, I was comfortable parking the bus, knowing that we would maintain our edge over Celtic into our final match. A stunned Celtic saw Scott Davidson rifle home a burrowing, skipping 20-yard blast for the late equalizer.
My ruminations came to an abrupt halt when I was doused with icy liquid. My ecstatic players grinned at my grimace becoming a beaming smile as I joined their burgeoning Premier League Championship celebration.