By Stephen Brandt – @StephenCBrandt
Scottish football is a long strange tale so was the existence of Vale of Leven. There’s many stops, starts and Old Firm mentions to fill thousands of books. There is more to the game in Scotland than the Old Firm and the once famous New Firm. Some clubs due to financial reasons have gone away, most of this was due to the Great Depression. Unlike in America when the Great Depression wiped out a whole league. Vale of Leven disbanded their senior team in 1929. Though the members played most of the 1930s as Vale Ocoba, to reappear as Vale of Leven briefly until World War 2. Today’s Vale of Leven FC is a direct heir to the great era, albeit as a junior team.
There is a modern feel to the story of Vale of Leven. Great players, with a flare of great sportsmanship on and off the pitch dot the tale that started many centuries ago. The story of Vale of Leven struggles on the park, with unsavory characteristics of the sport like refereeing controversies, club politics, hypocrisy, self interest, and enough financial problems to write many books. If this sounds like today’s game, the sport is slow to adapt.
As the 1880’s started the Vale was still a top ten side in Scotland, and would remain that way for most of the decade. The Vale was still doing very well in the Scottish Cup, they usually beating the best English clubs and providing the national team with players. This was all despite forces trying to keep them down. The decade started out very well for the club, they moved into a new stadium, Millburn Park they still play in it today.
The Scottish Cup in 1881 eluded them, they were beat by their Cup boogey team in Dumbarton. However, they had a successful season in other areas by beating Bolton and Blackburn. In June of 1882, they got their revenge on Dumbarton beating them 1-0 in a replay in the final of the Glasgow Merchants Charity Cup in front of six thousand people. Glasgow has always been a place that was among the elite areas, along with Edinburgh this cup was a way to get a cup for Glasgow clubs only. The Glasgow Merchant Charity Cup was their way of getting a cup when Vale was dominating the Scottish Cup. Vale only won one of the cups.
In 1884 the Scottish Cup final became notorious for all the wrong reasons. Vale was prone to drama, but amazing on the field performances. A 4-1 win over Renton put them into a matchup against a Rangers side just beginning to show its worth in the league. Special trains had to be introduced for the match for all the fans coming down to Alexandra. However, there were so many people coming, that the railway system couldn’t take the rush. The match had to be delayed by 35 minutes to allow the remaining fans to safely get into the ground. The match attendance was given as 6,000, though the old standard line attendance figures are always off, and it was much higher. Vale showed their class and won 3-0.
That would see them through to the final against Queen’s Park on March 23, 1884. It was to be played on that day, but this is one of the few Scottish Cup Finals that would not be played. By Wednesday the 20th, due to factors outside of the sport that three players from the first team would be out, along with three of their reserve team brethren would also be out. The board of Vale approached the Scottish Football Association (SFA) to get the match postponed, bug the SFA refused. Vale should have handled this better, like approaching Queen’s Park with the facts, and they could have agreed to a postponement. There would have been a case there for Queen’s Park had a full docket of games, and an English Cup Final. In those days the English Cup Finals could be contested by North and South of the border. Instead Vale approached Queen’s Park and asked for the postponement without laying out the facts, which was rejected.
So the game was scheduled to go on, three days later. Queen’s Parks showed up, but Vale didn’t. At this point, no one could have any sympathy for Vale, they could have just fielded a much weakened team and lost horribly. That obviously didn’t happen, and took away a lot of the sympathy and victimhood they had played.
The no show didn’t just make the Scottish Cup Queen’s Park Cup it had to be decided by an SFA committee. This committee was chaired by the president of the SFA, who was a Queen’s Park guy. That didn’t sway the the matter to Queen’s Park, there was significant support for another game. However, the vote was 7-6 in favor of awarding the Cup to Queen’s. Some wanted to rename the SFA the “Queen’s Park and Rangers Association”. In some aspects that still is the case with the later.
After all of this, you would think the Vale officials would keep their mouth shut? Nay, that would not happen. Vale in 1884-85 got to the Cup Final, and played Renton. By this time the crowds for the matches were getting smaller, and this match would be no different. This was the smallest crowd to watch a final. The game ended in a boring 0-0 draw, the replay that followed Renton outplayed Vale 3-1 to win the cup. The Vale officials turned their disappointment into insults towards the the two umpires. Not a good look. The Vale some could say had their just deserts coming. But sadly so was for a lot of clubs.
The wheels were coming off the whole “amateurism” aspect of the sport, really did damage in the short term to some clubs. The history of the sport is littered with clubs that have fallen apart after having to pay their players. During this era Vale along with many Scottish clubs were losing top talent to England due to “shamateurism” of clubs finding good jobs outside of the game to induce players to come south.
By September of 1884, four of the player had left for Burnley. In Scotland players could get about 18 shillings per week whereas you could get 2 to 5 pounds in England. Who wouldn’t go? So the SFA to curb the growing problem decided in December to draw up a blacklist of players who had left and declared them ineligible to play for Scottish clubs again unless they get permission from the SFA. It also in 1885 stopped the Scottish clubs from playing against the English clubs.
These moves were all abstract because English football was still amateur. To the common observer the under the table dealings were all well known. By July of 1885 the English FA legalised professionalism. Did the SFA follow? No, they took their time, and waited almost a decade after the English FA in 1893. Strangely, that was three years after the formation of the first Scottish League.
The next big moment at Vale was a new park for the club in 1888, as the Club Committee felt the prospects for the future to look for a new home. North Street Park, served the club as a great base of operations all the way back to the great cup runs of the late 1870s. Unfortunately, the location was far from ideal. The Park was stuck between the gasworks, the railway, and the foundry. Plus, it wasn’t as up to date like local rivals Queen’s Park and Rangers. Early in 1888 the opportunity to match the Glasgow grounds, and move into a much larger and better site came about in the form of the Turnbull family. They owned the Pyroligneous Works, and they offered the club a long lease of an area that was to be called Turnbull’s Park.
The last match at the old park was a very down and depressing night, a 5-0 loss to Renton. This wasn’t just a beat down, it was to the club who just captured the Scottish Cup and the “Championship of the World” between Scottish and English clubs. The building of the new ground started in May of 1888, and Vale was playing their first match was August 25th where they tied Dumbarton 2-2. And this should have kicked off a new glory era, instead much worse happened.
Vale was never a club until this point that carried much debt. Most of that could be cleared off with a couple matches in England. The opening of the new ground was a great spectacle for the town but also for the whole of Scottish Football. The opening match was seen off by Vale FC president William Ewing Gimour, who was full of pride when he was in the center spot for the match to kick the match off.
Where the trouble comes in, was a crowd of only 3,000 for a local derby was not great. For the occasion, a sell out would have been more apt. Servicing the debt kept the club going through the hard times in their existence. Despite the hard times, the Milburn is still around, and one of the best fields in Scotland. There’s been fires, parts of the stadium flying away but in the long run, the ground is still there. The Millburn Trust has owned the ground since 1946. While the club has come and gone many times, the Vale of Levin still exists in the Highland Leagues and still can bring a community together all these years later.