THE influx of Russian oligarchs, US tycoons, and private equity vehicles owned by Gulf states may have robbed modern football of much of its charm and capacity for wonder, but delve deep enough, and you will find a past sufficiently fertile to sustain those who appreciate the game’s core values. The record books preserve the names of giants slain by time, the might of their status and success long reduced to idiosyncrasy. A handful – such as Third Lanark, Corinthian FC, and Blackburn Olympic – enjoy a fragile half-life thanks to the mythology which has built up around their achievements like scaffolding, ensuring something of their history still stands. The majority, however, have been not been so fortunate. With every year that passes, memories of them lose their lustre.
If an endangered list for such beasts existed then the Glenbuck Cherrypickers ought to occupy its summit. Over eight decades have passed since its first XI last lined up on the undulating banks of the River Ayr. It was a team whose decline came in tandem with the loss of heavy industry, and before long, the ferocity of that change left an entire village prostate. In the 1880s, around 1,300 people called Glenbuck home, forging a hard life around the Galawhistle, Davie, and Grasshill pits. But by end of World War II, the population had dwindled to less than 200 souls, their trade surviving only by virtue of remembrance. In his history of the Cherrypickers published by the Muirkirk Advertiser and Douglasdale Gazette, the Rev M.H. Faulds steered clear of a romantic depiction of Glenbuck’s ebbing glories. “Glenbuck would rank nowhere in a competition for the prettiest village in Scotland,” he pointedly stated. “It is drab and monotonous, and plainly utilitarian.”
That introduction was written in 1951, two decades after the last pit closed. Little did the Rev Faulds know it, but the future held a crueller fate in store for the village. Today, it is depopulated, its name a mere quirk of cartography. It appears on maps just south of the A70 as the road waltzes with the river through the hinterlands between Muirkirk and Douglas, but only one building – Spireslack, a dilapidated former farmhouse – remains at its heart, punctuating a landscape so pocked by opencast mining, it could pass for a lunar surface. Its appearance is befitting, for long ago, something unearthly happened there.
“Glenbuck was a massive influence on my grandad,” remembers Karen Gill, a recent visitor to the village. “Me and my sister would often stay over at his at weekends, and before we went to sleep, he would always come in and tell us stories about Glenbuck, it was something he always wanted to share. They weren’t just football stories. He would tell us about how he would ride his bike for eight miles to go to the nearest cinema, and the times he went down the mine, or the pranks he got up to at school. I remember he told us how the men would stand on the corner telling stories and if they thought someone was telling a tall tale, everybody would turn their caps upside down.”
Gill’s grandfather was Bill Shankly, born on 2 September 1913 in Auchenstilloch, a cluster of modest cottages in the village known locally as Miners’ Row. He would go on to become one of the most iconic figures in British football history, revered not only for his managerial acumen, but an abiding belief in community and togetherness which helped to politicise and empower a city. On the verges of what once was Glenbuck, by the side of a tarmacadam road north of a quiet loch abundant with trout, an elegant memorial pays tribute. Erected in 1997 and paid for by subscription by Liverpool supporters and the former Scottish Coal, it is routinely festooned with flowers and the club’s colours by those who make the pilgrimage north from Anfield. On black granite, a heartfelt eulogy reads: ‘Seldom in the history of sport can a village the size of Glenbuck have produced so many who reached the pinnacle of achievement in their chosen sport. This monument is dedicated to their memory and to the memory of one man in particular, Bill Shankly.’ Below, in bold, gold engraving, it adds: ‘THE LEGEND. THE GENIUS. THE MAN.’
Shankly’s worldview was moulded in Glenbuck, whether through the long summers spent playing football until last light, the formative days down the mine which would earn him 2s 6d, or the hours spent talking in card schools which assembled on the rolling hills. No matter the honours he won and the plaudits he received, he never missed an opportunity to remind people of his pride in his background, but also its stark realities, once remarking: “Pressure is working down the pit. Pressure is having no work at all. Pressure is trying to escape relegation on 50 shillings a week. Pressure is not the European Cup or the championship or the cup final. That’s the reward.” It was a salutary observation, delivered in that inimitable gruff voice which would be listened to obediently by future managers – Scots in particular – who considered his every word as monumental as those of Mao; Sir Alex Ferguson, ever the great admirer of footballing days of yore, once challenged an assembled press pack when he asked them about the Cherrypickers. Only a solitary writer escaped the famous Govan ire reserved for the ignorant.
Gill, now chair of the Liverpool Supporters committee and patron of the influential Spirit of Shankly group, can see how her grandfather’s way of life has now cohered into a chronicle spanning the graduates of factory floors and Clydeside yards, the latest chapter of which features David Moyes, Ferguson’s successor, as its protagonist. She reflects: “My grandad’s kind of socialism wasn’t a theory, it was just a feeling he felt inside. That came from Glenbuck, he was influenced by a community spirit where everyone helped each other out. I think that was the key to his success at Liverpool, he never put the emphasis on one player, it was the whole team together, being loyal and watching each other’s backs.”
Another of Shankly’s grandchildren, Christopher Carline, told me that without the spell cast by Glenbuck, he may never have scaled such heights. “The importance of Glenbuck to my grandad is a point that should be continually made,” he emphasises. “Everybody thinks of the period between 1959 to 1974, when he delivered so much success to Liverpool, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that the upbringing he had gave him his morals, his mindset, and lifestyle. That was the making of him, and without it, would he have been the same person? Probably not.”
In today’s Scotland on Sunday, I have a story about plans to expand upon the humble memorial by not only commemorating, but reviving the traditions of Shankly and Glenbuck to coincide with the centenary of the great man’s birth. In essence, it seeks to establish a football museum housing artefacts related to Shankly and the Cherrypickers, but also – and perhaps more importantly – launch a series of coaching clinics for local youngsters, with a view to forming a fully-fledged football academy in due course. In Gill’s eyes, that is a masterstroke. “There’s no point in just looking to the past,” she adds. “You can drown in the memories. But by taking the good things from the past with an eye to the future, it’s the perfect recipe for success.”
The Banner of Glenbuck, as the scheme is known, is a decidedly grassroots affair, the brainchild of Robert Gillan, a former footballer once on the books of Clyde U-19s who is now an Scottish Football Association level four youth coach. Enthused by Glenbuck’s heritage, the 45-year-old from the nearby village of Douglas hopes to impart it to a new generation, while inspiring them to emulate the achievements of Shankly. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of telling the story of Glenbuck,” he says. “There’s a lot of digging to do.”
It should be noted that the demise of the Cherrypickers – and the pits – coincided with Shankly’s first steps in the sport, meaning he only ever played a trial game for the side, before heading to Carlisle via a stint with Cronberry Eglinton. His may be the most enduring association with Glenbuck, but he is only the figurehead of its team’s outstanding legacy. From that one small, remote village on the borders of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, no fewer than 50 professional footballers emerged from the Cherrypickers’ ranks, including six Scotland internationals and three FA Cup winners. As Gillan astutely notes: “They were pioneers. No other place of a similar size in the world has produced so many professional footballers.”
The fragmented structure of the early game meant that Glenbuck’s cream never challenged the likes of Queen’s Park’s Corinthian ideal with their aggressive if fleet-footed style, its successive teams squaring off against other stalwarts of the Ayrshire provinces like Glenafton Athletic, Muirkirk Ex-Services Athletic, and New Cumnock United. Victory in such a close-knit environment was a matter of immense pride – Glenbuck’s doughty players contributed a shilling a week towards the upkeep of their ground, Burnside Park – and often, won at any costs. It was not unusual for visiting fans to the banks of the River Ayr to be pelted by stones, perhaps the earliest recorded instance of the lively rivalry which to this day characterises the Ayrshire game. By way of karma, the Glenbuck men had to endure an arduous journey in three-horse brakes whenever the obligation of an away fixture reared its head.
In any case, success was plentiful; no definitive list of honours exists, but the village team secured at least six Cumnock Cups, three Ayrshire Junior Challenge Cups, two Ayrshire Charity Cups, and one Mauchline Cup and Ayrshire Junior Cup apiece. That localised, if keen, nature to Glenbuck’s itinerary has served an injustice upon those men who swapped the pit for the pitch, the vast majority of whom are regarded as an afterthought in the Scottish game. But even a passing examination of their history throws up a welter of talent who not only went on to serve the Old Firm, but the traditional powerhouses south of the border.
Two of the most successful were Alec Brown and Alec Tait, who helped Tottenham Hotspur to victory in the FA Cup of 1901, the first time a team from the south of England had etched their name on the cup in several years. In the semi-final against Sheffield United, Brown scored four goals without reply, at which the defeated side’s goalkeeper – a harassed William ‘Fatty’ Foulke, who tipped the scales at close to 18 stones – to wrest Brown off his feet and swing him around in the air. Evidently, there was no lasting damage from the encounter – he went on to score the only goal against Southampton in the final, footage of which can be found on YouTube. In the weeks following the game, he and Tait were granted permission to take the trophy north and put it on display in a shop window in the village for all to see. For those blackened souls emerging from the mouth of the pits, it must have glittered especially bright.
The roll call includes those employed by other major teams in the English game, such as Bob ‘Reindeer’ Blyth, who, though best known in Scotland for his stint with Rangers, turned out for Preston North End and Portsmouth. Shankly’s uncle on his mother’s side, folklore has it that the diminutive wing-half could sprint 100 yards in 11 seconds in his football boots. The names continue: Willie Banks of Manchester City; Jock Bone of Aston Villa; Johnnie Bone of Everton; William Blyth of Portsmouth and Preston; Tommy Brown of Portsmouth; Robert ‘Laddie’ Crawford of Preston and Blackburn; John Davidson of Coventry; John Crosbie of Birmingham and Blackpool; Walter ‘Wattie’ Ferguson of Sheffield Wednesday; George Halley, an FA Cup winner with Burnley; Archie Garrett of Millwall; Hugh Knox of Sunderland; William Knox of Everton and Liverpool; Alex McConnell of Everton, Woolwich, and Grimsby; John McConnell of Brentford and Grimsby; Peter McIntyre of Preston and Sheffield Wednesday; Jock McKenzie of Newcastle and Norwich; William ‘Gooley’ Muir of Everton; Robert Tait of Carlisle and Spurs; and Joe Wallace of Newcastle.
As if that list were not exhaustive enough, it omits the other members of the Shankly clan who, like its most famous member, made a living in England for at least part of their careers: James Shankly, who represented Portsmouth, Sheffield United, and Carlisle; John Shankly of Portsmouth, Blackpool, and Alloa; and of course, Bob, who played with Alloa, Turnbridge Wills, and Falkirk before becoming the architect of considerable success with Dundee.
Gill, who is more aware than most of Glenbuck’s reputation as a nursery of footballers, is at a loss to explain the magic: “It’s an amazing phenomenon for Glenbuck to produce so many players, I don’t know what the ingredient was but it’s something that I don’t think has happened anywhere else in the world, not even any other mining villages. Maybe it was the location, or the open space – I don’t know, but there was some influence behind it all.”
It was not only the conveyor belt of professionals bequeathed by Glenbuck which made people stand up and take notice. The village also honed an indomitable five-a-side team, playing under Ayrshire rules, which meant the goalkeeper could not handle the ball. Witnesses attested to marathon encounters, with one tie in Lanark beginning on Saturday, and not concluding until Monday morning. Arguably the greatest side comprised of the five Knox brothers – Hughie, Alec, Tom, William, and Peter – who excelled as a family unit, once winning all but one of the 41 tournaments that they entered in a year. Their prize was usually a barometer or clock, but it is said they acquired so many, they would hand them over to fans on the touchline. These were not the spoils of rough and tumble play, however. In an example of the approach later applied by Shankly on Merseyside – a key part of Liverpool’s training regime was the drills of two-aside, three-aside, and five-side games – Hughie Knox once revealed: “The art of the game is to make the ball do the running about.”
The prolificness of its footballing sons, and the elusive secret which lay behind it, may be unique to Glenbuck, but it is often forgotten that it was just one of a welter of mining communities to gift Britain – and the world – men of footballing prowess. Matthew McDowell, a lecturer in sport and recreation management at the University of Edinburgh and a leading authority on early Scottish football history, helped Gillan with the project’s formative stages. A native of Hackensack, New Jersey, who has become an unlikely cheerleader for our game’s genesis, he is keen to emphasise the village’s leading role as part of a wider tradition inextricably tied to heavy industry; Matt Busby, of course, went down the pits at 16, as did Jock Stein.
“That area of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, sitting on the coal rim, provided Scottish and English football with many professional footballers,” he says. “Glenbuck became big in junior football circles in the late 1890s and early 1900s, and almost symbolises this tradition of Scottish footballers and managers coming from heavy industry into football. Places like Glenbuck, Hurlford, and Annbank were very much part of the British economy and it’s probably due to that reason that people from pit villages like Glenbuck could find work with football clubs in heavy industrial areas in the north of England.”
McDowell’s fine observation is illustrated by a yellowing edition of the long-defunct Scottish Referee. In 1890, one unnamed club posted an advert which made it clear they were in search of a skilled Scots player equally capable of graft off the pitch. ‘First-class Centre or Inside Forward required to undertake management of large Hotel and Spirit Vaults, and play with local team in Midlands,’ the classified read. ‘Good Salary. Satisfactory References and Security’.
McDowell adds: “In Dunbartonshire, in Renton and Vale of Leven, there were a lot of players associated with the calico industry, or Dennys. Newmilns, which had a big textiles industry, were heavily important in the early years of Swedish football. In Barcelona’s first team in 1900, the teamsheet featured George Girvan who was from Newmilns. It was a city of industry which featured a lot of migrants who came to work there, of course – it wasn’t until the 1992 Olympics that tourism took over.”
Those bonds are forever broken. Nowadays, a club may be purchased by a magnate who amassed their fortune through steel or iron, but the ownership is no form of patronage, but rather a financial exercise, or an egotistical whim. No one involved in the Glenbuck project is naïve enough to suggest that will change any time soon, but in their own way, they aspire to, in McDowell’s words, “change the narrative.” As he explains: “Shankly, along with Stein and Busby, has become almost globally known as an icon of the industrial working class football spirit. At the same time, football has almost gotten out of reach, and although these things are sometimes remembered falsely, it becomes important to a remember a time when venture capitalists likes [Tom] Hicks and [George] Gillett [the former Liverpool owners] from the US didn’t buy football clubs.”
Gill, unsurprisingly a keen follower of Liverpool’s fortunes, is in agreement that a ritual devoutly followed by her forebears has become a product divorced from its roots. “I think people realise the huge balloon of Premier League football has to be burst to restore some normality,” she reasons. “It’s madness, how long can it go on for? Football without fans is nothing, and people have to realise that ordinary working people can’t afford such ridiculous prices.”
As he begins his work to enshrine the stronghold of Glenbuck, Gillan’s first task will be to organise a gathering at the Shankly memorial on 2 September. A lone piper will play, while supporters of Liverpool are expected to turn out to show their respect to a man who sparked their club’s winning ways, and cemented its customs and institutions. With regards the longer term aspirations, funding remains problematic, but he is cheered by the warm reception from others who share his ideals. He has tracked down relatives of old Cherrypickers players, and has been liaising with the Shankly family with a view to securing some “bits and bobs” to display in the completed museum. So too, encouraging talks have taken place with some of Shankly’s former clubs, including Liverpool, Preston North End, and Grimsby.
Along with his relatives, Carline is in the process of launching the Shankly Family Foundation, a charity which seeks to support grassroots football and young people. The Banner of Glenbuck, he says, “ticks all the boxes” which collectively form the organisation’s ethos. When Gillan happened to approach him via social media, Carline quickly realised the stars were aligning.
“It was strange, because when we had informal meetings before we set up the charity, we spoke about wanting to reestablish a link between Liverpool and Glenbuck,” he remembers. “When Rob got in touch, we exchanged emails, then spoke over the phone, and he’s coming down in a few weeks. Straight away, I realised it was a fantastic idea which links in with everything we want to do. We’re going to work with him to try and achieve his goals.
“Glenbuck means a lot to my mother [Jeanette] who went there as a child with grandad in the summers in the close seasons. She has lovely stories of the family from that time, and it’s for reasons like that this is something that really excites the family as well as the charity. We don’t want Glenbuck to be lost or forgotten. Obviously we all know there’s not much there at the moment, so by supporting Rob we can ensure there’s a proper, lasting legacy in Glenbuck that will also help young people with access to coaching and better opportunities.”
With community at the heart of the scheme, local officials are encouraged by Gillan’s ambitions. “Bill Shankly is one of our local heroes so we are delighted to be able to provide civic recognition for the centenary event in September,” says John Campbell, depute provost of East Ayrshire Council. “The Glenbuck project looks like it has the potential to greatly enhance the lives of local people through leisure and educational facilities and I wish the project and the event every success.”
It remains uncertain exactly where the museum will be sited. The dream is to revitalise the village with a new building, but Gillan’s efforts have been thwarted by the collapse of Scottish Coal, which has made it nigh on impossible to establish who owns the slithers of land between the opencast mines. He explains: “I’ve been offered a place in Muirkirk for the museum. Ideally I’d want it in Glenbuck but we might have to start off in Muirkirk and eventually move there.”
As far as Gill is concerned, that would be the perfect scenario. “What better place for my grandad’s artefacts than Glenbuck?” she says. “I’d love to see some of his things there. I went there when I was eight with my grandad, perhaps the only time we all went on holiday altogether, to see his sisters, and I travelled up again last year. I just wanted to see what it was like now. I know people say there’s nothing there, but I really found a great aura about the place. I could imagine him riding around in his bike. It was a great experience.
“I always get little messages and pictures from people who’ve gone up to Glenbuck with their families. They’re educating their children about how Glenbuck is where it all started. The museum and academy would be even more of a reason for people to go. It’s a pilgrimage for them. My grandad have been proud of the fact he’s on a stamp, but he would consider the museum in Glenbuck the greatest tribute possible.”
It is likely a series of arduous negotiations will have be carried out before Gillan and co can finalise where the museum will stand. There is, though, one particularly alluring location to bear in mind. Despite the seismic changes Glenbuck has gone through in the eight decades since the Cherrypickers last played, Burnside Park still remains, albeit veiled by thick clumps of grassland three feet high. In time, perhaps, the crowds will gather there once again to remember a deity and his brethren. That would have made him happy.
I’d like to thank the Shankly family for being so generous with their time during the writing of this article. Anyone wishing to donate to the Banner of Glenbuck project should email Robert Gillan on email@example.com