Nathan Critchlow goes from Silva to Stirling to watch a Scottish League One side that are ten points adrift having not won at home all season. Not appealing? It’s perfect. 

It’s Saturday 21st February 2015. Manchester City are set to play Newcastle United at home, Chelsea have drawn at home to Burnley earlier in the day and Wilfried Bony is set to make his debut for City. Although a winnable game it’s now turned into quite the occasion for City. However rather than being in my seat at the Etihad waiting to be entertained by David Silva I am walking out of the Forthbank Stadium in Stirling having just watched Stirling Albion being edged out 1-0 by Brechin City. I’m grinning from ear to ear. What a time to be alive.

Some football fans are undoubtedly glory hunters. We all know the type and how to spot them. There is however comparatively less supporters for whom the beauty of the game is often found in the darkest of places. These are the supporters who chose to shun following Champions League ties for a wet, windy midweek, relegation six-pointer. These are the type of supporters who find consistent success at the top of the table about as appealing as monotonous suburban lifestyle. Eat, sleep, win, repeat. It’s so superficial at times. Give me a relegation battle every now again. It’s the spice of life. Call it sadistic pleasure if you will, but these alternative types of fans exist. My name is Nathan Critchlow, and I am a doom merchant.

I’ve always been a doom merchant. I personally blame this on my formative years following City. From a young age I was indoctrinated in the Manchester City way of life. Unfortunately, at the point I began supporting that way of life was to lose. A lot. When you think about it it’s quite an odd thing to explain. You are a fresh faced football fan, post World Cup 1998 and that wonderful French team, and you are ready to go out into the wonderful world of being a football supporter. Yet your actual footballing education largely revolves around thousands of people turning up to be driven to the point of obscenities by eleven players who couldn’t hit water if they fell out a boat. How do you explain that kind of blind optimism and sense of enjoyment to someone?

Fortunately, thanks to a very rich owner with impeccable taste in Manchester football clubs, life watching City is considerably different to Maine Road in the 1990’s. I’ve loved the early success years. Yaya at Wembley, THAT goal v QPR, Champions League jollies, Yaya scoring another crucial goal at Wembley. But it’s become the routine now, it’s almost become comfortable. Comfortable? That doesn’t sound right. Each time I open my drawer and see my Kinkladze shirt starring back at me I feel memories invoked of my early football years. Every time I move my collection of programmes and one from a home game v Rotherham falls out. Every time there is a lower league scrap on the box the doom merchant grabs my ear and whispers “Go on, Nathan. Admit it. You miss those days, just a little bit”. The doom merchant is right, I do.

It’s because of that persistent doom merchant whisper that I found myself as one of the 568 hardy souls braving the cold to watch ‘The Binos’ face Brechin City in Scotland’s League 1 at the Forthbank Stadium on that day in February. Stirling Albion are currently 10th in League One. Sounds good, right? That’s until you realise that there are only ten teams in the league. Oh. They are adrift at the bottom of the league by 8 points, have only won twice all season and have a goal difference of -30. To some that doesn’t sound appealing. To me it sounded perfect.

The Forthbank stadium, as its name suggests, is a lovely little stadium on the banks of the river Forth. I ventured out about 90 minutes before kick-off. The walk out of town is fairly non-descript. Unless of course you like A-roads, large army vehicle depots or the smell of shit from the adjacent sewage works. If you do it must be the idea of an away day heaven. Once you get there, however, you are confronted by a lovely example of what a lower league ground is. Two proper stands banking each side of the pitch and two roofless end terraces which only the bravest fan would dare on a rainy day. It’s simplistic, yet elegant. If you think the stadium is good you should see the views of the hills which rise against the backdrop of the ground. It’s beautiful. I actually challenge you to find a better view from a stadium in the UK (you can tweet me if you must). Before the main event I spend a little bit of time watching Stirling’s under 12’s play on the adjacent astroturf pitch. The kids seem alright and the game is surprisingly competitive for an Under 12’s. The Stirling keeper even pulls off dare I say a “World Class” save (at least for an under 12) getting down low to a snap shot which he turns onto the post. Impressive stuff.

The signs of Stirling’s 1st team’s poor efforts on the pitch however are evident from the moment I arrive. I go through the customary bag search on my way through the turnstiles and let the friendly steward know there’s only an apple in there. His response was “No bother, just don’t throw it. Actually it doesn’t matter if you do. The keeper will never catch it”. I’m not sure if he was serious or not. His tone sounded like his was joking but the stern look on face suggested that he had actually had to watch the keeper catch and the omens were not good. My ticket only cost £8 and I grab a cup of tea and a Scotch pie for £3 (that’s right, £3 – that doesn’t even buy you a pint at City) and I set about finding a regular match goer who might shine some light on what is going wrong. It doesn’t take long.

The chap who chooses to sit next to me, Paul, happily chunters away about the season so far while we both chomp away on the surprisingly good pies and drink our tea. It’s the same story you’d find at any club which struggles after promotion. The team have found the step up a league tough and, even though Albion have played at this level in the past, the confidence in the team has been battered out by some pretty bad results along the way, with Paul highlighting a 5-0 home thrashing by today’s hosts in September a particular low point. In fact it transpires that Stirling Albion have not won a home game in the league this season. Their only two victories both came against Stenhousemuir, the team immediately above them, away from home (a 5-4 and 2-1 win). They’ve only kept one clean sheet in 25 games, and only scored 27. It’s not good, although I do make a note to tell Paul at half-time that their goal scoring record is still 14 better than Aston Villa in the Premier League.

As the game kicks off I find it quite hard to believe what Paul described before the game. The Bino’s pitch looks good despite recent frozen weather and the players move the ball around the pitch nicely in an organised fashion. The midfield seem to be running the show and the goalkeeper, Greg Paterson, has very little to do. They look for the first 45 minutes to be every bit a match of Brechin City, no mean feat given that their opponents go into the game on the back of a 12 match unbeaten run which has left them just outside the play-offs. Stirling actually force the best chances of the half, with winger Sandy Cunningham and Craig Comrie testing ex-Motherwell goalkeeper Graeme Smith in Brechin goal. Cunningham in particular is a really shining light for Stirling and at only 19 years old he definitely looks like he is playing at least league lower than his ability. If you’re into your Scottish League football, then keep an eye out for him. If Stirling go down he could be a real bargain for another club.

As the referee blows for half time the spirits amongst the 400(ish) Bino fans on small concourse seem cautiously optimistic and even Paul seems happy, something I gather probably doesn’t happen all that often. I grabbed another cup of tea and given the promising first half performance I drift into day-dreams of whether I could be Stirling’s version of Beany the horse (made famous by Pearce in his time at City). The doom monger in me groans. This wasn’t the challenge it was expecting. This all seemed to be going rather well. I remember to tell Paul that Stirling’s strikers are statistically more efficient than Aston Villa’s, but for some reason however this doesn’t seem to provide him with the comfort I thought it would.

You don’t get views like this in the Prem.

However, whilst Stirling Albion were tucking into their half time oranges and Jelly Babies the Brechin City players must have been on the receiving end of sterner words from manager, Ray McKinnon. Brechin start the second half with much more purpose, they looked organised, determined and most importantly for lower league football they were aggressive. In the second half it was Brechin who were winning the 50-50’s as they slowly turned the screw and advanced further and further into the Stirling Albion half. Although they had a goal disallowed the real turning point of the game finally comes on the hour mark when a good ball finds Trouten in the box and he is bundled over by a Stirling defender for a penalty. The doom monger purrs in my ear. There are no complaints from the Stirling faithful, it’s a definite penalty and the victim becomes the hero as Trouten tucks home the penalty for 1-0. The travelling Brechin fans, of which there seems to be a decent number, go mad. Paul mutters something about it being ‘typical of their season so far’. I glance across to the away fans only to notice there is an advertisement for The Samaritans on the stand opposite me, oh the irony.

1-0 is the way the game ends. There is very little action in the last 30 minutes. In truth Stirling don’t convincingly push forward in search of an equalizer, it is all huff and puff but no real cutting edge. The best chance comes from a free kick but it is completely wasted. It didn’t look like it had even been practised on FIFA, let alone the training pitch. Even the bright light of Cunningham seems to fade fast as the game goes on. Of even greater concern there isn’t much vocal encouragement from the Stirling bench, nor are there many substitutions to try and influence the flow of the game. You get the impression they have been in this position several times before this season. They know the outcome before the ref even blows his whistle for full time. They are resigned to it.

The biggest let down for Stirling is the performance of their number 9, twenty-six year old, 6ft 4in striker Lewis Coult. He looks like the Scottish League One Peter Crouch. I really hate to criticise players, particularly when things aren’t going well, but honestly his performance was the worst performance I have ever seen from a striker, which is saying something considering I’ve also had the pleasure of watching Lee Bradbury, Bernando Corradi and the Brazilian Jo play football. I know I’m more accustomed to Aguero standards these days, but his performance is almost Ali Dia bad. He barely wins a header all game, fails to hold to the ball up, and doesn’t register any meaningful passes or shots on goal. It’s horrendous, almost painful to watch. He wanders around the pitch like a prima-donna throwing his arms up when he doesn’t get the ball and complains about everything and anything. Every time Stirling Albion break out from their defence or midfield the ball just comes back from the big man. I’d have had him off at half-time but for some reason he’s left on all game, which is more of a hindrance than a help. I voice my concerns to Paul, who just smiles and tells me that Coult hasn’t scored all season. “Is it that obvious?” he asks wryly. I tell him I’ll bring my boots next time, but he actually seems briefly alarmed that I may in fact be serious. He then softens, realising that I am either joking or he has actually done the maths and realised I may be a better option than the current number 9.

I don’t see anyway Albion will survive their current plight. With the exception of Coult it certainly doesn’t seem like a lack of effort, just a combination of bad luck and low confidence. Despite the home ground’s dismay at another home loss I can’t help but be satisfied with the day. The doom monger is fed for now. But the ice in my nature is warmed by the very nature of the club I’ve watched today. Everyone from the tea lady to the fans was just lovely and remained positive despite results on the field. When things go wrong at the top level fines for managers are tossed around like Monopoly money, pundits spend hours analysing every single minute part of the game and people throw abuse at each other on social media. It’s all a bit unsavoury at times. Here, the fans trundle out. It’s not been a great day, or season for that matter, but for the fans that’s life. Sometimes the downs are just as entertaining as the ups. On days like that you realise there is beauty in the game beyond the shiny pieces of metal handed out at the end of the seasons or the vast sums of TV money. As I walk home I remember why I learnt to love football regardless of the whether my team is successful or not.

I challenge you to hang out with some doom mongers. You know the person you take the mick out at work because he watches Macclesfield and you watch Man United, or the guy down the pub who chooses to watch Cowdenbeath not Celtic? You never know, you might even find that asking them about their team might bring you more happiness than discussing the same old media fodder with the glory supporters.