The first indication that this wasn’t going to be a normal football match came well before the scheduled 7.45pm kick-off time.
As members of the QP media team walked through the quiet streets of Kelty towards the ground, the first thing to come to their attention was the convoy of BBC vehicles parked in the street. Power cables were stretched across the road ready to broadcast the tie to screens across the country.
And given the “David v Goliath” nature of the tie, it was little wonder it was chosen for broadcast.
Queen’s Park, now a full-time professional outfit, were playing their 398th game in a competition they helped found and have won 10 times. Dundonald Bluebell, who compete in the East of Scotland League, were appearing in the first round proper for the first time ever.
But the presence of the tv cameras didn’t explain why the media team members – all wearing facemasks, or snoods, or both – were heading for the ground so early. That was all down to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Normally, at this stage on a matchday, the team would be in a local hostelry or social club enjoying a convivial refreshment and discussing the latest team selection.
At 6.45, we were lining up outside New Central Park while a masked steward pointed a strange contraption at our foreheads to check our temperatures.
Despite feeling fine, there was a nervousness about the procedure as everybody knew that any result too far above 37degrees would mean a rapid expulsion from the ground … and possibly a much more serious outcome.
Thankfully, we all got a clean bill of health and moved onto the next stage of the 2020 pre-match ritual. On entering the ground, all names were taken by a steward, who issued us with a badge bearing a seat number. Before showing us to our allocated positions we were very pleasantly given a rundown on procedures for interviews … and how to make our way to the facilities safely.
At every stage in the proceedings so far, social distancing had been emphasised. That continued in the stand occupied by officials and media personnel of both teams. Seats that were in use had a green sticker on them – with three seats left between each sticker … and every second row unoccupied.
The stands on the other side of the ground were occupied by players and match staff from the teams, with a social club and other adjacent buildings being brought into play to make sure there was no crossover before they finally made their way out.
Once the first whistle sounded, it was business as usual for the 22 players and the match officials, but not for the subs who – rather than take their usual “dug-out” position beside their Gaffers, had to sit socially distanced in the stand.
The compact nature of the ground meant that although there were very few people inside, there was at least some atmosphere. The support from the various club officials generated a little background noise, but the most striking feature was how clearly you could hear every comment made by virtually every player. And it must be said, footballers do say some bad words from time to time – even to their teammates.
Cynics will say that Queen’s Park should be used to playing in “empty” grounds when you look at the huge spaces not normally occupied for our Hampden home games. The difference is that even around 1000 folk can generate a lot of noise in a 52,000 capacity stadium.
Apart from the slightly surreal atmosphere, another indicator that this was no normal football match could be seen every time you looked around the ground and saw virtually everyone with their face and mouth covered – even though they were far from being inside and warm.
The biting cold, and occasional snow flurries ensured a warm welcome for the hospitality handed out by our Fife hosts at the interval. It may be customary for guests and officials from visiting clubs to be treated to a wee dram or a half-time cuppa in the boardroom. Covid ensured that wouldn’t happen at this game, but the warm drinks and snacks delivered to our seats in the stand by our hosts went down far better and were truly appreciated by all recipients.
The pandemic protocol continued even after the final whistle. After expressing the hope that the opposition would enjoy the rest of the season in safety, both sets of officials made their way out the ground – in single file – through separate exits. It was the final indicator that while football may be continuing this year, it’s far from being business as usual.
What a difference a year makes
When the final whistle blew at New Central Park, Kelty, it was difficult not to think again of the astonishing transformation taking place in Scotland’s oldest senior football club … and the strange times in which we are living.
Queen’s started last season’s Scottish Cup campaign away to Spartans with Mark Roberts in charge of a squad who received nothing more than travelling expenses for their efforts.
The starting XI that day looked like this: Willie Muir, Tommy Block, Ciarán Summers, Calvin McGrory, Nicky Jamieson, Scott Gibson, Alfredo Agyeman, Salim Kouider-Aissa, David Galt, Joffrey Lidouren, Kieran Moore. Only two of those players are still with the club.
By the time we bowed out last year’s contest on the wrong end of a 6-0 drubbing away to Kilmarnock, the transformation had begun. We had Ray McKinnon at the helm and the club was now professional.
But even though change was clearly under way, nobody could have foreseen the circumstances that lay ahead.
Coronavirus was still a very distant nightmare; social distancing was something reserved for the school dance – and face coverings were very much reserved for scientists working in scary labs. It’s certainly been a bizarre turn of events, and while we can all bemoan lockdowns and lockouts for football fans, we should bear in mind that millions of people across the globe have suffered heartbreak and loss in this pandemic.
So let’s count our blessings and look ahead to our next journey in the strange reality that is the Scottish Cup 2020-2021, a home tie against Queen of the South in a couple of weeks. Vaccines give us hope that Covid might soon become a thing of the past, and who knows – if we can navigate another couple of rounds – the loyal, growing band of QP followers might just get in to see the Spiders in cup action for themselves before the curtain comes down on this incredible season.
By Logan Taylor