Arbroath’s Gayfield Park is about as close to the North Sea as it’s possible to get without actually wading into the water. It’s one of the most scenic football ground locations you’ll find anywhere in the UK, but it’s also notoriously one of the coldest. Last time I came here was way back on New Year’s Day 2003. I remember it well, because ice-cold wind and sleet rolled off the sea to batter the terraces, and to this day I’m convinced I almost died of exposure.
So, like a distrustful old seadog who has seen one too many violent squalls, I ignored the duplicitous August sunshine and wrapped up in numerous layers to make my return to Gayfield. It turned out I was being overly cautious, for this turned out to be one of those rare early-season encounters in Scottish football where you can just about get away with wearing short sleeves. Just about.
Gayfield, as far as I could tell, hasn’t changed much in the 18 years since my near-death experience. At one end of the ground there’s a park, and at the other end there’s the confidently-named Pleasureland, an indoor seaside amusement centre for those too sensible to trust the local weather. Along one side there’s a seated main stand, but the rest of the ground is unashamedly old school, with crumbly terracing and plenty of visual obstacles to crane your neck around.
Under the guidance of the ever-underrated Dick Campbell, Arbroath are currently enjoying one of the high points in their history, and are in their third consecutive season in the Championship (Scotland’s second tier). Their opponents here were another club enjoying a golden era: my team, St Johnstone, who won both of Scotland’s major knock-out trophies last season and came here to kick-off their League Cup defence.
Just three days before this tie, the Saints were taking on Galatasaray in a Europa League qualifier, so you might think Arbroath would be a seaside stroll in comparison. However, that was far from the way it turned out. Arbroath were organised and up for it, and gave their lofty opponents a major scare, dominating much of the play and taking a deserved lead through Jon Nouble in the 31st minute. Glenn Middleton equalised for Saints in the second half (and also had an effort bounce down off the bar and look suspiciously close to crossing the line), but the Perth side couldn’t find a winner and were made to sweat as the game went into extra-time. Here again, both sides scored and the match went all the way to penalties, where an edgy shoot-out was finally required to see Saints banish growing talk of a giant-killing. And yes, as a St Johnstone fan, I’m completely unironically calling Saints “giants” these days.
Arbroath 2 St Johnstone 2 (St Johnstone win 3-2 on penalties)
Scottish League Cup Second Round
Sunday 15 August 2021