Book Review: Hunting Grounds
Some of the trips result in drab nil-nil draws and Sutherland is unrepentant in awarding no gold stars for sub-standard performances. But occasionally he has the luck to visit a team on a momentous day for them: his trip to Moray to watch Elgin City play East Stirlingshire sees Elgin suffering a shocking run and one loss off making the record books. This resulted in the BBC TV cameras turning up at Borough Briggs to record the team (for non-Elginers, this is not a weekly occurrence). But the author is there to witness a dramatic change in fortune for the Moray team as they clock up their first win and score five in the process.
Alongside reviews of the games, his journeys to the grounds and myriad local boozers, Sutherland also finds space in his individual reports to explore the delights and trials of the half time pie in Scotland football. For those who don’t know, the Scotch pie is quite a different beast to the puff pastry pansy that is found south of the border, mainly thanks to the use of artery clogging short crust pastry as one of the central ingredients. However, the author turns his quest for the best pie on its head somewhat by declaring the Steak Bridie at Dunfermline Athletic’s East End Park as winner of best ‘pie’. Quibbles aside, Sutherland’s descriptions do make for hungry reading on an empty stomach and becomes one of the most enjoyable elements of his report. Many will wince or worse at the thought of consuming Ayr United’s deep-fried pie, though.
Those planning on joining Sutherland on his journey should be prepared for some fairly woeful jokes, which are often stretched to breaking point (and beyond). After being refused entry to the Captain’s Lounge at Dundee’s Den Park, he manages to slip the following past whoever was supposed to edit the book: “I don’t know if that’s the captain’s decision or if I have to be a captain to get in there. I’m not a captain of industry. I’m not Captain Cook. I’m not Captain Sensible. I’m not any kind of captain.”
The report of a trip to the Highlands to watch Ross County sits close to a journey over the border to see Berwick Rangers, and made this reader realise just how vast Scotland as a country really is and how difficult it must be for non-SPL clubs from the Central Belt to generate the income to afford to travel to these grounds on home gates of around 500. What is quite striking from the descriptions of the grounds, fans and games that Sutherland reports is just how far the majority Scottish football clubs are from the corporate-endorsed, Europe-gazing upper reaches of the SPL. For the clubs below the SPL (and, in many cases, those included in it) the game is not the model of modern, progressive football that the SFA would like the outside world to see it as. An example is a trip to Arbroath in 2006 where the game is abandoned due to such a strong wind that the keeper can’t even take a goal kick, and it doesn’t seem like it could be that different to the set up circa their famous 36-0 win in 1885. In another visit, the author is accompanied by two holidaying Italian friends to watch East Stirlingshire play Stenhousemuir, where one of the visitors makes the fairly accurate observation: “In Italy, we don’t have anything this…how you say…shit.”
Sutherland’s raison d’etre is empathically not to engage with football politics in any way beyond relating who a club’s biggest rivals is. This means that the very real problems ingrained in Scottish football in its current state (the Big Two dominance, the playing of teams four times a season, the lack of a clear pyramid system running from non-league into the SFL, and the lack of competition and complacency) are completely ignored. It won’t challenge you and it’s debatable whether you’ll find it as amusing as the author himself does, but Hunting Grounds is a leisurely and occasionally enlightening trip through a group of forty-something clubs that don’t seem to have that much in common, apart from the land mass they exist on and their approach to pie making.