When you take a look around Cliftonhill stadium on a match day, you may wonder what the future holds for Albion Rovers. The facilities are amongst the worst in Scottish Football and the crowd has been the nation’s second lowest this season, but under the guidance of manager Paul Martin, things have never looked brighter for the Coatbridge side.
A quick glance at the usual team sheet and you quickly notice an abundance of lower league talent. They’ve got one of the leagues best Goalkeepers in Derek Gaston, SPL experience in Tony Stevenson (Hamilton), Chris Boyle (Kilmarnock), Chris Hamilton (Livingston) and John Gemmell (Partick Thistle). They also have Scott Chaplain, a player who most, if not all the teams within the 3rd Division would welcome in their side, plus 2 players on loan from a successful Motherwell Youth Academy (Peter Innes and Steven Lawless). All that is before you even mention top goal scorer Robert Love. Love has managed to bag 13 goals since his summer switch from Stenhousemuir which has made him an integral part of the side.
As Albion Rovers take a 3-1 lead into the 2nd leg of the final of the 2nd Division Play Offs, thanks to a Love hattrick, Love has been there and done it before and can see similarities between both this seasons Albion Rovers squad and the Stenhousemuir side of 2009. “We have a close knit squad here, just like we did at Stenhousemuir. There are no disruptive influences in the dressing room, something which you might find at other clubs”. This has helped build a fantastic team spirit, something which Love credits a lot of this season’s achievements to. “The club don’t pay the biggest of wages and we have a small squad, so this brings everyone together and makes sure that we are all here for the same reason, to play football. We really are all the best of mates, whether it’s card school on the bus to away games, playing the computer or nights out, the boys all get involved and the banter is just first class. It’s not just the players though. Our chairman Frank Meade also gets us “a few” beers for the bus journey home when we play the likes of Elgin away, this all helps with team bonding. I don’t think money could buy a dressing room like ours as a few of the boys are a bit “mental”. Ian Smith broke all the bones in his face a few months back and the boys had a team meeting to discuss chipping in a few quid to give to him, as he had lost some income due to being off his work. Everyone wanted to donate their wages and even the Chairman got involved. It was a great gesture and one I’m very proud to have been part of. It wasn’t a lot of money but it helped Ian out a bit, and he really appreciated the gesture”.
The club missed out on a Play Off place by just one point during the 2010/11 campaign; something which the players who were in the squad at the time have taken motivation from this season. However, to people outside the club, the job that manager Paul Martin has done has not gone unnoticed, and although Arbroath fans may have something to say about it, many supporters of other clubs probably wouldn’t complain if he was given the Manager of the Year award for the Division. It would be fair to say that over the years Albion Rovers have struggled and have found themselves frequenting the bottom positions in the league table more often than not. However after 2 top 5 finishes on the bounce, Martin must take a lot of the credit.
“The manager is honest, and he tells you it like it is, which the players respect. He is working on a shoe string budget but has still brought players to the club who share his passion in winning and who give their all in training and during matches. He can have a laugh and a joke with the players as well, but we all know the right time to be serious. He has instilled passion and pride into Albion Rovers. It is not a “you” or “I” culture at the club, it’s all about “we” as in the full club. From the Chairman to the supporters, he makes you believe in your own ability and has the full club pulling in the same direction. After 3 years at the club he has the right balance between young and experienced players throughout the team which I think puts us in a strong position. We sometimes have a young versus old game at training and someone who is 24 has to go with the “oldies”. This shows you how young a side we have. Ciaran Donnelly is our captain; he’s only 24 years old but has played over 200 first team games for us. It would mean so much to the gaffer if we were promoted through the Play Offs and I owe so much to him that it would be fantastic if we could all repay his faith in us by doing it.” Although Martin can’t take all the credit. “The gaffer is also backed by Todd Lumsden and Danny Ferry who are assistant manager and coach. Both work hard and have a large input into training and what goes on with the squad, they all work together as a team”.
For the second year running Albion Rovers have conceded fewer goals than any other Part Time team in the league, which has obviously gone a long way in making them hard to beat, but this is also an impressive achievement in it’s own right. A lot of emphasis is put on the players to defend from the front, which makes life easier for the back 4. This has helped 33 year old former Raith Rovers & Hamilton Defender Todd Lumsden cement a place in this year’s 3rd Divisions Team of the Year. “Todd and Ciaran have had a solid partnership all season and have been the rock for the rest of us to build on. Even when Allan Benton has been called upon to come in and cover he has never looked out of place for us. Our full backs are very reliable as well. Michael McGowan has played around 90 games in a row for us now and Alan Reid gives everything he has got every time he plays. Derek Gaston is one of the best keepers in the league but once said “I’ve not had a save to make” we were 2-0 down at the time. Derek may not be the brightest but he is a very good goalkeeper”.
It took two tough games against 3rd placed Queens Park for Albion to progress. A near deserted Hampden Park has been the undoing of many a team over the years, and it didn’t help when striker Craig Smith grabbed an early goal for The Spiders. After efforts from Love and his strike partner John Gemmell were well saved by Adam Strain ‘The Wee Rovers’ faithful must have been thinking that it just wasn’t going to be their day. That was before Scott Chaplain scored his 9th goal for the club since his return from Dumbarton at the start of the year. In the return leg at Cliftonhill it was winner takes all, and a 2nd Half John Gemmell brace booked Albion their spot in the final. “I was delighted, as were all the boys. We had suffered the disappointment of only drawing at Hampden. We saw the Queens Park players celebrating so that motivated us to try and work harder to put things right in the second leg. I always felt we were pretty comfortable during the second game, but we just couldn’t find the opener in the 1st half. At half time the gaffer and Todd gave us some reassurance and finally we did manage to break the deadlock”.
John Gemmell is regarded by a lot of 3rd Division fans as being one of the best Target Men in the league. Defenders are often quoted as saying that they constantly have to put a shift in when they face him. What Gemmell gives you is an avenue to win balls and bring in players around him and Love really does enjoy playing alongside him. “John, on his day, is one of the best at what he does. He is very good technically and also has an eye for goal. He thinks he has set up all of my goals this season so by setting him up against Queens Park he was letting me know I’ve only got another 9 assists to go. Playing upfront with a bigger striker benefits me, he takes all the knocks and wins the headers which allow me to get onto the ball and play off him. I think for our 1st season playing upfront together we have started to form a partnership that causes problems to the opposition defences.”
Albion Rovers now face a tough journey to Galabank in Annan. It has been something of a happy hunting ground for the team since Harry Cairney’s side joined the league 3 seasons ago. In 7 outings near the borders, Albion have managed to pick up a total of 9 points, which is probably one of the better records for Away teams in the 3rd Division. “Our manager said after the last league game we played against them that if we were going to be prompted we would need to find a way of trying to beat Annan. He has been proven right. They are very difficult side to play against. They work hard and have a good defence. They also have Sean O’Connor and Ian Harty upfront who will always score goals”.
The Play Offs have divided opinion since they were introduced into Scottish football by the Scottish Football League during the 2005/06 campaign. Some people like it and feel that it adds to the end of season excitement and drama along with giving more teams something to play for. Other fans and officials favour a straight 2 teams promoted, 2 teams relegated solution, however Robert Love is a fan of it “I’m all for the Play Offs. I think it keeps the league exciting right up until the end. Take this year for example, we didn’t know who we were going to face until after our final game of the season, which was against Berwick. I would personally make one change though; I think having the final at a neutral venue with just the one game would be better than the current set up of playing each other Home and Away”.
There is no doubt that after the season Albion Rovers have had that this year will go down as a success. With the end of season Player of the Year and other award ceremonies planned after the game on Saturday, if ‘The Wee Rovers’ can hold on to the advantage they have already got and win promotion, then Coatbridge might just be the place to be for a good Scottish party on Saturday night.