Throughout history there are countless inspiring stories of the underdog fighting back against great odds to prevail. From the Spartans at Thermopylae to the voice that came out Susan Boyle’s face. Sport and particularly football are filled with such examples, that’s why we love the game so much and hold such affection for the giant killers in the cups. However, no story tells of such a remarkable turnaround of fortunes as that of Dale’s FC.
There has been moderate press interest in the events surrounding seven-a-side pub team Dale’s FC in the past year. Established in 1994 by a group of friends, they have competed in the lowest levels of the West of Scotland Seven-a-Side Super Pub Cup Saturday League since its inception. Taking the name of local watering hole and sponsor, Dale’s, where they meet and socialize post- and, often, pre-game, they wear strips of blue and white in honour of their heroes, Greenock Morton FC.
I first met with Dale’s last October, in the midst of another difficult campaign. Still under the management of the man who brought them together, Bert McCafferty, they had yet to win a game.
“Well y’know some people like to sneer at us when they hear we’ve never won a game, but year on year we’ve shown improvement. Currently we’re sitting bottom on zero points with negative 86 goal difference, but this time last season we were bottom with negative 94 goal difference, so there are positives to look at.”
I attend one of their games at the pitches beneath the motorway flyover, and from early in the match it is no surprise which way the result will go. After conceding an unfortunate two goals in the opening minute, morale crumbled and the remaining 49 minutes were a mere formality.
“No one likes losing early goals,” Bert tells me after the match, “but fairness to the lads we kept the heads up, looking for passes, and managed to score one in the middle of the second half. We were just unlucky they scored twenty-two more than us.”
The team’s captain however, John ‘Pears’ Pearson holds a different view. “We’re shite.”
In the team minibus on the way back spirits don’t seem too down. The players laugh and joke with each other and get a few cans in before arriving back at Dale’s.
“Not to sound like a wank, but there’s a lot of love in the team. We play for each other and that’s the real essence of the game.”
The minibus is driven by someone who, though not in possession of a footballer’s physique, has enough heart and passion to match any team of eleven. Frank Paterson, weighing a princely seventeen stone has the important duties of physio, kit man, and club secretary.
“Sometimes when the other lads are tired, I sub on and play defence,” he tells me in a soft, alto voice. “I never last very long, and once I had to come off with heart palpitations, but it’s good fun.” I ask where the team minibus comes from since, despite their form, they appear very well equipped. “I own a minicab company, so the bus is mine, but the kits, water bottles and embroidered tracksuits were all Bert.”
Back at Dale’s, a draughty bar with creaking wooden chairs and the unmistakable whiff of regret, the team take their usual table as Bert buys the customary first round. I get talking to some of the players. They all have their own reasons for showing up week in, week out, ranging from, “It helps my cholesterol,” “Gets me away from the wife,” to “Otherwise I’d have no friends,” but they all agree it’s a bit of a laugh. Apart from a couple of collapsed knees and a stroke, it is still the original line up from twenty-five years ago.
In that time the average age has risen from 36 to 54, however the youngest and most recent addition to the team (and this season’s current top scorer with six) is 15-year-old Cal Johnston. “My uncle buys me pints after,” is his particular reason for playing.
This is also the first chance I have to meet the Dale after whom the club take their name. He is a tall, muscular man, with acne scars and an ambitious bouffant for his thinning hair. Bert introduces me as he goes for his round.
“This is Dale, the man who made all this possible. The chairman, if you will!”
“Pumped again today?” he asks.
The pause and wounded smile are all he needs. “Fuck sake,” he grumbles, going back to cleaning a glass.
Back at the table Bert regales the team with an anecdote, which apparently relates in some way to the team’s tactics, though the players aren’t paying much attention. Despite the authoritative tone and surprising air of self-confidence Bert, in a faded suit (which he always wears to matches), with a bristly moustache that makes him look like Jon Polito, secretes more perspiration than inspiration. It is no surprise he is interrupted when a being of pure charisma unexpectedly enters the pub.
I have never met a man as devoted to a cause as Bert is to Dale’s FC. In his youth he had a trial for his beloved Morton, and he assures me he was a “pretty wicked winger,” however a broken leg from a one-sided argument with a car meant the majority of his adult life would be spent as a civil servant. He never lost his love of the game though, this season renewing his season ticket at Cappielow for the 53rd time.
In 1994 Bert was 40, when buried in the advertisements of the Greenock Telegraph he noticed a calling for local seven-a-side teams to enter a new pub league. Counting his friends, he managed to scrape together a squad.
“Some of them took a bit of convincing, but after I bought them all new boots they felt quite bad about saying no.” Despite no formal management experience, and still suffering health issues, Bert was the obvious choice to lead. “They say you need 10,000 hours experience to be an expert at something. I’ve definitely seen over 10,000 hours of football, so being an expert at watching it, I assumed some tactical knowledge might transfer over y’know.”
However at this moment he is ignored, as all eyes fall on the distinctive man with the exquisite posture and turtleneck jumper. The entire table falls silent as they watch him find his bearings and approach the bar before erupting in frantic whispers. They never imagined they would see their hero in their own draughty local.
“It’s Patrice Vallot!”
“Can’t be, he went back home…”
“No, he married a Greenock burd!”
Patrice Vallot, for those unfamiliar, was a beloved and prolific goalscorer for Morton in the mid noughties. Signed from a high flying Auxerre, he was to be their Cantona. “He was on the bench for a team that played in the Champions League!” Frank gushes. The team giggle, mutter and conspire until ultimately Bert, goaded by his team, works up the courage. “I’m going to talk to him!”
A hush falls over the players, as Bert creeps towards their chiseled idol. He contorts awkwardly trying to nonchalantly catch Vallot’s eye. When he does he launches into handshakes, back pats, and, I swear, even a bow. Vallot seems unsure about this rabid fan at first, but when he points to the team in the corner, who all immediately avert their gaze, he appears to relax. The deal is sealed when, somehow, Bert leads him over to the table. Frank audibly moans sensually.
Sitting at the head of the table with a glass of orange juice, he spends upwards of ninety minutes being subjected to the entire history of Dale’s and fielding endless questions. What was your favourite goal? Where do you think the club goes next? How much do you hate the Buddies? He answers all with admirable grace in heavily accented English, however it is young Cal who asks the biggest question of the afternoon.
“Want tae join our team?”
Some inhale, some jaws drop, as Bert fills the void with one of the biggest fake laughs possible. Patrice merely smiles.
“Why not?” says Vallot, “Will be good to keep in shape.”
They would have heard the cheer in Gourock it was so raucous. How nine individuals could sustain such a racket shall be forever lost on me. Patrice stays only for another OJ while the party continues for the rest of the afternoon. Calls from wives are missed and other patrons are vexed as the potential and imagined highs are giddily discussed at increasing volume. Dale doesn’t mind, as apparently he goes through three kegs, four Famous Grouses and six Glen’s. I decide it best to leave when Bert starts ordering trays of Aftershock.
“I have nothing to do with them,” Dale tells me in relation to the team. “They asked to enter this league in my name and I let them, figured good advertising. If I’d known I’d lent my name to the worst team in the history of Scotland I’d’ve told them to fuck off.” Who does he pitch his flag behind? “Celtic, aren’t they winning the now?”
It is little surprise Dale is absent from the touchlines the next week for star signing Patrice Vallot’s debut. Meanwhile Bert has graciously offered me unprecedented access to the team’s changing rooms and tactical meetings, in what he hopes will be a momentous game for his boys in blue and white stripes.
This is a home game for Dale’s, the ‘stadium’ a small pebble dashed cabin long ago abandoned by the council. It hasn’t been torn down for offences to health and safety only due to Bert’s tireless campaigning and upgrades. The concrete floors of the changing rooms and rotted benches still bare grass stains from last week’s, month’s, year’s encounters, but as is pointed out, “The pitch is mostly fine, which is all that matters.”
The opponents this week hail from Lochwinnoch and in red and black shirts are only a few bulbous bellies away from looking like Milan. I’m told they’re heavy hitters, currently sitting third in the thirteen team league. The Super Pub Cup comprises thirty seven teams across three divisions, from Largs to Paisley, and has grown in prestige over the last few years, culminating with the Laughing Monkey Bar and Grill FC winning the knockout phase to become National Pub Champions.
This however is the third division, and standards are not so high. I see Cal’s uncle pull a muscle during the warm up, requiring a blast of Deep Heat. As kick off draws near anxiety bubbles among the ranks. There’s no sign of Patrice.
Bert tries to settle everyone with his pre-match team talk, involving a white board complete with magnets and arrows that resemble a military operation. I had no idea seven-a-side could be so complex. The upbeat vibe from an hour ago has all but vanished, with most players beginning to feel the fantasy slipping away…
Not so! Four minutes before kick off, a silver BMW coupe roars into the car park, and out jumps the immaculate Vallot. He apologies for being late, pulls on a kit, and immediately the excitement re-enters the Dale camp. Frank is able to plead with the ref to delay kick-off while Bert takes the white board he arduously spent the last twenty minutes explaining to his players and wipes his tactics off.