May 2, 2009 – Victoria Park, Dingwall
There’s not many long journeys in the Scottish First Division this season, making the bi-annual visits to Dingwall two not to be missed.
Victoria Park is as close to a perfect venue as there is for medium sided Scottish clubs – it’s compact and (usually) offers the chance to sit or stand.
When the SFL fixture list is released, usually in mid-June, I tend to look for the away games that can be classed as a proper ‘day out’.
With no offence intended to other clubs in the First Division, the trips that I tend to look forward to most are Queen of the South and Ross County.
In comparison to clubs south of the border, the travelling distances here in Scotland tend to be quite modest, with Dingwall being far and away the longest for the critical mass of clubs located in the Central Belt.
From Livingston, Ross County’s hometown is a shade over 170 miles one way, a trip of about four hours when travelling by supporters’ coach as I tend to do to Livi aways.
When so many Saturday afternoons are spent traversing the urban sprawl of central Scotland, the trip up the A9 through the Highlands is no great hardship.
Sure it’s an early start, and you might not get home until about 9pm, but in the grand scheme of things there are far worse things to be doing than gazing out of the window at some of the most stunning natural landscapes to be found anywhere in the world.
There are plenty of nice places en route too, and on this occasion the journey was broken up with a short stop in Pitlochry a little bit north of Perth.
After snaking through the Highlands and onto Inverness, we crossed the Kessock Bridge and arrived at Dingwall (or Inbhir Pheofharain in Gaelic) shortly before 1pm.
Dingwall is a fairly small place but seems to be a hub for the local area and as such has a wee bit of bustle on a Saturday afternoon.
Pub wise, the Mallard, situated at the train station is worth a visit but we decided to pop into the Royal Hotel for a change, where beers and lunch were had in readiness for the game.
The Royal Hotel is situated a short walk ‘over the bridge’ from Victoria Park, which sits almost in isolation from the rest of the town on the other side of the railway.
It’s a ground I have been to many times and which has changed fundamentally since my first visit when Meadowbank Thistle played here in the Scottish Cup in 1991.
Ross County were a Highland League side at that point, and the ground had a tiny wee stand, a shed at one end and not much else.
The Cup tie was postponed ten times that season, causing untold fixture problems for Thistle, but I still retain pleasant memories of jumping up and down as a youngster on the grass banking as Meadowbank stuck six past County in a comprehensive win.
The modern day Victoria Park is barely recognisable. Two new stands have been erected down the touchlines and concrete terracing has replaced the grass banking that I slid down at the north end.
The Highland Football Academy, a joint initiative with Caley Thistle looms behind this concrete terracing, obscuring what was once a pleasant view out onto the Moray Firth.
Only the ‘Jail End’ where the majority of home fans congregate is comparable, and even then I am fairly sure that the cover and terracing have been renewed and upgraded in recent years.
It’s testament to County that they have developed the ground so considerably over the past two decades. Although they have had their share of ups and downs, it’s hard not to be impressed with the way both the club and ground have grown organically.
The thing I like about Victoria Park is that it has been kept compact, very much in keeping with the town in which it is located.
With just over 2500 in for this game the place felt relatively busy. Put a similar number into the Excelsior Stadium, Almondvale or McDiarmid Park and the grounds would seem almost totally deserted.
Whether County harbour any SPL ambitions I don’t know, but it would seem like folly to me for them to build any further at Victoria Park. As it stands it’s a good size, the current 6000 capacity being sufficient for any big matches against the Old Firm, Aberdeen or near neighbours Caley Thistle.
One disappointment on this occasion was that the uncovered terrace was closed to away supporters, forcing the small Livi support to concentrate itself in the West Stand. I always prefer to stand, so being forced to sit wasn’t ideal.
More annoyingly, there was no option but to pay the £15 price tag for a seat when I would have been quite content to pay £2 less to stand behind the goals.
I suppose in hindsight, I can’t really grumble with the value for money I got for my slightly increased admission fee. After watching a dreadful end of season game at Firhill a week previously, I was kept well entertained here.
Livingston had the best of the first half, aided quite considerably by an early red card picked up by County’s Alex Keddie for a foul on Leigh Griffiths.
Griffiths, the undisputed star turn in the Livi side, converted the free-kick which resulted from Keddie’s ‘professional foul’ with a sweet strike from just outside the box.
That was all the scoring for the first half, but the game burst into life after the break. County missed a penalty and when Livi youngster Andy Halliday scrambled home a second goal, the game looked well beyond County’s reach.
However, they needed a result to stay ahead in the race to avoid relegation and to their credit they really rolled up their sleeves in the last half hour and put Livingston under pressure.
It was hard to tell which side was playing with a man down, and in a manic spell former Livingston striker Steven Craig found the net with a long range strike, then another penalty to bring the scores level at 2-2.
It was a fair result in the end, although County looked more likely to score a third goal.
The second half was also notable for a lengthy stoppage caused by an injury to match referee David Somers.
With no fourth official in attendance, as is the custom in the SFL, a qualified replacement ‘assistant’ was sourced from the crowd and quickly took up his place on the far side in an SFA tracksuit while the ‘official’ assistant took over in the middle.
It’s not something you see very often these days and thankfully for the stand-in – who is highly likely to have been a County supporter – his unplanned spell in the limelight didn’t throw up any controversial incidents.
All things considered it was a decent game and a decent day out. Just as I hoped for when I pencilled it in way back last June.
Scoring – 0-1 Griffiths (17), 0-2 Halliday (51), 1-2 Craig (53), 2-2 Craig (59 pen)
Attendance – 2567
Admission – £15
Programme – £2.50
Ground – 8/10 – Cracking ground in a lovely wee town
Game – 7/10. Bucked the end of season trend
Overall experience – 8/10. A very long day but enjoyable
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