Merkinch stalwart remembers Grant Street Park’s greatest day

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Stan Mathews on the ball against Arsenal…the most celebrated footballer of the past century.  
THE PAUL CHALK COLUMN

IN these rather barren and bleak days for our national sport, there are still football stories to stir the blood – even if they are from the distant past.

And none more so than the day Stan Mathews played at Grant Street Park.

The name may not mean much – or anything – to younger fans these days. But Stan Mathews – the ultimate “Wizard of the Wing” – was arguably the most celebrated British footballer of the last century, eclipsing even George Best.

And yes, he did play in Inverness at Clach Park.

Merkinch stalwart George Rodgers was a ball-boy on the day 7,500 fans packed into the club’s home to see world class acts play in a special VE celebration game 75 years ago.

He was nine years old when the war in Europe ended, but even now that unforgettable day sparkles in his mind. Mathews shared the pitch on that occasion with legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, ex-Scotland boss Bobby Brown, and another stellar England giant in Stan Mortensen.

Matthews, dubbed “The Magician” won 54 England caps, played in two World Cups, starred in the winning Blackpool FA Cup winning team in the 1953 “Matthews final” and won the first Ballon d’Or, the coveted prize for being the best footballer in Europe.

On May 19, 1945, he turned up in the Merkinch as an RAF National XI beat a Queen’s Park select 5-1.

George told the Press and Journal: “A few of the RAF lads were based in the north of Scotland and that helps explain why the game was held at Grant Street Park. There was a wonderful atmosphere around the town. The result of the match wasn’t important, but to be there to watch Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen and other big names such as Bill Shankly and Bobby Brown was a wonderful thing for the audience. They packed into every corner of the ground.”

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Changed days…but 7,500 fans once packed into Clach Park. Picture: Donald Cameron

George’s father, by the same name, is remembered as a local football legend after making it big with Chelsea. George junior, the spellbound ball boy, had talent in those feet too and despite Inverness Thistle and even Newcastle offering potential riches, he was rooted to Inverness, especially Merkinch. 

He was happy with his lot and helped the Lilywhites win several prizes as a player.

Amid the bitter boardroom in-fighting within Scottish football, this heartwarming tale was a tonic.

County have plenty work to do before restart

ROSS County co-bosses Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson brilliantly guided the Staggies back to Scottish football’s top league 12 months ago, holding off Dundee United, who are promoted as champions this time.

This season County have had long winless periods and have finished 10th, six points ahead of relegated Hearts. To be fair, the Dingwall club never danced too close to danger, but they were never safe from the fire either.

Conceding 60 goals in 30 outings tells you where they need to sharpen up their game and I’ve no doubt the management are using lockdown to reshape for the restart whenever that may be.

There will now be a mixture of satisfaction and relief within the Global Energy Stadium. The Highlands still has a Premiership club, but there may not be a team as poor as Hearts to rely on next time when it comes to beating the drop.

Chairman Roy MacGregor says County are unlikely to use the extended furlough scheme because he doesn’t want to hand out short-term deals to players they won’t be keeping beyond the end of this month. He feels that would be a dishonest use of the lifeline cash for struggling businesses.

You need only look to Championship side Dunfermline, who on Friday released a staggering 17 players. They won’t be the last to be forced to release footballers into the wilderness either.

I was, however, sorry to hear one of Scottish football’s good guys, County legend Scott Boyd was made redundant from his role as sporting director with the Dingwall club.

The former defender, who made over 300 appearances for the Staggies over a decade, will be feeling raw at being shown the door again. As a player, he was freed by then manager Jim McIntyre in 2016 but went on to play Premiership football again with Kilmarnock before a return north last year to take up the attractive new sporting director position.

He has a business degree, has put in the graft away from the pitch and, as sporting director, he clocked up the miles all over the Highlands and Islands. The Covid-19 pandemic and lack of income ended the need for his job. I wish him well and I know he leaves the club with the County fans’ best wishes too.

Paul’s Alive and Kicking sports show is on North Highland Radio every Friday from 7pm.

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