Darvel on the morning after night before: Community group cleaning streets, club's own gin brand, John Gall's impact

At Darvel’s boundary, an obligatory olde worlde signage reveals that the ‘burgh’ is ‘birthplace of Sir Alexander Fleming’. Today, it feels as if the East Ayrshire town might be selling itself short without tacking on the declaration ‘and scene of the Scottish Cup’s greatest humbling on the evening of January 23, 2023’.

Never mind discovering penicillin, a triumph that mangled the footballing order as has no previous upset in the near 150-years of the competition is itself an elixir of rare potency. In truth, it can be a struggle to resist over-sentimentalising little Darvel’s 1-0 defeat over mighty Aberdeen in their earthy surrounds of Recreation Park. Walk along the main street on the morning after the first such cup loss by a top flight club to a team five tiers below and the festooning of blue and white colours – in the form of balloons, window displays, and bunting, lots of bunting – certainly remained peak summer gala day. However, thanks to the media interest generated by a feat even now already on its way to feeling fabled, there was more chance of bumping into a reporter, photographer or camera-pointing journalist than a Darvel diehard heel-clicking down the road.

And under the stewardship of chairman John Gall and manager Mick Kennedy, the football club in Darvel is no mere plucky wannabee but ruthlessly aspirational. Privately, there will be thoughts of cup shock mark two, the aim when Falkirk visit in the fifth round in three weeks, opening up a path to no less than a Hampden semi-final. Hard cash has been pumped into the operation by baker and backer Gall. A man who heads up Brownings – makers of the famous Kilmarnock pie – and, by repute, took Darvel on after he was thrown the keys to do so six years ago by one of a board that resigned en masse following a grim result achieved with his own son on the books. Kennedy’s appointment four years ago, and the influx of the sort of seasoned professionals who could make for a competitive group in the mid-reaches of the SPFL, means the West of Scotland Premier Division champions and current leaders have far more in their slingshot than most Davids. Just as an ailing Aberdeen were a Goliath about as steady on their feet as Bambi on rollerskates. On ice.

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What does warm the cockles in speaking to the locals in and around Darvel, and popping into Recreation Park – “they should change the name to Football Park, because it is the football they have done us proud with,” says pensioner Anna Fraser, one of a group tucking into soup at the Crossroads Community Hub on East Main Street – are where the ripples of such a sporting success lap, and produce such profound feelgood. Like they did for Stephen Proctor. In his 50s now, health issues have prevented him following Darvel as he did when he was in his youth. “I used to go when the crowd was tenfolk and a dug, and we finished bottom of junior leagues,” Proctor said. He had to be there on Monday, though, among the near 2,500 home supporters from a town with a population not even double that. “And it was brilliant. I thought we would score … but concede four. What John Gall has achieved… And it isn’t just about the money. It is the time, and how he commits with the community.”

Scarfs are sold outside the ground on a historic night for the club.

That sentiment was oft-expressed by the residents infused with a glow over the warm spotlight being shone on their wee bit of Irvine Valley. “It is the best thing to happen to Darvel in forever,” said Jane Slider of the cup shock. A local champion, she runs the centrally located Verve community group. Providing support and programmes for those in addiction recovery, living with learning disabilities and complex needs, as well as women and mothers, she more than most understands the importance of pride and well-being within a tight-knit, hardly salubrious, environment. And how that can come in unexpected ways.

“It is about giving people a sense of purpose by doing things that allow them to take pride in achievement,” said Stiller, who has three children with complex needs. “Many of those who use our services couldn’t go to the game but we had them do a litter pick after all the folk had been round the town last night, and we collected eight bin bags. The club were thankful, and we have been invited down for a stadium tour and to spend some time with the players.”

For Neil Young, these are the bonds that mean as much as any outcome on the pitch. When I caught up with him at Recreation Park, he was dumping bin bags of the detritus from the terraces into his car. He grew up with Gall. And he delights that, though under pressure to move the Aberdeen tie for a bigger gate than the 3,500 ultimately accommodated, the chairman held firm. Irrespective of the financial cost – the erection of a wooden terracing behind the goal that will return with more levels for Falkirk’s visit eating up £10,000 of the £24,000 payment earned from the BBC for screening the tie live. “We could have had 15,000 at Rugby Park and it wouldn’t have been the same,” said Young, the Kilmarnock stadium ten miles away the natural alternative. “It was amazing to have 2,000-odd here. It meant that hauf the toon was here watching, and the other hauf were watching on TV to see who they could recognise in the crowd.”

Young, in the fruit trade, also has a unique role in the Darvel story. A man who can trace his watching of the club to travelling to Hampden as an eight-year-old for the 1976 Junior Cup final, he has created his own Irvine Valley gin. Last year, he approached Gall last year about making a Darvel FC version, and ploughing the profits back into the club. Instead, Gall bought up the entire batch of The Vale, as it is known, which proved so popular it soon sold out. Some successes do not require toasting, with their medicinal properties in the very air.

Craig Moore leads Darvel's celebrations at full time at Recreation Park.
Darvel fans got right behind their team during the stunning Scottish Cup victory over Aberdeen.