Won over by Albion Rovers | Iain McLean

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Inspired by Albion Rovers’ role in the community, McLean has become a regular visitor to the Lanarkshire club’s Cliftonhill Stadium home, documenting their fortunes for over 20 years.

Albion 0-0 Annan.
Albion Rovers 0-0 Annan Athletic. Cliftonhill Stadium. 09.04.11. “This is a really old shot taken from the disused electricity box opposite the stand at Cliftonhill. The keeper was trying to keep warm and is nicely framed with the peeling paint on the left.” © Iain McLean

He has been with them and their fans on Cup runs that took in Rangers and Celtic, as well as focusing on the hard times of deserted stadiums and strictly enforced restrictions in the aftermath of Covid.

Originally from East Kilbride, south of Glasgow, freelance photographer Iain McLean describes himself as “instinctively a Celtic fan”. But disillusioned with the big business feel of such a major club, something which resonates with a lot of supporters, McLean turned his attention towards Albion Rovers in the year 2000 and has followed them ever since.

Berwick Rangers 2-2 Albion Rovers
Berwick Rangers 2-2 Albion Rovers. Shielfield Park. 07.05.11. “My brother stays in Berwick so it was always great to make the pilgrimage to the fantastic Shielfield Park. The Quagmires were on a stag night and were heading to Newcastle after the game.: © Iain McLean
Annan 2-1 Albion Rovers.
Annan Athletic 2-1 Albion Rovers. Galabank. 22.05.11. “A day of celebrations started at Galabank Stadium in Annan when Rovers lost 2-1 but won 4-3 on aggregate to win promotion to the second division. They were pounded in the second half by a wind aided Annan side but held on to win promotion for the first time since 1988/89. I was standing quite far away when our fans started singing ‘Shoes off for the Albion!’ and needed to do a bit of barging to get through the crowd to grab 2 or 3 shots before the shoes went back on.” © Iain McLean

He began taking pictures that year, when granted access by a pal who edited the club programme. Work commitments hindered him attending regularly in those early days, but his project, More Than Just A Football Club, really took off from the 2010-2011 season.

Says McLean: “I liked the sense of community at the club. The chairman would often be at the gate welcoming people, and actually remembered your name. Not something you’d get at a big club.

Albion 3-2 East Stirling
Albion Rovers 3-2 East Stirling. Cliftonhill Stadium. 03.12.13. “Mooching around outside the stadium looking for a photo and liked the backlit plants.” © Iain McLean
Albion 3-2 East Stirling.
Albion Rovers 3-2 East Stirling. Cliftonhill Stadium. 03.12.13. “I’m interested in the relationship the stadium has with the local environment and have taken a few of these shots which try and show our place in the community.” © Iain McLean

“From a young age football was a vehicle to be part of a group, a tribe if you like. For many it was a release from everyday life.”

Iain McLean
Glasgow Ranegrs, Albion Rovers
Glasgow Rangers 1-1 Albion Rovers. Scottish Cup Quarter Final. Ibrox Stadium. 09.03.14. “We went to Ibrox stadium for our Scottish Cup quarter final with an Ally McCoist managed Rangers. The word was that McCoist would be relieved of his position if Rangers lost, and lo’ and behold they drew level with a very dubious (illegal) goal awarded with 12 minutes remaining by a dubious referee, thereby saving Ally’s bacon. These guys show the passion following the Rovers goal. The experience was spine tingling even though we were targeted by coin throwing morons in the stand above. No wonder nobody likes them.” © Iain McLean
Rangers 1-1 Albion
Glasgow Rangers 1-1 Albion Rovers. Scottish Cup Quarter Final. Ibrox Stadium. 09.03.14. © Iain McLean

“So it was friendly, but winning over confidence was tricky. I had to show the fans I wasn’t here to humiliate them and in time I was accepted.

“Other than the sense of community I love the odd things that happen, the little cameos – the dog being fed a pie, the security person fooling around wearing a gas mask, passing the charity scratch card around the crowd. Little nuggets of joy.”

A highlight for McLean was a large photographic exhibition at Coatbridge’s Summerlee Museum in 2019, celebrating Albion Rovers’ 100 years at their Cliftonhill Stadium ground.

Albion 0-2 Stirling Albion.
Albion Rovers 0-2 Stirling Albion. Cliftonhill Stadium. 12.04.14. “I don’t have many pics of the players as that’s not really what I’m interested in but I do like this one. It’s in the tunnel before kick off with the Rovers team squeezing past on their way out.” © Iain McLean
Albion 0-2 Stirling Albion.
Albion Rovers 0-2 Stirling Albion. Cliftonhill Stadium. 12.04.14. “A view over the old (unused) Cliftonhill stand looking south.” © Iain McLean
Berwick Rangers 1-1 Albion Rovers
Berwick Rangers 1-1 Albion Rovers. Scottish Cup 4th Round. Shielfield Park. 29.11.14. “Shielfield is one of my favourite away grounds, with the giant silos in the distance (off camera to the left) and the stand lights shining through the east coast har.” © Iain McLean

“We worked hard to get funding,” he said, “and the result was a comprehensive show centred around the history of the stadium.”

McLean started the project using a Canon EOS5, with Ilford HP5 film, but moved to digital first using a Canon EOS5d camera. “Laterally I’ve been using a Fuji XT4 as it’s smaller and less obtrusive,” he said.

McLean’s football roots go back to his early support of Celtic and he still has a soft spot for Celtic legend Henrik Larsson.

“Larsson was my all time favourite player but within the lower leagues Alan Trouten and Alan Reid were my two favourite Rovers players. 

“Reidy was a long servant to Albion Rovers (11 years) and was a fast, skilful right back. I still have an Alan Reid badge which was given to me at his testimonial game.”

Albion 1-1 Arbroath
Albion Rovers 1-1 Arbroath. Cliftonhill Stadium. 25.04.15. “A full house at Cliftonhill where Rovers were presented with the League Championship Trophy. It was a busy day when we were receiving the Championship trophy. A club like Rovers rarely win anything so prestigious so this was a day to work hard and record as many moments as possible. These boys were watching the game over the wall at the north west side of Cliftonhill and had their feet wedged into worn brick holes, not floating in some spiritual football dream.” © Iain McLean
Albion 1-1 Arbroath
Albion Rovers 1-1 Arbroath. Cliftonhill Stadium. 25.04.15. “A full house at Cliftonhill where Rovers were presented with the League Championship Trophy. What a day. Classic shot of John ‘The Beast’ Gemmell saluting the crowd. I positioned myself low and had the 16-35mm lens on as I knew it would be a big crowd. All of the players ran out in the usual way but John, who was a unique individual, turned around and saluted the crowd while walking backwards. At first I though he’d messed up the shot but realised this was a good one when I got home and sorted through the days photos.” © Iain McLean
Albion 1-3 Airdrie
Albion Rovers 1-3 Airdrie. Cliftonhill Stadium. 12.09.15. “I like the awkward juxtaposition of these two characters photographed in the lounge inside Cliftonhill.” © Iain McLean
Albion 0-4 Alloa
Albion Rovers 0-4 Alloa Athletic. Cliftonhill Stadium. 27.08.16. “The dog is called Ruby and she’s Stuart’s dog. He’s a local fella and Ruby has managed to escape from her garden on a couple of occasions where, much to the hilarity of the fans, she got onto the pitch and started chasing the ball. Here she is, securely tethered after one such foray and enjoying a well-earned pie.” © Iain McLean

Earliest football memory was being taken to see Celtic play at Patrick Thistle by his Uncle Alex, a Thistle fan.

“He got a frosty response after dropping me off at home,” recalled McLean, “as I’d managed to fall into a puddle and my powder blue coat was filthy. 

“I played as a winger for my class team at Secondary School and liked being part of a team but despite trying hard, I was pretty mediocre to be honest.

“From a young age football was a vehicle to be part of a group, a tribe if you like. For many it was a release from everyday life and I especially remember Scotland v England games being a big thing in our house with mum serving pies and beans at half time. 

“Later in life when I became wary of clubs being turned into big businesses, I started photographing amateur football for the Glasgow Evening Times.”

That inspired McLean to investigate further. He summed it up: “Seeing lower league football played in front of small crowds and in quirky stadiums ignited an interest in how smaller clubs are part of their local community.

Albion 3-4 St Mirren
Albion Rovers 3-4 St Mirren. After extra time FT = 3-3. Irn Bru Cup. Cliftonhill Stadium. 03.09.16. “Now this actually looks like a set up shot but believe me it’s not. Sometimes things all come together.
This wee guy had his feet in a worn brick and I think he spotted a family member who was in one of the teams, although who knows. Taken at the north west corner of the ground where there is an opportunity to see the game for free.” © Iain McLean

“I like the idea of a narrative in photography, something linking the images together rather than the ‘stand-alone’ image. A collection of photos can often give more depth to a subject and is personally more satisfying.”

Iain McLean
Albion 3-4 St Mirren
Albion Rovers 3-4 St Mirren. After extra time FT = 3-3. Irn Bru Cup. Cliftonhill Stadium. 03.09.16. “There was a good turnout with plenty of St Mirren fans making the relatively short trip over to Coatbridge. My mate was, for some reason, standing outside the ground on the hill overlooking the game and was enjoying a refreshment with a few others (all over 18). I was in the stadium and he called me to let me know there was a bit of action on the hill. I went round to find the young team there too and I spotted the little guy through the gap, pre-focussed and waited for him to turn around.” © Iain McLean
Albion 0-3 Celtic.
Albion Rovers 0-3 Celtic. Airdrie Scottish Cup 4th Round. Excelsior Stadium. 22.01.17. “We adjourned to the St Andrew’s Bar in Coatbridge before heading over to Airdrie for the Cup game against Celtic. The bar is a classic. The type of bar you’d love to have at the end of your street. These are some of the guys I go to the games with – probably imposing on the chap on the left’s Sunday lunchtime pint.” © Iain McLean

“I like the idea of a narrative in photography, something linking the images together rather than the ‘stand-alone’ image. A collection of photos can often give more depth to a subject and is personally more satisfying.

“I really enjoy seeing the work of Stuart Roy Clarke (Homes of Football), and of Scottish maverick Brian Sweeney (Great Stadiums of the North).

“I subscribe to When Saturday Comes and Colin McPherson’s photographs of lower league football in the magazine are a highlight.

Daniel Gray is a superb writer and is the editor of Nutmeg Magazine so I was thrilled when his words accompanied my pics in a photo essay on Rovers in Nutmeg in September 2018.”

East Fife 2-0 Albion Rovers
East Fife 2-0 Albion Rovers. Bayview Stadium. 04.03.17. “The Rovers team can be seen warming up through East Fife’s Bayview stadium gates with these wee guys having a kick about outside. Players of tomorrow?” © Iain McLean
Airdrie 2-2 Albion.
Airdrie 2-2 Albion Rovers. Excelsior Stadium. 28.10.17. “Andy, er, celebrating the 2-2 draw against local rivals Airdrie?” © Iain McLean
Albion P-P St Johnstone
Albion Rovers P-P St Johnstone. Scottish Cup 4th Round. Cliftonhill Stadium. 20.01.18. “Huge volunteer turnout to help clear the snow, including our manager Brian Kerr, chairman Ronnie Boyd and some St Johnstone fans too. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s valiant efforts the game was postponed.” © Iain McLean
Albion Rovers 1-2 Arbroath.
Albion Rovers 1-2 Arbroath. Cliftonhill Stadium. 27.03.18. “A little cameo shot of feet and angles on the Cliftonhill terracing.” © Iain McLean

For McLean it is all about the club’s status within the community.

“I have no real interest in football or fashion style subculture,” he says, “but I do enjoy the sense of community and many of my photos are taken from around the ground showing the stadium’s place in the local community.”

Albion 0-1 Forfar.
Albion Rovers 0-1 Forfar Athletic. Cliftonhill Stadium. 07.04.18. “This frame is during the pre-game warm up. I liked the angles and graphic element to the shot.” © Iain McLean
Albion 3-0 Stirling Albion
Albion Rovers 3-0 Stirling Albion. Cliftonhill Stadium. 29.09.18. “First win of the season. Looking at the stadium from the local’s point of view. I searched for the home owner to ask permission and there he was, fixing his letterbox and to say he was a bit bemused when I asked if I could photograph his sheets drying in his garden was a bit of an understatement. One of my favourites though.” © Iain McLean
Albion 3-0 Stirling Albion
Albion Rovers 3-0 Stirling Albion. Cliftonhill Stadium. 29.09.18. “First win of the season. The best pies in town.” © Iain McLean
Berwick Rangers 2-0 Albion Rovers.
Berwick Rangers 2-0 Albion Rovers. Shielfield Park. 17.11.18. © Iain McLean

He continues: “Our stadium is not modern, it has a large wooden stand with basic facilities but we do love it. There are 100 years of memories in the wooden seats and in the rickety press box at the back of the stand – I’d never trade these for a new stadium made from steel and concrete.”

McLean the photographer has his own set of guidelines that have helped steer him along the way.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says, “and know your kit inside out.”

Albion 0-3 Clyde.
Albion Rovers 0-3 Clyde. Cliftonhill Stadium. 22.12.18. “This was a tricky picture to take, not because of the rain but because I was laughing so much. I could see this dude running to salute the Clyde players after they scored and was struggling with his oversized Santa trousers, however he eventually realised he didn’t have enough hands and applauded the goal instead.” © Iain McLean

Other advice to would-be photographers would be: “Anticipate and be alert. Smile. And take ‘no’ for an answer.”

He’s got there, as his work testifies. 

“Don’t give up on your project,” he says.

Iain McLean’s persistence has paid off. His projects ‘More than just a football club 2015’ and ‘A game of two halves 2019’ are ample proof of that.

Albion Rovers 3-1 Elgin City.
Albion Rovers 3-1 Elgin City. Cliftonhill Stadium. 12.12.20. “Photographing in Level 3 during Covid. An image taken from inside the pie shop as part of a mini lockdown project.” © Iain McLean
Albion Rovers 3-1 Elgin City.
Albion Rovers 3-1 Elgin City. Cliftonhill Stadium. 12.12.20. “Photographing in Level 3 during Covid. A scene from surely the most bizarre season ever. I managed (as an NUJ member) to get access during lockdown and produced a mini-project showing the grim effects of lockdown on our club. Hardly anyone present with a couple of club officials celebrating a Rovers goal against Elgin.” © Iain McLean
Albion Rovers 1-0 Annan Athletic
Albion Rovers 1-0 Annan Athletic. Cliftonhill Stadium. 24.04.21. “The crowd on the hill during Covid restrictions. The boys were a bit reluctant to be photographed but I stood there long enough for them to get bored with me and grabbed this when Rovers scored. Everyone was getting pissed off with the restrictions at this point so they took advantage of the great weather to get out and have a few beers.” © Iain McLean

Lower Block is privileged to offer a a selection of Iain’s photographs as quality prints. Check out the Lower Block shop now.

If you enjoyed that, you may also like Chelsea FC – And Now Are You Going To Believe Us, where photographer and supporter John Ingledew provides a 25 year photographic record of Chelsea and their fans as they take their place at the pinnacle of English and European football.

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