The last person who would ever think of Scottish footballer Frank McKeown as a hero is Frank McKeown.
But to people around him…
He didn’t ask for the spotlight to be on him, but despite his humility, his story needs telling. And the support of everyone around him at one of the world’s oldest football clubs, Stranraer FC, deserves the widest recognition possible.
Frank is a fireman and on the early evening of Friday November 29 set off for his overnight shift with the fire services in his home city of Glasgow. Sadly this proved to be no ordinary shift.
Shortly after 10pm that evening a helicopter suddenly plunged from the sky and crashed into the roof off the Clutha pub, a popular venue, at an extremely busy time. Ten people were killed, more than 30 were injured.
It was a night of unimaginable horror that has deeply affected the people of the city. Even for a fireman with eight years of experience this was a brutal night. Frank admits he hasn’t face tougher. He was not part of one of the first crews at the scene. I know this because he is quick to praise other fire fighters, and play down his own role.
He didn’t leave the crash scene until after 7.30 the next morning. Ordinarily he would go home, have an hour’s sleep if he is lucky, and then captain his football club. Stranraer FC of the Scottish League, in the third tier of Scottish football. And that’s exactly what he managed to do this time too, helping his team force a 1-1 draw from a Scottish Cup fourth round tie at Clyde.
Recalling the 24 hours he’ll never forget, Frank said: “You’re there to do a job just like everyone else has a job to do. You’ve got to think about families and victims but to do your job. It’s important incident goes as smoothly as possible for dignity of people there.”
Did he consider not playing at all? “It was a big game and I was always going to play, I’m glad I did play.”
Not a single team-mate or colleague I spoke to doubted he’d want to play, he’d be there without fuss. But while Frank’s team-mates can rely on their captain, he knows how important their support has been too. He says this squad are like a family.
I accompanied them for Al Jazeera to the replay at Stranraer this week, starting with the two-hour coach journey from Glasgow.
Part-time footballers just like Frank, juggling jobs and family and football. Some would complain about a coach journey to HOME matches, with Stranraer being nearly 100 kilometres south west of Glasgow. But this bunch know it’s helped team bonding. They support each other and never has that bond been more needed than the past fortnight since the crash incident.
“I was told Frank was at the incident and it felt unreal,” says midfielder Chris Aitken. “When I saw him I was a bit wary but Frank being man he is took it in in his stride and said he wanted to play. That speaks volumes, that’s the kind of man he is.”
Chris’ brother Stephen is the manager, a man whose warmth encapsulates the team, setting the tone of togetherness: “Deep down I’d knew when I heard about it he’d be fine because that’s the kind of guy he is. But I just had to double check, made sure the decision was made by him, I couldn’t make the decision for him. Because what he went through the night before.” Stephen is a wise old head on a talented young manager’s shoulders and his good relationship with Frank is a bedrock for their good results this season.
Iain Dougan, the friendly and effervescent vice-chairman, also explains to me simply that “Frank is a leader. He connects with people and his team-mates look up to him.” Iain epitomises Stranraer FC, a fan who watched his first match here in 1971, became hooked and has found himself running the club.
Chris Sanderson, who is writing about the club’s 143 year-history, accompanies us on the coach. It’s easy to understand why he loves being part of football at this level.
And how about Stewart Marshall the coach driver? He’s driven Stranraer to games for 40 years. His father did the job before him. They’ve looked after travel since 1948. Is it any wonder Frank feels at home around these people?
There are only a few hundred hardy fans in the Stair Park ground for the replay. It might be considered cold weather to some – not Stranraer folk – but Clyde don’t quite possess the attraction of Glasgow Rangers, who are down in the same division as Stranraer after their financial troubles.
Neither do Clyde seem to possess the talent this Stranraer side has. The visitors take the lead early in the second half but that prompts the blue shirts into action. They bombard Clyde for the rest of the match winning 4-1.
When the score was 1-1, the deadlock was broken by a defender up from the back, lashing in his first goal of the season to end the ribbing about his ‘goal drought’. That defender was Frank McKeown.
He was also awarded man of the match and Stranraer reached a fifth round tie at home to Inverness in February. If they can win that it will equal their best ever run in the Scottish Cup.
For a moment just Stewart the coach driver and myself are on the bus. “Frank,” says Stewart quietly. “He’s a great lad.”
Stewart simply looks like someone who has seen and done it all. I know he’d have plenty more to say about his qualities and how difficult the last week or two have been, but he’s only too aware Frank wouldn’t want a fuss. He tells me more with his eyes than 100 top football managers could tell me in 100 press conferences.
To spend time with the people of Stranraer FC, to be welcomed in their world is a privilege and an education. Scottish people may be voting on independence next year but when I grew up the Scottish football results were part of the culture for all of Great Britain. From Scotland every Saturday from Stenhousemuir to Queen of the South. Not exotic locations, but then again what did I know about them? They were just names. Not this one, not now.
And a comment from Iain perfectly encapsulates the world I’d been privileged to witness for a day; “We’re never going to get to major leagues. We’re never going to play in Cup finals. But it’s small things that make you proud of your club. It’s the people who make the club.”
There is no better talisman, no better example of the joy football can bring than Frank McKeown, man of the match, scorer, captain, talisman. Fireman. Human.
And there are other heroes around him.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport