I am one of those people lucky enough to be able to say that I have seen Charlie Fleming play football and, despite the fact that this memorable bent took place almost fifty years ago, it is still very much etched on my memory.
The occasion was an exhibition match played in the very early 1970s at Bankie Park in Anstruther as part of the local Sea Food Festival programme, between the local amateur side Anster United, and a team of “All Stars”, which boasted in its ranks the legendary Charlie Fleming as well as Andy Matthew, another East Fife star of the 1950s.
Charlie made an immediate impression on me and, despite being considerably older than the Anster players, he was able to show each and every one of his opponents a clean pair of heels as he raced past them en-route to goal. “Imagine lettin’ an auld man skin ye!”, was just one of the many light-hearted comments that emanated from the hundred who lined the Bankie Park touch-lines that late summer evening as the veterans showed Anster how the game should be played. As the match drew to a close, the wearied Anster ‘keeper (who, as I recall, had been beaten by Charlie on more than one occasion!), looked for a willing recipient to roll the ball back out to. As the Anster left and right-backs indicated their availability, cheeky Charlie Fleming, who was standing directly in front of the goalie, shouted “keeper – HERE!”. Amidst the peal of laughter that rippled through the crowd, one spectator was heard to shout “Good old Charlie Fleming!”. It was clearly evident that the bunnet-wearing spectators standing three and four deep along the lines at Bankie Park that evening had come to re-kindle some nostalgic memories from the great East Fife days of the 1950s; and they were to to be disappointed!
Of course, being only about ten or eleven years old at the time, I had only a vague idea who Charlie Fleming was and, after making the trek home to Cellardyke, asked my father if he had ever heard of the player. My Dad, who turned his back on East Fife and football in general when the halcyon days of the 50s had come to an end, turned to face me with a twinkle in his eye. He sat me down and reminisced about Charlie ‘Cannonball’ Fleming and his unstoppable shots that were in the back of the net before the ‘keeper had even seen the ball; and also the skills of Any Matthew, who, as said previously, had played alongside Charlie that evening. My Dad had “ta’en a real scunner tae fitba” when the Methil men fell out of the big time in the 1950s, and rarely, is ever, spoke about the game when I was a lad, but here he was, clearly enjoying looking back to the days when ‘Cannonball’ Fleming had thrilled the packed Bayview terraces.
Inside-forward Charlie Fleming signed for East Fife from west Fife village side Blairhall Colliery in June 1947. After spending his first season at Bayview rattling in the goals for the reserve team, including a hat-trick in a 4-1 demolition of Raith Rovers in a second eleven cup-tie at Stark’s Park and four goals in a 9-4 ‘C’ division victory over Montrose. Charlie made his first-team debut against Stenhousemuir at Bayview on 7th April 1948, where he scored twice in a 4-0 victory.
From that day on, Charlie never looked back, and in almost eight seasons with East Fife, the lanky inside-right played 244 competitive games for the club and scored an incredible 175 goals, including a remarkable thirty league goals during season 1952/53. Indeed, Charlie is credited with having scored what is widely reckoned to be East Fife’s greatest-ever goal when he netted the winner against Rangers in the League Co semi-final victory at Hampden on 8th October 1949. With the teams tied at a foal-apiece in the second period of extra-time, Charlie Fleming gathered the ball and weaved his way past Rangers’ Cox, Woodburn and Shaw before sending an unstoppable shot past ‘keeper Brown which almost burst the net!
Despite his goal-scoring feats for East Fife, however Charlie didn’t feature in the plans of the Scottish International selection committee at this time. The press had long been full of praise for the East Fife player, and were of the opinion that Charlie should be considered for international duty with the following article appearing in the Dundee Courier on Monday 4th October 1948 following Wats Fife’s 3-1 league victory over Queen of the South in which the free-scoring Fleming had scored twice:
“It is time our selectors were realising that our best footballers ate no longer confined to the west, and so give the eastern players more consideration when the honours are handed out!”
Although Charlie was subsequently selected as a reserve for the Scottish League’s matches against the Welsh League and the Irish League in October 1948, it was to be another five years before the East Fife star was selected to represent his country at full international level! The occasion was a Home International Championship meeting against Ireland at Windsor Park in Belfast on Saturday 3rd October 1953, which was also o double as a World Cup qualifier for the forthcoming tournament in Switzerland.
Despite scoring twice that afternoon in a 3-1 victory, however, this was to be Fleming’s one and only appearance for Scotland. Like his East Fife teammate Henry Morris before him, Charlie had made a scoring debut for his country, yet was mysteriously never picked to play for Scotland again. Id the newspaper reports of the day are to be believed, however, it would appear that Charlie had not played to the best of his abilities that afternoon in Belfast, but surely the fact that the player had netted twice was good enough reason fir him to have been selected for future internationals? It would appear not!
Charlie Fleming did make one other “international” appearance, however, when he was selected to plat for the Great Britain against Wales at Ninian Park in Cardiff in December 1951. The match had been arranged to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Football Association of Wales and Fleming scored the first of Britain’s two goals in a 3-2 defeat.
In January 1955 Charlie Fleming was transferred to Sunderland in a cash-plus-player deal that saw Scotland internationalist Tommy Wright move from Roker Park to Bayview. Charlie played for Sunderland for three seasons before ending his senior football days with Bath City in the Southern League, finally hanging his boos up in 1965.
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53 College Street, Buckhaven, KY8 1JZ
Ladbrokes League 1
Saturday 4th November 2017
Raith Rovers 1 (Vaughan 29’))
East Fife 0
Raith Rovers XI: Smith, Thomson, McHattie, Herron, Murray, Spence (Zanatta 64’), Robertson, Buchanan, Vaughan, Barr, Matthews
Subs: Brian, Watson, Berry, Osei, Court, McKay
East Fife XI: M Hurst, Docherty, Dunsmore, Piggott, Page, Willis (Mutch 82’), Slattery, Millar, Lamont (Flanagan 83’), Duggan, Reilly (Smith 71’)
Subs: Goodfellow, Wilson
Referee: Stephen Finnie
East Fife travelled to Stark’s Park for the second Fife derby of the season against League leaders Raith Rovers but left empty-handed when their effort and performance deserved at least a point. Manager Darren Young made two changes to the side that beat Arbroath last time out with Ben Reilly and Kieran Millar replacing Greg Hurst, who picked up a training ground injury on Friday, and Kyle Wilkie, who lost his appeal against the red card shown to him last week.
East Fife had a strong shout for a penalty inside the opening two minutes when Chris Duggan was impeded by Ross Matthews inside the area but referee Stephen Finnie was uninterested and waved away the claim. Even early on in the match the visitors had shown their full-time hosts this this game wasn’t going to be as easy for them as their last encounter.
Lewis Vaughan sent a free kick from 20-yards over the bar on 13 minutes before the same player failed to clear the wall with another set-piece 5 minutes later, this time from 25-yards. In between those chanced Paul Willis picked out Mark Docherty unmarked 25-yards from goal but his volley flew narrowly wide of the left-hand post.
East Fife were beginning to grow into the game and went close again on 23 minutes when Mark Lamont curled a left-footed narrowly over the bar on 23 minutes. The visitors then had a second penalty shout turned down when Kevin McHattie appeared to handle the ball inside the area but, in truth, it looked more ball-to-hand and definitely not deliberate.
The visitors were dealt a blow, however, on 29 minutes when they failed to clear their line and the ball broke nicely for Vaughan to prod the ball past Mark Hurst. If the home fans were expecting the flood-gates to opening like they did at Bayview they were in for a shock as East Fife were agonisingly close to equalising less than a minute later. Good play by Chris Duggan saw him hit the by-line and fire the ball in across the 6-yard box and only a touch from Raith ‘keeper Graeme Smith prevented Lamont from levelling the game. The chance wasn’t gone, however, the ball coming back into the danger area but Willis, at full-stretch, couldn’t get enough on the ball allowing McHattie to clear off the line.
A Raith corner on 38 minutes was cleared as far as Bobby Barr on the edge of the box but the former Fifer blasted the ball way over the bar. At the other end, a nice turn from Lamont in the middle of the park plated in Willis but he dragged his left-footed shot wide of the right-hand post. A very competitive opening 45 minutes with both teams largely cancelling each other out, only one mistake the difference between the sides.
East Fife started the brightest after the break; Duggan picking up a loose pass 25-yards from goal and tried to play in Kieran Millar but the Raith defence was able to clear. The visitors were awarded a free kick on the far-side touchline on 53 minutes which Willis manged to get on the end of but was unable to direct his header towards goal.
In a rare adventure forward in the second half, Vaughan squandered a good opportunity for the home side when he blasted high and wide from 10-yards. Duggan saw his long-range effort clear the crossbar on 67 minutes before an East Fife free kick on the far-side touchline level with the 18-yard box was cleared as far as Millar on the edge of the area but his shot was blocked at close range.
East Fife were continuing to press as the game entered the final 10 minutes; Duggan going close with a header when he was picked out by Lamont with a cross from the right. The visitors then had their best chance of the match with minutes left to play when they were awarded a free kick on the edge of the 18-yard box, 5-yards from the by-line after substitute Nathan Flanagan was pulled back by McHattie. Kevin Smith was agonisingly close to getting on the end of Docherty’s free kick at the near post which would have almost certainly beaten Raith ‘keeper Smith and given the visitors a share of the points which was the least they deserved but it wasn’t to be.
The game may not have had much in the way of chance but it was a highly competitive contest between two evenly matches sides and on another day East Fife may have come out on top.
East Fife make the shortest of journeys west tomorrow afternoon for what is undoubtedly the Ladbrokes SPFL match of the day as they take on local rivals Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park.
The Kirkcaldy club have been in fine form since being relegated via the play-offs from the Championship last season and have recruited well under former Fife gaffer Barry Smith. Raith currently occupy top spot in the table, two places and five points ahead of the men from Methil.
East Fife boss Darren Young was delighted with the 3-1 victory against free-scoring Arbroath last Saturday in challenging conditions at Bayview Stadium. His charges managed to contain their opponents playing against the wind in first half before turning in an impressive performance after the break to secure the points. Raith Rovers meanwhile drew 1-1 at Station Park against Forfar Athletic, their cause not helped by the dismissal of influential defender Iain Davidson.
It has to be said that Raith Rovers have held the upper hand in this fixture in recent years, with the 5-0 defeat at Bayview in August qualifying as a game to forget for the Bayview faithful.
Strict segregation will be in force tomorrow, with East Fife supporters occupying the McDermid (North) Stand. Concession tickets must be purchased from the away ticket pod, which will be open from 2pm. Full paying adults can pay at the gate.
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Will supporters please note that the free bus for the Raith Rovers game is now full and no more bookings can be accepted.