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Saturday, November 25, 2017

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.

Jim Corstorphine