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Danny Denholm’s life in the lower leagues: Angus affinity, getting pelters from a P7 and Dick ‘The King of Lochgelly’ Campbell

Forfar Athletic and East Fife have been stops on Danny Denholm's travels around Scotland's lower leagues.
Forfar Athletic and East Fife have been stops on Danny Denholm's travels around Scotland's lower leagues.

In many ways, Danny Denholm is an unconventional Scottish footballer.

By his own admission that definition stretches to his left-footed brand of wing wizardry but, given the career he’s had to date, it would be easy to challenge his appraisal.

What is unquestionably uncommon about Denholm is he’s university-educated – a rare commodity in our game. He also has a burgeoning DIY media career and teaches PE in a Fife primary school.

Although having a day job and ‘side hustles’ is commonplace for a part-time footballer in Scotland, the 30-year-old East Fife wide man seems to be treading a different path from most.

While others seek opportunities to remain in the game in some form, Denholm appears comfortable with the notion football may remain just another gig for him.

That way of life is all the Edinburgh-born former Arbroath and Forfar Athletic man knows after all. And, after 13 years spent in the lower leagues, he’s learned a lot.

Denholm won promotion from League Two with Forfar in 2017 – pictured here celebrating his goal in the play-off final against Peterhead.

Besides an unhappy season in the Championship with Livingston, Denholm also counts Edinburgh City and Stirling University – where he was first a student – among his part-time posts.

Those spells have taught him many lessons, in football and in life, with the main one being there is always more to footballers than meets the eye.

“When I went to uni I was just 17 so I was an absolute idiot,” Denholm said.

“You’re probably not ready for the working world so it was great for me. University made me grow up quick – it helped me socially and not to be so judgmental.

“I was playing football at the same time for Edinburgh City and it was a hard dressing-room, whereas uni was a bit softer and more progressive.

“You meet different kinds of people from different backgrounds.

“I come from a fairly working class area of Edinburgh and went to Broughton High School – it was quite a tough hunting ground.

“Then you go to uni and there’s people from all over the place, all different walks of life.

“I probably had a chip on my shoulder, a reverse snobbery towards these kinds of people when I was younger.”

He continued: “There’s loads of misconceptions about footballers – particularly at part-time level.

“There’s snobbery towards it from certain directions but there’s so many different caveats that feed into why footballers aren’t university-educated, in the main.

“Most of them leave school at 16 and go into professional football with full-time clubs and they do tend to come from working class backgrounds or maybe less privileged households than others.

“It’s just the way it is – it’s the culture of the sport.

“Nowadays, though, there is more of a balance between education and football. It’s becoming more clear and players are more willing to do stuff on the side.

“Footballers have different types of intelligence, though.

‘It does annoy me the snobbery towards football and football fans’

“Socially, they’re smarter than the majority of folk I went to university with and their cleverness on the pitch is a different thing.

“If you look at me on the pitch, I’m left, right and centre looking like an idiot.

“Then there’s players who in an interview sound much thicker than me but on the pitch they know what they’re doing. Their positioning is great and they can see situations before they arise.

“It does annoy me the snobbery towards football and football fans that we’re perceived to be these idiots that can’t behave but the majority of footballers can.

“We get a harder time than we deserve.”

From the outside looking in, the likes of Bayview, Gayfield and Station Park can appear harsh and unforgiving environments.

Denholm is currently with East Fife and took on boyhood heroes Hearts at Tynecastle in a friendly earlier this season.

However, Denholm argues that is just another in a long list of misconceptions about the part-time game, believing these venues can be places of solace for many, particularly in times of pandemic.

He explained: “There’s been a lot of iffy junior grounds I’ve played at through the years where you can hear one man shouting abuse at you, just one man, nobody else.

“That’s the thing – you’d think having 30,000 folk at a stadium screaming at you would be worse but I think it’s that one man because you can make out absolutely everything he says.

“It’s been weird recently. We played Sauchie in a friendly and we had to change in our cars, then we’re sitting in the stands and it’s p*****g down with rain. It was a weird vibe with no fans there at all.

“I’ve been in this environment of people shouting and swearing in professional football for 10-plus years and even in my youth career it was going on.

“It’s just normal for us and, as anybody who plays knows, at any level, it’s coming because you want to do well and win.

“People moan and shout and swear at you because they want to win, we’re all in that same boat.

“The majority of the time, it’s in good nature.

“In terms of footballers and in part-time teams, I’m fairly intelligent because, basically, I went to university, which gives you a one-up on most.

“I’d like to say I’m a professional, a role model and I know how to conduct myself but, see when you go into a football changing-room, it’s just like a bunch of chimps again and I love that.

“It’s just a bunch of chimps flinging s*** at each other. I don’t want to hide behind the term ‘banter’ but it’s just having a laugh and the feeling of a community.

“That’s a massive part of it, not just the football side.

“Being able to share that environment again has been great for boys’ mental health, no doubt.”

Edinburgh boy Denholm has grown to love Angus and the larger than life figure of Dick Campbell

Although he’s a capital kid, Denholm feels at home in Angus.

Four seasons over two spells at Forfar and two terms with Arbroath, most successful and some title-yielding, will do that to a man.

“I’ve had opportunities to play for all four Angus clubs. For some reason they’re the only clubs that want to sign me so I’m always very grateful to Angus,” Methil man Denholm said.

“When I signed for Forfar I didn’t even know how far away it was. I thought it was in Fife and I couldn’t drive at the time so I was getting lifts up from folk but how wrong was I?

“I’ve grown to love Angus. It’s just one of those areas where the clubs are great.

“In Scottish football some clubs are cut-throat but at Arbroath and Forfar, and I know Montrose and Brechin are the same, they really look after their players and everybody in the community.

“You get that family feel and I don’t think that’s the case at other clubs, hearing stories from folk around the Scottish game.

“East Fife is great as well and I love it here – it’s got the same sort of vibe to it.

“The way they’ve looked after us and the fans during the coronavirus pandemic has been first class – it’s really proved that to me.

“I’ve been lucky in my career, barring my one stint full-time at Livingston, to play for clubs that really look after you.”

Denholm’s Angus affinity is a love affair awash with stories and tales, most centring around the man who signed him on all three occasions – Dick Campbell.

Denholm (right) enjoyed life at Arbroath under larger-than-life boss Campbell.

With some 300 professional games under his belt, Denholm insists he’s never met a man quite like the bunnet-clad boss and ranks League One title success in 2019 with his Red Lichties among his greatest moments in the game.

“They’re really fond memories and great times,” he added.

“A man very different from me, Dick Campbell, signed me on three different occasions.

“I would probably have never met a man like him if it wasn’t for football and it was just an experience that was great.

“It was serious, you were there to work but you also had a laugh as well.

“If you got beat, you’d be pissed off for the Saturday night but it wouldn’t take up my whole thought process for the week whereas it was like that at full-time.

“I was able to focus on things outwith football and it’s less dog eat dog.

“Players are all fighting for jerseys and want their place in the team, obviously, but there’s a bit of back-stabbing in full-time football.

“It’s just not the best atmosphere, whereas in part-time it’s a bit more relaxed in that regard. It suits me perfectly in terms of my lifestyle.

“You’re having a bash at titles and having a go at things.

“With Forfar and Arbroath, we weren’t always necessarily fancied to go up but that was always the ambition.

“You’re playing for wins and that’s why you want to play.

“I wasn’t an integral part of the Arbroath side which won League One, I was in and out, but they were absolutely great memories.

“I love it and you see how much it means to the fans at these clubs when you do well because they’re not used to it.

“Arbroath have won three titles in the whole history of the club and they’ve won two of them in the last five years or so.

“When the pandemic is over I want to go back and take in the odd game at Arbroath and Forfar.

“Considering I never ever visited prior to football, I couldn’t even point it out on a map, that’s something to take away from it, I guess.”

Without much convincing, Denholm proceeds to recount one of his favourite Campbell stories, shining a light on the 66-year-old lower league management legend’s character.

Danny Denholm was part of Dick Campbell’s League One title-winning squad of 2019.

“He’s more like an abusive uncle than a father figure,” Denholm quipped.

“Definitely not one to put an arm around the shoulder but, to be fair, he knows his players.

“He’s got great man-management. He’s loyal and truthful to you so when he speaks you believe it.

“It’s a cliché but that’s really all you want as a player. When you’re out the team, he doesn’t sugar coat it, he’ll tell you why you’re out the team but he’ll make sure you’re all right at the same time.

“At other clubs you feel like they’re making excuses but sometimes you wish they were up front about it. Dick would always be honest.

“Outwith football, I’m friendly with his family because I played with his son Yano (Iain) at Forfar and worked under his other boy Ross at the university set-up.

“The last time I saw Dick was playing golf at Lochgelly, his local club, with Yano.

“It was when golf just opened back up again and I’ve just seen this big figure in the distance come down from the clubhouse area.

“He’s just walking across fairways as people are trying to tee-off. This big man puts his hand up and they all wait because they think it must be an important figure.

“He gets closer in and Yano recognises it’s his dad. We’re in tears laughing – he’s stopping fairways, the King of Lochgelly!

Danny Denholm spent two seasons at Arbroath.

“He had a chat with us and you think that’s it, he just slaughters me and we have a laugh, but he follows us for nine holes.

“Yano’s good so Dick’s bumming him up but just slaughtering me. It’s fair to say I got beat that day and he probably had a part to play – I still get nervous around him even now he’s not my gaffer.

“He still has that fear factor mixed in with the respect.”

‘I come in on a Monday and I’m getting gyp from a primary seven’

Away from the pitch, Denholm completed a Sports Studies degree at Stirling before returning to the classroom to gain a postgraduate in Primary Education at Dundee Uni in 2015.

He now teaches PE to kids in Crossford, a village outside Dunfermline, but admits it wasn’t always an easy balance between football and studying.

Danny Denholm combines playing for East Fife with PE teaching.

He said: “I fell into it. I wanted to do PE teaching but it was so competitive so I just decided to do a post-grad in Primary Education.

“I was playing for Forfar at the time, so it was perfect. I’d be at uni in Dundee and then we trained at Kinross, so I put the hours in.

“My first stint at university, you’re young so you’re going out, playing Fifa and not dedicating yourself. Plus, I was playing football more than most!

“I was an older man at 25-26 the second time so I was ready to learn – I’d reached that maturity level.

“I’d do my lectures and stay in the library at Dundee for hours, then off to training on the way back home to Edinburgh.

“It was a tough couple of years but it was perfect the way it ended up for me.

“There’s not very many PE primary school posts so I’m very lucky to be doing it.

“I don’t fancy going back into the classroom to do all subjects because, I tell you what, I like multi-tasking but that was bedlam.

“You’d be researching lessons the night before like: ‘I’m about to teach the Big Bang Theory’, but I’ve no idea how this world started. I know the programme more than the actual thing!”

Denholm (right) endured an unhappy season with full-time Livingston in the Championship.

His relative celebrity as a footballer for the Fifers doesn’t give Denholm any extra authority among his pupils, though. Far from it, in fact.

“Some of them care, the ones that like football,” he explained.

“I say footballers shouldn’t all be tarred with the same brush but the boys that like football are always the more difficult ones.

“You probably get a bit more respect than you would if you weren’t player, which is good.

“I use that as a carrot and a way to build relationships with them.

“The younger ones couldn’t care less. They’ve got absolutely no idea. In fact, they’re like: ‘East Fife? They’re crap’.

“I got sent off playing for Forfar against Hearts and that was when I was just starting in primary schools and they gave me some stick and abuse.

“We also got beat in the play-off final at Forfar and that was heart-breaking for me. I come in on a Monday and I’m getting gyp from a primary seven.

“I’m thinking in my head: ‘You little s***’.”

“They’ve got all sorts going on in their brains at that age so they don’t care about me playing for East Fife really!”

A podcast hipster with a target on his back

Denholm’s blog and podcast – Lower League Ramblings – lifts the lid even further on life as a part-time footballer in Scotland’s ‘seaside leagues’.

It’s a venture he cares deeply about and one he hopes to strengthen as he edges closer to bowing out of the game.

Denholm commented: “I’ve been into podcasts for years going back to the first Guardian Football Weekly podcasts with James Richardson.

“I was listening to them as an undergraduate back in 2009. I liked the old Ricky Gervais ones with Karl Pilkington as well.

Yano’s good so Dick’s bumming him up but just slaughtering me. It’s fair to say I got beat that day and he probably had a part to play – I still get nervous around him even now he’s not my gaffer.”

Danny Denholm on former boss Dick Campbell.

“It was always something I wanted to do, I just didn’t know how to. Technology wasn’t my field but I just thought I’d give it a bash.

“It’s something I enjoy doing, just chatting football, I love it.

“It’s been difficult during the pandemic. I tried a few over Zoom but I hated it. I just didn’t enjoy it and it wasn’t the same vibe as when you’re sitting in a room with someone.

“I’ve canned it since April-May time but I hope to pick it up again. I don’t know where to go next but I’d like to explore it further.

“I love the writing as well. I like having lots of different things to focus on and it’s mainly been positive.

“When you write stuff folk are usually pretty complimentary and, listen, we all like a little pat on the back or arm around the shoulder!

“I like my ego getting fed so that helps as well and keeps me going. It gives me a little escape.

“However, it can put a target on my back if I’m having a nightmare for East Fife. The fans are probably thinking: ‘Stop focusing on your writing and get focusing on the pitch’.”

One thing certain to continue for Denholm is his romance with part-time football. It’s an unconventional existence, yes, but one he has become accustomed to.

“For my head, I need to stay busy. Full-time football it was my only focus and I hated that,” he said.

“Part-time football isn’t as dog eat dog because people have so many other plates spinning at once.

“You can’t put all your energy into trying to knife a player to get into the team, whereas full-time football is ruthless, especially in Scotland.

“In the Scottish Championship and the top flight, barring three or four clubs, the money isn’t enough to live the rest of your life on when you retire.

“People are fighting contract to contract because there’s not many long-term deals handed out.

“I felt that a bit at Livingston. People can be a bit iffy with you, it wasn’t a great atmosphere.

“In part-time football, people don’t have the energy to start a vendetta against the left winger that’s trying to get into their position.”

Whether it’s on the pitch, in the classroom or online, with the talent he has at his disposal, you feel Denholm is justified in not needing to watch his back.