SCOTLAND Under-21 boss Billy Stark reckons his team’s chances of qualifying for the UEFA European Championships can be boosted by their ‘12th man’...St Mirren Park.
The young Bravehearts are to play all of their home matches at the Paisley stadium as they bid to reach the prestigious 2013 tournament, which will take place in Israel.
So far, Stark’s starlets are unbeaten at St Mirren Park during the qualification campaign, having secured a 0-0 draw with Belgium and a 2-2 draw with Austria.
And their chances of reaching Israel have been greatly enhanced by a 5-1 win away to Luxembourg and a sensational 2-1 victory in the Netherlands last week.
The Scots now sit in second place in their group – one point behind the Dutch – at the midway point of the campaign.
Next up for Stark and Co is the return fixture against the Netherlands, which will take place in Paisley on February 29 next year.
And there is also a game against Luxembourg to look forward to at St Mirren Park on September 6.
Stark, who starred for St Mirren during his playing days, is urging fans to turn out in large numbers in those two games to give Scotland their support.
He told Express Sports: “It’s great to be back in Paisley and I’m enjoying seeing a lot of familiar faces.
“We’ve been back for two games so far and I’ve been delighted with the set-up at the new ground.
“Using one stadium for the whole qualifying campaign is something that some other countries do and we felt that it was something we’d like to have a look at as well.
“We invited a list of clubs to bid for the privilege and we received some really good bids but it was St Mirren who came out on top.
“I was delighted to endorse that, as St Mirren Park is a great ground. The club put together a pretty good package and it is a good fit for us.
“Now we just need to get the Paisley people out to support us.”
A healthy crowd of 3,058 turned out to see Stark’s youngsters come from behind to grab a point against the Austrians last month, with red-hot Huddersfield striker Jordan Rhodes bagging two goals.
As Stark took his place in the St Mirren Park dugout for his team’s latest Paisley visit, he looked out over a ground which is much different to the one where he starred as a player for the Buddies almost 30 years earlier.
The shiny new stadium in Greenhill Road may share it’s official name with its predecessor but the similarities go no further.
For starters, St Mirren’s current home is located half a mile down the road from the famous Love Street turf where Stark first made his name as a cultured midfielder with an eye for goal.
Gone are the old stands, clad with corrugated iron and bedecked in iconic back and white stripes, while Cairter’s Corner and the North Bank have slipped into memory too.
Now Saints – and Scotland’s Under-21s – run out at a £15million bespoke stadium capable of holding 8,000 supporters in considerable comfort.
And, for those still haunted by the medieval toilets at Love Street, there are even indoor rest rooms to enjoy.
However, despite these differences, 54-year-old Stark feels just as much at home at the new St Mirren Park as he did at the original ground.
He said: “The first thing that appealed to us about St Mirren Park is that it is a modern stadium. It has got a good-sized playing surface which is always in a great condition, thanks to Tam Docherty, the club’s groundsman.
“Other factors also played a part in us deciding to go with Saints. The stadium has got really big dressing rooms and it’s proximity to the training facilities that we use and to Glasgow Airport is also helpful. All these things helped to get the stadium the nod.
“So far, we are happy with how things have gone. It’s already starting to feel like home.”
Scouting requirements bring Stark back to Paisley on a regular basis and it was on one of his recent spying missions that he swung past the derelict building site where Love Street once stood.
A lump grew in his throat as the former Aberdeen and Celtic man realised one of his happiest hunting grounds was no more.
“I drove by the old stadium recently and it was a funny feeling seeing it like it is today,” said Stark, who bagged 84 goals in 345 appearances for the Buddies between 1975 and 1983.
“It was a ground that had stood there for over 100 years and it was packed with history and tradition but it was time to move on and the people at St Mirren deserve great credit for making the new stadium a reality.
“Put simply, if the club had not moved when they did, they would still be stuck in a financial mess at Love Street just because of the way the economy is.
“The chairman and the board were brave and the club now has a much brighter position.”
For many St Mirren fans, Stark remains one of the most talented players ever to have graced the black and white stripes.
An original member of Alex Ferguson’s famed gang of kids dubbed “Fergie’s Furies,” he helped propel the team up the old Premier Division table at a time when the Old Firm were regularly slain by the men from Paisley.
Even three decades on, Stark still fills with pride as he recalls the part he played in those successful days.
He said: “I have got so many wonderful memories of my time at St Mirren. I was lucky enough to play in a St Mirren team which was a top, top side.
“We finished third in the Premier League and won the Anglo Scottish Cup in 1980, beating top-flight English sides along the way.
“We got to the final a couple of years before that too and played Fulham on the way when they had George Best in their team. We beat them 7-3 on aggregate, which is a great memory.
“That St Mirren team was as good as any the club has ever had and I feel proud just to have been part of it.”