23 years ago today, I walked into a newsagent on my way to work, the same routine I had every day back then. It was a Monday and that weekend I had been at Love Street, Paisley, where I watched the Pars lose 2-1 to St Mirren. It had been a disappointing day, the result a blow to our promotion hopes, and the game was still on my mind when I left home for work, knowing that my work colleagues would remind me of the score during the morning tea break.
In the mid 1990s, the internet had yet to become the main source of people's news. If you hadn't been listening to the radio, or made a point of listening to the scheduled news updates on tv and radio (or at a push, read Teletext), you relied on the day's newspapers for your source of what had been happening. That morning, January 8, 1996, I was surprised to see the face and name of my football team's captain on most of the front pages. As I moved closer, surprise turned to shock and disbelief. Norrie McCathie, Dunfermline Athletic's captain, had been found dead in his home, along with his girlfriend. He was 34 years old.
Norrie had already been at East End Park for 10 years by the time I started supporting Dunfermline. Signed by Pat Stanton from Cowdenbeath in 1981, Norrie had been a midfielder and it was there he featured in his first couple of seasons with the Pars, usually wearing number 8. It wasn't until the arrival of Jim Leishman that Norrie was converted into a central defender, switching roles and shirt number, from then on the club's number 4 and the cornerstone of everything that developed in the Leishman era. Together with his great friend John Watson, Norrie became the on-field driving force that every manager craves for. The heart of a lion, the determination to succeed, to never, ever give up: qualities that would see Norrie retain his place in the Pars defence as managers came and went. They all kept Norrie in that number 4 shirt: after Leishman, Ian Munro, then Jocky Scott; then, in another golden period to rival Leishman's era, the 1990s revival under Bert Paton, who would be Norrie's final manager.
Norrie was everything that his legend suggests: a leader, first and foremost. He was a decent footballer who made up for anything he lacked with his fantastic attitude. A man who made Dunfermline his home and owned businesses (partnered with his friend John Watson) in the town. Rarely has someone been so part of the fabric and the identity of a town. Every single time he lead out the team, I believed in him. I knew this guy was the real deal and I loved what he represented.
The Paton years saw Dunfermline battle for promotion to the Premier League but often miss out agonisingly in the period before a top 4 finish gave you a second chance in play-offs. How Norrie would have loved to have lifted the trophy, as his deputy Craig Robertson did, in May 1996. After his passing, his number 4 shirt was retired for the season, but the spirit of Dunfermline Athletic stayed strong. Bert and Dick were a tremendous management duo, while senior players including Craig Robertson and Ian Westwater took over the onfield leadership and lead the club to the title and promotion. Those of us who were at Tannadice in the penultimate League game could almost feel Norrie's presence - battling with 10 men to a 1-0 win that set us up for a last-day victory at home to clinch the title. When Westie caught the ball right under the bar at the end, under great pressure from Dundee United's players, we cheered as if a goal had been scored. His team mates all congratulated him. In amongst them, the biggest pat on the back might have come from an unseen number 4, there in spirit, making sure his boys got the job done, still the captain, forever the captain.
Above: the Norrie McCathie Stand holds up number 4 with Pars stripes either side to mark the 20th anniversary of Norrie's death, in January 2016. Below: the players line-up in a specially commissioned 1995/96 away kit, the final Pars kit worn by Norrie, before the game against Cowdenbeath, January 2016.