BILLY STARK has seen the Renfrewshire derby from both sides of the fence.

And the former St Mirren midfielder and Morton manager is glad that the county showdown is back on the map after an absence of 15 years.

That’s how it has been since the rivals last met in a league game. In fact, Stark was actually in charge of Morton when the pair faced off in the old first division in 1999-2000.

Tonight’s Championship encounter at Cappielow has Stark full of anticipation about the Renfrewshire reunion and he’s certain the fans will be, too.

“I would not go so far as to say there’s hatred but there is a real edge,” said Stark yesterday. “All derbies mean a lot to the supporters and Morton and St Mirren are no different. But the fact the teams have not met in a league match in 15 years will heighten that feeling.

“There have only been a couple of League Cup and a Challenge Cup ties in all that time, which is why the clubs arranged a pre-season game for charity. This will be the real thing.”

Stark knows what he is talking about. He had eight years as a St Mirren player and three years as Morton manager – and tasted derby joy and heartache in both roles.

The classy midfielder became a Paisley legend for his contribution to perhaps the club’s greatest side under Alex Ferguson in the 70s. He played over 300 games for Saints, and netted 60 league goals, before Fergie brought Stark to Aberdeen to win two titles and then tasted more champions glory with Celtic.

Stark bagged 127 league goals for his various clubs but the very first came in a Renfrewshire derby!

“My first St Mirren goal was against Morton at Love Street,” recalls, Billy, now 58. “That was in my breakthrough season in 1975-76. It was a 2-2 draw in the old first division. A few months earlier, my first derby had been on New Year’s Day 1976 when we lost 1-0 at Cappielow to a John Goldthorpe goal.

“Fergie built a great team at St Mirren and the next season we won the first division title but the games with Morton were really something special.

“I remember going down to Cappielow in the wintertime and winning 6-3 on an icy pitch that would never have been playable now. We also beat Morton 5-1 at Love Street.

“But Morton beat us in the last league derby that season – there were only three in those days – and they came up to the Premier League the year after us, so all of my St Mirren career the match with Morton was a top-tier derby and it usually provided something special.

“Morton were a really good side. Andy Ritchie was at the peak of his career then and he often saved his free- kick goals for the games against St Mirren. I think the only reason the football general public never really knew about the Renfrewshire derby was because it did not get television coverage then, so that people outside Greenock and Paisley could experience it. It was a bit of a ‘secret derby’ – but I’m glad that this game is on television so other ‘neutral’ fans can see it.”

They say there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ fan in football, but Stark insists that the rivalry never spilled over when he crossed the divide later in life to become Morton manager between 1997 and 2000.

“I never got any stick from Morton fans when I was manager, because I’d played for St Mirren,” says Billy. “The fans of both sides are desperate to win the derby match but they don’t really carry ill-feeling for everyone who pulled on a black-and-white, or blue-and-white shirt.

“Maybe it’s because Scottish football is too small for it not to come up. Alex Miller was obviously someone who managed both clubs and Tommy Turner also crossed the divide as a player.

“I loved my time as Morton manager, even if we didn’t have the budget to compete. We won both of our derby games at Cappielow in my first season, in 1997-98, and the following season won the last one of the campaign 5-1 at Love Street when Kevin Thomas got a hat-trick and we were down to ten men after John Anderson was sent off.

“The following season, in 1999-2000, was when St Mirren got promotion. They had Mark Yardley and Barry Lavety scoring a lot of goals for them but I do remember a really good New Year derby to bring in the New Millennium when Paul Hartley – whom I’d got on loan from Hibs – scored with a free kick in a 1-1 draw at a packed Love Street.”

A new episode of the Renfrewshire Rivals will finally unveiled tonight to a packed Cappielow and hopefully the television audience will also bring a fresh perspective.