The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 16

August 6, 2009


Black and White and Red All Over

The Wee Red Book

The Wee Red Book of which I write is the Scottish institution and cultural icon issued annually by the Evening Times, and is definitely not to be confused with the publication of the same name by Mao-Tse-Tung, though it may well be a matter of some debate as to which one is the most entertaining. In fact, let’s face it, although Mao’s version contains useful tips on how to wage class war against all manner of running dogs and paper tigers, you’ll search it in vain for the result of the 1921 Cup Final. On balance, therefore, I prefer the Evening Times version.

When I was a boy the Wee Red Book was 3d. Three old pee. Which is the equivalent of less than one and a half new pee. For the 1995/96 season the book costs £1.30, which is roughly ninety times what it cost thirty years ago. At the same rate of inflation, a pint of heavy should now cost about £4, with a pint of milk coming in at about £2.50. In other words, the present incarnation of the Wee Red Book is a serious rip-off. Even as recently as 82/83 it cost a mere 30p, before rapidly accelerating through the gears to its current unconscionable price. Every year that the publishers hike the price by double the rate of inflation I promise myself that I’m not going to be suckered into buying it. Every year I break my promise and purchase the damn thing. Somehow I wouldn’t feel complete without it. Acquiring the book before the start of the season has been a ritual pre-requisite for me since the age of 5 and I just can’t break the habit. And, confession time, I was, until recently, sad enough to keep all the back issues. That was before my wife went mad and junked most of them along with the bulk of a lifetime’s collection of programmes. That matter is currently in the hands of my solicitor.

The oldest of my wee red books to survive this holocaust was the 1982 edition. So, apart from the price, what other changes have there been between then and now? Most obviously it has changed in size. Since 1991 it’s become the not so Wee Red Book, or, if you like, the Slightly Bigger, but still Quite Wee, Red book. Like most other fashionable improvements in football this design modification was neither fashionable nor an improvement. The beauty of the original design was that the book could readily be slipped into the pocket of your jacket or trousers and you could carry it about with you wherever you went. The bulkier nature of the modern version simply makes it less convenient. What then was the point in increasing the size? A clue can be found on the cover. Like the Scottish Cup, the Wee Red Book is now sponsored by Tennent’s Lager, and plenty room is now needed to advertise that fact. Out of its 148 pages, the 1982 version had 18 pages of adverts for various products. The 1995 edition has 228 pages, of which 50 are entirely given over to adverts. In addition, practically every page which doesn’t contain an advertisement does contain the McEwan’s Lager logo in the top right-hand corner.

The nature of the adverts has also changed in some intriguing ways. In 1982 they were mainly for cars, clothes and strong drink. In 1995 motors and bevvy are still well to the fore, but now we’ve got oddities like mobile phone salesmen, kiltmakers, pakora bars, the Territorial Army and criminal lawyers vying for your business. This will all come in handy if, like Durranty and Co, you get into a bit of bother in the pakora bar after the game, and the polis are on their way. Fish out your trusty Wee Red Book, get on the mobile phone to your lawyer and if he can’t help, disguise yourself in a kilt and join the T A.

The only absolutely essential piece of information that the Wee Red Book contains is the complete fixture list for all senior football in the forthcoming season. It used to be the only place you could get this information, and this was its undoubted attraction. You could plan your year-long itinerary before the season had even started. Now there are a host of other publications offering season-long fixture-lists, and the appeal of the Wee Red Book has diminished accordingly. Apart from that, its only function is to update itself by including details of who won the various trophies in the past season, and who gained international caps for Scotland. In other words this season’s book is almost exactly the same as last years, which in turn is an almost complete duplicate of the previous year, and so on to infinity. To that extent the journalistic effort involved in compiling the book is virtually nil. The task is probably delegated to the Evening Times’ office cat. The same level of imagination seems to be present in the selection of photographs which are randomly scattered throughout.

For example, in the current edition, the page showing the Junior League Tables contains, for no readily discernible reason, a crudely cut-off shot of ‘Petershill boss Jim George’. Why? Petershill finished 6th in the league for gawd’s sake! Elsewhere, for no particular purpose, there’s a photo of Paul Ince captioned, ‘A vital member of the Manchester United squad’. I guess Alex Ferguson doesn’t read the Wee Red Book. Billy Bremner and David Hay are pictured, again for no obvious reason, and with no explanation, above the score line, England 5 – 1 Scotland (neither played in that game). Leighton James is depicted alongside a caption which explains that he was always a thorn in the Scottish side when playing for Wales. This photograph is inserted into a part of the Scotland- Wales results page which records that for the five consecutive years when Leighton was playing, Wales didn’t score a single goal against Scotland. We could do with more opposing thorns like that. The captions on some of the colour photographs are risible. One is captioned ‘Mark Hateley and Duncan Ferguson put the AEK Athens defence under pressure’. What? When? I must have blinked and missed that bit during the actual game. Another picture, which stretches the inventiveness of the caption-writer to the limit, imaginatively claims to show ‘Jerren Nixon and Craig Brewster putting the Tartan Presov defence under pressure’, when the photo clearly shows the Presov men conspicuously under no pressure at all, clearing the ball easily, while Nixon and Brewster are miles away. Meanwhile the picture of Celtic with the Scottish Cup is naturally captioned, ‘Bhoyant feeling’. One gets the impression that some junior hack on the Evening Times has been given a file of discarded photos with the instructions, “Just sprinkle them liberally throughout the book, and put the usual trite comments, jubilant trophy winners, distraught losers, defences under pressure, that sort of guff, and don’t forget to include Jim George – he’s my wife’s uncle”.

One of my favourite bits in the book is the ‘Matches to Remember’ section. It’s such a pithy title that TAG stole it for our own series of the same name. Instead of suing us for breach of copyright the Evening Times first of all dropped that feature altogether for a couple of years, but have now re-introduced it under the brilliantly inspired new name of ‘Games to Remember’. When I was very young one of the featured matches to remember was the immortal Rangers 2-2 Moscow Dynamo game of November 1945. It figured every year without fail right up until 1986 when it was suddenly dropped. Why was it no longer a ‘match to remember’? Presumably because, by then, everyone had forgotten all about it. Curiously it was replaced as a match to remember in 1986 by Celtic vs Racing Club from 1967, which itself only lasted until 1990. Just what exactly happened between 1986 and 1990 which abruptly caused people to remember a match from 1967 and then equally abruptly to erase it entirely from their memory banks for ever?

Presumably it’s the same phenomenon which allowed Scotland’s 3-2 win at Wembley in 1967 to make its first ever appearance in 1995. (“Haw. Ken. mind yon Scotland game at Wembley. Tell the office cat to slap that into the book this year to fill up a bit of space. The punters won’t notice. As they say about the swinging sixties, if you can’t remember it you weren’t there – or something like that “). But we can be consoled by the welcome knowledge that Aberdeen’s never-to-be-forgotten 0-0 draw with Hamburg in 1983 is now officially a ‘game to remember’. Anyone who doesn’t have a family connection to sheep or granite who can recall a single detail about that game deserves to win a lifetime subscription.

Although it might appear from the sarcastic tone of this article that I’m being critical of the Wee Red Book, the truth is that I love it. With a surname like mine, I still get endless fun flicking through the list of Scottish internationalists and seeing exotic names like McSpadyen, Crapnell, McWhattie, Orrock and Renny-Tailyour. From the same list I have been able to compile the best part of a fantasy Scottish line-up which would wind up the opposition before the game got underway, viz – Weir, Young and Speedie, Ure, Auld, Bauld, Gray and Duff. I derive many happy hours from things like trawling through the Junior Cup final results from 1887 onwards, or discovering entirely new bits of information like that Ross County’s secretary is Mr MacBean (a Scottish relative of Rowan Atkinson, possibly) or that Cowdenbeath’s inventive nickname is ‘The Cowden’. What happened to the Blue Brazil? Still, it must be true, it’s in the Wee Red Book. At the end of the day the book’s main function is as an instant settler of pub arguments, and I suppose I may as well just accept the fact that it will forever continue to be on my annual shopping-list.

First published in TAG 45 – October 1995

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