The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 20

August 18, 2009


All Things Must Pass

In the prologue to “Adolf Hitler – My Part in His Downfall”, Spike Milligan wrote, “After Puckoon I swore I would never write another novel. This is it… “. In a similar fashion, nearly every time I’ve been to a match at Hampden Park over the last twenty odd years I have vowed that I would never be back. Till the next time…! In TAG 20, John McArthur persuasively argued that Hampden Park had outlived its usefulness. My head may agree but my heart resists. Whatever may become of the park, the place itself will remain as the repository of countless memories and dreams for many people. Amidst the current headlong rush to create a collection of sanitised, all-seated, consumer- friendly superdomes I would like to share some of my memories with you because, well, I’m just that self-indulgent kind of a guy.The first time I ever visited the Scottish Mecca was in 1969 for Scotland’s world cup qualifier against Cyprus. As I sat in the (now deceased) old stand, bathed in sunshine on a warm Saturday afternoon, watching the Scots rattling eight past the hapless Cypriots, I had little inkling that it wouldn’t always be so uncomplicated and enjoyable. Subsequently, the passing years have taught me that the “Hampden Experience” generally conforms to the following pattern. First, you have to park your car miles away from the ground to avoid getting your radio nicked by wee boys who endeavour to fleece you for a couple of quid to “look after” it during the game. Then you’ve to walk these miles to the ground in pouring rain, having forgotten that it always rains at Hampden. Except, of course, for those occasions when you’ve had the presence of mind to bring an umbrella.

War and Piss

If it’s a cup final that you’re heading for, you tend to find out on the way why Battlefield Road is so-called. Stepping nimbly round the warring factions you eventually come upon a colourful scene in the immediate environs of the Park where there is a river of people flowing over, under and round a motley collection of flag-sellers, scarf-sellers, programme-sellers, macaroon and spearmint chewing-gum sellers, police on horseback, police on foot, police in vans, lost children, children who are not lost but wish they were, people trying to buy tickets, people trying to sell tickets, spivvy types trying to both buy and sell tickets, men in kilts trying to get into the game by pretending that they’re in the pipe band, folk dressed up as pandas collecting for obscure charities, wee men with sandwich boards proclaiming the end of the world, all the jugglers and clowns who do tricks for you (copyright – R Zimmerman), guys who earlier on painted their faces in club colours forgetting that the rain would soon make them look like Joan Collins after a hard night, riff-raff, scallywags, urchins, down-and-outs, wide-boys and con-men of all descriptions, the editor of TAG trying to off-load back issues, a couple of Norwegian tourists who thought that Mount Florida was a miniature Disneyland, former players hanging about hoping that someone will recognise them, and Chick Young asking passers-by who they think is going to win. There’s a line-up of hot-dog vans charging ludicrous prices for fare which tastes rather too literally like “hot dog” for my liking. Police Alsatians endeavour to rip your bum out as you pass. People, of both genders, are pishing up against the hallowed walls, the streams of urine being distinguishable from rain-water by virtue of the steam rising from the former. While trying to avoid getting this liquid on your trainers you step into a newly-laid pile of police horse-shite.

Mad Macaroon

You get into the ground to find that your ticket is for that wee enclosure bit just under the stand where your eye-level is actually below the level of the pitch, so that you have to spend the entire ninety minutes craning your neck upwards to see any of the action, and from this angle you rely heavily on the colour of socks to determine which team has the ball. You freeze in the icy rain. You heat up momentarily as the person next to you spills his bovril down the front of your trousers. You find that, rather than fenian blood, you’re up to your knees in fearful mud. Twenty minutes into the game the PA gives the usual police announcement about having reason to believe that pickpockets are operating in the ground tonight. You check your wallet. You fucking knew it! Some bugger’s away with it. If it’s a Scotland match since about 1980, you get bored to tears with some half-arsed continental system of interminable square balls being hit across the back four. You spend a lot of your time wondering why they sell macaroon bars to football fans. I’ve never actually seen anyone eating one, but there’s always a guy coming round the terracing with a box of the stuff. My theory is that he and his pals must’ve hijacked a train-load of them back in the late fifties, and they’ve been trying to get rid of them ever since. Anyway, Scotland get suckered by a last minute goal. As you leave the ground, you swear on your oath never to come back. The rain seems to have got much heavier. You get swept along Cathcart Road by the force of the crowd. You forget where you’ve parked the car, which will probably have been stolen anyway. You queue for hours at Mount Florida, eventually arriving home after midnight, thoroughly pissed on and pissed off. Does any of this sound familiar?

Smells Like Team Spirit

Despite (or is it because of) these conditions, optimism for the next time or the next game hardly ever wanes. During the mid-seventies Scotland played all its matches with Northern Ireland at Hampden, even when they were supposed to be away matches. Every alternate year you would get a match programme with the N. Irish logo on the front and a splendidly absurdist editorial along the lines of “It is with much pleasure that we welcome our visitors, Scotland, to Hampden Park tonight“. Of course, in these days we were expected to whup the Irish good and proper. Naturally enough, we suffered a series of humiliating defeats. On one of those occasions we lost on the Wednesday night prior to a Wembley date with England on the Saturday. Humiliated? Depressed? Embarrassed? Not a bit of it! As I made my way onto dark, dreary, rain-soaked Cathcart Road, the evening gloom was lifted by the sight of a passing double-decker. The lads on the top deck had, in their youthful exuberance, spontaneously kicked out the back windows, and were hanging out the exposed top, swathed in splintered glass, lion rampants, and “Remember Bannockburn” banners, merrily chanting “Bring on the English “. It fair made my old Caledonian heart beat a little faster.

The Naked Ape

When I attended the 1973 Old Firm cup final it was in my previous incarnation as a blue-nose billy boy. A group of us had come down from Dundee, and this included one guy who was attending in his official capacity as a St John’s ambulanceman. Of course, the rest of us were jealous as hell at the thought that he’d be swanning about at the side of the pitch, with an uninterrupted view of proceedings. As chance would have it, a man near to us fainted after twenty minutes or so of the game (something to do with Tommy McLean’s haircut) and our St John’s pal had to come up onto the terracing. I managed to shout over to him to ask whether he was enjoying the game. His response was to ask me what the score was. Since then, my advice is not to join the ambulance crew if you think that’s a cheap and easy way to see the game. It’s much easier to dress up as a Panda and claim you’re collecting for distressed gentlefolk.

Later on in the day I thought I might be in need of his services. As we made our way into the city centre, flushed with the ‘Gers success, blue scarves trailing from the car windows, we had to stop next to a corporation bus at traffic lights. One of the passengers on the bus was apparently of the opposite persuasion, and he stood at the window of the bus mouthing the standard obscenities, which form the traditional social etiquette on such occasions. We steadfastly ignored his orang-utang type behaviour for a few moments. Uncharacteristically emboldened by being cocooned in the car I eventually responded with a diffident V-sign. I was mildly apprehensive (not to mention feeling my bowels loosen) when the monkey-man dashed to the door of the bus and hastily disembarked, apparently with a view to discussing the matter in greater depth. Fortunately the lights changed. We got away and the ape missed his bus. All part of the rich tapestry of football.Lest it be thought that I am ascribing simian qualities only to Celtic supporters, I can balance this with an occasion when I spent an uncomfortable couple of hours parked next to a very strange wee man during a Scotland v Portugal encounter. At no time did he actually watch the action on the field. Instead, his gaze was permanently fixed on the “Celtic End”. Every 90 seconds or so he would inform everyone around him that “These bastards are only here the night ‘cos Ireland arenae playin‘”. Each time he disgorged this information he nudged me in the ribs to seek my assent. What could I say? I didn’t think it appropriate to advise him that he was a deeply disturbed individual who should really be seeking specialised medical assistance. I contented myself by mouthing, ” Yeah, fucking appalling, intit”.

Famous for ninety minutes

There’s always a chance of meeting celebrities at the big games at Hampden. In the 1982 match against England I was sitting in the stand a couple of rows in front of a pink-jacketed Billy Connolly. After we’d lost 1-0 I was privileged to be in a small group who were treated to Billy’s in-depth post-match analysis.

Fucking terrible boys, eh?”, quoth the Big Yin.

On another occasion during Dumbarton’s annual second round Scottish Cup dismissal, this time at the hands of Queens Park, I found myself sharing a urinal with the late Sir Hugh Fraser. Funnily enough his comments about Dumbarton’s performance were almost exactly the same as Connolly’s had been about Scotland, but in a more refined accent.

Countdown to Ecstasy

The reason why we all go back, despite the rain, despite the urine, despite the macaroon bars, despite the turgid football, despite the Pandas, despite the awful conditions, is that every so often something happens which makes it all worthwhile. Like England scoring two own goals, as in 1974. Or Charlie Nicholas uncorking a beauty, as against Switzerland in 1983. Or Donnachie’s supernatural own goal against Wales. Or the entire Uruguayan team leaving the field and refusing to play on after an offside decision went against them in ‘83. Clemence letting the ball through his legs, Gordon McQueen colliding with a goal-post, Jim Holton colliding with everything else, Dalglish’s goal against Spain, Derek Johnstone’s thirty yard header against Wales, grown men from Paisley weeping with joy after the cup final in ‘87, grown men from Dundee weeping after every cup final. I could go on. (No, please stop – Ed). The point is that the emotional adrenalin rush when something fantastic happens is intensified precisely because of the appalling environment. We’re Scottish! We like a bit of suffering with our pleasure! Whether Hampden is converted into a people’s palace or left to rot as a gigantic folly, I somehow doubt if its unique ability to lift you out of the mundane into the realms of real cerebral ecstasy can be recaptured in any other context. You know me, I wouldn’t like to offend David Murray, but the fact is that Ibrox simply can’t do it. You either got soul or you don’t. Hampden had it.


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