The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 21

August 25, 2009


Linlithgow Rose 0-1 Bo’ness United 31/12/88

The first Ne’erday match which I ever attended was an Old Firm encounter at Parkhead in the mid-sixties, when I was a tender youth of eleven. Coming from a Highland town some 130 miles from Glasgow, I was one of a merry band of revellers who set off for the big city at six o’clock in the morning aboard a Rangers supporters bus. Why so early? Well, apparently we required to make “toilet” stops in every village along the way which possessed licensed premises. The odd thing about these toilet stops was that they generally consisted of the adult members of the party filling their bladders rather than emptying them. Since most of the squad had originally arrived at the bus fresh from “bringing in the New Year” (translation – collapsing in an alcoholic stupor at the precise moment when Andy Stewart announced “a guid New Year tae yin an ‘ a ‘ “), these toilet stops were little more than exercises in topping up alcohol levels to a dangerous degree.

The gentle snow which had begun to fall when we left home soon became a full-blown blizzard, making genuine toilet stops (round the back of the bus in the middle of nowhere) highly unpleasant experiences. By the time we arrived in the environs of Celtic Park most of the company were in an advanced state of inebriation. Fortunately, most were still able to walk unaided. Regrettably this did not include the aging bluenose who was “in charge” of the expedition, who had lapsed into a semi-comatose condition. Us boys were told that he was suffering the effects of “travel-sickness”. As some of the others poured him off the bus with a view to smuggling him into the ground on the “Colditz dummy” principle, they were accosted by a vigilant cop who insisted that only those who could remember their own names were eligible for entry to the match. Even if our leader could’ve successfully performed this feat, he most certainly was not in a position to prove it, the “travel-sickness” having restricted his vocal chords to producing only incoherent grunting sounds, and he was doomed to spending the afternoon lying unconscious under the back seat of the bus.

When I stepped off the bus I was immediately swallowed up in a river of Rangers supporters flooding along the road chanting their well-loved chart-topper which begins “Hello, hello, we are the billy boys“. I had no idea what a “billy boy” was, but I had a vague idea that it had been referred to in a recent Rolf Harris song (as in “waited till his billy boy”). Once inside the ground I quickly found that being four foot five had certain disadvantages, the most notable of which was that I could only see the pitch when the guy in front of me bent down to, alternately, fish another can from his kerry-oot or to puke up the contents of said can. Restricted to mere fleeting glimpses of the action I had to content myself with learning the words to such festive airs as “Parkheids a Piggery” and “There’ll be nae holy water in the cup“.

One piece of action which I did see was Billy McNeil rising majestically to head the ball into the Rangers net at the other end of the ground. The entire Celtic end erupted. At our end time stood still. For a split second I was surrounded by frozen silence. Then, as if in slow motion, the referee remembered his Masonic oaths and signalled for some infringement or other. The Celtic end subsided and our end exploded in exultation. By the time the fuss had died down I found myself located in an entirely new and different part of the ground. Relieved to find that there were no bones broken I began to hope that Rangers would not score as I didn’t fancy ending up in some unknown part of London Road.

I was by no means the worst off. Within seconds a forest of raised arms were passing the earthly remains of an elderly gentleman from the back of the terrace to the ambulancemen at the front. His rigid corpse-like appearance and deathly pallor indicated that the result of this particular match was now going to be a matter of complete indifference to him.

By the time the match ended at 0-0 I had been fully instructed in the necessity of defending Derry’s walls, that we were up to our knees in somebody’s blood, that if somebody surrendered we or they or somebody else would die, and that, news to me, my father had worn a sash on the twelfth of something or other a long time ago.

When we got back to the bus our leader was roused from his slumbers to be told that we had thrashed the enemy 0-0. He seemed to have some difficulty in comprehending this information before keeling over and throwing up spectacularly over the return journey’s “refreshments”. The long hours of the homeward trek were usefully spent by the elders of our company initiating the juveniles into the mysteries of “Fenians” and “Popery” (in between bouts of communal “travel sickness” and “toilet” stops).

Many years later, during the contretemps which followed the 1980 Cup Final, Archie MacPherson was moved to remark, “Let s not kid ourselves – these people hate each other”. At the age of 11 I had seen that first hand.

Which brings me to Linlithgow and Bo’ness (and about bloody time too – Ed). It wasn’t strictly a Ne’erday game as it was played on Hogmanay. The passions aroused were much the same, albeit on a smaller scale and without the religious overtones. Of course, by 1988 I was no longer a child. I had put away childish things, like sobriety and common sense, and acquired the habits of a man, like being haIf-cut at the game and intense stupidity. The majority of the crowd seemed to be in the same state, having limbered up for the New Year celebrations with prolonged pre-match imbibing.

One of the problems with Junior football is that, unless you’re Harry Angel, you can’t tell what type of match you’re watching. Is it a league game? If so, is it a top of the table clash or a relegation four pointer? Is it a cup tie? If so, which cup? There are about 40 to choose from. Consequently, you don’t really know how to react as the game develops. Should you be beside yourself with excitement , chewing your fingers to the knuckles, as the match goes into the last ten minutes still scoreless? Or should you be yawning with boredom and wondering what’s for tea?

No such problems with the Linlithgow – Bo’ness game. Ah yes, there’s nothing quite like a local derby to wipe away the veneer of civilisation and drive us back to cave-man territorialism. Who cares what type of game it is? These people hate each other. And for Linlithgow and Bo’ness there’s the added spice of there being no crowd segregation. That’s what it’s all about as Derek Johnstone would inevitably say.

To say that Junior football is tough is like saying that Graeme Souness is self-confident. “Tough” doesn’t quite convey the full flavour of savage barbarity on show. Over the ball and late tackling is the norm, with throat-high challenges not being considered unduly reckless. The players are made of iron and concrete. There’s no room for any namby-pamby rolling around clutching your leg in this game. The play will not be stopped unless the tackle has actually amputated one or more of the victim’s limbs. The surfeit of violence on the pitch paradoxically ensured that, apart from a few minor skirmishes, there was no real trouble amongst the spectators. They confined themselves to verbal abuse of each other.

The only time when there was any real danger of bloodshed was when one of the linesmen accepted an invitation to join us on the terracing to discuss the merits of whose shy it was. Laying down his “flag” (actually a multi-coloured dishcloth), he deserted his post, jumped the small wall at the side of the pitch, squeezed his way through the crowd and seized his principal detractor by the throat. Fortunately, before things got totally out of control, the ball flew out of play requiring his immediate attention. He vaulted back onto the field and awarded the throw-in the wrong way. Thereafter he contented himself with conducting a long range running feud with the crowd, during which he repeatedly expressed the hope that we would all die.

The game remained without a goal until the last kick when Bo’ness scored. The Linlithgow fans congratulated their opposite numbers in the traditional West Lothian manner with repeated rousing choruses of “Ya Bo’ness shitebags “, while accompanying them at speed towards the burgh boundaries. A few minutes of mindless abuse and some pushing and jostling and it was all over for another year. After that it was time to go home to get ready to wish yin and a’ a good New Year before falling drunkenly through the Christmas tree and being sick on the cat. Now, that really is what it’s all about.

As a postscript to the above, I should tell you that I was present at the recent Junior cup-tie between Linlithgow and Kirkintilloch Rob Roy which took place a couple of days after Christmas. In keeping with the season of goodwill to all men, Rob Roy had two players sent off, the second of whom celebrated his dismissal by booting the referee in the balls, necessitating the police being called. Sounds like a good subject for a Match to Remember”!

First published in TAG 27 – March 1992


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