The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 37

July 21, 2010


(A Psychiatrist Writes)

On one memorable occasion Gregor Fisher’s alter ego, Rab C Nesbitt, visited his doctor. The medical man’s diagnosis was that Rab was a psychopath. The entire Nesbitt family then engaged in celebration of the fact that the patriarch was officially “pure dead mental”.

This is not an entirely fictional sentiment. In some parts of Scotland being known as a ‘crazy bastard’ is a compliment of the highest order. Nowhere is psychiatric dislocation so admired as in the wacky old world of football. Candidates for the padded cell abound in every area of the game and we could all make up a list of individuals who would be much more safely tucked up in a straight-jacket rather than a track-suit.

Indeed, even my own dear lady wife, whose name for the moment escapes me, has been known to insist that I, myself, am a few diodes short of an integrated circuit when I set off for Ochilview or Glebe Park on days when polar bears are wearing thermal long-johns.

On a purely statistical basis it stands to reason that a proportion of the people around you on the terracing are seriously mentally ill. We’re all familiar with those hardy, but totally wired, individuals who appear at the game on the coldest day of January wearing a short-sleeved V-neck shirt in their team’s colours. Rangers fans have an advantage in this regard as the colour of their arms eventually matches the colour of their shirts, though advanced frost-bite seems quite a high price to pay for colour co-ordination.

An aging Rangers fan of my acquaintance has long since taken his obsession with all things blue to its logical, not to say psychotic, conclusion, by having his garden re-turfed with blue grass from Kentucky. This is on top of naming his first-born son ‘Ibrox’ and his dog ‘Baxter’.

Not that strangeness is confined to supporters of the big clubs. I was at a Meadowbank game once when I saw a junior member of the brake club finish drinking his half-time bovril. For dessert he ate the polystyrene cup. None of his friends seemed to find this untoward. They were probably too busy dreaming of tucking into the match programme for supper.

It’s no coincidence that the editor of this magazine styles himself ‘Mad Mac’ or that contributors have included ‘Loopy Larios’ and ‘The Redcar Lunatic’. Football is a game which is prone to unhinging its followers.

The clearest manifestation of apparent madness can be found in the lengths and expense to which some people will go in following a bunch of losers masquerading as a football team around the country. What mania drives Queen of the South fans to travel hundreds of miles to see their team getting gubbed? And when they get to their destination what makes them sing “Worst team in Scotland – oh, oh, we’re the worst team in Scotland” and “We’re blue, we’re white, we’re absolutely shite – Queen of the South“? So strange does this sort of behaviour seem to non-enthusiasts that some ‘superfans’ gain a type of village idiot celebrity status by virtue of their mindless loyalty.

One such is ‘Fergie‘, who is Hamilton Accies most famous fan. Most readers will have heard, or heard of, Fergie. He’s a bit of a legend in his own lunchtime, mainly due to his foghorn voice which has been honed by years of selling evening papers on street corners. It’s only a small step from bawling
Awrahauftimescoresaniracin” to yelling “Safuckincorneryablinbastartye” around the grounds of Scotland.

On one occasion Fergie was in Perth to watch the Accies against St Johnstone. The Accies lost badly. After the game, the Hamilton team bus was on the high road home when the driver spotted the lonely figure of Fergie trudging along in the dark trying to hitch a lift. The players unanimously decided to stop and pick the old bugger up. Ten minutes further along the road the bus stopped again and Fergie was forcibly ejected, he having spent the intervening time slagging the entire playing staff for their woeful performance that afternoon, in a colourful language which is uniquely his own.

A related disorder is known as groundhopping. One example will do. I was approached by an Ipswich Town supporter one dreich Wednesday night at Hampden while Queen’s Park were toiling against Stranraer. He wanted to know where he could get a programme. He told me that he liked to get one for every match he was at, and that he’d only previously failed at the Manchester United vs Dinamo Bucharest match a few years earlier. When I expressed surprise that he couldn’t get a programme at Old Trafford he looked at me as though it was me that was mad, “No, no the game was in Bucharest – these Rumanian bastards never issue a bloody programme”.

Another characteristic of the fan is split personality. You know the kind of thing, “Johnston ya useless wee shite, away back to France ya tube ye…ho, Maurice, ya wee beauty…gooal..Mo, Mo, Super Mo etc”.

I witnessed a typical form of this schizophrenia in 1975 during the Scotland-England 5-1 game (that’s right the game when Stewart Kennedy’s marbles were re-arranged on a permanent basis). I watched that game on TV in a student hostel in Dundee where nearly half the audience were English. Before the game there was a fairly friendly atmosphere with both sides expressing ‘Que Sera Sera’ sentiments. “It’s only a game and may the best team win etc etc”.

A group of Scots arrived headed by a kilted giant blowing the bagpipes. The giant was affability itself as he engaged in playful pre-match banter with his English cousins. When England got their opener after two minutes their supporters were naturally overjoyed and cheered loudly. Goliath was still quite sanguine about this setback. “Ach, we’ll pull that back nae bother” he said good-naturedly. By the time England had fired in their third goal within half an hour the atmosphere had undergone a marked change. The Behemoth drew himself up to his full seven foot two and roared like a bull. It was only at this stage that I noticed for the first time that he had “I AM A BASTARD” tattooed across his forehead, and a rather nasty looking carving knife down the side of his sock in lieu of a dirk. He intimated that if there was any further cheering in the event of “the Sassenach bastards” adding to their tally then the offenders would find themselves affixed to the television screen by their private parts.

This did the trick. The rest of the game was viewed in silence, broken only by muted celebration of Scotland’s solitary goal, and the noise of the TV exploding against the wall in sporting recognition of England’s fifth.

Some disorders are apparently infectious. One thinks of the mass paranoia exhibited by thousands of Rangers supporters singing in unison “Everybody hates us and we don’t care”. This of course is not true paranoia in the medical sense, since the essence of the illness is that the fear of persecution is unfounded in fact, while as we all know, in reality, everybody does hate Rangers.

The real thing, on the other hand, is rampant on the other side of Glasgow, where every defeat is viewed as part of a global Masonic conspiracy. Who can forget a raving mad Davie Hay threatening to have Celtic apply to join the English league as the Bhoys could not get a fair game in this country. Apparently all of the referees are Masons to a man, carrying trowels, aprons and sashes onto the field with their red cards and stop-watches. Alternatively, everyone connected with Celtic is permanently out for an extended lunch. You decide.

Football managers are another kettle of fruit-cakes altogether. The most obvious (basket) case-history is of our old radio rental chum, Ally Macleod. Ally’s principal difficulty was that he was suffering from quite bizarre delusions, and unfortunately one of them was that he was just the man to the bring the World Cup to Glasgow. In addition, he believed that his assistant manager was a ten foot tall rabbit called Nigel.

While Ally was securely locked up in Ayr and Aberdeen he could safely be written off as a harmless eccentric. With his appointment to the Scotland job his lunacy became positively dangerous. He rallied a tartan army of similarly unstable head-cases. I know – I was one of them. Proof that football can seriously damage your mental health can be gleaned by reviewing the film of those fateful ten days in 1978 when Scotland took a roller-coaster trip off the end of the pier with Ally at the helm.

We first see Ally smiling benignly as the squad depart from Glasgow. He looks like a man who is about to set off on the holiday of a lifetime which he won in a competition on the back of a cornflakes packet. He looks relaxed and confident. A man at peace with himself and the world. You can’t tell from looking at him that he is in fact crazy as a bug. Or that his dossier on our opponents consists of a few scribbles on the back of his last gas bill, which he’s forgotten to bring with him anyway.

It’s all very well for Ian Archer to tell us after the event that Ally was, in fact, barking mad. If he’d let us in on the secret beforehand it would’ve saved a lot of trouble for those guys who went to Argentina by submarine.

Fast forward to the match with Iran. When they equalise the camera pans onto Ally whose wild-eyed , haunted expression betrays the fact that the door of reality has just been kicked open striking him squarely on the face. As he wrestles with his own private demons you feel sure that if there was a carpet in the dug-out then he’d be biting it.

Meantime, please pay some attention to the phizog of Kenny Burns, who chooses this most inopportune moment to reveal that he too has crossed the thin line separating apparent normality from the dark regions of utter and irretrievable insanity. If a film was ever made of this the screenplay would have to be by Stephen King. Ally would be played by Gregory Peck in his “who am I, where am I ?” mode, while Jack ‘The Shining’ Nicholson would play Kenny.

Mind you, it didn’t take Ally too long to recover from this temporary brush with reality. He was soon back to (ab)normal, asking rhetorically, “If Peter Beardsley is worth £2 million, then what’s Henry Templeton worth ?”

One shouldn’t be too harsh in judging Ally. He did have the ill luck to have two members of the Johnston/e clan in his squad. Medical research has since shown that this surname is itself a sympton of hereditary madness. Just ask big Derek, Mo, Bud and wee Jimmy.

Amongst players there are large numbers whose lifts don’t stop at every floor. Is it being too cruel to suggest, for example, that George Connelly was the Syd Barrett of football, with the 1969 Cup Final being his “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”?

Gazza, on the other hand, is the Ken Dodd of the game (ie, both had their major success with “Tears”). At the time of the tubby Geordie’s weeping there was a much more revealing incident which was caught in glorious close-up by the cameras. I refer to Gary Lineker’s gesture to the English dug-out which consisted of pointing his index finger to the side of his head and rotating it in a clockwise fashion. This is the international symbol indicating that packs of fruit bats are out and about in somebody’s belfry. Lineker was ahead of the field in understanding that there was nobody at home in Gascoigne’s head. Regrettably the space still seems to be vacant.

In our own country look no further than Jim ‘Chic’ Charnley to find a player who is 100 per cent off his trolley. Chic’s favourite routine is to run towards the opposing fans on the pretext of retrieving the ball for a shy. He makes a quick check to ensure that none of the officials are paying attention and then goes into his Coco the Clown role, using the full repertoire of two-finger salutes and groin-thrusting masturbatory gestures. This never fails to entertain the crowd.

It was not much of surprise to learn that a recent Thistle training session in a public park was interrupted when some local youths entered into the fun by producing machetes to settle an argument with Chic.

Club Directors do not escape the epidemic of craziness. Do you recall Jack McGinn being interviewed on Scotsport about the proposals to build a new stadium for Celtic? When he was asked the quite reasonable question about where Celtic were going to come up with the £30 odd million in readies required to finance such a project, he was particularly evasive, mumbling something about not wanting to discuss that in case other people got to hear of it. The viewer was left with the clear impression that Jack, Jimmy Farrell and Chris White (the Paradise gang) were going to rob a bank.

Football’s administrators are of course able to function without the benefit of a brain. How else can you explain the decision to change the rules of the league competition in the middle of the season ? At a stroke this transformed the most exciting relegation struggle in the Premier’s history into a cure for insomnia. I sometimes wonder whether I am the only sane person here. My own proposal to have a 16 team Premier League with six teams being relegated is quite obviously the most sensible one.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m just off to Cathkin to watch Third Lanark against Real Madrid. If I could only loosen the straps on this jacket.

First published in TAG 22 – March 1991


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