My brother George is a professional actor and writer, some of you may have seen him on either stage, TV or indeed the silver screen, some of you may even have read one of his books… but first and foremost he’s a football fan. Everton first and then football as the foremost.
We’ve nattered over the past few weeks and are happily submitting articles to this marvellous TaleofTwoHalves website under the loose heading of Football Genesis – first games, poignant memories, footy nostalgia etc.
Hopefully, you’ve read my first Auld Firm game memory so now, with no further ado, here’s his recollection of his first ever game at Hampden Park.
I’m in Glasgow, working at the Citizens Theatre. March 2016. The room I’ve rented, where the landlady’s dog flicks your crotch every time you come in, is two streets down from Hampden.
I’ve always wanted to see a match in that stadium.
Now, it holds 52,060. In 1937, 150,000 were there to see England dare to take on Scotland. That’s a lot of fans, man and Scotland won, 3-1.
So, I check and Queens Park – whose home ground the national stadium is, are playing – Scottish Second Div – Annan Athletic [never heard of them] on Tuesday.
Next day, in rehearsals I beg the director to let me off Tuesday night, and he, the sweetie [you could write on a pin-head his complete knowledge of soccer] agrees. There’s an air of sad condescension from him – ‘Oh, the odd things the faux working-class need…’ sort of behaviour [I could be snobbishly paranoid – it has been said] – but hell, I don’t care.
This, this stadium is a theatre, too. And I’m off to see a show.
Like, I imagine a fair few other English footy fans there’s something lodged in the memory – from the five o’clock reading of the footy scores and wonderful names like Kilmarnock and Hamilton Academicals and my favourite – Third Lanark. Whatever happened to First and Second Lanark? And, for some reason Berwick Rangers and Brechin City.
They’re lodged in the memory and I also remember scouring the Sunday papers and reading that Ayr v Stranraer had 1,263 watching and, even at seven years of age you can’t help but wonder what that feels like, and what the craic was etc.
And when you follow your elder brother to go and watch Bolton Wanderers and Burnden Park is always heaving, you re-read the fine footy print in the Sundays and there was 785 watching Queen of the South draw 0-0 with Arbroath and you make a mental note that one day…
Here it comes. Hurrah.
I manage to interest no-one else at all in the company in this excursion, which is tickety-boo with me. Folks think actors are all about showing off, and we are, but behind all that is people-watching – that’s the root of the gig – and I’m expecting a wee feast tonight.
I get off me bus, buy a pie and a bottle of water from the Spar – having been well-rinsed for sustenance at English football grounds for YEARS – eat the pie, of course, fool, and turning off the Cathcart Road and up Somerville Drive, I approach.
It’s chilly and I’m going to need more food, that’s for sure.
The stadium, unsurprisingly, is massive, and unlike Wembley, it is right in its community. Terraced houses. Car parks, of course, but somehow it feels like both a national stadium and a local resource.
It’s not possible for me to walk around it, past the vast majority of locked entrances, without thinking of all the great joys of victory and desperate awful defeats that have been suffered here – and if it is any tiny part of evolution that we have ritualised combat from war to sport – well, good, eh?
Finally, I find the one open turnstile.
A trickle of us folks approaching it, some with black and white scarves and bobble hats [Very Sensible – Glasgow can be icy man, even in March] and a deeply bored single policeman, who, hilariously greets me with,
‘Could you place the bottle in the bin, please, sir…’
I look in his chilled face and say,
‘Look at me, I was seventy the other day, what chaos do you think I can manage with a bottle of Evian water?’
‘Could you place the bottle in the bin, please sir…’
My whining, ‘I just paid a quid for this…’ doesn’t even elicit a response, just a glance at the waiting jaws of the Hampden Bin.
Another fan gives me the supportive raised eyebrows and adds, ‘You’re not a local…’
I’d say [this is part of my job, too] he’s from Blackburn, and as we root for our cash he is, or near enough for me to feel, a bit smug and this is his pilgrimage here, en-route to seeing a match in every stadium in Britain. I don’t actually want the rest of that conversation [snob, see?] nor do I want to watch the match in conversation with a fellow Sassenach.
‘How old are you?’ asks Mr.Turnstile. I have my passport on me for some reason and I rather proudly show it and my advanced years and he goes, ‘Ah, pensioner – two quid.’
The evening takes a sharp upturn. When you’ve paid fifty-five quid at the Emirates a man offering you a similar sight for fifty-three quid less, is – welcome.
‘Have you got a programme?’ I ask and he passes me a folded, printed, piece of foolscap.
‘Oh great. How much?’ He looks at me as if I may be in need of care-in-the-community and says, ‘It’s free.’ I’ve been here two minutes and everything is new. Great.
I enter a bar area familiar to all fans. Coffee, alcohol, Queens Park nick-nacks – I buy a badge for no good reason – toilets. A large milling area. With nothing like a large number of people in it. ‘Milling’ does sound like there should be more than a dozen, right?
Two entrances out to the – I was going to write ‘terraces’ but of course it’s all seats now. It’s ten to kick-off. I am tempted by a beer and whisky chaser, especially the latter bit, but settle for a cup of THE worst coffee on earth. And, hilariously, it cost more than the price of my admission…
Around the walls of this space are excellent photos of the great warriors of Scottish soccer. Denis. Dave Mackay. The odious Bremner. Jimmy Johnstone. And, where Denis needs no surname, Dalglish. A marvellous one of Joe Jordan in full terrorising-English-defenders mode. Time to empty the bladder and that vile coffee away – and go watch the match…
A chunky lady in a yellow high-vis jacket looks at my ticket, gives me a smashing grin and asks, ‘Home or Away?’
I laugh, and her grin spreads as I go, ‘Crikey, you’re not expecting boxing are you?’ ‘Er, no – but I have to ask…’
I say I’ll sit with the Home fans, thanks. ‘Behave now,’ as she gestures me to her left with another wide smile.
There’s a moment that gets you at every stadium, where you first emerge into the great amphitheatre. Works every time. Just writing this I’m remembering that emotion at the last game I went to – last season at Newcastle, [and we, Everton, through Rooney’s goal, won] and I love/prefer night matches, for this moment alone.
The floodlit green of the turf, the soaring architecture and The Hope, the perennial drug for fans, that at some point tonight you will see something, some magical detail. What I see is a vast bowl of yellow seats, 99% of which are empty, of course.
We, the paying public are in one tiny section, just left of the half-way line. Hilariously, to our left are the Annan Athletic fans. Twenty of ‘em? And even more comically for the whole match, a guy in an orange high-vis jacket will walk mechanically up and down the terracing; I suppose keeping the potentially warring fans apart…
I find a seat…
Another thing actors do is count the house – there’s maybe eight hundred of us in here as – whoopee – no more time simply to shiver, the two teams and the refs emerge. There is that warming roar of hope, fondness and excitement. Which is easier to generate from thousands than it sounds to be from hundreds – I’d be hard pushed to bellow, ‘Come on the Lads’ at the top of my voice when it would echo like this. A few do. Nothing but respect, mates.
Annan Athletic, who look as a team sizeably bigger than ‘us,’ are dressed as bulging yellow and black wasp-people and Queens Park, like Celtic, wear hooped shirts.
But these are black hoops on white, and with the essential difference, there are maybe twice as many hoops as The Bhoys, creating the visual impression of a wonky black and white telly. Against a totally yellow background, you could be forgiven for leaving with a serious migraine.
The fans. To my left and just below me a couple of clumps of maybe a dozen mates, giving off with the positive vocals, away to my right [remember I said actors people-watch?] is a dude in a decent dark-blue suit, patent leather shoes, slip-ons for God sake, very crisply ironed mauve shirt and tie – and no overcoat of any kind…
Behind me a man and his wife who will eat their way throughout the match. She seems to have a hamper… Where was the cop looking when she tipped up, eh? Not at the bin. And the briefest warm-up, Jaysus but it’s cold and they’re wearing shorts ffs… we’re away.
One of the odd things about footy is watching a game that you are disinterested in. Not un-interested, but not invested in. I didn’t care who won. I was watching effectively the lowest level of UK professional soccer, and I was curious and that really was all. Around me people really cared who won, lost played well, etc etc. I was a silent southern voyeur.
The first thing that struck me was all these guys could play – given enough time they could all effectively control the ball and pass it. I don’t know what I was expecting but this was a large pleasant surprise. Also, almost subliminally – I certainly didn’t notice myself thinking it – after ten minutes I’d sussed that not one of them had the pace to simply run away from anyone else. Some were quicker, obviously, the Annan centre-halves looked as if they’d been hacked from Cairngorm granite, but anyone with real pace? No, sir.
Wait – oh – hang on, the ref, much to general disgust, gave a free-kick on the edge of ‘our’ box. I kind of agreed with the disgust. The waspy No.9, built like a brick [a quarter of an hour to do 180 degrees sort of gorilla] was mysteriously up-ended by a hooped hero half his size. He rose, rubbing bits of himself, limping and then casually smacked the free-kick into the top corner. 0-1.
Twenty-odd travelling fans went a bit mad, and a dreadful despair, that I had had no sense of before, immediately enveloped almost all of the home support. Major Gloom.
Voices, angry voices, gave the manager an instant shellacking and after a few ritual claps to his lads, he disappeared from sight, pursued by vitriol. He did not, to memory, re-appear. The suited man crossed his legs, re-adjusted his position and called, ‘Come on lads, no worries…’
Respect for that man. Because, this is only 0-1 recall, and some of his fellow supporters looked around to see who’d broken negative ranks.
Where was I? Oh yeah. So, if you haven’t anyone who can create space from pace then the next best weapon would be a real dribbler. Scottish footy is riddled with such characters. Isn’t it in the blood? The food-chain? Not here – and maybe not any more.
Oh no… Annan found the big No.9 with room to belt home another Hampden classic. 0-2.
The atmosphere, which had settled into general gloom after the first one, now turned toxic.
I remembered standing on the terraces at Goodison once [when you could, yeah] next to a man who shouted hate and obscenities at the referee for ninety minutes, pretty much non-stop and I thought, ‘Oh, I get it – this is one by-product of footy – it’s a release valve for bile.’ Better the guy did it here than in his home sort-of-thing.
The massed ranks of Queens Park fans now settled into what had the awful feeling of a ritual nastiness and venom at, frankly, their lot. The choices they had made.
Not that they were blaming themselves. Not when in front of them were eleven candidates for blame and the useless manager. I couldn’t stop myself thinking, ‘Well, why do you come here – when you could watch Rangers or Celtic for example?’ And, of course, immediately squashed the thought. As Fergie said, ‘Two things you can’t change – your walk and your football team.’
Behind me the man and his wife were eating whilst shaking their heads, some of the boys had gone for necessary re-fills, I was freezing and Mr.Suit – no overcoat remember – still just adjusted his posture.
Half-time came and the team were booed off. When there’s less than a thousand people booing and yelling at you – you can hear it, hear the individual slagging. Maybe you’re twenty and someone identifying you by name gives you a large dollop of poisonous criticism and negative character assessment to take with you. You MUST get used to it. You must have to. And still try your best. And still dream.
I mused the interval away thinking as there was no dribbler on view, how were the coaches to best channel their resources? Annan had it sorted, ‘oof it up to man-mountain, where he would distribute it to another wasp, build from that.
Queens Park – ‘we’ – didn’t have that ‘asset’ so were reliant on team-work – and, because of no pace and their intimidating giant sized back line – all deeply enthusiastically physical, too – one elegant way of combatting it would be first-time passing. If you can pass first-time, as a team, especially in a forward direction – you can cut anyone open. Takes technique, practice and will.
Out they come. In the whole of the second half, I counted three completed first-time passes – only one of which was aimed forward. And any failure to complete that skill brought such howls of hatred it would take a man of steel to try it again, immediately…
Still. Geed up, by the manager and the crowd the lads gave it everything till fifteen minutes after the re-start – oh dear – Annan delivered the good-night punch. 0-3.
The clumps of the vocal fans began to disintegrate, the departing leaving with one last long loud sustained blast of violent angry personalised opinion; another fucken’ week they’d ruined, the fucken’ hooped shite-hawks – and the man with his mouth full emptied it enough to shout his general agreement and as I began to think about leaving too, Mr.Suit finally spoke up. ‘Can we have some positivity around here, please?’
It went briefly quiet and no-one laughed. Major respect.
I left. About five minutes from the end. Chilled. I noticed no change in the noise as I avoided the Hampden crush…
So I was surprised and a bit angry with myself, when in the morning paper I read it had ended 1-3, ‘we’d’ scored in the 94th minute.
Mr.Suit deserved that.