Win or Lose: The Game’s the Thing

“Scots have always seen their politics through the prism of sport, football in particular”

Just occasionally, someone writes something so sublimely clever you dearly wish you’d thought of it yourself.

Last Monday morning, at just after 11.30am, and in the most dramatic way imaginable, a diminutive woman enters the press room in Bute House, Edinburgh. Nicola Sturgeon has always been a more measured politician than her more daring and flamboyant predecessor, Alex Salmond, but something in her body language, the emotion in her voice, suggests that whatever is on her mind, it’s big.

About fifteen minutes into her speech, the pin is out of the grenade, and plans for a second independence referendum are announced.

As happens in the modern age, social media went into meltdown. What did this mean for Scotland? How much impact would this have on the triggering of article 50 and the Brexit negotiations? Given that the constitution was a reserved matter, would a second vote even be allowed? And, with support for independence seemingly stuck on 46%, wasn’t this a huge political gamble?

One tweeter got to the crux of the issue. Buried deep amongst the tsunami of political opinion was this gem from @TamMcManus:

“Nicola Sturgeon just took the pressure right off Strachan’s decision not to pick a right back in his squad. Genius”.

Brilliant. By cheekily suggesting that the Scotland football manager had used the fallout from the Bute House announcement as an opportunity to bury bad news, Tam had managed to conflate the two big stories of the day.

Scots have always seen their politics through the prism of sport, football in particular. People, generally comfortably well off people, used to lecture us about the dangers of mixing politics and sport. They missed, and continue to miss, the mark. I actually think that they miss the whole point of the exercise. I mean, I actually love it.

There’s a scene in Martin Scorcese’s 2004 film “The Aviator” when Howard Hughes, played brilliantly by Leonardo Dicaprio, is having dinner with Cate Blanchett’s elite, old-money family. The subject of funding comes up. “Oh, we never talk about money”, she says, airily.

“That’s because you have some” retorts an angry Dicaprio.

I thought about that during the 2014 referendum campaign, when Labour’s attempts to scare their core vote with dire warnings about the currency fell on deaf ears. The reality is that being skint in euros is exactly the same as being skint in sterling. If you don’t have money, then that immediately becomes the most important thing in your life. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of treating a currency debate as an abstract discussion.

playing footballSimilarly, you rarely hear politics talked about at rugby matches or well-heeled golf clubs, because they’re full of people who don’t need to.

Scottish football is different, however. Scots have always brought their politics to the match. It’s war without the shooting, to borrow from George Orwell.

I come from a family where politics was always discussed and debate was always lively. When I was growing up, my father was heavily involved in the National Farmers Union, and was its president for six years. His office was full of pictures of him meeting leaders and politicians. There’s a great picture of him speaking with John Major (whom he rated highly) and there were always MPs and journalists visiting the house. One day, the new Moderator of the Church of Scotland came to visit the farm. I’ve driven the head of the Kirk round the farm in a tractor. Not many people can say that, I’d wager.

Fascinating though that was, I’m convinced that my entry point into political awareness came in a place as far away from a Wigtownshire sheep farm as it’s possible to imagine.

In 1982, I was eleven years old and football daft, a bit like my own two boys are now. I was in the Boys Brigade and we were camping at the back of the farm. The problem was, Scotland were playing a crucial World Cup match against the USSR, and we were desperate to see it. We negotiated a couple of hours leave from camp and headed to the farmhouse.

A thrilling game ended in typically glorious failure, a 2-2 draw not quite enough to see us through to the next round. But that’s not what I remember. At some point during the game, the camera pointed at the Scotland end and a supporter had unveiled a banner that combined gallus, terrace humour with a self-effacing nod to a very Scottish stereotype.

“Alcoholism beats Communism”, it said.

Flag_of_Scotland_with_footballHampden Park, Glasgow. May 1988

Scottish Radical politics didn’t begin and end with the Independence Referendum of 2014. It goes back many centuries.

The Glasgow of 1988 was a brilliant place to visit. It was the year of the Garden Festival, and the Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign that saw the beginning of the end of the “No Mean City” image.

But it was also the year of the poll tax. It was also the year that I attended the Scottish Cup Final.

A certain Margaret Thatcher attended too.

So – a Tory Prime Minister attending a game of football in Glasgow against the backdrop of the imposition of a despised tax by a party that nobody in Scotland had voted for, on a boiling hot day. And we’d been on the bevvy for hours.

What could possibly go wrong?

Clearly, the authorities had done their homework. Normally, the guest of honour would meet the players on the pitch just before kick-off. Thatcher? Not a chance. For the only time in history, the reception took place deep within the bowels of Hampden Park, away from the mob.

They even tried to sneak Thatcher into her seat a few minutes after the game had started, hoping nobody would notice.

We noticed, all right. Both sets of fans held up tens of thousands of red cards and pointed them straight at Grantham’s most famous daughter. This most divisive of leaders had achieved the impossible by uniting rival supporters.

It got even better. Throughout the game, the fans, with one voice, and to the tune of “Bread of Heaven”, suggested where Mrs Thatcher might wish to put her tax policies.

I experienced so, so much during the Independence Referendum: the debates, the laughs, the rallies in George Square.

But let me tell you something. For as long as I live, nothing – nothing – will beat watching a Glasgow crowd telling Margaret Thatcher to stick her poll tax up her arse.

I was so proud of my country that day.

This all came back to me last week when I read an article in The Times from a writer who, it seems, came to Glasgow, asked his taxi driver about the state of our national game, and based an entire article (“What is the Point of Scottish Football?”) on it.

For years, the London media has fed us the myth that we are too wee, too poor, and way to stupid to manage our own affairs. Given that, as I’ve argued, Scottish politics and our national sport are part of the same thing, it was only a matter of time before the national game got the same treatment.

And so it was that a couple of weeks ago we got this from the journalist James Gheerbrant in The Times:”Scotland the Worst Title Race in Europe Since 1932″

Right then. Where to start?


Scotland v England 1872 Result: 0-0 Attendance 4000 

The first thing is this. Scottish football is actually quite good. Actually, better than quite good. This season has seen a Celtic team give a hugely talented and massively expensive Manchester City side a tactical lesson that has utterly derailed their domestic title ambitions. Over the last twenty years or so, when Scottish clubs meet English clubs, we’re actually slightly ahead. Wins by Celtic against Liverpool and Blackburn, for example, don’t exactly suggest an inferior standard.


Secondly, a dominant force isn’t exactly specific to Scottish football. A bang-average Chelsea side is leading the English Premiership by thirteen points, but nobody is calling it a procession – although that is indeed what it is. When you look through the European leagues, is Germany a Mickey Mouse league because Bayern win most of the time? Is France, because of the petrochemical millions of PSG? I’m a Stranraer fan, incidentally, which puts me in with the majority of Scottish football fans in that we won’t win very often, if at all.

And you know what? I don’t care. No Scottish football fan does. The Times article was written on the assumption that we cared about winning trophies. We don’t, we just love our game. When my club, Stranraer, the third oldest club in Scotland (and, incidentally, the nineteenth oldest in the world) won the Challenge Cup in 1996, they took the trophy to every club in the region. You can’t buy that kind of civic pride. When I was wee, it was always Celtic and Rangers shirts. They’re still about (and I still follow the hoops) but an awful lot more weans wear the Stranraer colours. That, for me, is wonderful. And if they want to follow Celtic or Rangers? Fair play to them. We all love our game, and we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns.


Thirdly, if the prerequisite of following football was your team winning stuff then I’d have given up thirty years ago. But winning things isn’t why I turn up every Saturday.footie The standard of football, today included, seems pretty good. But that feels secondary. It’s beer at £2 a pint and being allowed to drink it in the stadium. It’s a liberal interpretation of the smoking ban. It’s a player getting subbed and then sitting in the stand talking to the fans. It’s a former Stranraer captain, Allan Jenkins, who took the trouble to walk across a room to tell me how well my youngest was doing at his goalkeeping, just at a time when he was struggling with his confidence. He didn’t have to do it. But he did it anyway. These things make a difference. These things matter. These things are important. This is what we are.

And then this. I have learned so much from my sons. They ask me why, given that we are in Scotland, Rangers fly the Union Flag and sing Rule Brittania. Or why they don’t like the Pope. Ot why they don’t like Catholics. Or fly they flag of Israel, when Celtic fly the flag of Palestine. Try explaining any of this to a pair of boys who essentially just love their football, and then try to justify to yourself the Glasgow sectarian divide. Good luck, as they say, with that.

In 2014, we spent a lot of time reassuring people how things would stay the same. But we are different. How we bring in new year is different. How we celebrate new life is different. How we mourn our dead is different. How we speak is different. Who we are is different.

Not better. Not exceptional. Not superior. Just different.

We must embrace our differences. We must never talk ourselves down. We must never be ashamed of what we are. Win or lose, the game’s the thing.

Mind you, three points in Peterhead next week would be useful.


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2 replies »

  1. Cheers Helen. For me, “Scottish football is crap” is from the same hymn sheet as “you couldnae manage on yer own”. I’m lucky in that I’ve been blessed with seeing some really decent Stranraer teams over the years – and we suddenly look ok again – but I just love the culture that surrounds our game (ok, most of it). Interesting, too, that Scotland (and other Northern European nations like Iceland) have a larger percentage of their population attending the football than larger, more monied leagues like England and France. The exception is probably Germany, who have an extraordinarily vibrant fan culture, partly aided by by the fact that even the big games are affordable to all because of some really progressive thinking on price structure.

    That said, I’m attending Scotland v Slovenia on Sunday. Jings, I worry…..

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