By Alec Ross
Whatever happens, we’ll always have Paris.
On Thursday night, a friend texted me to tell me he had the unmissable opportunity of a spare ticket for Sunday’s glamour Euro 2020 qualifier at Hampden Park against the mighty San Marino. That would be the same qualification group that we’re currently third last in, at the same Hampden Park where I’ve seen us ship four goals to Belgium and three to Russia. The same group where we’ve been horsed three zip to Kazakhstan and barely squeaked past Cyprus. I told him I was heading away on holiday, and that even if I wasn’t I had, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, a subsequent engagement.
He asked if I fancied a swap. I said I’d get back to him on that.
This is what it is to be a Scotland fan at the moment. I’ve followed the team since I was thirteen years old. And yet when we were mauled four nil by the Russian bear on Thursday night, I confess I hadn’t realised the game was on. And if a guy like me doesn’t know, then we truly have reached a new level of apathy. The defeat to Belgium last month was greeted with silence. These days, we don’t even bother to boo.
Gallus. It’s one of those Scottish words that defies translation. Like “thrawn”, which goes way beyond stubborn. “Stubborn” is the wee boy who refuses to take his cod liver oil. “Thrawn” is the wee boy who takes his medicine and then refuses to use the toilet.
Gallus. Uber-confident, strutting, me against the world. Wha’ daur meddle wi’ me? A previous generation hears the word and thinks of Jim Baxter playing keepy-uppy at Wembley. Older generations think of the great Gorbals boxer, Benny Lynch.
I think of James McFadden.
We’re deep into the game at the old cauldron that is le Parc de Princes. We’re away from home against a France team that ought to have won the World Cup only a year ago, if only the great “Zizou” hadn’t had an “episode”.
It’s nil-nil. “Faddy” has the ball and he’s forty-five yards from goal.
A point would be brilliant. The sensible thing would be make the easy pass to Barry Ferguson, his midfield partner, and that’s precisely what Ferguson is demanding. Keep the ball, Jamesie. Take no risks. Respect the point. Park le bus.
But the keeper is off his line. And he’s considered a weak link in an otherwise formidable France team. The last thing he’ll be expecting is a shot from distance. All of this goes through Faddy’s mind in a split second. Play it safe? Aye, right.
Wallop. One-nil. Bedlam.
Chances to do something special, to change the game, are precious and rare. Sometimes you just have to trust yourself and put your laces through it.
Bill Shankly once instructed a defender not to enter the opposition box. “But what if I find myself there by mistake?”, he asked.
“Put the ball in the net, son”, said the great Ayrshireman. “We’ll discuss your other options later”.
In terms of Scotland’s future, this is where I see it.
We aren’t talking about a speculative punt from halfway. We’ve won a penalty. The team we’re playing are divided and hate each other. They’ve had umpteen managers in the last few years and always end up sacking them. The current leader? It’s not a phrase you’re taught at Eton, but his jaiket’s on a shoogly nail. We score and the game’s over.
There’s only one problem. It’s their ground, their rules, and their ball. And they’re refusing to hand it over.
There’s an emergency team meeting. It’s decided that the best way to resolve the matter is to ask them very nicely to be reasonable and to do the right thing and allow us to take the penalty that we have won.
The result is exactly the same as it was the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that.
“Now”, they say, “is not the time”.
We agree to ask them again if and when circumstances permit. Surely they can’t deny us forever what it rightfully ours. The fans drift away into the night, their enthusiasm deflating like air out of a slow puncture. All momentum has been lost as they wonder at the lack of courage and belief they’ve just witnessed. They’ll still turn up, but it won’t be the same. I believe, they’ll say, in my team. When the time came, why didn’t our captain?
Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity.
I woke this morning in a Mediterranean holiday villa to a couple of pieces of news.
Firstly, that the Spanish Supreme Court had jailed the leaders of Catalan independence movement for a total of one hundred years. And, secondly, that a poll puts support for Scottish independence over a hard Brexit at a historically high fifty-four percent.
To which I conclude that power is never given up without an almighty struggle, and that the primary reason for Westminster not allowing a second plebiscite on self-determination is because they will lose. And this is your occasional reminder that the very fact that we actually have to ask means that we are not in any real sense of the word in a union. We beg for a piece of what is already ours.
It’s maybe tempting for the Scottish Government to wait for the polls to show, consistently, a twenty point lead. Tempting, but wrong. Because it won’t happen. Without the oxygen and momentum of a campaign – not a “fresh conversation”, or a growth commission, an actual campaign – we will sit on or slightly around halfway.
Partly that’s because this is independence we’re voting on. The polls ahead of the devolution vote in 1997 were consistently at least 60/40. So everybody knew it was in the bag, and polling day was more of a procession than a tense affair.
Of course, this was partly because you could vote for devolution and still be a unionist. If you wanted independence, then this was a stepping stone. Everybody got a little of what they wanted. Indeed, for some unionists – most famously George Robertson – this was an opportunity to “kill independence stone dead”. Remind me, m’lud, how that went.
The paradox is that support for things tends to increase significantly after they happen. Devolution in Wales was, like Brexit, a close-run thing, yet now it’s a fact of Welsh life that very few would prefer didn’t exist.
Likewise, when I was growing up, a couple of older guys used to ferry a few of us across the south of Scotland for golf tournaments. We’d be in the back without seatbelts. The driver and his pal would smoke throughout. And the designated driver would forego the whisky and just stick to beer. Mostly.
The smoking ban, the seatbelt act, the lowering of the drink-driving limit to level of virtually zero. None of these things happened without controversy. And yet they very quickly became seen for what they always were – progressive legislation for the betterment of society that saved us from our worst instincts.
And my hunch is that independence will be exactly the same. Within a short period of time, we will wonder what all the fuss was about. We’ll just be another median-sized, normal democracy that tries to get more things right than wrong. Only we’ll be able to fix the wrong, rather than just mitigate the effects of it.
But first we need our independence.
Last time, the “home” team broke purdah. They politicised the civil service and the treasury and then gave them knighthoods. They admitted postal vote fraud and got the queen to tell us to think very carefully. They promised us federalism and gave us EVEL. They promised us continuing EU membership and gave us Brexit instead. The chances of them handing us our ball back are zero, at best. Now is not the time. It will never be.
We’ll never have a better chance. But we are deep into “Fergie Time” and don’t have time to make twenty-seven passes and even if we did there’s no guarantee we’d win. And no matter how bad it gets, we’d eventually get used to living in the permanent disaster management of post-Brexit Britain. Eventually you get used to anything. At that moment, the chance is gone. And it’s gone for a long time.
Sometimes in life you just have to put your laces through it. We’re at that point now.
And we’ll always have Paris.