John Mullin: Ties that bind Scotland and Ireland

Shaun Maloney, left, wheels away after scoring against Ireland at Celtic Park last November. Picture: SNS
Shaun Maloney, left, wheels away after scoring against Ireland at Celtic Park last November. Picture: SNS
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The links between Scotland and Ireland are ancient and strong, as many families can testify. But don’t expect that to weaken the sporting rivalry between the two nations, writes John Mullin

Back in the day, I was in Cagliari covering Italia ’90 for this paper. We journalists knew it as “The Hooli-watch”, and the English fans never disappointed us in the press while, of course, they disappointed everyone else. A few pathetic skirmishes, city-centre bars destroyed, the hard-line Sardinian cops taking few prisoners, and the England fans nursing their usual sense of grievance. It was always someone else’s fault.

Former Hearts star Donald Ford

Former Hearts star Donald Ford

First up as opposition for the English in that competition were the Irish, and, before kick-off, I ventured out to tackle some of their fans. There, in Irish tops in a side-street café, were two lads. They were broad Glaswegian.

Sheltered new-town boy that I am, I was experiencing for the first time that phenomenon which sees Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy turn out for the Republic tonight: apparent Scots preferring to define themselves as Irish, and not – these days – just because it means they get a game

Religion was at the heart of this. Or, more accurately, cultural identity. The boys were Catholic; their folks were Irish, or of Irish stock, whosoever defined, and perhaps because of west of Scotland sectarianism, they felt more affinity with the Emerald Isle than they did with Scotland. Common enough, it turned out.

Ireland are my favourite team, as long as Scotland aren’t playing. Perhaps because we both – sadly – define ourselves against England. Maybe because we’re similar sizes, and usually the underdogs. Really, though, it’s because of family ties.

There will, I can assure you, be mayhem round our gaff in norff Landon tonight. The Mullin-O’Kanes are split by the Irish Sea.

In the blue corner, Ruby, the middle child, born in Edinburgh, desperate to please her old man. She will be resplendent in the Scotland top, the one gift she demanded for last Christmas. Her dad might even wear his.

In the green, the wife, and the first-born, Billy, London-born but a diehard convert to the Irish cause. The opposite of his sister, he is happily flicking a (usually) metaphorical V-sign at his father’s choice in everything. He is currently demanding an Irish passport.

The youngest, Bella, is the floating voter. She, too, is London-born, a self-taught wind-up merchant, and tells me at every opportunity that she is English.

But I secretly harbour hopes here: for one thing, she is easily bribable. For another, she, too, demanded a Scotland top, if only to deny her sister sole rights on anything. It’s the away strip, though, which, to my surprise, I find I rather like.

Celtic Park in November was fun. I’m still celebrating Shaun Maloney’s strike each morning with an energetic re-enaction around the kitchen chairs, to the girls’ amusement and irritation elsewhere.

It’s a lot more complicated than my other morning ritual, Novak Djokovic netting that backhander at Wimbledon. “Any point will do!”

Sport, though, was always that much better when big Peter the Goalie was still with us. There was a football fan.

He was my father-in-law, a lovely big bloke, and, when I first visited my wife Maggie’s family home in Skerries, County Dublin, he scrabbled around for a common topic of conversation in a bid to kick-start our friendship. What else but footie?

He had, it turned out, been goalkeeper for Crusaders in Belfast – no mean feat at the time for a Catholic, and one who had to make a run for the border as an ex-RUC man – and had played for the League of Ireland against the Scottish League at Rugby Park in 1965. The Irish had won 3-2.

His abiding memory? The rocket shot a young striker hit for the Scots’ second from six yards, which, he said, had almost taken off his rather well-sized lug off.

In years to come, I watched all sorts with him, live and on TV – in the Black Raven in Skerries, Scotland scrabbling a 0-0 with the Netherlands at Euro ’96, and him chortling into his Guinness as John Collins virtually punched a ball off his own goal line; at Croke Park, Dublin, and my side Mayo agonisingly losing yet another Gaelic football semi-final; and, finally, the Irish just failing to hold out against the All Blacks after leading a truly fantastic clash at the Aviva in November 2013.

He was in hospital then, and we all knew his heart didn’t have much longer He watched the match, surrounded by his sons, alert as a pin. But we all knew the late reverse was a portent. He muttered: “Bad luck”, and within minutes, he was asleep. He passed away two days later.

There’s always been a strong link between the Scots and the Irish. We came from there, about the turn of the fourth century, and at least some of them came from us, Plantation folk to Ulster. My paternal grandfather, whom I never met, a torpedo in the First World War having seen to his long-term health, staged the return journey to Glasgow around the close of the century before last.

I shall raise a glass to big Peter tonight, as will Billy – the first of 16 grandchildren – who was given that League of Ireland cap when he was born.

It is his proudest possession, and, so, if he chooses to be Irish, so be it. All the more sport this evening.

The name of that young striker who scored against Peter all those years ago? He was Donald Ford, of Hearts.

Twenty years after we first met, Peter’s family arranged a surprise celebration to mark his 70th birthday. We didn’t know it then – he seemed in fine fettle – but he only had a couple of years left.

I rang a couple of journalists who had covered Peter in his pomp and asked them for a few memories. And, 45 years after he had almost taken off my father-in-law’s ear, I cold-called Donald Ford, footballer turned accountant turned landscape photographer. He sent a lovely note, and a fabulous collection of his photographs. A couple of days later, they shared a long chat on the phone. I think often of Donald’s kindness.

Yours in sport, he had signed the letter, which, of course, my father-in-law loved. “He’s class,” said Peter.

I’m looking forward to tonight. And I wish big Peter were around to see it with us all. What a laugh we would have. Especially when the Scots hump them, of course.