CLOSE seasons ain’t what they used to be. The 2013/14 campaign began last Saturday for some of our clubs, even though Brazil and Spain’s 2012/13 wouldn’t conclude until the following day.
Gone it seems are those long, hot, desultory summers, the interminable wait for limber-up tours of Ireland and the Highlands in advance – a few tantalising weeks later – of the real thing. Back then, all the football nut had to keep him going were the Aussie League pools forecast and the odd morsel of transfer news buried under the tennis and golf reports. The rest of the time you relied on your memories, your dreams... and one or two daft stories which may or may not have been true.
Everyone loves them. There’s the one about the cocky young striker starting to believe his own publicity who lights a cigar with a £5 note in a pub (or is it a tenner or a twenty?) and has to be slapped down by the barman, a principled ex-pro. Such a story is tremendous fun right up until the moment you’re told the same yarn involving a different player. Then you think: Ah well, still a cracker, and file it under ‘Oor Fitba: Myths & Legends’.
Then there’s the one about the tattoo which pledges allegiance, seems like a good idea at the time, less good when the player is sold to another club. Bear in mind this story dates from a more innocent age when tattoos were more discreet, before Kirk Broadfoot entered his local parlour and declared: “My neck is your canvas – ink away.” I was told about an ex-Ranger who at his new team thought he’d better cover up the tattoos on his wrists with sweatbands. What were these sinister designs? Before long the story had grown legs to go with the arms. One wrist was supposed to have read “Hullo hullo, how do you do... ” The second went... well, I’m sure you can guess. A great story, only when I revived it, my sports dept chums offered up similar tales, different personnel.
Some stories will be entirely mischievous but contain the merest glimmer of probability to string us along. Who makes up those ones? Is it the same little concealed-entrance factory that’s responsible for football’s chants? I guess the first rule of mythology must be – not too ridiculous. After all, who’s going to believe that a player could be confronted at training by man brandishing a samurai sword and, further, that he’d successfully repel the invader with his bare hands? One thing’s for sure, the footballer in question couldn’t be the game’s most kenspeckle character at that time, Chic Charnley...
Heard the one about the iconic manager from history who was also an iconic ladies man? The footballer and his very good friend the (male) reality-show pop star? You’ll know even juicier ones, I’m sure. Internet fansites can circulate these stories quicker and, presumably, they fizzle out quicker, too. But there are some we don’t want to let go. In The Damned United David Peace wrote that Brian Clough pitched up at Leeds and attacked Don Revie’s old desk with an axe. This never actually happened, but what a fantastic image.
A couple of times I’ve had the chance to quiz players about the veracity of stories concerning them. Derek Riordan and Gordon Strachan’s daughter – was it this rumoured romance which did for the player at Celtic? “I heard that one,” Deek told me, “but I’d never met the lassie.” Jackie McNamara snr – card-carrying Commie? Perfectly true and confirmed previously. Still, I needed to hear how, as a boy, Jackie Mac delivered the Soviet Weekly round Easterhouse, political conviction among the football classes being oh so rare.
All these stories are being revived because I’ve nothing better to do. Also, because David Wotherspoon has just left Hibs for St Johnstone, which reminds me of another one. When the Hibees’ training complex in East Lothian was still a novelty, the players enthused about it much as old folk would a smart new day centre. They especially liked Fridays, when Spoony brought in cakes, his mum being an excellent baker. The team weren’t playing well and some blamed the complex for making the players soft – as soft as Mrs Spoony’s eclairs.
Of course, Hibs can be lousy all by themselves, no outside assistance required.