On 22 May, the first day of the rest of every Hibernian fan’s life after that long, long wait for the Scottish Cup, 150,000 people thronged the streets for the open-top bus parade. Strangers chatted and laughed, hugged and, who knows, maybe kissed as well. This was Leith looking its absolute sunshiney best – vivacious, victorious and together.
Contrast that with the scene two weeks today. Many will be opening cup-themed presents – a DVD or maybe a book – and re-living the triumph. But a large number, too, will be lonely come Christmas Day. Sharing in the joy of the football was easy: you just stepped on to the streets or headed down to Leith Links. Getting an invitation to 25 December is hard and getting harder every year: “9m victims of lonely Britain” ran a newspaper headline the other day. The report spoke of a “loneliness epidemic” never more obvious than at this time of year.
That’s why Hibs’ gesture to open the doors of Easter Road is so fantastic. Two hundred and fifty folk will be bussed to the stadium for a party. They’ll be fed, entertained by a choir and maybe even more importantly they won’t be on their own. If we’re going to be stuck with loneliness as a fact of life – and with 4,000 homeless in Edinburgh and 40,000 elderly in Scotland spending Christmas Day alone, it seems that we will be – then more clubs need to be doing this, every year.
By my reckoning this will be the first time Easter Road has been open on Christmas Day since 1971 when Eddie Turnbull’s team hosted Rangers. That was the last occasion Scotland produced a full card of festive fixtures and possibly those of us who attended the games – my father and I watched the Hibees lose to a last-minute Colin Stein goal – thought football was catering for the lonely that day. But we had homes to go back to, and wives and mothers basting the turkey and secreting post-decimalisation coinage in the pudding. We weren’t lonely, we were enjoying one of male chauvinism’s final hurrahs.
The further tinsel-timmed football slips into the past, the more bonkers it seems. The more indulgent, too. How on earth did Dad and I swing going to a game, skulking out of the house, missing the procession of batty aunt sherry-fumed kisses, missing the Queen’s speech, then returning just in time to pull the crackers?
Then again, some in the crowds would have been lonely, only there was less awareness in 1971 of their plight. Doubtless the feverish action provided some distraction and the crowd some contact with the world. If the fans around them were anything like those near Dad and me in those pre-segregation days, then maybe the cans of Double Diamond were passed round for a communal toast, as opposed to hurled, which was the usual Hibs v Gers way.
My father, annoyed by his children’s incessant toy demands in the run-up to the big day, would mutter darkly about Christmas being an “English festival”, this being an attempt to scare us out of our acquisitiveness. It was true that while Scots carried on working on 25 December, England had a holiday and always played football, Scotland only having games when Christmas Day fell on a Saturday. And it’s also true that long after England stopped the tradition, Scotland hosted the last-ever Yuletide games in Britain – 1976’s 2-2 draw between Clydebank and Alex Ferguson’s St Mirren and Alloa Athletic’s 2-1 defeat of Cowdenbeath.
Since then, everyone has retreated indoors, the fortunate ones to be surrounded by family. Now, on the 40th anniversary of those Crimbo clashes, which depending on your view were either sacrilegious or an act of charity, football will mark Christmas by offering room at the inn to some of those who’ve probably come to dread the festive season.
Marvin Bartley, the Hibs midfielder, pictured below, would have been volunteering to help out at Easter Road on the 25th – if he hadn’t already committed to doing exactly the same thing elsewhere in the city. “It’s something I’ve thought about for a while and with the team playing on Christmas Eve this year and being off on the day itself this is the ideal time to do my bit. Me and my partner Sacha will be helping out at a refuge run by the homelessness charity Crisis. It’s hard enough for homeless people the other 364 days and obviously Christmas can be really tough.
“The refuge will provide breakfast, lunch and dinner, the chance to have a shower; and clothes have been donated. Sacha and I will do a four-hour shift and we’re up for whatever is needed. There are Hibs fans who are homeless and I’ll look forward to sitting down and talking to them but, you know, I’ll serve Hearts fans dinner, too! I’m in a privileged position as a footballer and don’t mind at all that I’m missing Christmas if I can help make the day a bit special for some unfortunate people.”
The Easter Road event has grown out of a desire on the part of the Hibernian Community Foundation to open up the stadium to the isolated once a week. That will hopefully still happen, according to Hibs’ special projects manager Laura Montgomery, but meantime there’s the party. “Christmas can be the hardest time for homeless people and those on their own,” she says. “We want this to be the biggest and best thing we could do for them. They’ll have a lovely three-course meal, enjoy some fun and hopefully make some new friends.”
Montgomery called for volunteers and has been “overwhelmed” be the response. “A number are Hibs fans but I’ve also had Hearts supporters offering to help as well. The loveliest story concerns a woman who wants to come along with the friend she met in a homeless shelter seven years ago. They’ve now both Hibs season-ticket holders and think this is a great gesture by the club.”
There will be nothing to see on the pitch, of course, and Christmas Day football will probably never happen again. Bartley is fascinated to learn that 21,000 watched the game in 1971, even more so that 43,000 witnessed Hibs’ 1954 festive fayre, also against Rangers. “Wow,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind playing on Christmas Day – it would get me out of helping in the kitchen.” This big-hearted guy is joking, I’m sure.