During our attempts to watch football on Saturday, successfully negotiating the motorway’s small lakes and angry cross-winds only to be halted by a jack-knifed FedEx truck, then resuming the journey only to learn that a pitch which had passed inspection would ultimately prove out of reach because of a substantial moat, it was easy to think of our national sport not as entertainment but endurance.
Of course we were disappointed the game was called off. Maybe, if we’d been able to swim the last couple of hundred yards to Cappielow, and provided the Hibernian players had been able to switch from bus to boat so the match could begin, we would quickly have rated it a slip-sliding farce. But some of us desperately wanted it to enter the record books as a completed fixture. To be able to say, in the words of that keen observer of the Scottish football scene, Barry Manilow: “We made it through the rain.” To be able to tell our friends: “We were there. We survived the Morton monsoon of 2015-16.”
There are Hibs fans who will tell anyone who’ll listen: “We queued for the Cowdenbeath kettle in 2014-15.” Tragically for your correspondent I was not at this match, but think I’ve got the gist of what happened. It rained – horrendously. There was, as any visitor to Central Park will know, very little shelter. Folk soon drifted towards what you’d technically call the catering facilities. For some, this may have involved swimming. The queue was long and ridiculously slow. Then word was passed down the line: “The hot drinks we all crave – tea, Bovril, absolutely bloody anything – are coming from a kettle. Not an industrial-grade urn but a normal, domestic kettle. The wifie keeps having to nip off and re-fill it.”
Fans wear these badges of honour with pride and, when the state of the game offers so little to cheer about, who can blame them? Yes, these fellows are perverse. Yes, they’re probably masochists. But they shouldn’t be ignored as once again we debate whether to switch to summer football.
Motherwell’s general manager Alan Burrows, whose club’s match at Partick Thistle was one of 12 postponements across the divisions and in the Scottish Cup on Saturday, has been first to kick the issue around this winter. “My own personal view is that if you were starting Scottish football from scratch tomorrow then you would almost certainly choose to play it during what are widely considered to be our best months,” he said.
Now, “best months” as we know is a slippery concept in Scotland, often turning out to be the most shamefaced euphemism. Prince is another chronicler of our football and he’s reminded us: “Sometimes it snows in April.”
It can be miserable in June, drookit pretty much throughout July and not much better in August. That would cover our most recent summer, I think. The problem with re-jigging the season and trying to chase the sun is the sheer unpredictability of our weather. As I reminded myself on my doomed excursion to Greenock, the corresponding Saturday last year had produced glorious winter sunshine for my sister-in-law’s wedding.
On Radio Scotland’s Off The Ball after I’d turned the car around, Stuart Cosgrove recalled a St Johnstone game – the penultimate one of a season so therefore April or maybe even May – being rained off. Every fan has stories like this, of the Scottish weather confounding and infuriating. But many have come to accept that this is the way things are and they just get on with it. On the same programme there was a debate about matches being called off because of high winds. This is a relatively new phenomenon, and an irritant for some. Games never used to be postponed or abandoned because of gusty conditions. Arbroath, according to one fan of the Red Lichties, had had a “ridiculous” number deemed unplayable. The supporter pointed out that gales coming off the North Sea had always been an accepted part of Gayfield life. And yet after the Kilmarnock-Dundee United game which beat Storm Desmond, Rugby Park manager Gary Locke said he thought too-strong winds were sufficient reason to stop games.
Older fans who once slithered to matches, stood on snow-packed terraces and watched players in sand-shoes dribble orange balls round goalies in tracky-bums will point out that no-one used to bother that they’d risked life and limb on the journey and hypothermia for the 90 minutes that followed. They’re glad they’re now being considered, of course, but like retired colonels who rail against Health & Safety, they don’t like unnecessary over-fussiness. And they’ll point out to those who would move football to summer-time that they rarely had to endure white-outs two Saturdays in a row. Just as the sun doesn’t always beat down in summer, so winter can be chilly, maybe a bit damp, but atmospheric and pretty much perfect for football.
What would we do in winter-time if there was no football? That’s the big worry for the hardcore who still roll up, I think, and the issue which the advocates of summer football can’t answer. For the faithful, football either side of the shortest day is a gloomy ritual, something to thole but still capable of producing great joy. Traipsing round Ikea cannot do this.
Yes, some will romanticise stories of the Morton monsoon and the Cowdenbeath kettle. They’ll embroider them in the retelling so you’ll think they must have survived a capsizing on the high seas, rather than a fairly grotty afternoon at a match. But life can be tough for men. They have a lower pain threshold to women, of course, and fewer opportunities these days to demonstrate how ruff and tuff they are. They cannot match the tale of the Fife mountaineer Greg Boswell who battled a grizzly in the Canadian Rockies, prompting the unforgettable Facebook post of “Bear, aaaaaaagh!”, and who has the bite-marks on his leg to prove it. But these fans are still going to the football, whatever the weather, and football should be grateful for that and remember it – while yearning for the kind of summer weather we think we used to enjoy all the time but absolutely didn’t.