The association football pitch lines, if a little more faint, were still visible on the turf. But, with goals replaced by rugby posts and gentle Mexican waves rolling round the stands, BT Murrayfield was restored to its primary purpose on Saturday for Scotland’s match against Samoa.
Eleven tries, over 80 points in total. The stadium clearly hadn’t forgotten how to host a rugby match – and what a match. It was instructive to be in attendance at two games – one a football match, the other rugby – at Murrayfield within six days of each other. Hearts’ four-game residency, which came to an end just over a week ago when they fell 2-1 to Kilmarnock, was a well-timed glimpse of a potential future. But we are not just talking Hearts matches, only one of which attracted an attendance of over 30,000.
With the Scottish Football Association’s lease at Hampden Park expiring as soon as 2020, Murrayfield is being proposed as a potential venue for Scotland international football matches and also Scottish and League Cup finals, as well as other key occasions in the football calendar. The SFA are expected to respond to the SRU’s recent submission next month, so this series of three home, sold-out Autumn Tests, the first of which was Scotland’s exciting 44-38 victory over Samoa, is nicely timed.
It was a reminder of how well the SRU handle such events. Even getting 67,000 in for a match against the admittedly always-watchable Samoans is an achievement. It’s worth noting only one of Scotland’s five home qualifiers in the ultimately unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign was sold-out – against England.
“We were asked to put our best foot forward and we’re proud to do that,” Dominic McKay, the chief operating officer of Scottish Rugby, said on Saturday. “We’ve shared a couple of bits of information with our friends at the SFA. Ultimately what we want to do is give them an option and say we’d love to host football games here, whether that’s a couple of games or a number of games that’s really up to the SFA.
“We’re open-minded about what the future might be,” he added. “It’s a matter for the SFA to decide what’s in their best interests.”
It’s clear football isn’t a dirty word at Murrayfield, as it was – perhaps still is – in some of Edinburgh’s top private schools, where a curious dogma of oval ball good, round ball bad, prevailed. The very idea the two could happily co-exist was deemed heresy.
Of course, money talks. The SRU are entertaining sharing the stadium for the good of their own financial health. But McKay, pictured below, stressed the point that it’s wealth to be spread around.
“That’s one of the things our bid highlighted that by utilising the largest stadium in Scotland it means your ability to generate more revenue for football is maximised, both from a corporate hospitality point of view but also from a standard ticketing perspective,” he said.
“That’s something I’m sure the guys at the SFA will consider. The more money they can generate by playing in a bigger stadium means the more money they can reinvest as they wish across the various mouths that are open in football.”
Increased revenue is one incentive. From the SRU’s point of view, there’s also a sense of prestige and a desire to share, and show off, what they have. What they have is a stadium fit for hosting top-class sport, whatever the code, as well as concerts by the world’s biggest acts.
Shortly after McKay finished speaking, the Scottish rugby team’s bus drew up outside Murrayfield, piped into the ground’s environs by the Royal Air Force Central Scotland pipes and drums. While a genuinely affecting piece of theatre, it surely also has a practical effect – no one with a pulse could fail to find it inspiring, and the players duly responded to this welcome.
They were cheered as they emerged one by one from the bus, supporters pressed up hard against barriers on ground level and hanging over the gangways above. It’s over an hour before kick-off but there’s still plenty inside the gates already, lured by the knowledge there is a decent standard of catering on offer, as well as, of course, alcohol.
This remains one of the greatest disconnects between rugby and football. While the former seems to mix well with alcohol, the latter does not.
Football’s long not been trusted to behave itself if alcohol is added to its often already explosive list of other ingredients, including tribal loyalties and deeply held prejudices. Alcohol cannot be served at football matches unless in hospitality areas. That remains the case even if these football matches take place at what is, principally, a rugby venue.
If you’re from the rugby world, the acres of ground behind Murrayfield’s west stand represents prime car parking land as well as the potential for first-class pre-and post-match carousing out of the back of Land Rover Discoveries.
For those of a football background, it simply provides worrying scope for running pitch battles between groups of rival supporters. McKay is alert to this, and claims just one fan was ejected at the recent game between Hearts and Rangers, when nearly 33,000 were in attendance. Despite being an alien concept for rugby, segregation can be implemented at Murrayfield.
“We had the largest travelling Rangers support since [the Uefa Cup final in] Manchester just a couple of weeks ago when Hearts played, there was 15,000 Rangers supporters in here,” he said. “We’ve got an outstanding relationship with Edinburgh City council and with the police in Scotland.
“But of course we’d learn from the experience at Hampden, we’d learn from the experience at Celtic Park or Ibrox and make sure we put on the world-class event we always put on.”
There’s been a gradual creep from west coast to east coast of SFA operations thanks to the opening of the Oriam centre of excellence at Riccarton.
It’s not as heretical as it might once have seemed to consider switching Scottish football’s HQ from Glasgow to Edinburgh, from Hampden to Murrayfield. Of course, much still needs to happen, including the SFA taking the bold decision to leave a place so wedded to Scotland’s football’s story.