AS SOME of you may know, I am not a Jambo, but I could have been. There used to be a quaint Edinburgh tradition – most of Embra’s are – where football folk would go one week to Tynecastle and the next to Easter Road.
Did other two-team cities have it? Probably, but I like to think we were unique. When did it start? In the 1950s, perhaps, when car ownership was low and hardly anyone went to away games. When did it end? Maybe the 1970s with hooliganism. Anyway, that was me, my father and a good few others.
One week Hearts, the next Hibs. One week the aroma of pipe tobacco, the next the almighty pong from the breweries. In Tynecastle’s only stand back in season 1967-68 there were probably some pipe-smokers as well, but the hops swamped everything. Each ground had its rituals – before the advent of the homogenous breeze-block, its own personality – and I liked them both. Out on the park, there wasn’t much between two teams who took it in turns to reach a semi-final or finish fourth. Both flattered to deceive. Both were burdened by history. Those shirts – green and maroon – seemed heavy, damp, matted and scratchy after the golden era of Edinburgh football the decade before. With the Famous Five starring in the east and the Terrible Trio in the west, no wonder the cognoscenti rarely went anywhere else.
And then I decided to follow one team and stop watching the other. Why? All of this is now lost in the hoppy fug of time, but no one made me. Not my father and not school, although of course the latter was very keen on “options” (Latin vs Technical Drawing? That was never going to bring back the crowds). But maybe the school playground played its part in this. Peer pressure demanded to know who you were, how you cut your hair, how you liked your guitar solos.
So: which team? As I say, they were much of a muchness. There was no family allegiance to follow, or none I knew about at the time. But I liked the way Peter Marinello cut his hair, and the way it made girls scream as they hugged the terrace wall at the bottom of Easter Road’s slope.
In the end, then, I didn’t choose Hearts.
I didn’t choose Hearts all those years ago but I am choosing them now. That is, choosing them as the great rivals, always and forever, hoping they survive relegation, tomorrow’s creditors’ meeting in Lithuania, and what might be a thousand grim days and nights yet to come. All Hibs fans should be doing this.
Some are not. They’re rejoicing in Hearts’ agony and praying for their obliteration. A few have been lending the full weight of their financial expertise to the issue of the rescue package, questioning the personal wealth of Ann Budge in emails to Kaunas and the likely value of Tynecastle on the open market. “Sabotage!” ran the headlines on Friday. But those in green who think the world would be a better place without Hearts, think they would prosper as a result of the team from away up in Gorgie not being around anymore, are taking the age-old Hibee propensity for delusion to a whole new level.
Hibs need Hearts like never before. Look at the season currently petering out, how the horizons quickly narrowed, how the run to their third Scottish Cup final in a row never really got going. Hibs needed to suffer the humiliation of an early defeat by spotty Jambo youth. Then the humiliation of a League Cup beating by the kids who showed they were learning fast the traditional Jambo derby attributes of being able to spook their rivals with guts and sheer relentlessness. For only then could Hibs overcome Hearts in the New Year game, feel good about themselves, feel like they could sell out a ground, feel properly Hibs.
That victory has been the highlight of their season – the only one. Where are next season’s going to come from? Before last Sunday’s derby, Rod Petrie and Terry Butcher chatted on the pitch with John Robertson. When Robbo played, the fixture was never over until the fat striker scored. The Hibs chairman would have gazed across Tynecastle and thought about how much he was going to miss the atmosphere of the biggest game in the calendar, to say nothing of the cash.
I cannot pretend that, for coming on 46 seasons, I have not enjoyed Hearts’ misfortunes, shock defeats and fairly regular vanquishings by Airdrie. I can remember where I was in 1986 when Hearts were seven minutes away from winning the league: Easter Road, watching a pretty useless Hibs side in an utterly meaningless match. David Narey took a throw-in and the half-empty ground erupted. Well, I thought, that was a routine shy which found a man – was it really that good? Transistors which had been pressed to hot, pink lugholes in dread of the outcome were hurled into the air in joy and ever since Albert Kidd, when visiting Leith, has never needed to buy a drink.
You can tell, perhaps, that I’ve told that story before. You may suspect I’ve been embellishing it down the years (the bit about the radios is indeed new). But that is what fans engaged in rivalries do, sometimes because it’s all they’ve got. There’s a big difference, though, between wanting your internecine nearest-and-dearest to lose the odd vital game and wishing them dead. Hibs have absolutely nothing to gain from this outcome and everything to lose.
We can argue about football philosophies and how we like the game to be played – enjoyably fiery debates which would of course cease the minute Hearts were no longer around – but I get the feeling that even the most devout Hibee adherents to the “flair” principle are weakening. They secretly envy Hearts’ toughness, their never-say-die. They didn’t expect to see quite so much of it this season, what with the side being so callow, but have been impressed by the resourcefulness of Gary Locke, to say nothing of his quiet dignity, and the tireless urgings of those heavily-painted battlers, Ryan Stevenson and Jamie Hamill. And they’d take some of it – right now.
I’ll probably get abuse for this piece. Maybe I’ll be accused of big-jessie drippiness – classic Hibee characteristics, according to Jambo pals – but I don’t care. The family allegiance to one team that I thought I was lacking finally revealed itself after my father died, with his younger brother getting in touch via a PO box in deepest Africa to confirm that the old man followed Hearts as a boy, indeed asked for and got maroon mittens for Christmas, indeed would skip – skip! – along Gorgie Road in a hurry to see his favourites. All those years lifting me over the turnstiles at Easter Road, then paying me in, then sitting beside me and indulging my Hibee obsession, he was living a lie, but of the most honourable kind. That’s my real reason for wanting Hearts to keep beating.