The other day I was alarmed to discover that Hunter Davies is selling his football programme collection. Even more alarmed when he spoke of how getting rid of them would restore “balance” to his life. “It’s time to move on,” he said.
Such words will send out shockwaves. Grown men who spend too much time and money pursuing these matchday pamphlets, lovingly storing them in poly-pockets, carefully removing them to sniff and maybe even to read, and studiously logging the “gots” and more crucially the “wants” in jotters they’ve had their children steal from school, will question what they’re doing with their lives. Yes, I’m a collector, too.
If you don’t know Davies, he was a chronicler of the Swinging Sixties via his novels, dispatches for the very first Sunday newspaper colour supplements and biography of The Beatles. That such a groovy guy also collected programmes stopped the rest of us from feeling like saddos.
His field of interest has been Scotland v England, from having thrilled to crackly Hampden and Wembley radio commentaries as a boy. The first time I met him he showed me his jotter. It was in code so his wife didn’t know how much he’d paid for the more elusive programmes. Although he’s associated with a period when London was the centre of the known universe and he supports Spurs, Davies is Scottish.
His all-time No.1 hero is Billy “Basher” Houliston, inset, Queen of the South’s only full Scottish cap, who was part of the Dark Blue XI which achieved a famous 3-1 victory over the Auld Enemy at Wembley in 1949.
Does it feel like the end of something? A bit, but the thing is there’s another Scotland-England international upcoming and most of us won’t be able to think about “balance” until the final whistle on Saturday night.
The teams used to be closer, didn’t they? In the internationals which formed the basis of Davies’ collection, players from both sides shared dressing-rooms in England’s top flight and would talk of how this was the biggest match of the season bar none. The losers would be wound up about their defeat right the way through to the next encounter. Now, as politicians point up the voting patterns of Scotland and England in an attempt to show how we really are different people, the latter’s footballers have moved into a stratosphere far removed from ours. It’s so distant indeed that even an almighty hoof from Basher himself would fall thousands of miles short.
Proof that we now produce different footballers is best illustrated by the recent flamboyance of a trio of what England somewhat presumptuously hailed as their golden generation. In no particular order these were Wayne Rooney’s night at the casino, John Terry’s final match and David Beckham’s acting debut.
We have no-one who possesses darling David’s beauteous features, currently blown up 50ft high in a movie version of one of the greatest tales, at least in the bumper English book of ripping yarns, that of King Arthur. Similarly we have no-one who earns £330,000 a week and therefore could afford a wing-ding like Rooney’s, half a million smackers if you believe the reports, gone in just two hours.
And who in the Scotland would be so bold – no, so egomaniacally deranged – as to have a game halted when the clock reached the 26th minute matching his shirt-number so he could take his leave with a guard of honour? Even in England, Beckham would probably have been Terry’s only rival for such a narcissistic stunt.
Those Ingerland boys, how they love to bend time, go as far as stopping it. Beckham, you might remember, was basically immobile when the golden boys turned to tin at the 2006 World Cup. In trying to make the tournament all about him as usual, he tried to make it all about dead-balls. He attempted to turn football into gridiron, or to merge it with golf.
Terry. another with a keen sense of his own immortality, trumped Beckham with his contrived exit. I mean, what kind of patsy opposition manager would agree to such a mindless, integrity-trashing farce? Oh I see, it was David Moyes, one of ours…
The end of something? It was the conclusion for the self-styled JT that day and Wazza hasn’t been selected for Hampden. Becks is long gone from the pitch but his thespian career may not progress beyond King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. According to one reviewer, he “shows about enough dramatic range to have played the stone in which the sword is stuck”. With a cameo that “goes on for line after forehead-slapping line” he contrives to ruin the key scene.
Saturday, all Scots devoutly hope, will be the start of something, or the re-start of our bid to get to Russia next summer. We can be smugly satisfied that we’re holier than thou (Terry), poorer than thou (Rooney) and that there’s nothing wrong with being pudgier and pastier-faced than thou (Beckham). But we still have to win the game and I firmly believe we can.
Yes, England have Harry Kane but is he really anything more than a slight upgrade on Steve Bull who I saw score against us in 1989 when a hooligan panic necessitated a polis escort for Scotland fans all the way from Queen Street Station to Hampden?
In the final Match of the Day of the season, one ex-England striker, Gary Lineker, invited two more in Alan Shearer and Ian Wright to consider Kane’s place in the “pantheon” of great frontmen and there was general agreement he was “better than [Karim] Benzema”. Somehow Kane’s clodhopping performance in last summer’s Euros when he looked well short of world class seemed to have escaped their collective memory.
This England are beatable and we have to summon the spirit of Billy Houliston and his men who faced a fantasmagorical forward-line in 1949 in Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Tom Finney and Jackie Milburn but managed to emerge triumphant.
Hunter Davies believed in Basher, even if he doesn’t believe in football programmes anymore. We’re taking on England in the springtime, just like in the old days and for Scotland, this could be the beginning of the end of the beginning.
Let’s hope so.