I think I can remember when pre-match entertainment changed. Before the 1979 Scottish Cup final at Hampden, I’d considered it uncool to turn up to games too early.
What can I say? I was young and foolish, but being cool, or not being uncool, was of vital importance. For that final, though, we were promised something different from the usual hundred pipers an’ a’ and a’, so there I was, parked in my seat by 1.30pm, and wondering why I hadn’t brought a travel rug, a flask of sugary tea and a multi-coloured propelling pen for team changes in the match programme like all the other saddos.
Now the memory can play tricks and if you were in the crowd that May afternoon feel free to correct me, but I think there were majorettes in American tan tights. I’m pretty sure there was a version of It’s A Knockout. And I’m absolutely convinced that, with kick-off fast approaching, the pop group Middle Of The Road took a slow birl round Hampden on the back of a coal lorry for a rendition of their ten-million-selling hit Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.
What did we think of all that? I honestly can’t remember because very soon we were engrossed in the game. Fast-forward 34 years, then, to Murrayfield last Saturday, and a game that for the Scottish fans was epicly un-engrossing, and more than that, dismal and embarrassing. What happens next? Everyone rounds on the entertainers. They’re too naff, too kitsch, too in-your-face, too screechy, too Brigadoon. Of course this wouldn’t have happened if Scotland hadn’t played like they’d just woken up from a 100-year sleep, or like two Grand Slams in six years seemed like an achievement from a century ago.
In the ongoing inquest following the zero-rated defeat by England, the entertainment gets mentioned every time. It wouldn’t be surprising if some members of the night’s musical troupe have developed a guilt complex over the result. Meanwhile, master of ceremonies Grant Stott might well be thinking: “Bloody hell, I thought I was hired for my big, growly voice, familiar to the locals and equally adept at teeing up 1980s soft-rock classics on the radio and spreading panto alarm. I didn’t know I was supposed to tackle the England outside-centre as well.”
And I bet he didn’t expect to get caught up in a row about nationhood either.
This is where the debate about Saturday’s cacophonous clamjamphrie has gone. What kind of country are we when we fire a big cannon at the start then proceed to play like big jessies? Are we Scotland or some bastardised, braggish version of ourselves – half-1950s Hollywood, half-modern American sports razzmatazz – where the tartan is too vivid and the voices too loud and insistent? Independence? Aye well, if you think you’re up to it, on you go.
Obviously no blame can be attached to the entertainers. They do what they do. The SRU, in their wisdom, hired them, believing the rugby spectacle needed some bells and whistles, and in this we can have a smidgin of sympathy. Murrayfield – on the occasions when Scotland weren’t winning Slams, and it did go gloriously mental – used to be a pretty staid place. A gathering of mostly men, concentrating hard on the rugger, loving the game but growing older together – and with a polite, unobtrusive voice on the public address possibly reminding many of them of an old school chaplain. When rugby went professional and Kenny Logan became the first Caledonian oval-ball pin-up – all porridge-packet hunkiness and bare-bottomed tabloid grinning – the beaks not unreasonably thought they should exploit marketing opportunities to broaden the sport’s appeal across the classes, attracting more women and kids.
But very soon things started to go wrong. The cock-ups in Scottish rugby’s organisation and structure are a subject for a whole other column or ten-part series. If we stick to the rugby experience on match days, there’s a parallel to be drawn with what was happening in Edinburgh’s city centre on the last day of the year, coincidentally around the same time as the pro game was born. Suddenly Hogmanay became a brand rather than a festival – an event which featured drinking, it’s true, but also thinking – and Scots stopped recognising themselves in the cranked-up cavorting they witnessed on TV after fleeing indoors.
The rest of the planet – or at least its gallivanting gap-yearers – was agreed that when it came to Auld Year’s Night Scotland were world champs. Of course, this isn’t a crown which sits easy, and before too long giant storms of doubt were blowing the temporary stages off Princes Street.
We love a party and yet occasionally we don’t. How psychotically Scottish is that? In rugby, though, there should be a firm rule from here on in: no parties until we’ve got something to shout about. No fireworks until we can be confident we’ll spark on the pitch. Cannon blasts before kick-off just give ammunition to our detractors. Another song-and-dance affair like last Saturday will only set us up for another fall. Don’t hold what look suspiciously like post-match celebrations until after the final whistle and we’ve won. Unless we want to continue looking like daft blawhards.
The most desperate moment of that desperate night against England came during a second-half stoppage when once again, even though England were already out of sight, the stadium loudspeakers were cranked up to 11. A familiar lament thundered out, but this was a gruesome electrified version – the kind that when it booms from a tartan-tat shop requires you to cross the street. Coming during the course of the match this brought to mind stories old Scottish footballers have told me about sojourns to ultra-communist Albania where the national anthem randomly blaring out was a regular, unnerving occurrence.
Some of our English conquerors, assuring us they’re not gloating, have suggested we might want to think about quitting the Six Nations so we can have more joy against the lesser rugby countries. I don’t even know if Albania play the sport but surely we’re not that bad. Surely we can be a nation and ri- … okay, enough of that, for now at least.
I realise my Calvinist approach to pre-match entertainment might pose the SRU problems come the next time we all gather at Murrayfield – that some in the crowd might wonder how they’re going to while away the minutes until kick-off with the spirit of John Knox in charge of proceedings. Well, maybe we can summon up the ghost of King, star of those old Army dog displays featuring fiery-hoop jumping and runaway burglar-snaring – these were good enough for internationals in my youth.
The most thrilling pre-match entertainment I’ve witnessed at Murrayfield came during my first-ever game – an anti-Apartheid protest against the 1969 visit of South Africa when the student longhairs were cheered right round the pitch as they gave lie to the theory they must by nature be hopelessly unfit by easily evading the polis.
Obviously we can’t recreate that come the France match but, well, anyone know if Middle Of The Road are still going?