Alan Pattullo: Iain Hyslop’s book reveals Scottish game in need of TLC
HAS Iain Hyslop got some news for you: Scottish football is not as broken as many people think it is. It is, though, in need of some urgent love, care and attention.
This is the conclusion he reaches at the end of his enjoyable field-trip study of the Scottish game. Hyslop, a health and safety manager for Balfour Beatty, has produced a book that could be called In Search of Scottish Football’s Soul. Instead, it is titled Is the Baw Burst? And is it? According to Hyslop, and almost anyone else with the vaguest feel for the Scottish game, it is certainly a bit deflated. However, he saw enough in a journey taking him to all 42 football grounds in senior Scottish football in a 44 game odyssey across a single season [2010-11] to detect some scope for optimism.
He estimates that he covered around 7,500 miles. However, he is more certain of other numbers in his post-trip inventory: he devoured 40 steak pies (actually, make it 39 since the contents of one fell on his lap at Fir Park) and bought 43 programmes. He also calculated that he watched with a total of 310,791 other supporters, the majority of them having joined him at matches at Celtic Park, Ibrox, Hampden and, on one trip south of the Border, Old Trafford (for Manchester United’s Champions League clash with Rangers). It starts at Ayr United (his local team) v Brechin City, and ends in the north, at Inverness Caledonian Thistle v Hibernian, but he picks his assignments at random in between, sometimes not selecting the match he intends to attend until a couple of hours before kick off. The flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach mirrors how it is for the majority of supporters. “I didn’t always have the time to plan in advance, there were a lot of games to get to in one season,” says Hyslop. “Also, I was trying to make the point that we can’t all just swan up to a game and into a hospitality suite, and have a drink before the game. There is more to it than that for the average fan. There are other pressures on your life.”
The book’s genesis can be traced back to a summer holiday Hyslop took in Florida, a trip for which he packed some light beach reading in the form of the first part of Henry McLeish’s official review into Scottish football (one does, it must be said, have some sympathy for the 45-year-old Hyslop’s wife, Debbi). While he agreed with much of what McLeish had to say, he thought the report, he tells me, “missed so much about the real experience of going to a game for the ordinary fan”.
It’s interesting to note that Hyslop is a Rangers supporter and although his travels pre-date the revelations detailing just how bad the club’s financial problems had become, he admits that seeing how smaller teams must cope in a world where they no longer seem quite so relevant was “humbling”. “It was an impartial look at everything, even when I went back to Ibrox,” he says. “But what was hammered home to me was the sheer size of Celtic and Rangers, they are massive compared to even Hearts and Hibs and the Dundee teams and Aberdeen.” Would it do the Rangers fans some good going into the third division? “Well, is it the fans’ fault?”
His travels see him conclude that “I think it might be better for Rangers and Celtic to play somewhere else”. In the book, he writes: “It’s only when you see the chasing pack that you realise just how big Rangers and Celtic are in the Scottish League.” That is not to decry the merits of those sides who are outwith this chasing pack. Hyslop had his eyes opened to the efforts of those redoubtable officials at more lowly clubs, who keep the fire alive. “I did like the trips to the east coast, to the Angus area,” he says, when asked if there was a stadium he would choose to return to given the choice. “The settings were always very nice, and they were nice size of towns. Arbroath is a favourite, but I liked Brechin, Montrose and Forfar.”
He admits to finding it hard marrying his romantic’s soul with his contention that there are simply too many senior football clubs in Scotland, most obviously in Angus. Although he comes across as the stereotypical Scottish football fan – male, mid-forties, copy of the Daily Record tucked under his arm – Hyslop stresses that it’s not people like him who Scottish football has to worry about, it’s those who aren’t so steeped in the game. “I might be typical, having my steak pie every other week,” he says. “But they have to make it more appealing for others. I realise other people might not like the pie and Bovril experience. Make it more family-orientated, make the facilities in the stadium better, you should be able to get a pint in the stadium outwith the hospitality area. At Hampden, you can’t get a pint near the ground at an international match – it’s chaos. And yet you have all that space up the top of the stairs and on the concourse at Hampden. Surely you could have a drink there in comfortable surroundings which are well supervised. Even things like free wi-fi would make it more appealing for the modern supporter.”
This view from the not-so-cheap seats (Hyslop is adamant that football has to be more realistic with its pricing policy) ought to be required reading for everyone involved at the top end of the game. Interestingly, Henry McLeish himself was a recent visitor to the office of Luath press, the Edinburgh-based publishers of the book. He left clutching a copy. Considering how the idea for Is the Baw Burst? was conceived, it’s funny to think of him sitting on a beach in Torremolinos, or wherever former East Fife footballers-cum-First Ministers-cum-saviours of the Scottish game head on holiday, reading Hyslop’s own take on things, and hopefully taking notes.
• Is the Baw Burst? [Luath Press, £9.99)
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