On the march with love

LADEN with backpacks crammed full of crayons, sweets, and toothbrushes, football-mad John Stirling approached the Lenku Street Children’s Home with apprehension.

It was the day before Scotland’s European Championship qualifier against Lithuania - the team the national squad faces in the return match at Hampden tomorrow - and John’s concern was shared by the contingent of Scotland fans with whom he had travelled from Edinburgh.

The 34-year-old recalls: "My first impression of the home was that it was typical of how you’d imagine an ‘Eastern Bloc’ building - all concrete with bars on the windows. It just looked very barren."

Thankfully, appearances can be deceptive as John discovered when he entered. "Inside it was brightly painted and decorated with happy pictures that the kids had drawn," says John, adding: "It was obvious that they were happy and pleased to see us, and that there was a lot of love and care within the home - finding the money to buy things that we take for granted seemed to be their main problem."

John travelled to Lithuania as one of the Tartan Army, that disparate bunch of football fans who never fail to provide a travelling support for the national team, and it has to be said they’ve come a long way since they went "on the march" with Ally McLeod in the 70s.

Welcome wherever they go, the Tartan Army have become as famous for their friendliness and good-natured humour in defeat as they are for their ginger See You Jimmy wigs and kilts. Over the years Tartan Army footsoldiers have become unofficial ambassadors for Scottish football, and have also developed links with charities in towns they have visited as they follow the team around the world.

Now, thanks to the internet, one group of fans, based at the Hebrides Bar in Market Street, has been able to enhance that reputation further by raising more than 1000 for the Sunshine Appeal - a fund-raising programme set up to raise money for children’s charities based in the countries where the Scotland team plays.

Marion Stewart, 43, who co-ordinated the Vilnius trip back in April, explains: "I suppose the Sunshine Appeal began in 1999 when members of the Tartan Army who had travelled to see Scotland play in Bosnia became conscious of how much money they were able to spend going to support Scotland compared with how little people in the war-torn country had.

"While they were there they heard about a boy called Kemo Karic who had not only lost his mother in the conflict but also had a leg blown off. They decided to try to raise cash to buy him a prosthetic leg."

Through a series of sponsored walks, donations, T-shirt and songbook sales, members of the Tartan Army raised 5000 - enough to pay not just for a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg, but to ensure that Kemo gets more prosthetics as he grows up.

John takes up the story: "It was around about the same time that the Tartan Army Message Board was set up. That linked members of the Tartan Army from all over Scotland, and after the success of the Kemo Karic appeal there was a lot of discussion about continuing the fund-raising.

"Eventually, it was suggested that, as Lithuania is a less prosperous country, we should do something when Scotland played there this year."

Consequently, the Hebrides Bar Tartan Army struck upon the idea of finding a childrens’ charity to support, and as the fund raising continued Marion began scouring the internet for a good cause.

"I came across a website that listed various establishments in Lithuania. Each one had identified items they badly needed. Some, like the Lenku Street home, even asked for food donations," says Marion.

Chosing their good cause was one thing, getting in touch was quite another. "We were really struggling up until the last minute because e-mails just weren’t getting through to Lithuanian addresses."

Shortly before they left Edinburgh their luck changed and Marion managed to get a message through to say they were on their way.

John adds: "With the money we raised we bought 150 rucksacks at cost price. We filled them with school jotters, crayons, toiletries, sweets, and pencil cases. Each bag also had a toothbrush and a wee bottle of Irn-Bru."

Many items were donated by individuals, companies, and local businesses within the vicinity of the Royal Mile, but the Tartan Army also brought cuddly toys, Scotland scarves, football strips and Nintendos to distribute among the children.

John recalls: "When we arrived at Lenku Street there were two skinhead laddies, both about 17, waiting in the car park and I just thought ‘what’s going to happen here?’ But my first impressions couldn’t have been more wrong. Once we got inside I watched them looking after the wee five and six-year-olds, these laddies were unbelievable."

The children performed a play they had been rehearsing especially for the occasion against the backdrop of a Saltire, and although it was all in Lithuanian, John says everyone enjoyed it.

The biggest hits of the visit, however, were a stereo system and television, bought by the fans on their arrival in Vilnius. John says: "When we were leaving, one of the carers asked me where we were taking the stereo and tele-vision to next? She actually thought we had only brought them along for the party and couldn’t believe we were going to leave them behind. It was a teary moment.

"There are some moments from that trip that will stay with me forever. Like the wee girl who was given a giant cuddly Tweety Pie. Her face was so bright and happy and she would not let that Tweety Pie toy go. Every now and then I find myself wondering what that wee lassie is doing now. Then there was the five-year-old boy who was dressed in a tailored, woollen brown suit. We gave him a Zidane football top and he just grabbed it and pulled it on over his suit jacket. Images like that you never forget."

The money raised also paid for 50 match tickets which were given free to children and a group of adults with learning difficulties.

John says: "Just knowing that we can make a tiny, tiny difference to these kids who have hardly anything, is enough for me."