Seven years ago lifelong Hibs fan Aidan Smith changed sides, supported Hearts for 12 months, and wrote a book about the experience. Now, as the Edinburgh clubs gear up for tomorrow’s Scottish Cup final, he catches up with his Jambo matchday mates from 2004.
I’M walking to work, a journey I’ve made thousands of times, although every day this week it’s been getting trickier. If I can just avoid treading on cracks in the pavement, I tell myself, and if I can just reach the office without being passed by a maroon car. And if I can just be passed by a taxi driven by Alex Cropley (hero: 1972) or Gordon Hunter (hero: 1991) – not so improbable because I’m seeing these guys all the time right now and surely that’s a sign – and if the next girl walking the other way is blonde then maybe, just maybe, my team will win the Scottish Cup.
But guess what? I am passed by a taxi, only the driver winds down his window to shout: “Who’re you supporting at Hampden, then?” Before I can answer he’s confirmed the question was rhetorical by adding “Ya f****n’ erse.” “Thank you, Noel Coward!” I holler, but he’s continued on his unmerry way, leaving only one issue unresolved. Is he a Hearts fan who knows I’m a Hibs fan or is he a Hibs fan who suspects that, deep down, I must be a Hearts fan because how the hell could I have supported them for a whole season?
Seven years ago, I did this. I swapped sides, sat on my hands during the derbies, befriended Jambos, drank with them, greeted their goals with little tight lemon smiles and got a book out of the experience. Some Hibs fans hated Heartfelt almost as much as some Hearts fans but Irvine Welsh liked it and so did John Byrne who saw it turned into a play, so ya-boo-sucks to you lot.
To be fair, I left it open at the end who I was going to support from there on in because of the perfectly understandable discombobulation caused by learning, via a PO box number in darkest Africa, that my father might have lived a lie all those years when we stood on crumbling terraces to cheer on the Hibees because in boyhood he used to skip along Gorgie Road waving his Hearts rattle in his Hearts mittens. Welsh told me he hoped I’d end up choosing the right team (I did) but, just as importantly, that I’d stay in touch with my Jambo friends. I didn’t. I mean I meant to, but first I got married, then three kids came along then I was quite busy at work for, oh, seven years.
“Don’t be a stranger,” Ricky used to say. He was the fiercest, and funniest, Jambo I encountered, a skinhead-philosopher who could spot a “sovvy ring” on an Old Firm fan at 100 yards. Possessed of keen football intuition – correctly predicting during an infernal half-time keepy-uppy display at Livingston that the juggling fool would round off by missing an open goal – he nevertheless confirmed my prejudices about Jambos that sexy football isn’t as important to them as it is to Hibbies. In other words, for the book he was a dream. But I’d become that stranger.
Before I could meet Ricky again, though, I had to meet Jim again. Jim was the first Jambo to appear in Heartfelt, being the one I’ve known longest. We go right back to school playground squabbles over which team was best, but I’m glad to say we’re too mature for that sort of nonsense now. Jim, an ex-policeman (firearms dept) who these days does something important, security-wise, for the city council, is wearing a T-shirt he’s just ordered: “Blood disnae show on a maroon jersey.” For my benefit, presumably.
He suggested the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile for a venue – “just round the corner from where Hearts were formed and up the road from where Hibs were founded, the only stories that matter”. Jim’s big on history – Hearts history (he’s helped achieve respectful commemoration for the club’s players who died in the First World War trenches) and personal history. “Look,” he says, “here’s my diary for 1973.” That was the year – 1 January – that Hibs beat Hearts 7-0 and just outside the old Tivoli cinema in Gorgie Road right after the game he had the great misfortune to bump into your correspondent.
“Here’s what I wrote, aged 14 and a half: ‘Worst defeat in Jam Tarts’ history.’ Of course we weren’t known as Jambos back then. I prefer the entry from the following Saturday: ‘Collected new jacket from Burton’s on the Bridges then bus to Boghead – Dumbarton 0, World’s Greatest Football Team 1.’ You lot didn’t bang on and bloody on about 7-0 in those days –how’s it become such a big thing these last ten years?” Probably because we’ve reached the age where we look back rather than forward, I say. “Well, I’m looking forward to Saturday very much. Did you know that if we win that’ll be seven – seven – finals you’ll have lost since last winning the cup?” (I didn’t).
Jim is of mixed background – his mum was a Hibby. “You don’t get that with the Old Squirm, do you?” (Indeed not, and probably Heartfelt couldn’t have been written from an Old Firm perspective, with the London publishers who asked: “Can’t it be about Celtic and Rangers?” failing to appreciate the gulf of that divide). Jim chose Hearts because he loved the story of how his paternal grandfather walked to Tynecastle all the way from Broxburn. He’s stayed more loyal to football and his team than me in recent years and I ask why Hearts still mean so much to him. “You could put this better than me, Aidan, but Heart of Midlothian is the loveliest name in all football, even though Queen of the South is really bonny. Our strip is just gorgeous, so deep and dark. And we play in Edinburgh, the most beautiful city in the world. Yes, we’ve had a lot of foreigners in the team in the last few years but the colour of the shirt hasn’t changed and when these Lithuanians pull it on, they’re still representing my club and guys like me.”
No, Jim, I couldn’t have put it better, but now I must enter a proper Jambo lair. During the Heartfelt season, I wasn’t brave enough to step inside what I dubbed the “hell pubs”. The compromise for Ricky and his pals and this Hibby interloper was Da Da Da in the West End. You could spot one of the first wave of Lithuanian players there and if you were really lucky you’d get a smile out of one of the sternly alluring Lithuanian barmaids. But it closed a while back so Ricky, very much the leader, summons me to the Melville Lounge, an unpretentious hostelry ensuring William Street never gets too Parisian.
“This is our lucky booth – we sat here after beating Celtic in the semi-final,” says David, younger brother of Paul. So you guys are just as superstitious as me? “I’ll be wearing my lucky kecks for the final,” says Peter. “Lucky socks – Animal from The Muppets – for me,” adds Ricky. Along with Billy, who can’t be here tonight, these were my match-day chums for 2004-5 and it’s good to be back among them. The series 7 Up has just returned to our TV screens and this is like my very own version. (Notice how I avoided calling it 7-0 Up).
When I felt most at risk, like when it seemed I’d be outed in Motherwell – such moments were always scarier in my big jessie middle-class imagination – these guys protected me. We got pretty close, with Billy revealing he books girl wrestlers off the internet for grapples in hotel rooms and Ricky revealing the Germany shirt he wears under his Hearts one (“Because I f****n’ love efficiency”). These two never did tell me if they liked the book, but I know they were tickled at seeing themselves portrayed on stage, notwithstanding the costume dept’s faux-pas (Ricky again: “I dinnae f****n’ wear Burberry”).
There’s some catching-up to do. Ricky shows me film on his phone of them celebrating the semi victory. “That’s Peter’s laddie, Lewis – 15 now, would you believe. Note the Justin Bieber haircut and watch what he does when our winner goes in: a wee smile then back to the texting. The younger generation, eh?” You wouldn’t get this lot being so distracted from their beloved Hearts.
There was a brief moment when Paul contemplated not renewing his season-ticket and David deemed this so serious he had to alert their mother. “The outstanding highlight of the previous year had been the game that got cancelled because Kilmarnock were stuck on the M8 and we could stay in the pub,” says Paul. But these brothers grew up as Leith Jambos. Local sports shops deigned to stock junior maroon strips then, as a joke, would stitch green numbers on the back. Paul and David survived that and it seems they’ve come through their little blip, stronger Jambos than ever.
Mind you, I thought they were pretty impregnable seven years ago. “Like the old Castle rock,” as the club song goes. Like their team, who always seem to be tremendously “up” for the derbies. “This is the biggest one ever,” says David, “and the one to end all the jokes. You lot win and we can’t mention Buffalo Bill anymore. [He was still alive when Hibs last triumphed in 1902]. We win and you’ve got to stop boring on about 7-0 and how we threw away the league in 1986 in the last seven minutes. I think you’re going to have a really rotten Saturday, Aidan.”
Then, just before he’s about to tell me not to be a stranger, Ricky offers up what seems like a tiny nugget of hope. Since I last knew him he’s got married but it’s more than that. “The missus says hello and to tell you that she’s tamed me. We’ve just bought a house in the ‘burbs and we’ve got a cat.” Name of? “Aye, okay, it’s Daisy-Boo but she’ll not be playing for us at Hampden, dinnae you f****n’ worry about that.”