Aidan Smith: Hampden’s true vocation is athletics

Lynsey Sharp celebrates winning Commonwealth silver at Hampden. Picture: Getty
Lynsey Sharp celebrates winning Commonwealth silver at Hampden. Picture: Getty
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THE 1967 Lisbon invasion force will correct me if I’m wrong – the thousands of Celtic fans who were there, and even the many more who only claimed to have been – but the stadium where Billy McNeill lifted the European Cup looked from the TV like an impressively grand arena battened on to a much smaller and more modest one. For every big, whomping, monolithic section that might have been designed by Albert Speer, there was another resembling a municipal running track, opening right out on to trees and waiting patiently for someone to dream up the concept for Jeux Sans Frontieres.

Celtic Park made me think of the Estadio Nacional last week: big in some ways, biscuit-tin in others. Let’s deal with the biscuit-tin bits first because they’re probably of little concern to you guys, the Scotland fans who rolled up for the England game and the one with the Republic of Ireland the week before and made the old ground shake. I’m talking about the “media facilities”.

Outside there was a marquee which might have been on hire from a weddings firm. Even though constructed of canvas, someone had gone to the trouble of providing feature windows and some ruffling. This was rather spoiled by the dirty-white colour, as if the tent had housed many ceremonies and maybe many food fights. It was here, on the small MDF stage, that Gordon Strachan, father of the bride, came to gloomily announce, more or less, that as far as future games between Scotland and England were concerned: “The wedding’s aff.”

In another section of the marquee there were metal crash barriers, presumably not available through wedding suppliers, but you never know. What happened here? A passing stranger might have thought of livestock being hurried along to meet their maker. In fact, it was the route for players to rush on to the team bus, stopping briefly to deliver a few deathless quotes.

In my self-conscious Scottish way I got embarrassed about all of this, also the Celtic Park press box with its basic wooden benches where it’s such a tight squeeze. What would the English scribes make of us? How were they going to compose their fine words condemning the “F**k the IRA” chants of the England fans in such a sardine-crush of plump bottoms? Obviously I shed all of my self-consciousness when this chanting went on and on and bloody on, but just before kick-off the pressure on the rickety benches got too much and an entire row collapsed, causing The Scotsman journo’s laptop to crash to the ground. Honestly, if the public knew the duress under which these match reports get written …

OK, grump over. Celtic Park, if you weren’t working but watching, was fantastic. The stands hadn’t been this full or this rumbustious for a while, owing to Celtic under-performing in a non-competitive league. The ground rediscovered its voice and reminded you that it’s the best we’ve got. What a pity we now have to troop back to Hampden Park.

Next March Scotland will resume their Euro 2016 campaign with a home game against Gibraltar. I can’t see Hampden rocking against the men from the Rock. Even though we’ll be playing teachers, firemen and civil servants. Even though there will be the promise of goals. Even though 10,000 kids will get in free. Not now the old dear of Mount Florida has found her true vocation as an athletics stadium.

Hampden was as exciting a venue for the Commonwealth Games as Celtic Park has just been for international football – maybe more so. Hampden’s capacity had to be reduced, or further reduced, to create the necessary space for running, jumping and the legitimate throwing of sharp or heavy metal objects. This was achieved, weirdly, by raising the playing surface on to stilts and I remember visiting during the refit and thinking: “No! They’ve turned the national stadium into Almondvale!”

But it was perfect for athletics. The track which had distanced football fans from match action brought athletics fans right up close to the races, resulting in more Usain Bolt selfies than there’s been at any meet. London’s Olympic Stadium didn’t bring the people this near to expensively-toned muscle and super-glutes and after Glasgow’s Games you wondered why.

But for long enough we’ve wondered why the Hampden track was ever retained. During the wholesale rebuild at the century’s end there was presumably the opportunity to bring the pitch closer to the stands, make the place more like a modern venue for football – the stadium’s primary if not sole function since Lachie Stewart and his kind no longer ran round the perimeter for a few quid in brown envelopes and “Scots chart-toppers” Middle of the Road weren’t required for pre-match entertainment on the back of a coal-lorry.

It looks like stunning foresight to have kept the track for such an extravaganza as Glasgow 2014, but all the time until last July there were plenty of football matches which lacked the Hampden Roar because of the ground’s configuration and now we’ve got to go back there, gaze over and beyond a track which will probably never see top-class athletics again and try to engage with a game.

I love Hampden, but I love it nostalgically. We all remember our first time. Mine was in 1972, a Scottish Cup semi-final on a bright spring day suddenly altered by a giant red dust cloud, kicked up by hundreds of Rangers fans converging on the slopes at the same moment, when it seemed that all of them must have been wearing Freeman, Hardy & Willis’ finest platform shoes. The stadium that afternoon was never lovelier, and never grottier. I was surprised at how basic it was. We can’t go back to Old Hampden, of course, and I don’t want to. But come the business-end of qualification for the Euros I don’t really want to be at the version we use now, especially since experiencing “Scotland Park” in the interim.

Four times this year Celtic Park has stood in for Hampden. Its brilliance as a football ground even managed to make Aberdeen v Inverness Caley Thistle exciting and that goes down as one of the worst finals in living memory. St Johnstone fans will forever hold it dear for their first-ever cup triumph. Scotland v Republic of Ireland was so exciting you didn’t notice it was a hammer-throwing 1973 throwback – and so draining the Scottish hacks could surely be forgiven for leaping up and punching the air at the final whistle. The England match was pretty amazing too, until they scored, and in all cases the ground was a huge contributor.

Provided we don’t massively cock up against Gibraltar, I’d love to see us return to Celtic Park for the crucial Poland and Germany games. If that happens I promise not to complain about antiquated journo conditions any more. I’ll cheerfully sit on a cold step with my computer on my lap and only take one biscuit from the tin when it’s passed round at half time.