HAPPY families at club’s victory parade were glad to move on from the fear that followed the final whistle, says Aidan Smith
I’d just waved the open-top bus on its merry way down Leith Walk and was rounding up my children, the two girls in hand-me-down green and white football tops donated by their big brother, when a tourist tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse, excuse,” said the man, “what is … ?”
“A victory parade,” I said.
“Er … league?”
“No, the Scottish Cup. First time in 114 years.”
“Aha,” he said, “this is Hibs. We know about you in Argentina. Long time – too long. And now you must be proud. Congratulations!”
Yes, there is pride, and not least that news of our cup curse – prior to a quarter to five on 21 May, 2016 and the 3-2 victory over Rangers – had travelled right round the world. When you don’t succeed – and especially when you don’t succeed as epicly as Hibernian since 1902 – then you’re condemned to a perverse pride in your infamy. Better to be notorious in Buenos Aires than that football-crazy city not even knowing you exist.
Mostly, of course, the pride is about becoming cup-winners at last. Hibs’ repeated failure to win the old trophy had become a music hall joke outlasting music halls, the tradition dying out with Max Miller in 1963. But the club’s fans are required to have other feelings right now, among them guilt, shame and fear for what might happen to football, because of the events which took place immediately after 4.45pm.
To say we’re “conflicted” doesn’t really cover it.
On one newspaper’s front page yesterday the top half was a photograph of the team on Sunday’s victory parade, a procession hailed by 150,000 Hibees, slightly more than Easter Road’s average weekly attendance – joy unconfined. Below was the splash, the biggest story of the day, with the headline: “11 Gers stars battered and spat on.”
The final whistle at Hampden had been the cue for exaltation, tears – and a pitch invasion. The vast majority of Hibs fans who vaulted the perimeter wall simply wanted to be on the field where the historic triumph happened. Some will have been surprised to find themselves there, such as the mature woman with the large handbag glimpsed on social media, with the delirium having taken a fierce grip. The supporters cavorted, hugged each other, posed for selfies – and in what was still at that point happy mayhem, one exhibitionist performed a daft, robotic jig since immortalised on Twitter.
Then things got out of hand. Badly. Celebration wasn’t enough for some. There were nasty confrontations with the Rangers players and much goading of the Rangers support, with a number of the latter seeing this as an invitation to charge with similar ease past their stewards and, for some, complete the retro image of one of those bad old football days from the hard-nut 1970s.
Conflicted isn’t the word for it.
This was a great final, the best in years, and Hibs deservedly won, playing with flair and passion. The team is full of characters, comedians, gallus young men and genuine fans of the club who’ve suffered years of frustration along with the rest. The manager, Alan Stubbs, is a lovely, dignified big fellow who’s overcome serious illness and revealed afterwards he’s to auction his winner’s medal for charity. And Sunday was instantly installed as one of the great days in the history of the great port of Leith, as a community embraced its sporting heroes and got the love right back.
But footballers cannot be assaulted on the pitch. Fans cannot batter each other at showpiece finals, or indeed any game. Children shouldn’t have to see any of this. A child shouldn’t be at risk of being grabbed and lifted up in the air by a rival fan, one of the most alarming images of the final’s chaotic aftermath. And club officials should behave themselves, too.
The Hibs chairman, Rod Petrie, who rarely talks, should have stayed true to his word, or non-word, in dismissing the invasion as “exuberance”. You knew what he meant; that’s how it started off. But it quickly assumed a darker aspect. Possibly he didn’t see punches being thrown but he should have waited for a fuller briefing before speaking.
Rangers had the benefit of perspective and an extra day to allow heads to cool but chose instead to issue the most aggressive of statements condemning Hibs, the BBC and even the First Minister. They’re absolutely right to demand protection for their footballers and fans but sympathy will be strained by the suggestion that the battling Rangers supporters were merely rushing to the rescue of the players. Football everywhere should be free from thuggishness – from Manchester to Newcastle to Barcelona, indeed.
The sight of rival fans marauding across the national stadium turf, or what was left of it after the souvenir hunters had grabbed their fill, prompted comparisons with the riot at the 1980 Scottish Cup final. This wasn’t as bad as that but it was bad enough and an all too steep learning curve in the football education of my nine-year-old son – the yobbery terrified him.
It’s just as well that Hibs and Rangers, being in different divisions, aren’t due to play each other for a while – and if the draw for next season’s cup was “arranged” to avoid such a meeting I don’t suppose anyone would complain. To avoid another pitch invasion in Scottish football you imagine that security, heavily criticised on Saturday, will be ramped up and on many occasions will seem like overkill – although thankfully no-one has yet jerked a knee to order that fans be caged behind fences again.
On Saturday the best football song of them all, Sunshine on Leith, had to be sung in front of a tight line of hastily summoned police re-enforcements, some on horseback, while a force helicopter buzzed overhead. Sunday’s rendition down on Leith Links, as happy a scene as I’ll ever want to see, will be the one that endures.