Euan McColm: Crowds mean more than fear or beer

FINALLY, Euan McColm realises just why his father loved a game and an atmosphere that he himself has rejected for 39 long years

Being part of a crowd supporting St Mirren may not be for everyone but for aficionados there is often nowhere better to be. Picture: SNS Group

MY intense and abiding loathing of football and everything one might associate with it began on 30 October, 1976 in Paisley.

Aged six, I was taking part in an important rite of passage, a father-son bonding exercise that should have brought me and Dad closer together. Instead, for the duration of the match between St Mirren and Morton at Love Street, I whined that I’d very much like to go home now, if that was OK.

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A Google search reveals to me that the final score was 5-1 to the home team; Morton got, as aficionados of the sport might say, humped. The sports’ pages may have called it a thriller.

But I don’t remember a single goal. Instead, I remember the cold, the smell of beer and piss, and an overwhelming sense of unease about the crowd, and my place in it.

This was my first experience of being part of a large group and it felt to me that something bad – some sort of violence – might come of this, and that I would not be able to stop it or, worse, might find myself joining in.

So I stood there, a six-year-old anxious about becoming part of a seething, angry mass, and girned. In the end, nothing terrible happened, and Dad and I went home, where I prepared my Halloween costume for the following evening, when I would shuffle round my Kilbarchan neighbourhood, wrapped in brown paper covered with leaves, believing myself to look like a tree but actually looking like a garden refuse sack.

Unsurprisingly, I never went to another game with Dad. We never spoke of football again. This was to be a part of his life he couldn’t share with me which, now he’s gone, is something about which I feel some regret. He loved football and it would, I think, have made him happy if I could have done the same.

Instead, my dislike of the sport became what I long-considered to be an important part of my identity. Where I grew up, boys generally followed Rangers or Celtic. That was the choice and all my friends made it.

These were bright, polite kids. We would sit in each other’s bedrooms, listening to The Smiths and wondering why it was that we never seemed to meet any girls. But, when it came to football, some of them were transformed. They’d screech at the TV, disappear on Saturdays – leaving me to shop for records alone – and if their teams lost, they could be unbearable. I once told a good chum that he was being silly about a Celtic defeat and he booted me up the arse with such ferocity that I pitched forward on to my knees. I didn’t tease him again.

But it’s not just the madness of crowds, the stench, and the being kicked up the arse that put me off football. It’s the faith.

I am against faith. Football supporters seem to me to blindly follow. No amount of corruption in the game – or in individual clubs – appears to have the slightest impact. My team, good or bad, seems an odd way to live.

So, I’ve meandered through adulthood avoiding football and discussions about it, whenever possible (I did try to pitch in during a World Cup match last year when a player missed what seemed like an easy goal. “Even I could have got that one between the bars,” I said, and a friend laughed and said “They’re called posts”.)

I’ll politely nod when a taxi driver explains why this particular player isn’t worth his fee or that particular referee meant the other team was playing with 12 men. But I can’t care about any of it, and often find myself – shamefully – thinking considerably less of anyone who does.

But in the last few days I’ve been thinking about my snobbery (and that’s what it is: horrible, charmless snobbery).

I’m a great admirer of the artist David Shrigley. I think his work’s clever, funny, and completely accessible. His crude drawings and clever slogans crack me up, though there is a real darkness at the heart of what he does.

When Partick Thistle this week unveiled their new mascot, Kingsley, a weird blank-eyed creature with a spiky head and a gaping mouth, I was tickled. Kingsley is a Shrigley creation and he stands as slightly unnerving proof that football is not necessarily the preserve of the philistine.

Yes, some fans were cross about the mascot, warning that he might scare children (as if that is suddenly a bad thing) but others, a great many others, went online to celebrate the birth of this monster. They saw the humour, they “got” the art, and they also recognised the great pubic relations coup of having a mascot designed by a globally celebrated artist.

But Kingsley’s arrival was not the only thing to have shaken my hatred of football and its culture this week.

On Sunday night, I was in Glasgow Barrowland where the great Scottish band Mogwai were playing the second of two shows to mark their 20th anniversary. I’ve been to lots of gigs down the years but this was something special. In front of a home crowd, the band were on quite astonishing form. The light-show was hypnotic and the sheer volume, at times, internal-organ trembling.

The crowd roared its approval and I was happy to be part of that, feeling connected to strangers in exactly the same way that football fans do. I am not, I thought, a loner, a maverick or any of those things I might romantically believe; I want to be part of something bigger, greater than the sum of its parts.

When the curfew-bursting show ended, I turned to a woman I’d been introduced to only a few hours earlier and, buzzing with excitement, hugged her. She, indulgently, reciprocated.

It was, I imagine, like being in the stand when your team wins.

I’m not about to become a football fan. I still find sport a bewildering business.

But I will admit that, for 39 years, I’ve misunderstood what makes people love the game and its rituals. Not for the first time, I realise what a fool I’ve been.