Stephen McGinty: My sporting mojo’s working

Andy Murray's growing stature over the years, the appeal of Wimbledon and an appetite for sport away from mainstream football may explain the Scot's pulling power. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Andy Murray's growing stature over the years, the appeal of Wimbledon and an appetite for sport away from mainstream football may explain the Scot's pulling power. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE Glasgow office of The Scotsman, where I currently and contentedly reside, has a small flatscreen television which sits on top of a steel filing cabinet.

Beside the filing cabinet are two sets of bookcases, the shelves of which are at the perfect height so as to allow anyone wishing to stand and watch the television to rest their elbow.

They may wish to peruse the collected volumes of reference books, biographies and historical works, but The Scotsman’s bookshelves are a form of anti-library, the very act of approaching them in search of a relevant tome, even one which you know to be on the shelves, will trigger its instant disappearance, though it will, of course, miraculously reappear once the imminent deadline which prompted its retrieval has passed.

Books, in The Scotsman’s office, view themselves as objects of leisure not toil, willing to hop into the hand of the casual browser but reluctant to stand to attention for the hack in his or her hour of need. This is why the bookshelves have taken on a more rewarding purpose as the prop on which to rest my elbow while watching Andy Murray play at Wimbledon.

The last five words may surprise those who know me, as sport and I have spent decades stoking the fires of a personal animosity. Well, perhaps animosity is too strong a word, and so is dislike. The most appropriate word would be apathy. If sport took on the persona of Scarlett O’Hara, then I would be Rhett Butler storming out the door and declaring: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Except I wouldn’t have pursued and married her in the first place, she would have swanned up to me at that first Southern ball, twirling a parasol and sipping coquettishly on a mint julep and I’d have shrugged my shoulders and said: “Mew”.

It would have made for a short film. I’m not quite sure where the disinterest came from as my father is a devotee of football and my brother follows football, golf and sundry other professional sporting pursuits.

As a kid, I was goalkeeper for Whitecrook FC under-11s and once won “man of the match” for my heroism between the posts during our epic clash with Celtic Boys Club. We lost 10-0.

I can, however, pinpoint the exact date when my lack of sporting devotion was uncovered. It was during the 1982 World Cup. Scotland were playing the Soviet Union in a desperate attempt to make it through to the second round. Unfortunately it clashed with Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. I can still remember watching the animatronic sabre-tooth tiger as my dad came into the room and said: “What are you watching that for? You country’s fighting for their lives!” When the movie was over I did slink next door and offer my services in support but they didn’t do much good. The final score was 2-2 and Scotland were out. Could the loyal support of one more ten-year-old have made a difference? Perhaps.

But what I was sure of was that where my dad, my brother and my mates at school seemed to be electrified while watching football, arms shooting out, hands crashing into faces, all gesticulations and shouts, I had only a sense of bewildered boredom. It was as if they were hooked to the mains and I was left licking a battery.

When my Uncle Les took my cousin and I to see Scotland play at Hampden, I looked forward to the pie and Bovril more than the game, which even 30 years on, with Les sadly passed, still makes me feel ungrateful. During my brief spell at Napier College (now University) completing an NCTJ course in journalism, my younger brother visited for the weekend and so we went to see Hearts play. I took along a book.

And yet, over the years, I’ve nursed a secret envy for those who can become so captivated by watching sports. How a last-minute goal can send them up to the delighted heights of ecstasy and the nervous anticipation that comes in the run-up to a crucial match. It seems like a rather attractive way to live your life, utterly devoted to a specific team and with the knowledge they will give you certain highs and even the lows don’t seem so bad, even a depression brought on by the failures of a team, must surely serve as a distraction from the tedious everyday troubles that we all have to either cope with or circumvent.

If my lack of appreciation of sports was akin to arriving at the stadium to find the turnstile padlocked, tennis has helped to punt me over the wall. Tennis is the perfect televised sport. The court fits neatly into the screen. While spectators in their court side seats must swivel their heads back and forth to follow the ball, we at home never have to move our heads.

It is the perfect spectator sport for the congenitally lazy and those unfortunate accident victims confined in neck braces. It also strikes me as a sport for those with attention deficit disorder. It’s fast and dynamic and points are scored every few seconds, unlike football, for instance, where 90 minutes can pass without a single goal. It has also, somehow, managed to attract and hold my attention this year. I don’t put it down to Murray-mania, for, as a journalist tasked with writing about such things, I’m automatically immune. Our natural cynicism acts as an antidote and yet, where I could previously watch his game with a detached indifference – don’t get me wrong if he is playing I would want him to win but it wasn’t going to ruin my day if he didn’t – I’m now actively involved.

This, finally, takes us back to the Glasgow office of The Scotsman, the flatscreen television atop of the filing cabinets and the bookshelf perfectly positioned for one’s elbow. For it was here, on this exact spot on Wednesday evening that Andy Murray rekindled my sporting mojo. His quarter-final match against Fernando Verdasco should have had me occasionally glancing up and sighing as the scoreboard informed me that he was two sets down. Yet increasingly I found myself leaving my desk to stand in front of the TV – “You make a better wall than a window” complained one wise sub-editor – and watched as every point seemed to take on a personal significance to me.

It began with a few mild intakes of breath and a head shake when shots went out, then it began to build with muttered pleas of “c’mon” which alternated with “for f***s sake” but it was when one missed shot resulted in my leg shooting out in an uncontrollable spasm to kick the filing cabinet that I realised I was no longer a detached observer. When it happened again, it was clear that something seismic had taken place, my internal tectonic plates had shifted resulting in an earthquake of enthusiasm for each ball as it hurtled over the net at 130 miles per hour.

I rushed home to watch the final set on my own sofa and it was there that for the first time in many years, perhaps three decades, that I found myself lost in a sporting event. The rest of the world seemed to recede and grow faint while the “thwonk” of the ball grew ever louder. Towards the end, I found myself holding my breath before each serve lest I blow the ball off course.

When Murray finally won, I was genuinely delighted for about a second and, then, like a bubble bursting, I returned to the real world. But something was different. I felt like I’d atoned for Scotland v Russia in 1982 and sport and I could start again with a clean slate. Well, tennis really, I honestly can’t see me watching anything else with enthusiasm but for months now I’ve been toying with the idea of picking up the racquet mouldering in the shed and learning how to play.

I’m sure there are a couple of books on Murray and tennis on the shelves. Wait a minute. I’ll just check. Andy Murray: Coming of Age; The updated story of Britain’s new tennis phenomenon. The shelves, for once, deliver a degree of success.