Why football is one of Scotland’s greatest cultural assets – Alistair Heather

About 100,000 people turn out to watch football games like Dundee United vs Falkirk every weekend (Picture: Michael Gillen)
About 100,000 people turn out to watch football games like Dundee United vs Falkirk every weekend (Picture: Michael Gillen)
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Scottish football has been attracting criticism in recent weeks, but often from people who don’t really understand the significance of the beautiful game, writes Alistair Heather.

The condemnatory circuit of cultural commentariat has once again ground into gear, lamenting the loutish behaviour of Scottish football supporters. And once again, a disservice has been done to a large and varied number of communities. Scottish football is one of the glories of Scottish life, and one of its great cultural assets. It is also its least appreciated cultural activity.

A whole sector of middle-class society is devoted to soaking up Scottish, UK and EU funding by delivering cultural projects throughout the country. Often little is achieved except a star on someone’s CV.

With no governmental input, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) encourages 100,000 people to leave their houses and meet with friends and acquaintances, family and colleagues to physically go to a stadium to take in a match. Tens of thousands more congregate to watch games over a few pints in the howffs across the country.

Everything subsidised cultural initiatives seek to achieve; community coherence, self-expression, social interaction and intergenerational engagement is achieved through football in a way most cultural initiatives can only dream of. It is cross-class and intergenerational.

The SPFL should absolutely be part of the discussion when talking about the most important events in the cultural calendar. Instead we have Edinburgh and Glasgow rivalry between the Festival and Celtic Connections.

Scottish football sees nearly four million tickets sold across the year, a figure nearly 50 per cent higher than the Edinburgh Fringe, and enough sheer mass of paying audience to make Celtic Connections look like a ceilidh in Plockton village hall.

It is the best supported league in Europe. What a phenomenon.

Yet Scottish football once again finds itself a passive victim for lazy critics, bandstanding politicians and crabbit police bosses. The trouble for these various solemn figures is that such a gulf of understanding exists between them and the supporters they claim to be addressing that their words have no credit. Put simply, they show no understanding of the world they comment on.

I recently had the pleasure of jumping on a Dundee United supporters’ bus and interviewing those on board for an episode of the Terrace Scottish Football podcast. The breadth of experience available to the football supporter was there in microcosm. I met a 17-year-old who had only begun coming to the football three years ago, just as United were relegated from the top league. She loved that away days let her spend time with her dad, one of the bus’s louder and happier characters. Every second weekend the pair of them traipse together to places from Dingwall to Ayr to Dunfermline, sharing new experiences and fostering a closer bond. She wants United promoted “because it means more good times, more quality time with family”.

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I met the driver, a Dundonian in his 70s. Two years ago, he had been invited on the group holiday (the bus passengers go on annual sunshine breaks together). He was short of cash at the time, being sole provider for a young family. So, his bus mates did a whipround and found the cash to pay his flights and hotel. How did that make him feel? “Fantastic. When Eh retire fae drehvin,” he said, in good braid Dundee, “Eh’ll be sat right here wi them on this coach goin tae aa the gemmes.” The same supporters and friends were now helping him through his divorce.

All along the bus I met with several pods of friends talking tactics and catching up, and another father-and-daughter spending time together. They were all there under the auspices of United, together for a few tinnies, some chat and some laughs. Then in together to the stadium to thole another United dismality.

That is the Scottish football scene I recognise. Inclusive, friendly, funny and indefatigably devoted to their team. It is a positive, healthy and fundamentally good environment. I went in to the Patrick Thistle bar within the stadium prior to the match in my United scarf, and happily had a pint and a blether with various Thistle fans. A dozen or more United fans did the same. ‘Trouble’ was out of the question.

But I won’t be guilty of providing a whitewash. No random skelp of Scottish society is without its dafties. The same was true on the otherwise utterly sound supporter’s bus.

As we rattled our way down the M80, I went up the back of the bus and got chatting with the young team. With their polo shirts, chubby wee faces and bumfluff chins, they looked like any other random group of 17 and 18-year-olds. What was it like being a United supporter in the lower leagues? “S***e.” What do you think of recent pitch invasions? “Pretty funny. Shouldnae be happening. But pretty funny.”

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What’s the worst thing you’se have done at the football? “Flares probably. Couple of us spent the night in the cells after Queen of the South. Parents had to drive down and pick us up on the Monday.” [Laughter, including from me.] Is there much of an opposing youth squad at Partick? “One guy. A fat P***.”

And with that we had journeyed right the way from condoning misbehaviour, to laughing about super-hot pyrotechnics being let off in packed public stands to great risk of injury, to casual demeaning of other football fans for the colour of their skin.

Down at the back of the bus, separated from the other supporters by a few rows of seats, these lads were their own echo chamber. The loving father-daughters, fulfilled driver, mates sinking a few tins and blethering about ideal formations, seemed like a different world.

This varied cross-section of Scottish life visible on the bus, with the attendant casual racism, homophobia and drunken misbehaviour could be copy and pasted into most stadia.

The problematic behaviour displayed by the young team is deadly serious. It requires serious solutions. But it is being increasingly effectively addressed within the Scottish football environment by clubs, managers, players, supporters’ groups and social media.

Groups such as Nil by Mouth are constantly tackling sectarianism, campaigns such as Rainbow Laces are working to make Scottish Football a more tolerant and safe environment for the LGBT community. Support from government with sensible, informed legislation and positive engagement from Police Scotland would be very helpful. But it is important that these ‘outside’ observers and actors start to understand Scottish football as a vital and vibrant part of the country’s cultural scene, and not some dirty other world that needs generally repressed.

One way to begin that more positive engagement is to start celebrating Scottish football. Start acknowledging its contribution to wider Scottish cultural and economic life. Start handing out Scottish Culture awards to clubs, volunteer organisations, Ultra groups for their invaluable grassroots cultural work.

Then when wider society starts getting involved in debates on the state of the game, their words might start having some credibility.

Alistair Heather is a writer and columnist, get a blether with him on Twitter @historic_ally