The boy’s a bit special: my almost-five year old son’s first football match
TEN past seven in the morning and I don’t think my son could look happier, that this picture of childhood innocence as viewed through the gap in a door could have any more of a golden glow. The Christmas tree is still up and the TV is playing a DVD of Cars 2, the current fave, and, in his dressing-gown and pyjamas, Archie has rearranged the sofa cushions into a banked racetrack for his trucks and diggers. I’ve walked past this scene many times but today, with some guilt, stop and watch because I want to remember it, and hope to hell he’s remembering it, too. For in five hours, everything changes.
In five hours we’ll be at the football, his first ever game. Until now, his life – all four-and-three-quarter years of it – has consisted of absolute certainties. They tuck you up, your mum and dad. You don’t have to eat the peas. Jump and you will be caught, cry and you will be cuddled. Everything Playmobil interlocks. Everything Pixar has a happy ending. But football – especially Scottish football – doesn’t quite work like that.
Disappointment is a given. Your team will rarely win anything, unless they’re Celtic or Rangers, who’ll win everything but be disappointed they’re not playing in a bigger league. You’ll spend a lot of money – £42 for the pair of us today – to sit on plastic seats in a breeze-block arena right through the coldest months. You’ll see chancers, mercenaries, honest toilers, over-tattoo-ed fools and poor role-models. And as you’re inevitably distracted, start counting all the empty spaces, you’ll wonder why they ever built the grounds so big.
Ah well let me tell you, son: this place used to be jam-packed. I was in it with 50,000, a wall of humanity stretching to the clouds. Down there is where the schoolgirls screamed when Scotland’s George Best – the almost forgotten Peter Marinello – hurtled past (and years later the real Best, bevvying hard, would hirple past). That’s where my father used to stand, after depositing me by the pitch, although because the crowd surged and swayed so much, he’d end up further away from me than at the game’s start, much to my alarm. And now I’m beginning to sound like him, chuntering on about a lost era, as I always knew I would, come this day.
On 19 August, 1967, my dad blooded me. I was ten, which was quite old, and I guess Celtic’s European Cup triumph three months previously had triggered all my pestering because he’s not around to ask. I’ve no idea what obsessed me from nought to ten but it must have been good.
Archie is properly obsessed. He got his first pair of boots for Christmas, tears about with a ball at his feet all day long. Whenever football comes on TV he changes into full kit, re-enacting passages of play complete with commentary and what he calls “slow lotion”. He doesn’t just do this for televised games but also the goals round-ups on Reporting Scotland and the rolling football chit-chat with the Sky Sports blondes.
And here’s my first problem: he’s over-familiar with football’s galacticos yet knows nothing about the Scottish Premier League’s gallumphicos. “Where’s Messi?” is the usual cry; he expects the world’s best to always be playing (and I cannot persuade Archie to eat his greens otherwise he won’t get big like the Argentinian genius because little Lionel needed hormone injections simply to reach 5ft 6ins). “Where’s Messi?” asks the boy, bang on cue, as I knot his scarf. “In Barcelona,” I say. Down Leith way, to paraphrase Monty Python and Life Of Brian, there will be no Messi but a mess is highly likely.
It’s Hibs vs Hearts, the Edinburgh derby. Hibs are my team, and that of my father, although halfway through writing my book Heartfelt, when I was trying to follow the sworn enemies for a season, I discovered he’d been a Hearts fan in his youth and, who knows, maybe he was a little disappointed when aged ten I became thirled to the Hibees. To most people the book was about rivalry but all I was really doing was saying thanks to Dad for first giving me a “lift-over” and then paying me in (and to my mother for laminating the football routemaster free with Texaco petrol which got us to exotic Airdrie and faraway Greenock).
“Where are we going?” asks Archie, confused. “The Scottish National Portrait Gallery,” I say. Before its revamp, a painting of my father hung in the café and in the pocket of a safari suit of deepest purple – 1967’s other notable event: the summer of love – was my 6d match programme. But in the new layout we can’t find Dad. “Never mind,” I say, “you’ll get a programme today, to keep forever.” Cost? £3.50. Now we’re walking down Easter Road, the main drag leading to the stadium of that name. We pass a pub doorway where, in the good old, bad old days, small boys would be placated with juice and crisps to wait for their fathers – indeed the Scotland legend Gordon Strachan told me last year, just after the death of his dad, that he used to be one of them.
Archie and I are hand in hand and I’m squeezing his initials in morse code like my father did with me and usually my boy replies to this but he’s distracted by the boisterousness – the chant “Oh the Hibees are gay”, a mock tussle – and looks worried. He’s a shy lad although the speed at which he ditched his stabilisers and swimming armbands has enabled me to wind up his mother: “Before we know it he’ll have plooks and an unsuitable girlfriend.” Being in the vicinity of Jambos, however, is a different matter.
This is what I had to do for Heartfelt and it terrified me but maybe we shelter kids from too much now. From the day I drove our newborn son away from the maternity unit – maximum speed 23mph, shouting at other motorists for inching up to junctions 400 yards ahead – I know I’ve been over-protective in a way my father never was. Then I remember how everyone at my school apart from me was allowed to stay up late to watch Hitchcock’s Psycho on TV; how whenever Celtic or Rangers with their bogeymen reputations came to town I had to stay at home.
We enter the ground and Archie looks up at the stands and mouths “Wow” – surely the first expression of wonder heard here this dismal season. We’ve come to where I stood the first time, though the place is all-seated now. When the Hibs fans hoist scarves above heads during the Proclaimers’ Sunshine On Leith he copies them. Little does Archie know his father risked missing his arrival in the world to hear the unofficial anthem sung 50 miles away at Hampden in celebration of Hibs’ 2007 League Cup triumph. And then this match starts; there’s no going back now.
I’m worried he’ll be lost to football like me but I’m also worried he won’t, that he’ll be denied the wonderful opportunity to become an anorak who may be socially awkward but can name the capital of Peru (it’s Lima; fitba taught me this). Apart from the game not being as good now (yawn yawn, bore bore), there are so many counter-attractions. In ’67 everything about match-days was thrilling, even the ceremony of the half-time scoreboard when a man with a bag of numbers would walk round the pitch and climb a ladder into a giant box on stilts. This is the everything-on-demand generation and such innocent pleasures just won’t do. The day before we were in our local swing-park – full of helicopter parents as usual – and I told them we were going to the football. Their expressions were of pity mixed with mild shock. “Fearties and snobs,” I muttered to myself. If the Scottish game lacks the middle-class cachet of down south then that’s a good thing. “Archie, my boy, you’re about to get a useful life-lesson.”
Back at the match he seems to be taking it all in. After “F***!” figures three times in a single sentence spat from the row behind us, he says: “That’s Grandpa’s bad word.”
In ’67 I was entranced by the aroma of pipe tobacco. Today Archie says: “Daddy, what’s that funny smell?” The polis are moving into the away end where a Jambo appears to have started a conflagration. “A job for Fireman Sam?” I venture. My son, not yet five, looks at me as if to suggest his cartoon hero just got babyish; that he’s hanging out with the big boys now.
Of course he’s not. Long before the end he’s preoccupied with the rubbish gathered under the seats (cue voice from behind: “Aye and there’s a lot more f***in’ rubbish oot on the park!”). He’s impatient for the final whistle (“Yes but how long is 20 minutes?”). And he has to ask: “How many are Hearts winning?” The final score is 3-1, same as it in ’67 when Hibs beat Clyde, but today they lose.
Back at home we’re greeted by Archie’s three-year-old sister Stella who says: “Good game, boys?” This reminds me of how my own sisters had to be so supportive of my supporting. (Once, a match in Methil falling on a New Year holiday necessitated them being bundled into the car, to amuse themselves in a town that was otherwise shut.)
Do I want my family to be similarly ruled by football? Will Archie’s interest sustain to where we can properly male-bond (though my father and I didn’t use such poncey terms)? Will it endure through the silent teenage years? Will he one day want to go with his mates? Will we find our way to Greenock? Too many questions, too much pressure – bad parenting. Right now he just wants to get back to Cars 2.
Truth be told, I had a selfish reason for taking him to the football. Understandably after 44 and a half years’ unswerving devotion, I’d got a bit disillusioned. Roger McGough has a lovely poem called Bearhugs, about watching sons grow up, grow past their father. At the start, when they greet him, the boys are “squeezing the life out of me”. By the end he’s come to depend on their vigour, innocence and optimism and reckons they’re squeezing the life in.
Today Archie squeezed the football into me.