Euro 2020: Scotland awaits, as the Euros signal a step towards normality

“Mind you don’t fall off them ladders, noo, you don’t want to break the petunias,” advises a Minnesota Fats regular, a plume of cigarette smoke curling up from his mischievous smile.

Bill, the handyman, shoots him a grimace, and ekes carefully up the rungs. In his right hand, he holds a freshly watered hanging basket. Colourful flowers tumble over its edges, framing a plastic Saltire flag.

Inside, Sandra Johnston is behind the bar, unfurling bunting featuring the flags of every nation competing in Euro 2020.

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The only question is where to put it. Hanging space is at a premium in this family-owned snooker club in the shadow of Hampden stadium.

The artex walls of the long, thin corridor that leads off Cathcart Road are bedecked with framed Scotland football shirts. Further in, every nook has been given over to football, boxing, and snooker memorabilia.

Above the pumps, a banner reads ‘Welcome Back’, surrounded by a cluster of slightly deflated balloons.

They were put up a fortnight ago to mark the club’s reopening. Not a single pint had been poured or cue ball struck for nine months due to the pandemic. Yet in truth, somewhere like Minnesota Fats never truly closes.

Barely a day went by without Sandra coming into the club her father William founded.

Sandra Johnston prepares to hang out the bunting at Minnesota Fats snooker club in Mount Florida, a favourite haunt for many Scotland fans. Picture: John Devlin

She would cook meals for her elderly regulars. Other punters rallied round to help deliver them door to door.

“We’ve just been so happy to see people back in again,” she explains.

“We’ll never recover what we lost, but we’re fortunate in that we’ve been established for so many years and we own the place. You only have to look out on the street to see other firms that haven’t been so lucky.”

Few will feel so fortunate to see the club reopening as the legions of Tartan Army members, who have come to call Minnesota Fats a home from home.

Chris Weitz, senior sports development officer at Glasgow Life, said he believes the fan zone is the safest place to watch the Euro 2020 games in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin

The bolthole’s ties with the national team are long and storied. It was opened in 1981 by Jock Stein and Danny McGrain.

In what should have been a celebratory year to mark its 40th anniversary, the return of Scotland supporters is a reason to be cheerful.

“This is just the bookings for the Scotland games,” explains Sandra, clutching a sheaf of A4 paper filled with names and mobile numbers.

They will be coming down the road from Aberdeen and the Highlands, and, perhaps from even further afield.

Elaine Wilson and Jim Holmes are veteran volunteers who have signed up to help provide a warm Glasgow welcome for Euro 2020. Picture: John Devlin

The Rostok branch of the Tartan Army drink here whenever they come over from Germany. It is unclear if they will manage this time around, but Sandra has her fingers crossed.

“We’ve got some German football tops they gave us,” she said. “They’re properly hardcore.”

‘We’ve missed out being at games. The Hampden roar will be magic’

With the Scotland men’s team set to kick off its first major tournament in 23 years tomorrow, the emotions running high in Minnesota Fats can be felt across Glasgow.

There is excitement, anticipation and a whiff of cautious optimism, but also nervousness, uncertainty and frustration. This time around, Scotland’s footballing prowess is not solely to blame.

The staging of a multi-nation tourney in the midst of a pandemic is a cause for celebration and yet anxiety too, particularly with several hundred new infections still being reported across Scotland each day, and pockets of Glasgow badly hit.

Jennifer McCarey, a longstanding Calton resident and community campaigner, said residents around Glasgow Green have been little more than an afterthought. Picture: John Devlin

As has been the case throughout the past 15 months, there is a feeling among many that the Covid-19 restrictions have been applied inconsistently, and that football has received more leeway than most events, given the likes of large-scale outdoor festivals are still unable to go ahead.

The comedian, Mark Nelson, seemed to strike a chord when he coined a new joke at the start of June.

“Glasgow is going down to level two after the Scottish Government received new scientific data from UEFA,” he quipped.

None of this has deterred fans hoping to witness history being made.

Despite Holyrood outlawing ticket touting, and UEFA banning their resale, a brief for tomorrow’s game against the Czech Republic is one of several being sold on eBay and other sites – at the time of writing, the top bid stood at £650.

They are the exception, of course – the majority of supporters lucky enough to secure their tickets legitimately through a series of ballots would not trade them for the world.

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Neil Rudram and his two young sons, Alfie, 11, and nine-year-old Harris, will be driving through from Edinburgh for tomorrow’s match, together with Neil’s father-in-law David Little.

All three generations of the family are relishing the prospect of the matchday experience as much as the chance to witness the return of Scotland’s men’s team to a major international tourney.

“We’re all season ticket holders at Hearts, but none of us have been at a live game of football since February 2020,” said Rudram, a youth football coach.

“We’ve missed out on being at games, the walk to the ground, the pre-match chat about who’s in the team and who’s out. The excitement of being back, just hearing the Hampden roar, will be magic.

“I remember Euro ‘96 and World Cup ‘98, but my boys have never seen anything like it. That’s what makes this time around extra special.

"They’ve even been doing a school project on it and the head teacher gave us permission to take the boys out of school for the game.”

Rudrum is of the view that even with Hampden’s capacity reduced to 25 per cent, so as to allow for social distancing, and supporters asked to arrive in staggered 30-minute windows, it will be an occasion to remember.

“I don’t think you’ll stop fans from singing, or stop them from shouting if there’s a goal,” he said.

“I think the atmosphere will still be electric – 12,000 fans will still sound like 50,000 because everyone is so excited for it.”

Other long-suffering veterans of the Tartan Army are not quite sure what to expect. Hamish Husband, spokesman for the West of Scotland Tartan Army, one of the biggest supporters’ groups, believes the pandemic will put paid to old rituals fans hold dear.

“Supporters won’t be travelling in big groups, and there are traditions about meeting pals, certain pubs, even certain parking spots which are not going to be there this time, so it’ll be different,” he said.

“But listen, it’s only been a couple of months since it looked like there would be no Scotland fans at Hampden, and certainly not Wembley, so those of us fortunate enough to have tickets for the games are looking forward to it.

“There’s an acceptance that the restrictions will be what they will be as we enter the new normal. Hopefully the new normal involves Scotland qualifying for the next round for the first time.”

Not everyone taking part in the event is going to games. Indeed, many would not even call themselves football fans.

Elaine Wilson and Jim Holmes will be among a small army of highly-visible volunteers throughout the event, clad in turquoise uniforms provided by Adidas.

Neither could tell you which formation the Czechs favour, or whether Steve Clarke will hand a start to Billy Gilmour. But they can guarantee a warm Glasgow welcome.

Both are time-served volunteers, having helped out at the London Olympics and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games – Wilson has carefully vacuum packed all her uniforms for safekeeping.

“There’s a lot of young folk volunteering this time around, and it’s a great opportunity for them,” she reasoned.

“We all know work is hard to come by at the moment and this is something they can shout about on their CVs.”

Holmes, a retired engineer, said: “Every time a big event like this comes to Glasgow, it shows off the city’s reputation and that’s why we do it. We’re proud to be from here and we want to promote it.

"There’s been a lot of negativity around the Euros, but it’s time to start being positive.”

‘The reality is people get their carry out and get tanked up’

Among the vast majority of fans unable to head to Hampden or Wembley, tens of thousands will seek solace in the Euro 2020 fan zone that has been erected in Glasgow Green.

The venue has been the subject of considerable controversy in light of the rising Covid-19 cases and strict rules in other sectors.

Glasgow Life, the arm-length body of Glasgow City Council, has made much about its family zone, which has a small 3G football pitch and other attractions.

But in truth, the event centres around the football and the bevvy – around 450 picnic tables have been sited around two jumbo screens which will show the matches, with drink and food supplied via table service so as to prevent queueing.

Organisers say they are working with the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and other partners to ensure the area will be strictly controlled, with the venue subject to intensive cleaning between sessions which will host up to 3,000 fans at a time.

Chris Weitz, a senior sports development officer with Glasgow Life, explained: "I would describe the fan zone as one of the safest places in the city to watch the Euro matches. We’ve worked closely with the Scottish Government and other partners to put in place the safest possible measures and we will continue to do so.”

Even so, Glasgow Life’s communication has been questionable.

A media event at the fan zone on Thursday promised reporters the chance to put questions to Billy Garrett, its director of sport and events. Garrett did not show up.

MSPs from several parties have called on mass testing or temperature checks, and those who have been closely monitoring Covid-19’s dreadful impact believe mistakes have been made in the event’s organisation.

“The timing of this mass event is unfortunate when infection levels are rising in Scotland,” said Linda Bauld, a professor in public health at the University of Edinburgh.

“Because routine testing has not been factored in from the initial planning, the priority now is for people attending to take up asymptomatic testing and to do so before they visit the fan zone or indeed Euro 2020 matches in Scotland.”

Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, has said there will have to be a “reverse gear” if the fan zone leads to a surge in Covid-19 cases, and warned the entire month-long event could be brought to a halt if there is evidence of misbehaviour and flouting of regulations.

The infection risk posed by large gatherings is not the only controversy surrounding the fan zone.

At a time when some Glasgow Life’s venues are facing permanent closure due to upgrading costs, the Euro 2020 fan zone does not come cheap.

Much has been made of the £84,000 bill for big screens, but The Scotsman has learned the contract for event security, crowd management, and stewarding, which has gone to G4S, the only bidder, will cost taxpayers £817,000. The cleaning contract is worth another £99,000, pushing the overall bill north of £1 million.

Despite such expenditure, some in the community that surrounds Glasgow Green say they have been all but ignored in favour of UEFA’s interests.

A two-minute walk from the Green, I meet up with Jennifer McCarey in the picturesque beer garden of the Old Burnt Barns, one of Glasgow's finest howffs.

McCarey is a long-standing community campaigner and proud resident of Calton. Taking in the famous Barras market and the Barrowlands Ballroom, it is one of the city’s most historic districts, yet also among its most deprived.

In McCarey’s view, the fan zone organisers have “let down” the community, pointing out the first meeting between organisers and local residents only took place a fortnight ago.

“Everyone in the Calton will tell you we’re a very tolerant and open area, and we’re not what you would call sensitive – when I moved here 21 years ago, my street was a red light zone,” she said.

“But the problem comes when major events ring off our public park for weeks at a time, on the unproven basis that they bring big income into the city.

"The reality is people get their carry out and get tanked up walking from the city centre towards the Gallowgate, and sit around our streets finishing off their tins. Business actually goes down in the Barras.

“How are the stewards going to control what happens outside the park if people are too inebriated to control themselves, and what about the key workers in the area who will be using the same public transport?

"There’s a feeling that there’s been a determination to make the fan zone happen no matter what.”

A Ghanaian twist on the munchie box

Back in the southside, Theresa Odoom is busy in her chef’s whites, preparing for what she hopes will be a brisk day tomorrow.

She launched Odooms, a Ghanaian restaurant and takeaway, last October. It hardly needs stating, but the circumstances were hardly auspicious for a new business, with the city plunging into level four of lockdown shortly afterwards.

Odoom, however, is determined to look ahead. Workers are overhauling the lighting in her eatery and she hopes Scotland supporters will stop by to enjoy her growing takeaway menu.

Its contents are a marvellous fusion of West Africa and the west coast of Scotland, with the ubiquitous munchie box present and correct, albeit with a Ghanaian twist.

“We have kelewele, fried plantain, beans and rice, and shito. Have you tried shito?” she asks. I shake my head.

“It’s a hot sauce, spicy and peppery – I think Scottish people like it,” she laughs.

Originally from Accra, Odoom has lived in the city since 2002.

The young sons she emigrated with are now strapping young lads with thick Glaswegian accents. The prospect of an international tournament held across disparate locations may not result in a festival atmosphere, but Odoom hopes she can play her part.

“They can sit outside and enjoy the food and watch everyone go by,” she said. “I hoping it’s going to be busy. It’s been a hard time and this is a positive.”

On the other side of Hampden, I bump into Jeanette Harvey on her way back from the shops.

She lives on Mount Annan Drive in a house so close to the stadium, she could justifiably claim it as part of her back garden. Although she does not have tickets for Scotland’s games, she will be cheering them on.

“I’m a Queen’s Park season ticket holder, and it’s been murder not being able to go to any of the games,” she said. “But I’m really looking forward to the Euros.”

Harvey has nothing but praise for the local staff at Hampden who have been diligently preparing the stadium for the tournament.

“They’re all that friendly,” she said. “One of them even gave me this as a wee present.”

Inside her Asda bag, she shows me a Colin the Caterpillar cake.

The only sore point is the lack of engagement by UEFA. “You’d think they’d have been in the school, giving out badges or T-shirts or something, but there’s been nothing,” she said.

Like every Scotland fan, Harvey’s attention is now focused on the football itself, and she has high hopes for the southside’s homegrown hero, Andy Robertson, whose senior career began at Hampden with Queen’s Park.

“He’s such a good lad, he has never forgotten where comes from,” she said.

"Can you imagine being a wee boy and watching him play, realising that could be you one day? At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

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Theresa Odoom, originally from Ghana, opened her restaurant and takeaway at the height of the pandemic. She hopes to feed members of the Tartan Army en route to Hampden. Picture: John Devlin
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