Aidan Smith: In the symphony of any given season the Ne’er Day derbies were the rumbustious passages in the middle, kettle drums to the fore

I can still see him, a wee bloke in a bunnet, fag hanging out of his mouth, a classic of the genre. It was half-time in the Ne’er Day derby and he sauntered into the centre circle, shoulders swinging. Two types of men walk like this: soldiers and drunks. This fellow might have been the former once; he was definitely the latter that day.

Hibs midfielder Pat McGinlay gets to his feet to celebrate after scoring in the Edinburgh New Year derby in 1998. Pic: SNS

Not to single him out, everyone seemed under the influence, apart from me and my brother and our pal Johnny, all of us too young for the bevvy but fascinated by its physiological and mood-altering effects in a large group setting. Half-cut was the collective state of Scotland on the first day of a brand new twelve-month and the football in cities and towns up and down the land represented the biggest congregation of its people, even if some didn’t know exactly where they were. We were at the very dawn of 1974 and the Easter Road attendance of 35,393 was proof of the power of the fixture, although that was about to be cut to 35,392.

Security was lax enough to allow the saunterer to stand on the centre spot, hands on hips, foot resting on an imaginary ball, then pretend to kick off and immediately begin zigzagging past make-believe opponents. I suppose it would have been harder for him to keep to a straight line but every time he swerved, the crowd cheered.

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They cheered even louder when he had to start swerving for real as the polis eventually gave chase. They caught up with him on the 18-yard line but, trouper that he was, he got his shot away – a slash with the right foot causing him to lose balance and splat face-first into the mud. But all of us followed the “ball” on its irresistible journey to the postage-stamp corner.

Then our hero was ejected and the thought occurs now: what did he do with himself? Nothing was open on 1 January in Scotland coming up for 46 years ago. The football was all there was and, it seemed back then, all we wanted.

At this time of year I often reminisce about football played on Christmas Day, but maybe it should be something different this time: the sad, slow death of the Ne’er Day derbies. When was the last one you attended? The last between Hibs and Hearts was coming up for nine years ago. The one before that involving my team was back in the previous century. 
TV likes our derbies, or at least some of them, but is no respecter of derby tradition. Previously Hibs played Hearts on New Year’s Day, Celtic played Rangers, Dundee played Dundee United and so on. TV looked at the fixtures, the long-standing rivalries, and thought: “What a waste, all these fairly interesting matches happening at once – let’s spread them out.” Thus this season it’s the Edinburgh derby on Boxing Day, the Dundee one on Friday and the Old Firm clash on Saturday.

But once again there will be no games on New Year’s Day and for this we can no longer just blame the TV companies. The clubs instituted a winter shutdown, knocking out 1 January, and our players love flip-flopping around Dubai and other hotspots, playing the odd bounce match against a scratch team of local waiters if they can be bothered, while we’re all stuck shivering at home.

Do you miss Ne’er Day games? I do. Much more than Christmas Day games, in which we only dabbled when Crimbo fell on a Saturday, they used to be the star attractions, the main features. In the symphony of any given season, they were the big, rumbustious passages in the middle, kettle drums to the fore.

Right through the 1960s and the next decade up until 1977 Hibs first-footed Hearts or vice versa. In ’77 there was a rare postponement and at the end of that campaign Hearts would be relegated, breaking the sequence, and it would never really revive after that. Incidentally, Ne’er Day games were called off so infrequently that they would give rise to suspicion that the home team didn’t fancy their chances and hadn’t tried too hard to beat the wintry weather. “Did you hear what Hearts did last night?” began the wild rumour one year. “Checked there would be a heavy frost and phoned a friendly Jambo fire station chief who arranged for his hoses to be turned on the pitch.”

Ne’er Day matches were almost convivial. The mind may be playing tricks; that’s how they seemed to these innocent eyes, peering through a parka hood. The 70s were hooligan-heavy for sure but it was almost as if the rival factions had, like First World War soldiers in the trenches, called a one-day truce. Then, a few years before booze would be banned from the terraces for good, they’d pass round the Double Diamond and Harvey’s Bristol Cream and clink cans and bottles rather than throw them at each other for a happy and prosperous … (OK, now I’m really getting carried away).

The New Year’s Day tradition in our family was to meet with my mum and dad’s oldest friends, taking turns to host the gathering and purchase the match tickets. Poor Uncle Don, I felt sorry for him on 1.1.73. He may have achieved the rank of Assistant Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Polis but that gig didn’t come with a hose and he couldn’t influence the game Hearts’ way. “Don’t worry, Johnny,” he assured his son as the shell-shocked Hearts players, five-nil down, trudged off for their half-time cup of tea or maybe Harvey’s Bristol Cream or possibly strychnine, “it’ll all change when we bring on Andy Lynch.”

There I go again. I thought I could get to the end of this piece without mentioning that game, the one with the immortal scoreline. Sorry to all my friends in Gorgie, and – truly – a happy and prosperous 2020 to you all. It’s a shame we won’t be seeing each other on the 1st but Edinburgh celebrates the day differently now, pretending to be Rio for a big street party, forcing pubs, restaurants and shops to stay open – and then some wanton exhibitionists jump in the freezing Firth of Forth, inset.

Forty-six years ago a man in a bunnet with a secret ball was the only one to draw attention to himself. Like kids growing up quick who still wanted to believe in the existence of Santa Claus, we who were thrilling to Ne’er Day football made sure we were in on his daft stunt. We could see the ball and we followed it all the way to the back of the net.

The Jambos’ net, obviously.