Aidan Smith: ‘We’re talking about the great bowl, the railway sleepers and red ash colosseum’

The great embankments of Hampden in its former glory  that glory may now be tarnished but is it still Scottish footballs home?
The great embankments of Hampden in its former glory  that glory may now be tarnished but is it still Scottish footballs home?
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On a free Saturday afternoon my son still wanted to visit his favourite football ground, maybe his favourite place in the whole wide world. “You should have called me Hampden, Dad,” said Archie on the drive over to Mount Florida. “Made it my middle name.”

This particular Saturday afternoon our team weren’t playing there and neither were Queen’s Park. Still, Hampden helps out the cold and needy by having that museum under the South Stand, although to be honest, I think the boy would have been perfectly content sitting in the car park for a couple of hours, gazing up at the towers either side of the main entrance.

Do they look more like the towers you find on the headquarters of a finance house showing off its devotion to Mammon? Yes. Could either of them look any less like Commander Zero’s fabulously rotating Space City control tower in Fireball XL5 if they tried? No. But you cannot tell Archie they don’t form a gateway to magic and wonder.

He’s ten and already he’s seen his team play at the national stadium eight times. It would have been one appearance for each year of his life if I’d involved him in the 2011-12 Scottish Cup run, but something told me that wasn’t going to work out too well and had he been at the final I probably would have handed myself in to the nearest police station the following morning with a scrawled confession about child cruelty. Still, the quest for the cup worked out alright eventually, so how could I tell Archie that Hampden’s days as the home of Scottish football might be numbered? It would be like telling him there’s no such person as Santa Claus, only much worse.

According to a survey, only 15 per cent of supporters are happy with the ground remaining the venue for showpiece matches. “Did they ask any Hibs fans at all?” said Archie, chin slightly wobbling, and it’s a fair point. I cannot believe any Hibbys who were there on 21 May, 2016, or who weren’t but now claim to have been present, or who were present for many of the other failures and decided they couldn’t face another trip, will hear a bad word said against Hampden.

Now, Hibs fans possibly hold the most subjective view of an issue formulated by anyone about anything at any time in history. But is their opinion any less valid than those who participated in the survey – that is, all 2,923 of them? This is not a golden age for opinion polls. In politics they were wrong in 2010, 2015 and 2016. That’s every time there was a national vote – two general elections and Brexit. Pretty important stuff, we can all agree, and it’s important that political polls are accurate because they shape coverage of the campaigns. On Brexit, millions went to bed believing Britain was remaining in Europe. But if you stayed up to 4.40am you will have witnessed David Dimbleby’s jaw crash to the floor, much like Mark Warburton’s in the cup final four weeks previously.

It’s important that football polls are accurate, too. We’re talking about the great bowl, the railway sleepers-and-red ash colosseum. The Hampden poll was conducted among the Scottish Football Supporters Association – membership 70,810. So why the small number surveyed? Were only 2,923 invited to take part? Unlikely. Did only 2,923 bother to answer the questions?

This was an under-cooked survey which was then given overheated treatment in the media. One report began: “The case for retaining Hampden as the home of Scottish football has been dealt a further blow … ” Really? Based on such a tiny response? I’d be appalled if this played any part in a final decision on the stadium. Coverage was also selective. For instance, the stat that 24 per cent want to see a “new Hampden” built made some reports but not all.

From this wholly unrepresentative number, 34 per cent want cup finals and internationals played at Murrayfield. It would be interesting to know how many of that 34 per cent have ever been to the ground. Maybe some were at last month’s autumn internationals when an exciting Scotland team entertained a capacity crowd. Well, Murrayfield isn’t always like that.

At other times in the not too distant past you’ve never heard 50,000 folk make less noise. Partly that was because they were watching underwhelming performances by the team in dark blue, something our footballers, bless them, are well capable of mirroring. But Murrayfield has similar problems to Hampden, having been redeveloped in the 1990s when the bonkers vogue was for shallow stands sited some distance from the pitch. If both grounds were to be rejigged now they surely wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

My preference is for a better Hampden on the same site but am aware that’s a big ask. It will cost to replace the botched job of not all that long ago and more difficult for football to press the case for a one-sport stadium, especially when the national team are going through one of their undistinguished spells and the passion for them has cooled. If Scotland were back in the groove of repeatedly qualifying for World Cups we probably wouldn’t be having this debate.

But none of this reasoned argument impresses Archie. Loving the little he knew about Hampden’s story from his modest association with the place before stepping inside the museum, he loved even more being able to step outside three hours later as a full honours graduate.

I knew what his favourite exhibit would be: the salvaged section of the old press box from the main stand roof. It may now look down on a faraway still image of a game in progress but the museum has done a great job of simulating the vertiginous vantage-point. There’s only one word to describe it and my laddie delivered: “Wow!”

On Friday, in an eloquent and passionate defence of the stadium, Archie Macpherson, pictured, declared: “Neutral Hampden is a national symbol of unity.” Funnily enough that was what my Archie said a few days previously on the journey home: “Ibrox is Rangers, Dad, and Celtic Park is Celtic and Murrayfield is rugby. But Hampden is football and Hampden is Scotland.”