You never forget your first time. In this case, your first taste of alcohol. Mine was Christmas Day, 1971 but it wasn’t a Her Majesty-toasting sip of sherry proffered by the maiden aunt with the hairy mole on the upper lip who came bearing a box of apples every Yuletide and proceeded to very nearly drink the house dry. Rather this happened just a few minutes before the alternative 3pm entertainment that day, Hibernian vs Rangers at Easter Road.
I return often to this fixture, part of the last full card of 25 December games played in Britain, but make no apologies for doing so today. Scotland is being asked to consider allowing boozing at football matches again, something which hasn’t happened for 38 years.
In 2020 Glasgow will be a Euro Championships host city but, as the law stands right now, the only one where it’s a criminal offence to watch football and drink. Think about that if you’re self-conscious about national image: Hampden Park not permitting a bevvy while fans at other tournament venues enjoy one will make us look boorish, backward and hugely unsophisticated. But is relaxing the ban an even greater act of stupidity?
In ’71 my indoctrination came courtesy of a Rangers supporter in a red-white-and-blue nearly-leather car coat, possibly the Govan equivalent of a Christmas jumper. He held out the can of Tartan Special and my father took the first sip, perhaps to check it was indeed William Younger’s finest brew, before handing it to me. I was 14, my palate not quite ready for this almost-black concoction, but very willing to try. It was disgusting, the absence of sweetness or any remote similarity to American Cream Soda or Cremola Foam hugely disconcerting. But, hey-ho, it was a timid step along the road to adulthood. And, ho-ho-ho, it was Christmas.
Everyone shared, everyone insisted. The scene was almost charming and not far off being Biblical. Ah, but perhaps the significance of the day ensured peace and goodwill. Maybe the mood would have been different if Hibs rather than Rangers had won with a last-minute goal (from Colin Stein, the ex-Hibee). Maybe all the real hooligans were in the bosom of their families, carving the turkey with their sharpened steel combs, and it was just Dad and me and the guy in the car coat at Easter Road, plus a few thousand other nutters.
But do you want stories about when alcohol and football didn’t mix? I’ve got them, just like everyone else who watched the game in the 1970s. Cans – full of something, probably not the brewers’ product – raining down on you along with (empty) half-bottles of whisky. Fans too paralytic to fight but giving it a bloody good go, providing the inspiration for that gag of Billy Connolly, right, where one foot is planted in the ground and the other travels round in hopeless circles.
And the worst of it: a Celtic fan attempting to plunge a broken tumbler into my father’s neck. Celtic were going to win the league that day and duly did. What the hell was there to get angsty about? Was it that we were at this game with the actor Russell Hunter – Dad wrote plays for him – who’d recently featured in a telly commercial for carry-out kings Agnews in which he’d worn a Rangers scarf? Russell was acting in that and never in all the time we knew him had he shown the slightest inclination towards any team. But subtle points like these can get ignored in the Scottish football stramash, and especially when strong drink has been taken.
Even in the boozetastic 1970s there was the realisation that too much was bad for you and when government health organisations attempted to persuade Scotland of this they chose football as the backdrop. To jolt heavy drinkers out of their stupor, the information films had a fan so desperate for one more hit that he eventually flogged his prized match ticket for the price of a pint. The last man left in the pub after the game had begun, he kicked a dropped scarf across the floor before the punchline: “If drink’s become the most important thing in your life, think again.”
When these warnings failed to do the trick, the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 steamed right in and stopped drinking at football. After the Old Firm riot at that year’s Scottish Cup final, after Archie Macpherson’s exclamation, “It’s like Passchendaele out there!”, the back of tickets spelled out the warning: no one was to attempt to enter a ground with “carriers” – receptacles for bevvy – ever again.
That was the thing about the boozing: fans brought their own. The 2020 debate is about allowing drink to be sold at grounds, but this never happened previously. Slabs of cans – 24 in each – from Agnews and other off-licences would be heaved on to the terraces. If you wanted wine with your half-time pie it would be Eldorado, fortified and buzzy, which would maybe also serve as a description for your team’s bandy-legged right-winger, provided he was on his game.
This was football, and football drinking, back then – pretty prehistoric. We’d like to think that some advances in behaviour and attitude have been achieved, but are they enough? Already the police and alcohol watchdogs have expressed nervousness about a relaxation of the ban. In other countries where drink is sold at games you get given a plastic glass and presumably this would be a requirement here. But have we grown up sufficiently to treat the contents of the glass responsibly? Have we gained wisdom and developed magnanimity since Macpherson also likened the booze-fuelled aggro to Apocalypse Now?
When you hear tales of rivals fans scrapping in hospitality, ties askew, you’re not so sure. When you recall how fans have smashed up seats in Dundee without any provocation after a night-time kick-off on a holiday has afforded them a marathon session in the bars, you doubt it. And when you imagine what another Old Firm encounter swimming in booze might be like you could decide you’d rather take your chances on Captain Kurtz’s boat. I’m no Brexiteer but, having experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of football drinking, I think this might be one occasion when we have to be out of step with our continental cousins.