AS THE father of two small girls, I am obviously not unfamiliar with the film Frozen and its big showstopping finale: “Let the storm rage on, the cold never bothered me anyway.” Long before these lines were yelled daily in my house, however, they could have summed up my attitude to summer football.
We all have time-trapped memories of old games and one of mine is encased in a snow globe. Snow is all around. It’s on the roads when they were called roads and not, as the authorities started to care about the possibility of white hell carnage en route, “approaches to the stadium”. It’s on the terraces and of course it’s on the pitch. The goalies are wearing trackie-bums but Under Armour is for jessies. The ball might not even be orange but let’s give football in 1969 the benefit of the doubt and say that it is. The game between Hibernian and Motherwell ends in a crazy, slip-sliding, beautiful 1-1 draw and LS Lowry would surely have painted the scene if he’d been a Leither.
The crowd? A more-than-respectable 13,467. You wouldn’t get that in winter’s icy grip now. Mothers wouldn’t be allowed to send out their sons in thin polyester C&A anoraks and fathers couldn’t (pre-seatbelts, of course) extend a strong arm across the laddies’ chests in the event of a black-ice pile-up. These teams in this age would be very happy with an attendance of that order on a sunny day. So what about an afternoon in July? Are we ready – finally – for this?
I think I might be. As a traditionalist and a nostalgist, who prefers most things in life to be spread with lemon curd and prog-rock mellotron, I’d resisted the idea of summer football on all of the previous occasions it’s been mooted, and there have been many. But now I feel, having tried everything else, we’ve got to give it a go.
Previously, the arguments against it went something like this: football’s a winter game; we’re a nation of masochists; pale skin and red hair look better against a gloomy grey sky; everyone’s on holiday during the trades fortnight; the finals of World Cups and European Championships take place in summer; pies would taste funny, Bovril odder still.
Well, football has become wall-to-wall 52-weeks omnipresent. It’s a monster and yet, in Scotland, isn’t the ritual it used to be. As a nation we’ve gone a bit soft, not quite so willing to endure the cold and the wind and the wet as we were when all grounds left large areas uncovered. The peely-wally ginger is no longer the dominant look. We’re flexible vacationers these days (and we no longer have trades). We don’t qualify for World Cups and Euros anymore.
Mike Mulraney, the chairman of Alloa Athletic, who play in today’s Petrofac Cup final, is the latest to propose summer football and he’s not alone. “I’m 100 per cent for it,” he says, “and I think that those in my camp on this one are increasing in number.” He says a summer switch is being “seriously looked at” by the SPFL. “There is a mood that the whole thing isn’t right.”
By “the whole thing” he means the club game as we do it and always have done, but with the product no longer thriving from August through to May, the tradition can no longer be considered sacrosanct. Scottish football badly needs both a cash injection and a punter injection. It can’t make itself comely and attractive to TV with all those empty stands. But it presumably could get itself more telly money if matches were played when other leagues have shut down.
More telly money and then the clubs could then reduce ticket prices, which would, hopefully, up the gates. I’m still unhappy that Scotland receives so little from TV while football remains a winter sport, and that prices at the turnstiles haven’t really come down, but it seems impossible to make any progress on these fronts. And, of course, the sunshine should have a beneficial effect of attendances all by itself.
Scottish football should look to English rugby league, which was dying in winter before being reborn in summer. If anything, because my generation’s earliest exposure to RL was via Grandstand’s cameras, black-and-white anyway, then quickly covered with a film of mud and industrial soot from the chimneys of ’unslet and ’uddersfield, the sport always seemed more locked into winter than football, which would soon be bathed in the golden rays of Mexico ’70. But league moved and was rejuvenated, with Sky’s help obviously.
Goodness knows, I’ve believed in the romance of football in winter. My copy of the match programme for the 1976 Hibs-Liverpool UEFA Cup-tie is more crumpled than any in my collection.
Being a bit of a (C&A) anorak I wanted a replacement in better condition, only to be told by Brian at Almondvale Programmes that no such pristine copy existed anywhere, owing to the fact the game was played in a downpour of Biblical proportions. I’d forgotten the rain that night, just like I’d deemed the snow on other occasions no impediment, just like I’d loved the rhymes of Bud Neill – “Winter’s diabolic, intit?” – but at the same time not agreed with them.
But you know what? I’ve done my stint, heading off to games uttering the not-altogether-jokey words “I may be some time”. For a change, my football bones would quite like some sun on them.
Obviously, there are things we’d miss. The big kick-off – all that fresh-paint optimism – probably wouldn’t take place in bright sunshine and the Scottish Cup final could be fairly wintry. But the great chunk in between should be a lot more pleasant. Our clubs in Europe, instead of the usual rustiness, would be match-hardened for the qualifying rounds. If they were still involved after what would be our winter shutdown, requiring some friendlies to keep the players ticking over, they might regard that as the lesser of two evils.
The national team? Obviously we’re not writing off World Cups and Euros and, if another northern European nation like Denmark can win the latter from having to be hauled off the beach, then we can surely find room in the summer schedule for our re-admission to one of those parties, when that great moment finally comes around.
Some courage will be needed but if you grasped the jaggy thistle of independence in last year’s referendum then maybe you can pick up a cup of Bovril in July.
Summer fitba – just another expression of us.