TEN years ago Diana’s funeral put paid to the notion that football is more important than life and death, as the SFA found to their cost, finds Andrew Smith.
WHEN Scotland make a rare appearance at Pittodrie on Wednesday to face South Africa in a friendly, it will be almost exactly ten years since their World Cup qualifier with Belarus at Aberdeen’s ground. There endeth the similarities between the two occasions. The backdrop to that encounter with the former Soviet republic has no parallel in the history of the Scottish game. Never has such condemnation – opprobrium that came from the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Secretary of State for Scotland and, more significantly, a frenzied British media and public – been heaped on the Scottish Football Association for staging an international.
A decade on, the extent to which the world was turned upside down for folk on these islands by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash along a Paris underpass on August 31 that year seems barely believable, or credible. The emotional outpouring for a woman whose celebrity made her the most recognisable female face on the planet, and whose status as a fashion icon had overwhelmed her role as mother to the second and third in line to the throne, became a tidal wave. It swept away all those who were seen as daring to swim against a flood of crocodile tears. A category into which came SFA chief executive Jim Farry, his seven-man international committee and those working for the organisation. Farry, the hitherto merely bumptious and overly officious head of Scottish football, endured a tabloid vilification of the most ferocious kind. Decried at the time as “the most awful man in Britain”, “a Little Hitler who has brought shame to his country” and the perpetrator of an “outrage of the most despicable kind“, when looked at from a safe distance, his only sins appear to have been a failure to gauge the mood and an unwillingness to be party to the waves of mawkish sentiment.
The extraordinary episode the SFA found themselves embroiled in stemmed from their initial judgment that there would be no conflict in going ahead as planned with the Belarus game at 3pm on September 6, four hours after Diana’s funeral in London. This perceived insensitivity – a charge also levelled at the Queen for her handling of the same events – meant the SFA was besieged for a week. At the heart of that period was a maelstrom of controversy that was at its peak during an incredible 30-hour period.
Within hours of the fatal accident in the early hours of Sunday at the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel that claimed the lives of Diana, her companion Dodi Fayed and their driver Henri Paul, Britain went into a strange shutdown mode over sport. The Old Firm confrontation the next evening was postponed – “football feels irrelevant at the moment,” said Rangers secretary Campbell Ogilvie – and all other Scottish and English league games were called off, as was a motor racing festival at Silverstone. Oddly, though, cricket’s Sunday league matches went ahead.
Hysteria was piled on hysteria by the following morning. A new form of ostentatious mourning prevailed, one which extended to ordinary people confessing to television interviewers that Diana’s passing had affected them more than deaths in their own families. The main squares of towns and cities were transformed into flower-carpetted shrines to the Princess. As the mood of public breast- beating deepened, there was intense pressure from the media for a quick response from the SFA over what they intended to do about the little football game scheduled to clash with the funeral the following Saturday.
Farry and his committee were determined to follow established procedure and delayed an announcement until the Tuesday. This gave them the time they needed to receive the necessary soundings from FIFA, the Sports Policy Unit of the Scottish Office, Belarus and, crucially, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office at Buckingham Palace.
Logistics, however, did not matter to a media and public who simply could not countenance the game being played on the day of Diana’s funeral. FIFA had no such misgivings, informing Farry that it was not unusual for a match to go ahead in such circumstances. Belarus also favoured standing by the original scheduling, as did Scotland’s qualifying group rivals, Sweden and Austria, who feared the likely alternative would provide Craig Brown’s men with an advantage. The Scottish Office expressed no view while, just before one o’clock on the Tuesday, Farry took a call from the Palace that he believed ended the debate. In common with the first instincts of the SFA, the guidance given was that there was no conflict between the funeral. “Life must go on”, was the message.
“I spoke personally to the Queen’s private secretary,” said Farry. “I took advice from Her Majesty the Queen, who, in addition to being our sovereign, was also the patron of the SFA. It needs to be remembered that the funeral would have been over before the kick-off in Aberdeen and she was at ease with that. From the conversations I had with Buckingham Palace, it was clear we were not breaching protocol. The reason we didn’t make that public at the time was because there was a lot of hysterical reaction to the royal family and we didn’t want to add to that.”
At 2pm on Tuesday, the SFA announced via the Press Association that the Belarus game would go ahead on the Saturday at 3pm. Immediately, it became tin helmet time at the governing body, with their spokesman Andy Mitchell pitched into an almighty frenzy only a matter of weeks after taking up his post. What followed was an extraordinary example of nationwide hype, indignation and moral outrage – essentially whipped up and sustained by the media, who, in my opinion, were looking for a scapegoat for the killing of their favourite princess,” said Mitchell.
“There was a school of thought that some in the media feared a backlash after their own hounding of Diana, and latched on to the first available target to deflect any criticism. The SFA, and more precisely Jim Farry, fitted that bill perfectly. Having tried to play by the rules, a decision taken for logical and administratively sound reasons was turned into a treasonable offence.”
The six-line switchboard and the one-line fax at the SFA’s Park Gardens offices instantly became jammed with abusive and threatening messages; graffiti was daubed on the doors of the headquarters by the next morning.
By then, Secretary of State Donald Dewar had performed a volte face and declared it “utterly inappropriate” for the Belarus game to be played on the day of the funeral. The Prime Minster, Tony Blair, fresh from coining the ‘People’s Princess’ line, and Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, chipped in with similar sentiments.
Mitchell believes there was a further political dimension that led to the SFA “losing control of events”. That came with Rangers vice-chairman Donald Findlay QC denounced Farry and his committee on the BBC network news at 9pm on the Tuesday. “The first ever vote for a Scottish parliament was just nine days away and by playing the loyalist/unionist card he knew the wider impact would have been to say ‘look what happens when Scots run their own affairs’,” Mitchell said.
Rangers’ stance on the Saturday scheduling further crystallised matters the following afternoon. The club’s Scotland players – Ally McCoist, Andy Goram and Gordon Durie – threatened to walk out on the squad, claiming that conscience would not allow them to play against Belarus if the game went ahead as Diana was being buried.
By then, the SFA were feverishly working towards an alternative date, with Friday evening or 2pm on Sunday afternoon the options. Grampian police, Aberdeen Football Club, and eventually Belarus all agreed to accommodate a 23-hours-later kick-off. But not before the stumbling blocks surrounding the one-day postponement had led the SFA committee to consider scratching from the entire World Cup campaign.
“We did look seriously at this [option] because for us to find another position seemed impossible,” said SFA president Jack McGinn at the time. “At the eleventh hour, the Belarussians told us they would be willing to change the date. They were willing to bear the brunt of the cost of extra accommodation and the delay to their charter plane but we felt it right and proper to meet these costs.
“I am uncomfortable that we are being looked upon as insensitive. I am not looking for forgiveness over the events of the past week, but the public should be aware of the difficulties we faced.”
Others on the committee expressed differing emotions over being press-ganged into the date change, official notification of which came in a press release read out by Mitchell at the Scotland squad team hotel shortly after 9pm on the Wednesday night. “In 20-odd years in football, this is the worst week I can remember,” said Ogilvie.
Vice-president John McBeth argued that the SFA had responded to a “public outpouring of grief” that had “an Evita-quality”. But he rounded on Aberdeen’s Lord Provost, Margaret Farquhar, for earlier saying she would not attend on the Saturday, and that those intending to do should be grieving instead. “She came out with great dudgeon – well, fine if she didn’t want to come to the game, I can respect that,” he said. “But why should she tell me how to grieve?”
For McCoist, meanwhile, the Sunday switch spared him from putting personal feelings before professional duties. “This is a relief,” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do was walk out on my country. Thankfully none of us will be forced into making such a decision now that this solution has finally been found.”
In the days that followed the decision to move the game to the Sunday, the mood of football supporters and many in the country began to shift over a torturously extended period of mourning. Farry’s supercilious approach to events - he joked that “Big Donald” could play at centre-back in place of the injured Colin Hendry when Dewar called for a date change – initially earned him only outright hostility. That antipathy only deepened when Farry quipped that there should be little problem with the Saturday 3pm kick-off since he could then buy a Big Mac (all businesses had temporarily shut on the day of the funeral and were scheduled to reopen at 2pm). Toddling off to a seven-hour distillery visit on the Wednesday afternoon as the SFA committee desperately sought to iron out logistical considerations involved in facing Belarus a day late didn’t exactly endear him to the wider public, either.
But sympathy for the SFA’s original stance grew as that maniacal first week of September wore on. Indeed, a later suppressed BBC debriefing paper revealed that 44% of the British public were left feeling “alienated” by the media coverage of both the Princess’s death and the funeral. “By the weekend I think people wanted to pay their respects but move on and get back to some normality, and that is all we were looking to do by sticking to the Saturday kick-off,” Mitchell said.
Farry, ironically forced out of the SFA in 1999 following an administrative error over the registration of Celtic striker Jorge Cadete, still believes the sense of perspective that was clearly lost over the staging of a football game resulted in proper, balanced decision-making being cast downstream. Ultimately, though, the outcome was as all parties desired when the game eventually arrived. Scotland supporters reverentially paid their respects beforehand inside a subdued Pittodrie that came to life as the home side racked up an impressive 4-1 win.
“My abiding recollection is that Safeway didn’t close on the day of the funeral,” Farry said. “You could still get a taxi, board a train or fly on a plane. For that matter, you could still go to the bookies and put on a line or visit the pub for a pint. The truth was nobody closed down at all. But a huge amount of pressure was brought to bear to make the SFA change its mind.
“Every decision has to be viewed in context, taking into account the prevailing climate of the times. In the years I was with the SFA, I was involved in many aspects of controversial decision-making at Park Gardens. But I can never recollect another incident which provoked so much hysteria. In the midst of everything, we had to fulfil a fixture against opponents who were flying in from eastern Europe. People at the time tended to underestimate just how many factors there were to be considered.
“All the arrangements for policing, transport and so on had been in place for a year for a match taking place on the Saturday. And then on the Wednesday before the game we said, ‘sorry, it’ll be on Sunday’. When the committee had that change of heart and bowed to public pressure, I have to tell you that I didn’t agree. My opinion at the time was that we should have stuck to our guns and that’s still how I feel today.
“Did history prove us right? When you think of the terrorist acts which killed so many people in the London bombings [in July 2005] or the attacks in America on September 11 , the fact is the world went on. Business didn’t close down.”
“This has not been an easy decision for the international committee to reach. We are extremely conscious of the mood of the nation and trust people will try to understand our position.”
Jim Farry (pictured left) on the initial decision not to postpone the match versus Belarus
“We then said, well if the palace was saying it was all right and the police were saying it was all right, the Scottish Office are not giving us any lead in this matter, then let’s just leave things as they are’.”
John McBeth, vice-president
of the SFA council
"The whole WORLD is weeping for God's sake. And yet, before she has even arrived at her final resting place the whistle will have sounded at Pittodrie and we'll be playing football in her back yard. It's shameful."
Keith Jackson, Daily Record
“If this is not a resignation issue, then what the heck is a resignation issuae with the SFA?”
Cydesdale Labour MP Jimmy Hood
“Given the circumstances, I would not do either myself or the fans justice on Saturday and I have asked not to be selected. I have never known an event to cause such feeling. Tears have been shed from the bottom corner of England to the top of Scotland and it's only proper to pull out and show our respect.”
Scotland striker Ally McCoist
“I don’t think anyone is in the right frame of mind to play the game at that time.”
Scotland goalkeeper Andy Goram
“I think it is good for the game to go ahead. If the game had been called off, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to convey our feelings. I believe all the players will support this decision.”
Scotland captain Gary McAllister
“We will be showing our respect, as everyone else will. There would be little chance of people from Aberdeen going to London to show their respect but now Scotland, as a nation, has the chance to show how it feels over the tragedy.”
Scotland defender Colin Calderwood
“I think [the players] could come together and say ‘no, we don’t agree with this - we don't want to play’.
Former Scotland striker Denis Law
“I made clear that while the decision is for the SFA, my firm view was that it would be utterly inappropriate to play the match on the day of the funeral.”
“Colin Hendry is out of the match, and big Donald would be a welcome addition to the back four.”
Jim Farry’s feelings on Donald Dewar getting involved
“The SFA has called this one very badly wrong and failed to appreciate how important this day is to ordinary people in this country. On the day Princess Diana is being laid to rest, we are going to be playing a game of football – I find it deeply offensive.”
Donald Findlay QC
“We all recognise with the benefit of hindsight that the escalating mood of the nation required us to sit back and contemplate and reflect. We did so, hence the about-turn.”
Jim Farry on the SFA’s decision to reschedule the match
“Obviously from a player’s point of view the change has been beneficial, there’s no question of that.”
Scotland manager Craig Brown
“In 20-odd years in football, this has been the worst week I can remember.”
Campbell Ogilvie, SFA internatioal committee member
“We’ll concentrate on our race, but we'll be at home very much in our hearts.”
Now-knighted Steve Redgrave on his crew’s feelings about rowing in the World Championships final during the funeral