The other day, five sleeps to Hampden, I was in my friendly neighbourhood Fopp. If you don’t have one of those in your town it’s where men of a certain age go to be with other men, to commune with records, contemplate life’s journey thus far and map it out in elpees by their favourite bands – and wonder: “Do I really need this remastered, deluxe, special collector’s edition?”
If these men were also Hibernian fans – and some definitely were – they might also have been wondering about today’s big game at Hampden in similar fashion: “I remember League Cup finals, I know how they play out. I enjoyed the one in 1972 [when Hibs lifted the trophy for the first time] and to be honest the thrill, innocence, optimism and the fact I still had all my own hair, can’t ever be topped. I could go back to that place, and try to remember who I was and what it was like being at the football with someone special, like a father. The trouble is, Hibs being Hibs, they might lose.”
You never forget your first time. My debut trip to Mount Florida was for a semi-final, Scottish Cup, on a bright spring day suddenly altered by a giant red dust-cloud, kicked up by hundreds of Rangers fans converging on the slopes at the same moment when it seemed all of them must have been wearing Freeman, Hardy & Willis’ finest stack-heeled boots.
Hampden – never grottier, never lovelier. I was surprised at how basic the national stadium was and yet tremendously impressed by its size. There were a mere 76,174 people present that afternoon – roughly half the attendances in the various European records still held by the ground – but big enough for me and a few weeks later at the final of this competition I had cause to be tremendously impressed by the resourcefulness of the supporters.
“See you at the wee barrier,” said one imp to his mate at the turnstiles as they split up and joined different queues to increase their chances of a “lift-over”. Inside, in what was my only six-figure Hampden crowd, I was surprised to spot one of the boys again – at the base of the bowl and the foot of the staircase nearest the halfway line as the place started to fill. Perched on the stanchion, which was indeed wee, he spent the next two hours anxiously scanning the throng for his pal until, bang on kick-off, they were happily reunited.
The wee barrier has gone. The vertiginous press-box perched on the main-stand roof: gone. The high, slim shelf of a stand across the pitch: gone. Yet the Hampden swirl will continue to toss the memories around. Is the swirl even there anymore, or has the newer, flatter, duller architecture suppressed it? If so, you still know what I mean.
Hampden is where I’ve been my happiest as a fan and where I’ve been my saddest. It’s where I’ve been my most humiliated and where I was nine years ago, scared as hell and excited as hell, wondering how my extremely pregnant wife was faring 50 miles away and whether I might get the call over the public-address to rush back in time to begin fatherhood.
Our antenatal class were mildly appalled I was going to that year’s League Cup final and risking missing the birth. I mean, I remember when the greater risk seemed to be about missing the game. My father was fond of intoning a crackly Tannoy announcement mid-match from the era of Unreconstructed Scottish Fitba Man: “Shuggie McGonagall – when you eventually get home tonight you’ll be meeting the triplets. Important info regarding the size of the carryout you’ll need from Agnews: they’re all girls. Nae luck, pal.” Dad was exaggerating for comic effect, but not by much.
I wanted to hear my name called. Of course I would have been absolutely wetting myself had I been required to belt back over Harthill – not yet renamed Heart of Scotland – in the freakish whiteout, but a perverse part of me wanted to appal the baby-group some more because these are people who will never know what it feels like to throw open the curtains on the morning of a final and scream silently to yourself: “Crikey, what’s going to happen today?”
What did happen for certain was this: my father and I would leave Edinburgh behind at the Securex building. “Ah, Durex,” he’d say, long before I knew what he meant. Among other rituals we’d remind ourselves, with a shiver, of the Hampden pilgrimage when the car accelerator pedal jammed; pass the TV masts not yet beaming the final into the nation’s parlours; approach Honeywell’s art deco factory with mounting excitement; park up in one of Tory MP Teddy Taylor’s solid Cathcart crescents; search in vain for somewhere to have lunch – and wonder whether the pre-match entertainment would be Middle of the Road on the back of a coal lorry singing Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep or police dog King leaping through burning hoops to bring down pretend baddies. Or – blessed day! – both.
After all that, it was anyone’s game, although usually not our team’s. Another ritual was my father writing in my birthday cards about how this would be the year the open-top bus would be needed and eventually it was. That was pretty New Dad of him and now I must do all of this for my son, born three days after the club last hoisted silverware and already hopelessly thirled to them, who declared this week: “Mum, I remember where I was when I first heard Sunshine on Leith. In your tummy.”
No matter how many times your team lose cups, how underwhelming the Hampden experience gets, how often you say you’re never putting yourself through that heartache again – you do. You unjam that pedal and you go. In Fopp, Tom the manager said he was taking his son, although brother Vinnie, fairly notorious for donning a half-white, half-green suit for the club’s last, completely disastrous final appearance, was toning down his attire this time. I met another friend, Niall, who told me his brother Kieran was breaking a holiday to be there, a show of commitment only topped by their pal Silas who the other week cycled all the way to Queen of the South to see the team lose.
On the store shelves, the Moody Blues’ third album was selling for £4, a good price. And that’s what we’re all doing: searching for the lost chord.