Aidan Smith: ‘Scottish football doesn’t need a Don Draper, it needs a Jimmy Johnstone’

Scotland's Leigh Griffiths. Pic: SNS
Scotland's Leigh Griffiths. Pic: SNS
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The thing that sticks in the mind, if not the back of the throat, about my very first visits to Hampden in the 1970s was the smell. The pong from the burger vans on the approaches to the home of Scottish football was pungent, far from vague and – I’m searching for another quaint euphemism here – like nothing else I’d ever smelled, bearing no resemblance to my mother’s cooking and in particular her coq au vin. But then I was a middle-class boy from Edinburgh. Can’t help that. Quite proud of it, actually.

Fast-forward to right now and the lead-up up to Wednesday. That’s D-Day for the old lady of Mount Florida when football’s big thinkers might decide – be very sure, guys, for you will have to live with this for the rest of your lives – that internationals and cup finals should be moved to every middle-class Edinburgh boy’s favourite playground at Murrayfield.

Before we go any further let me say that I’m not hung up about class and cultural difference, merely presenting some local colour as I remember it. I love Edinburgh and I love Glasgow. I love rugby and I love football.

I’ve sampled the venison and wild boar which can be purchased from the high-end food trucks ringing Murrayfield but Hampden’s burgers were strangely seductive and the first whiff told you that you were in the right place and held out the promise of drama and excitement to come out on the pitch. That is, at least until Graeme Souness forced his way into the Scotland team and his expensive colognes became the dominant smell.

Dominic McKay, the SRU’s chief operating officer, points out that a lot of Scotland football fans are also Scotland rugby supporters. This is perfectly true. But a lot aren’t. Some pay the other sport no attention at all. Some, to emphasise how thirled they are to their sport, will be disdainful about the other, although I bet if they were football diehards they still cheered in February when the rugby team beat England so thrillingly at Murrayfield.

From this confusing scene, and also from beyond it, McKay is confident he can find the people to sell out Murrayfield to watch Alex McLeish’s men. He calculates that the extra capacity of Murrayfield compared with Hampden will be worth 
£2 million a year to the round ball game, were the football team to ditch their ancient home and move to the wealthy suburbs of EH12.

I’m not sure about this. In fact, I think I’m being sold a set of leatherette-bound encyclopedias that I really don’t want. To begin with, McKay has got his sums wrong. He was calculating on a 17,000 differential when, as sharp-eyed journos covering his briefing the other day were quick to point out, it’s actually 15,000. So that £2 million? It’ll be slightly less.

Even less if Murrayfield doesn’t sell out. Our brave boys can’t sell out Hampden right now so how would they fill Murrayfield? Ah, that’s done by marketing, says McKay, and he’s got just the commercial whizzes to make the football team a must-see, everyone cheering them on to the next World Cup.

OK, cut the last bit. McKay’s not saying he can end the long wait, currently standing at 20 years. But how can he fill the place anyway? He doesn’t agree that you need achievement on the pitch. “If you market successfully and give people a good reason to come, they will come,” he says.

Oh no they won’t. The football team don’t sell out just now, wouldn’t sell out anywhere, because they’re not winning enough games or playing with sufficient gallus swagger. They don’t need a Don Draper to sell them a dream, they need a Jimmy Johnstone to make one come true.

McKay, pictured, insists the marketing magic has worked for rugby. “We’re selling out games we would never, ever have sold out in the past,” he says. Now, is he claiming all the credit for Murrayfield being full? Surely the rugby team’s flairful form right now has got something to do with it? Not so long ago they were stodgy and kept fumbling the ball. The stadium wasn’t full. It wasn’t marketing which turned that around. It was the emergence of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Huw Jones and the rest.

Similarly the SRU chief points to the success of big rock concerts at Murrayfield as evidence of what marketing could do for football there. The Rolling Stones performed there this summer but I’m pretty sure it was Keith Richards that night on guitar and not Dominic McKay.

Maybe he can provide games and gigs with a box-office boost but who are these people persuaded along to the stadium when it wasn’t their first impulse to go? Maybe they’d be the corporates who’re criticised by real football fans as the “prawn sandwich brigade” and by true music devotees as the “golden circle”, atmosphere-killers in their own right. Perhaps this doesn’t matter if the venue is full, but perhaps it does.

I don’t think our football team’s plight is so desperate that they need an ersatz crowd in an ersatz stadium. What’s required is Leigh Griffiths banging in more of those free-kicks like the ones against England, provoking a Hampden Roar like those of old, then maybe we wouldn’t be having this debate.

It’s a debate prompting wildly divergent views, even among football friends and team-mates. Joe Harper, who I met last week, is a progressive, thinks it might be time for a change, has enjoyed Murrayfield on both football and rugby visits, reckons it’s right and proper that Scotland’s capital hosts the biggest games in both codes – and he says all this with fond memories of the Hampden goal he scored to help Aberdeen win the Scottish Cup.

But Bobby Clark, the Dons’ goalkeeper in 1970, has made a last-ditch plea for the retention of Hampden, adding that it should do more to exploit its own history, not just of Scottish football but of Scottish life. “We cannot let Hampden disappear,” he said. “Let’s think big!” I’m with Bobby, and with Archie Macpherson who told the Edinburgh Book Festival the other day that giving up on Hampden would be a “betrayal of heritage”.

The burger pong has gone – long live the burger pong.