Pure poetry as new football anthology stirs golden memories

As Robert Craig, the chair of the Scottish Football Museum Trust, pointed out, the term 'poetry in motion' can sometimes seem hard to reconcile with football in Scotland, or, indeed, anywhere.
The new anthology features particularly poignant contributions about Billy McNeill, given his condition. Picture: SNSThe new anthology features particularly poignant contributions about Billy McNeill, given his condition. Picture: SNS
The new anthology features particularly poignant contributions about Billy McNeill, given his condition. Picture: SNS

But with Scotland v England just around the corner, and the chance for a Scot to put themselves in the history books, creating memories to last a lifetime is a realistic ambition for those selected by Gordon Strachan on Saturday.

Which is why yesterday’s launch at the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden of an anthology of football poetry, in support of the admirable Football Memories Scotland project, seemed particularly well timed. In fact, Mind The Time includes a poem, entitled “Gillie” by John Quinn, which is inspired by Alan Gilzean’s headed winner against 
England in 1964.

“Off a quiet Arbroath Road

in a forest of crowded houses,

we sit round a Logie Baird screen,

awed and connected to a Hampden Park

a hundred and odd thousand away,

from five million at home.”

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In a way, the entire Football Memories Scotland initiative, formed to help people with memory loss, has its roots in a game against the Auld Enemy from the 1940s. Michael White takes up the story, recalling one morning in a day centre in Stenhousemuir over a 
decade ago.

An elderly man is hiding behind a newspaper, unengaged by the “mostly female-orientated activities” that have been organised.

White, the manager of Football Memories Scotland, was visiting the day centre as part of his connections with Falkirk FC, where he organised monthly former players’ meetings. The man behind the newspaper, he learned, had dementia. Most of those White visited did.

“In passing, one of the gentleman’s friends mentioned he used to be a good footballer,” says White.

It turned out Willie Corbett, the man behind the newspaper, had played for Scotland against England in a 0-0 draw at Wembley in 1942, marking feared centre-forward Tommy Lawton out of the game when aged just 20.

“Willie could recall the instructions in the dressing room, the weather and how they got to the match in the most amazing clarity,” continues White. “He had played a blinder that day. The papers all referred to his ability. One of them said ‘no Scottish centre-half has ever managed to tame Lawton the way Corbett has this afternoon’.”

But a few days after his 
Wembley heroics Corbett was called up to the Navy. The best years of his career were already over. He eventually returned to Celtic and played for Leicester City. “But,” continues White, “his recall of these wartime games was spectacular. That is what inspired us to start his project.

“People who were living with dementia, we found, their distance memory was very clear, so it was a question of ignoring what is gone and concentrating on what is there. Willie was the inspiration.”

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This was in 2005. Falkirk, Hibs and Aberdeen started pilot projects and now there are as many as 30 Scottish clubs involved, with more, hopefully, to follow.

The Scottish Football museum approached Alzheimer Scotland, which now provides some funding. Initially a visual exercise, where old players’ memories are stirred by being shown photographs, poetry is now also used as a tool to recall past deeds and occasions.

“The poems bring an added dimension,” says White. “Poetry is very evocative.”

If Corbett, who passed away six years ago, was the inspiration, Billy Hunter, another former professional player, is the current ambassador. Although he grew up in Edinburgh’s Abbeyhill area, Hunter made his name with Bobby Ancell’s great Motherwell side of the 1950s and 60s and won three caps for Scotland. But as well as once having a talent for mazy dribbles, he can also conjure-up a rhyming couplet – almost in his sleep, it seems.

Hunter has written all his life, often as a way of self-medicating during bouts of depression. “I can be right in the depths and someone says go and do a poem, and I’m like: ‘how can I write a poem feeling like this?’” he says. “But I can. Sometimes it can be up to three pages long.

“They all have a reflection of football in them,” he adds.

No wonder, since his own career provides plenty of stimulus. As well as Motherwell, he played in the United States – for Detroit Cougars– and also for Hibs, his boyhood heroes.

He broke his arm in two places once. He came back and broke the same arm again. But he knows he’s been lucky in other ways. “When you see all the players nowadays with dementia, it’s sad,” says Hunter. “Many are in homes now with no money.” He himself helps with several stricken former players, taking them out for walks and for coffee, minding old times.

Now 77, he is the oldest of those featuring in the anthology, which also includes poems about Willie Bauld, Jim Baxter and, in what are particularly poignant contributions given his condition, Billy McNeill.

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But there’s a youth development policy as well – poems composed by ten-year-old schoolchildren from Perth, who attend GME (Gaelic Medium Education) at Goodlyburn Primary school, are also included, written 
in Gaelic.

Hunter read out one of his own poems yesterday – A Ba’s a Ba’ for a’ That. Intriguingly since they are reckoned to have played a significant factor in so many players succumbing to dementia, this was written from the perspective of the old laced-up ball – “my leather skin felt all aglow”.

Hunter had to break off at the end after welling up, so proud, perhaps, to have returned to Hampden, where he once performed as a player, in this unlikely capacity.

Fortunately poets can be as adept as footballers at covering for a team-mate. Up stepped Jim Mackintosh, poet-in-residence at St Johnstone, to declaim the last verse, which, so soon before a clash with England that is cause for some trepidation, again seemed relevant.

“I only hope we see again the likes of Denis Law

Or Gordon Smith, or Jinky, or John White.

Or another Kenny Dalglish, who would say to this wee ba’

That skill is back… and then put out the light.”

l Mind The Time edited by Jim Mackintosh is published by Football Memories Scotland, priced £10, and has been produced in association with nutmeg magazine. It is available from www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk/shop/