T he big question this week is this: can I fit the one-time blow-dried, satin bomber-clad Radio 1 DJ Mike Read, the Scottish historical painter William Allan (1782-1850) and Gazza into the same piece?
The subject is how we honour. Show our appreciation, remember and accord a place in posterity. At one time football wasn’t very good at recognising the contributions of its participants. Players who took part in internationals didn’t receive caps. Players who headed a heavy, waterlogged ball too often would suffer later, although the failure to acknowledge this was partly down to ignorance of the risks. Now, though, everyone gets a prize.
Everyone gets invited back to their clubs to make the half-time draw. If you played with distinction, or only for a decent length of time, you will be installed in the hall of fame, even if your club is too small to have an actual workaday hall. The privileges of membership are often vague, but it is hoped that at the very least they will include free half-time pies and match programmes for evermore.
The biggest or longest hall is the Scottish Football Hall of Fame. It might have been the first, too, because club equivalents seemed to spring up soon after the initial intake. And what an intake! Twenty giants of oor fitba including Jinky, Slim Jim, the Lawman, Fergie, Super Kenny, Cesar, Iron Man Mackay, the Gay Gordon, Souey and the holy trinity of Busby, Shankly and Stein.
New names have been added every year since, some of them not quite in that league, though good men all the same. Eventually, as we catch up with history, the number of outstanding candidates will slow down. What then? Do we simply carry on inducting, the more the merrier?
We’ve got into a pickle over Paul Gascoigne. First he’s nominated, then complaints come, then the nomination is cancelled. “Gazza in honour snub fury,” went one front-page splash, and underneath: “Booze relapse fears for star after U-turn.” We must hope this doesn’t happen. We must hope he gets well soon. We must hope, indeed, that some perspective is brought to bear on the affair and that the man himself concludes: “Oh well, it was only the Scottish Football Hall of Fame. They must be getting as hard up for members as David Cameron’s old Bullingdon Club, at long last meeting Tory disapproval. What were they doing inviting me when I only played for Rangers for a couple of seasons?”
Football agents are often accused of over-promoting their clients but Gazza’s man didn’t want him anointed. “It’s ridiculous,” said Shane Whitfield. “They knew Paul had problems in his life before nominating him. So why do it if they’re going to backtrack? He played the flute in front of 60,000 people at Celtic Park, he was accused of wife-beating and he has been in rehab 25 times.” Gazza had been in a “better place”, the best for ten years, added Whitfield. “Now he’s going to be in every paper… it’s done his head in.”
Regular dips into such a small pool were always going to throw up this kind of conundrum. One nomination or other was bound to be controversial. Do candidates have to be absolutely spotless in all aspects of their lives? Can we say that about every existing Hall of Famer? Should the selection committee be passing moral judgment? Well, they’ll have to do this all the time from now on. Or maybe just stop throwing open the door every year.
This rush to elevate, garland and bestow isn’t only an issue in football. Mike Read, who I assume has ditched the bomber (and shorts!) from his R1 Roadshow pomp, is head of the British Plaque Trust which fixes those blue circles to the former homes of great writers and the like but he says there are now too many of them, including some 50 at addresses with connection to Charles Dickens alone.
The boy Tolkien – JRR, wrote Lord of the Rings – has similarly begun to bring buildings out in a blue rash. “There’s a plaque to Tolkien where he stayed two nights – that’s nonsense,” adds Read, pictured inset. I never much cared for Read on the “Station of the Nation” when he could be pompous and censorious. He’s been at it again in his new gig, trying to persuade his selection committee that Screaming Lord Sutch shouldn’t get a plaque. Such opinions are subjective, of course, and especially when the dead-certainties have all been honoured and you’re down to the tricky customers like Gazza.
Where does yon painter chap William Allan come into it? Well, my formative years were spent in a handsome street in Edinburgh’s New Town and when I was old enough to start noticing the world around me I spotted the inscription on the outside wall confirming that he’d once lived in our house. At first I wondered if this might be Willie Allan, the then SFA secretary, but this Willie overcame being shipwrecked and the threat of going blind to paint in Russia and Asia Minor and was working on a large canvas of the Battle of Bannockburn when he died. His name was carved in stone, more difficult to remove than a blue plaque if skeletons are found in the closet later, but these honours do not proliferate in Edinburgh. When you happen across one you think the recipient must have been a top bloke.
Gazza deserves to be remembered for bringing colour and chaos and humour and dizzying skill to our game, and he always will be. But he didn’t stay long, wasn’t at his absolute peak and then there was all that other stuff which even his representative admits should count against him.
This is not about him being non-Scottish. Personally I’d have had a block honour for all the Danes who trailblazed at Morton in the 1960s long before I’d have allowed in Brian Laudrup and Henrik Larsson. Erik Sorenson and those guys were the first to open our eyes to different footballing cultures but the real problem here is that the Hall of Fame is getting crowded – and being diluted.