Some people lie about their first time. For instance, the first album they bought. They’ll claim it was something impossibly hip and incredibly dangerous like the Velvet Underground’s debut when in fact the platter was Everything’s Archie by the Archies, purchased from Woolies with a record token, the prize for the best Bible reading at Sunday School.
In football, do fans go the other way and conceal a highly glamorous first game, nominating instead the much more modest, salt-of-the-earth fixture they attended a short while later, along with the obligatory three men and a dog? Certainly fibbing goes on. If everyone who’s ever claimed to have witnessed the 1960 European Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt was actually present at Hampden, the attendance would have topped 250,000.
First film? I admit it: I really wished mine had been One Million Years BC starring Raquel Welch in a bikini cut from the hide of a giant woolly mammoth. All she did for the duration of the movie was grunt in caveman language and battle incongruous dinosaurs. And your point is, caller? But in truth this was my second trip to the flicks; the first was Norman Wisdom in the WW2 comedy The Square Peg.
Here was a daft piece of slapstick featuring a daft man who fell over a lot and I forgot all about it until Albania hailed Wisdom a national hero. Albania was protected from the sleazy, decadent west in all but one regard: its people got to watch Norm’s films. This expanded my knowledge of Albania greatly. Up until this point I knew that Celtic had played there in 1979, that Hibernian had visited in 1972 and Kilmarnock in 1965 – that was all.
Actually, this amounted to quite a lot of info and might have qualified me for a wiretap from the sigurimi, the Albanian secret police, given my obsession for the culture-clash details of those trips. Albania was a deeply odd, closed country. There had a been a massive fallout with Russia and Albania, stung by a patronising remark about their chief skill being tomato-growing, had resolved to go total Commie. While neighbouring states were carting off their statues of Stalin, the Albanians adorned theirs with garlands. They were the little guy standing up to the big, bad boss, just like their comic idol. So our brave boys seemed like they were undergoing dangerous missions simply to fulfill the away legs of their Euro endeavours, and the hazards found in the capital Tirana were many. The most famous Alba-Albania story concerns Danny McGrain. Opponents Partizan Tirana were less concerned about his world-class abilities at full-back, more his beard. Facial hair, like flares and rock music, greatly alarmed the dictator, Enver Hoxha; Danny, pictured right, on the other hand, was greatly alarmed by what Albania permitted. “There was a rumour I’d be banned from entering the country because of my beard and I wished I had been,” McGrain told me recently. “Every meal-time the same consomme with a raw egg on top; out in the streets guys holding hands. To us from the west of Scotland that wasn’t right.”
Now the new Nations League has thrown up first-ever meetings between the national sides with Scotland due to visit Albania on 17 November. Probably Tirana has a McDonalds on every corner now and cinemas are catching up with Basic Instinct and 9½ Weeks. But in ’79 such was the paranoia that Scottish journalists were banned from the trip and some Celtic players were pressed into service to file match reports to exasperated sports editors back at home. These days, of course, all dribblers are scribblers.
I still like to collect yarns from old Albania and George McCluskey, from the same trip, was good value when I met him, relating similar food issues: “I asked for my usual pre-match meal and this fish I’d never seen before arrived with all its scales and mad, staring eyes.” McCluskey remembered the waiters staring with deep suspicion at McGrain and for the duration of Celtic’s strange excursion he nicknamed his team-mate “Barabbas”. McCluskey continued: “Thankfully we’d all been advised to bring extra provisions. I always roomed with Tommy Burns and got back to find him spooning baked beans cold from a tin. His face was covered in tomato sauce to match his hair and he kept saying: ‘I’m starving, George, starving.’ I produced a loaf and a tin of corned beef from my bag – packed by my good lady wife – and reckon I could have charged him a tenner for a sandwich.”
Celtic had been greeted by tanks on their arrival; seven years before the Hibs players were just as unnerved by so many horse-drawn carts. Their trip got off to a terrible start with chairman Tom Hart describing a last-minute change of venue for the tie with FC Besa and a ban on Hibs using the chefs they’d flown over as a “vicious soccer cold war”. “What’s wrong with our tomatoes?” Albania might have asked. With street lights non-existent, Pat Stanton and his men were trapped in their hotel. No Norman Wisdom double-bill for them.
But although the pitch was a shocker and the Albanian national anthem was blasted out at regular intervals, there was a thaw in relations with invites to a civic reception and Alex Cropley felt a pang of sympathy for fans probably ordered by the government to attend the match and for the glum opposition who all wore a different shade of cherry red with numbers applied in white paint.
Appropriately, Scotland’s pioneers in Albania were our oldest professional club. Killie’s trip came just after Tirana had been cut off by Moscow – when, in the words of the great Scottish journalist James Cameron, “the featherweight nation with the massive and furious pride was on its own”. And Albania really was isolated. Tommy McLean and his pals, trying to phone home to say they’d arrived safely, found that lines to the outside world were only open for a couple of hours a day. The team they were supposed to play were 17 Nentori; the side on the park were full of ringers.
None of these encounters were won so the challenge is set for Scotland, another featherweight nation with massive and furious pride.