If you’re heading for Hampden tonight, trekking deep into the rhododendron-thick undergrowth of Glasgow’s south-eastern suburbs, you might be inclined to agree with the SPFL chairman who claims that Scottish football’s spiritual home is no longer fit for purpose.
Hard to reach, hard to get back home from, says Ralph Topping. “There’s nothing which makes you say: ‘National stadium’. Nothing which causes a sharp intake of breath.” It’s an anachronism, he asserts, and one that’s creaking. But if you were at Easter Road the other night for Scotland’s warm-up for Slovenia with a friendly against Canada – 9,158 lunatics braved the wind-chill – then you might question the wisdom of Topping’s suggestion that internationals and cup finals be played around the country.
Before getting into the meat of this, there are some mitigating factors which need to be considered. Scotland are not in a good place right now. Defeat tonight would put us out of our World Cup misery and we’ll probably be looking for a new head coach. You cannot say that Easter Road on Wednesday failed as an alternative venue without taking into account the less-than-classic era for the nation team, the unglamorous opposition, the grim weather, the grim pricing – £22 for adults – and the fact the game was on TV.
Similarly, the doubtless modest crowd for the Slovenia match won’t be a problem so much of Hampden as a problem of this stumbling campaign and the despondency and disgruntlement it has caused. The scheduling of the game won’t have helped, but we are where we are. These matches are arranged for television and we don’t deserve a more favourable slot. Therefore the burly striker Chris Martin, if he’s picked, will be striving to improve his first touch in direct opposition to the return of TV’s best drama, Line of Duty.
So what’s to be done long-term? Topping points out that if you’ve been on a football mini-break around Europe you’ll know that Hampden “is a long way behind other arenas and that situation is not going to improve over time”. What is the chairman saying – does he want an entirely new stadium for the showpiece fixtures? Is Topping visualising a topping-out ceremony to commence a brave new world for Scottish football?
Don’t know about you but I’m not encouraged by what I’ve seen of Scottish architects at work. In another drama just finished, The Replacement, they barely did any. Set in a Glasgow practice, it concerned two women competing not to design the most beautiful building but over the question of who was the biggest nut-job. I wouldn’t let either of them within a Chris Martin boomer of a new Hampden.
Seriously, though, which stadium constructed in Scotland during the past 20 years, or old ground re-configured, would encourage the belief that a new Hampden would be a stunner, a stoater and one to take its place on the must-see lists of the football tourists of the world?
The project could of course be thrown open to great international architects but there are many folk in Scotland, after the difficult gestation of the Parliament building, who would baulk at the idea. I’m not one of them, but whenever anyone with power and influence casts acquisitive eyes at the continent, it brings to mind the Edinburgh councillors who returned from yet another foreign jolly determined that the capital should have its own tram network – and I’d be dead against a repeat of that farrago.
To be fair to Topping he’s not definitely saying we should start all over again although you imagine that in an ideal world this would be his wish. Trouble is, this is not an ideal world. Costs would be huge. Scottish football in its current state would have difficulty justifying them.
If we were to tear down Hampden we would build anew differently. We’d probably have the stands steeper and closer to the pitch. We’d almost certainly do away with the running track. But if hadn’t been there Glasgow would never have got the 2014 Commonwealth Games, an outstanding success. Other sports would question a vast spend on only football and, with some justification, request that any important new arena caters for many disciplines.
Topping, above left, puts forward Murrayfield as part of the potential turnabout tour of existing venues, then quickly seems to withdraw it, not believing the football public would be happy at the home of Scottish rugby. I’ve seen nearly all of the European ties played there by Hearts and Celtic in recent years and remain intrigued by the prospect of a cup final, full house, 50-50 split, creating more atmosphere than witnessed on these nights.
In more successful footballing countries there is no national stadium or set-in-stone venue for internationals and the likes of Spain, Germany and Italy don’t seem to have suffered overmuch. But their national cup competitions don’t have the heritage of the Scottish Cup, and while I think the Tartan Army would thole a roving role for the Scotland team, it’s a different story at club level.
If your favourites earn the right to a grand day out at the cup final, Celtic Park or Ibrox would take the shine off it, especially if the team had just visited on league business the previous week. You want the day to be special, at a special venue which feels like the culmination of a quest. You may not have climbed the highest mountain, but you deserve to sit on top of one of the grassy knolls behind Hampden’s East Stand and beam to your friends: “Guys, we’ve made it!”
What, there are grassy knolls? You may not know this if you’re always funnelled into the West Stand and there’s something else: an Asda! Not a shimmering mirage but an actual superstore! Selling food and drink! Well, the latter depends on the opposition. Falkirk: yes. Rangers: no. And maybe after the “over-exuberance” of their last visit, it will be impossible for Hibernian supporters heading back next month to purchase even a macaroon bar.
How can we get all lyrical about an Asda? Because we’re Scottish football fans. I don’t mind Hampden, or where it is. Until a better idea comes along, it’s home.