Aidan Smith: For the football fan, Scotland are a summer romance. The clubs provide the drudgery they secretly love

The funniest moment in Jennifer Lopez’s new Netflix documentary comes when the megastar, who’s being limo-ed around see-and-be-seen venues as part of her fabulous life, checks on her family via WhatsApp and discovers everyone’s engrossed in a New York Jets game.

"Enjoy your summer," football fans say to each other. Really, what they mean is: "When are the new fixtures out?"
"Enjoy your summer," football fans say to each other. Really, what they mean is: "When are the new fixtures out?"

She reads out the messages which are commentaries on the gridiron contest, each concluding “Go Jets!”, with normal life only rating a passing mention. Sister Leslie posts some rave reviews of J-Lo’s latest movie to which her dad responds: “Awesome - go Jets!” “Yeah!” says her mum, “but we need a freakin’ kicker. Go Jets!” Lopez, slightly miffed and wondering if she should intrude, quips: “I think I’m just gonna say: ‘Go Jets’!”

Now, I know this is a bit of a stretch, but try and see our Steve Clarke as J-Lo. The documentary is called Halftime and for the Scotland head coach it’s the midway point in Group B of the Nations League. Clarke may have wanted interest and enthusiasm for the national team to have continued for a bit longer - but then again, after that result in Dublin, perhaps not - only for everyone in any case to turn inexorably from country to club.

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The fixtures! 2022-23! Dive into the list and discover who your lot are playing on opening day, when they’re playing the nearest-and-most-hated, who they’re playing around Christmas-time and not forgetting those expeditions to Dingwall (please, not January). This is what matters. Go Jets! Go Killie and all the rest!

Now, on the face of it, there might not seem to be a club vs country clash here. The international season is over, after all, and the domestic one will resume before Scotland are next in action. Fans responding to the fixtures being announced on Friday were, after a quiet couple of weeks on social media, simply indulging in the banter, boasts, wind-ups and self-flagellating miserabilism which are their default positions.

Not a direct and obvious clash, perhaps, but Henry McLeish, writing in The Scotsman as supporters learned what they’ll be doing between August and next April, was lamenting yet another missed World Cup and also the sense he has that Scotland and their ambitions are not uppermost.

“I feel the national game is not being given the priority it deserves,” stated the former First Minister, ex-East Fife wing-half (ask your dad) and author of a wide-ranging review into the state of Scottish football. “You could argue that it should be the SFA’s responsibility … but it isn’t happening. My fear is that the SFA is largely being taken over by the clubs.”

McLeish wanted a countrywide academy structure for young talent but instead there are the clubs with their schools of excellence which afford them “too much influence on developing the national team”. Understandably, he added, the clubs’ think first of themselves but as a result the focus is not Scotland.

Fans, what do they want? A successful Scotland and their clubs doing well, though maybe don’t ask them to choose. The revival under Clarke has been cheering, especially if you’ve got kids who’ve never known Scotland to appear in finals and suddenly they do. The stalling of the revival has been unfortunate. If we’d qualified for Qatar we’d still be talking about it. “Oh, is that the fixtures out? I almost forgot about them.”

Scotland for some, given last year’s Euros and the lateness of the World Cup playoffs, must seem like a summer fling: a heady rush of excitement, a fizzle-out, then a slightly awkward goodbye. And soon enough it’s back to the long-term partners, the clubs.

There’s reassurance in these relationships, and certainties. Fans know the clubs are going to preoccupy them all the way to April, maybe May, which can be good or bad, cup finals or relegation playoffs. There can be irritations: “Just once, gonnae pass the ball forward?” might be the current equivalent of the age-old “I dare you to put the toilet seat down”. Some drudgery is involved but even that in its own sweet, perverse way can be comforting. To have and to thole and all that.

So of course, like you lot, I’ve been scanning the fixtures. My club have managed to avoid Dingwall in January but only just (we’re there on 1 February). Putting aside that teams playing each other four times looks especially tedious written down, the list evokes memories of football as it used to be, as many wish it still was, with games on Saturdays, kick off three o’clock. Enjoy this nostalgia while you can because TV demands, the Europa League being on Thursdays and the fact the Old Firm at three is way too dangerous will soon twist everything out of shape.

Expansive thinkers like McLeish are doubtless correct. The clubs are single-minded in pursuit of their ideals while merely hoping that Scotland do well. The fans want Scotland to do well, too, but the drama of the domestic season is whipped up to such a degree that while some of this is artificial the effect is all-consuming. To extend the metaphor, when international breaks come around some fans are lost. It’s like their better halves have gone away for a hen weekend or a girlie holiday, prompting much anxiety, which can only increase the risk of kitchens being set on fire and children not being picked up on time.

Speaking of which, have you noticed the big black hole in the fixtures around November? For the duration of the World Cup - that one to which Scotland are not invited - the domestic season is halted. There won’t have been a shutdown like it since the Big Freeze of 1962-3. Some folk are going to go off their heads.

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