I’ve helped him get over his first broken heart (no mean feat, this, when trying to avoid the platitudes used by my own father. “Plenty more fish in the sea” can rightly be questioned at a time of Brexity tensions between UK and French trawler fleets. And “Girls are like buses - there’ll be another one along any minute” has a similarly hollow ring when there’s been service deregulation, the arrival of competing trams and now what seems like permanent city-centre gridlock).
But what’s my son about to do for the very first time? Go to the football without his dad.
There’s lots said and much written about fathers taking their boys to their first games. It’s a lovely moment, a special day, one to be remembered when the same fixture comes round again and especially in anniversary years. But no one prepares you for when you’re no longer needed.
We haven’t fallen out, my laddie and I. He just wants to go to this match - the Edinburgh derby - with his mates. He’s at the age when he’s brave enough to do this, when it seems like the most fun - and when the rivalry banter has been enlivening masked-up schooldays and taking teenage minds off those tricky deliberations over third-year subject choices.
I remember the feeling. One minute my father was negotiating my “lift-over”. Holding my hand on the pipe smoke-thick stairways to the main stand. Pointing out the players to watch. Showing me how I could check the half-time scoreboard with the ABC key in my match programme. Acceding to my suggestion we move from the stand to the terracing. Positioning me down at the wall but never standing too far back and always where I could keep him in full, reassuring view. Ferrying me to away games in Fife, on Tayside and beyond. Ringing me with strong arms when the exit crush became alarming. Being that big, wise, consoling, optimistic presence when our team lost an important game, which happened often, and I’d taken it badly. The next minute, though, I was gone.
Not gone, not completely, but if Dad was working and couldn’t make a game, and my school-friends were planning an excursion, I wanted in on it. Here was a chance to wander into the frighteningly exciting end of the ground, the part with the unforgettably unimposing name of the Cowshed, there to stand next to big boys, study the check pattern on their Ben Sherman shirts and count the eyelets on their Doc Marten boots, copy their tying of scarves round wrists and join in their raucous songs.
This was all stuff I couldn’t do with Dad, especially when he was trying to educate me in the finer points of inside-forward play, now called midfield, in an era when the Hibernian manager Eddie Turnbull would halt training in a fuming rage if anyone dared pass sideways. (Ball retention it’s termed these days, and there’s a button on stats moles’ laptops which records these easy, timid manoeuvres for posterity. Ned would birl in his grave at this and so would Dad).
So I get it. I understand my son’s desire to be himself, find his voice, follow the drummer’s beat, shout and bawl. And I understand the lure of the Edinburgh derby. Especially since when I started attending the fixture, they were a whole lot more interesting off the pitch than on it.
The first one, on New Year’s Day, 1969, was a 0-0 draw. So was the second I witnessed exactly 12 months later. The two league games between Hibs and Hearts in 1970-71 both ended scoreless and to complete an astonishing sequence, the Jam Tarts as they were known first-footed the Hibees on January 1, 1972 for another zero-zero. In a perverse, hair-shirted way, these four successive Ne’er Day encounters - a total of 130,193 in attendance for diddly goals - summed up the great Scottish non-festival at the time when everything was shut and you couldn’t even buy a pint of milk. No one among the 130,193 could have predicted that Edinburgh would one day become the Hogmanay capital of the world.
Since New Year’s Day, 1969 with Joe McBride and Jim Fleming unable to find the target there have been 25 further 0-0 affairs including the most recent contest last September. I don’t think Tuesday will be another of them but if it is, I won’t be able to turn to my son at the final whistle, recount history for the umpteenth time and declare some sort of grim goal-shunning record for an intercity fixture.
How will he cope? Fine, I’d imagine. How will I cope? Terribly. But this news in: the parents of one of his pals are wondering if the boys might have a chaperone, a not-too-nutterish adult who could be somewhere close by in the stadium and then willing to walk a respectable distance behind for the journey home. I’m available for selection!
If I catch them up - and I’ll do my darnedest - it would be nothing if not mannerly to spin some tales from when goals weren’t an issue and … were they aware Hibs once beat Hearts 7-0?
I know I’ll have to let my son go eventually but please, not just yet.