Football, Friendship and ‘the 42’
Scottish Review, January 17th 2012
Many things matter to Scots: politics, culture, religion, the list is endless and varied. But to many nothing matters more in life than one thing: football or more accurately, their football club.
In the last few years myself and my best friend Eddie have undertake a tour of the Scottish 42 football teams, from the big grounds of the Scottish Premier League (SPL) to the once big teams making up Division One, and the struggling minnows of the lower divisions. Nearly all human life is represented here.
It has been a great experience, meeting fans, seeing grounds, speaking to officials, soaking up the atmosphere and watching teams who have survived against all the elements which modern life can throw at them.
Most of all it has been about having fun, Eddie and I celebrating our friendship, but also exploring the strange nature of Scottish football fervour which sits with an instinctual, deep lack of interest about clubs other than your own. Now this is a bit of a universal fact about football fans, but in Scotland it seems more ingrained and pronounced; particularly in ‘Old Firm’ fans who in their minds seem to inhabit a Scottish football and league of just two teams.
This paradox: our obsession with football (seen in the third highest football attendances in Europe per head) and our disinterest in most of our game was validated by the reaction we sometimes got from other football fans about visiting ‘the 42’. There is a general lack of comprehension amongst many; the other response being to be over-impressed at the unusualness and exoticness.
We started this voyage four years ago, deliberately planning to saunter round the grounds in a leisurely amble. Our favourite grounds and experiences have been the small and wonderful: Brechin City, Elgin City, East Stirlingshire playing at Stenhousemuir (the fans rather than the ground), and at a slightly bigger level, Queen of the South, with their old-fashioned, rather magnificent wooden stand (and stovies at half-time!).
It also wasn’t really about the football, but about Eddie and myself and our friendship. We have known each other 20 years this April, having met in the unlikely setting of a men’s group in Glasgow, and even though you might think superficially that we are very different, myself living in a middle class part of Glasgow, and Eddie in the working class part of Helensburgh, we have much in common.
We are both challenging (and certainly both used to be over-challenging), curious at the world, while aspiring to a balance of being serious and not serious at times. Politics are important to us, but we have at least both attempted to reflect on our responsibilities in many parts of our lives, including as men. And in the last few years, both of us have softened in how we see the world, wanting to break out of tribalism and ‘them and us’ views.
The last two games of our 42 were Peterhead v. Celtic in the Scottish Cup, and Berwick Rangers v. Stranraer in Division Three. The Peterhead experience turned out to be one of the high points, and not I hasten to add for anything to do with the football.
Eddie and myself went up on a Celtic supporters’ bus; this was a first for me (I should add that I am a Dundee United fan, and my friend is a Celtic supporter). The whole escapade of the Celtic bus trip to Peterhead was to provide a trip into another dimension, another Scotland, an alternative universe which I wasn’t sure existed in the way it revealed itself, but which I had my strong suspicions about.
We left Glasgow from a designated point in one of its council estates on a drizzly Sunday morning at 8.30am, a group of mostly young men in their 20s and 30s, a small smattering in their 40s including myself and Eddie, and a total of three women all in the younger age bracket.
As we got on board people carried on numerous boxes, containers and bags containing booze, and before we had even left the drinking began. It was good natured, tempered and not excessive. People were focused on a good day out and the football.
Keeping a steady hand on proceedings was our leader for the day, who I will call James, a charming, good humoured guy in his mid-40s. He quietly and with authority issued our orders for the day. We had to watch out for the police and as we drove northwards if we passed any Rangers fans (they were playing Arbroath in the cup), no offensive gestures were to be made which could get anyone in trouble. Ably helping was a man who went by the nickname of ‘the Big Tuna’ who took the role of drinks convenor, a pivotal position as it turned out.
Driving north in good spirits it became evident that the police were putting up road checks on Celtic buses outside of Aberdeen to inspect for drink (it being illegal to drink on a supporter’s bus in Scotland).
This is where the Celtic fans showed ingenuity. Individual football coaches making their way northwards pooled their intelligence to outwit the enemy, by being in constant communication by twitter and text, passing information back from the advance guard of our football flotilla.
This is how we found out about the police checks as the first advance took hits and went down. James took calm control and we detoured off the main road at Stonehaven, stopped and all the boxes, bottles, cans and bags were taken off the bus and hidden in a bush by the outskirts of the town.
Then we were off to the match. As we passed through Aberdeen it turned out that the police had removed their checks, but no one complained; there was a palpable discipline and recognition of what needed to be done.
Then we had the game; Celtic making heavy weather of defeating second bottom of Division Three Peterhead 3-0, the home team showing a bit of tenacity if no bite. Night then came and we went back on the bus and headed southwards.
Things now got even more interesting. On the way up guys had been openly smoking blow; now out came the charlie. As a complete novice in all things druggie, I asked Eddie if indeed what was being lined up was charlie, which he confirmed. Five minutes later at least half a dozen guys were sitting and standing near me getting high.
As we approached Stonehaven we went in search of our hidden drink only to have trouble in the dark finding the bush and the secret stash. Eventually it was located to discover that about only about half the booze was present; the rest had been removed by locals; again I noted the good humour and matter of fact way this reverse was received.
Heading towards Dundee another police road check beckoned, according to forward intelligence. James instructed us calmly that all the drink had to go off the bus and this time stay off for good.
As we entered Dundee we got word that there were now no police checks. We pulled into Tesco’s on the outskirts of Dundee and off went everyone, minus myself and Eddie and two stragglers in search of more drink. A major restocking ensued including a few illegally acquired items including the guy opposite with a half bottle of vodka.
Now the atmosphere changed and got merrier in a laidback sort of way. As we drove westwards through the night, the lights went out and on went the dance music over the bus loudspeakers. People started to stand in the aisles, drink and chat, laugh and swing to the rhythm of the bus and music. As the shapes and shadows moved in the dark to the beat, it all felt like a scene from a group of youngish folk heading to a rave circa 1990.