Always a part of us

It was an autumn Wednesday in the early 1970s.

Being a Holiday of Obligation, when Catholics were expected to attend Mass, I had made a quick exit from my midday lecture at the university along in George Square and headed for the upstairs chapel at St Francis in Lothian St, known to Southsiders as “The Friary”.

Honesty demands that I don’t claim any particular feelings of piety. It was a time when we “did our religious duty” without much reflection, and the major thoughts in my mind during the service concerned Hibs European tie that night at Easter Rd. The Tornadoes were flying and we expected to win every European tie we played.

As I queued to take communion, I hoped, rather superstitiously, that my pious keeping of the religious rules would play well with the Big Man upstairs when it came to getting a result later that day.

Then, looking up, I noticed something very familiar about the two men in front of me as we approached the altar. Unbelievably, it was Pat Stanton and Jimmy O’Rourke. Here they were, my two heroes, just hours away from a major European tie, just next to me in church. Surely that guaranteed a victory! (It did!)

Footballers were less high profile in those days – even the legends of Turnbull’s Tornadoes. If you knew the family or stayed near to them, you would see them around, otherwise their life off the pitch was not visible – rather like teachers, who, for all we knew, could have been kept in the classroom cupboard overnight – so to see the guys at church was a surprise.

I went for some lunch, still feeling excited about seeing them, and reflected on how we come to support a football team and what it means to us and our sense of self.

My family had been involved with the Hibs since arriving from Ireland in the 1890s, we ran grocery stores in the Southside, my uncle James played for the team briefly in the 1920s, and though we moved down to England after my father’s death, there was never any doubt that I was a Hibee, and my return to Edinburgh, to go to university, gave me the opportunity to jump in fully, with both feet, to that particular agony which is Hibernian supporting.

But seeing Pat and Jimmy that lunchtime became a kind of consolidation of my connection to the club.

We follow football clubs for many varying and personal reasons. Sometimes it is family history, or maybe geography, or a friend’s choice, or perhaps the happenstance of the first game attended, the colour of the kit, or a perplexing name. It may be as deep as a combination of all these reasons, or as superficial as a pin stuck in a list. At the end of the day, the reasons carry little weight compared to the passion shown in following “the lads”.

I thought of all the connections reflected in that lunchtime event.

Like Pat and Jimmy, my dad and his brothers had attended Holy Cross Academy. Had we not moved to England, there was a good chance I  would have followed them there – and I ended up playing cricket for their FP team for over three decades. Having honed his talent on the East Meadows, where Hibs originated, and opposite our family’s grocery store, uncle James  was Holy Cross’s star player in his time, netting them victories in a number of cup finals.  After football, at Hibs and Ayr Utd, he became a Franciscan priest and spent some time at the Friary In Lothian St where I had just seen the Hibs players.

Holy Cross Academy, the Southside, The Friary, my dad and uncle – there was a swell of connection there which made Pat and Jimmy “familiar” to me, in every sense of the word.

I should point out that I have always been proud that Hibs embraces all its founding influences, without marketizing any one particular strand of our heritage – as is reflected in our badge – and it just so happened that these two had an overlap with my own  specific background. But I may have been a Reddings boy, proud of John Blackley, from Montrose and in awe of Gordon Smith, or a Dunfermline lad who idolised Alex Edwards. It is not the origins but the depth of connection we feel which makes our  support so special to each of us.

However, I should admit that when I recall the famous League Cup win over Celtic in 1972, and the goal contribution of Stanton and O’Rourke, I still have a tendency to think “Holy Cross Academy 2-1 Celtic”!!!

So Jimmy’s death today  feels like much more than the loss of a sporting legend. Speaking to Pat Stanton last week, he mentioned his old school pal  was unwell, and couldn’t help recalling the famous tale of Jimmy scanning the jailbirds on a prison bus seen by  the Hibs touring party  outside Fulsom Prison on a sixties American tour: “He said he was checking to see if there were any lads from Clerrie on board!”.

Jimmy’s pawky wit is well documented. My own favourite involved the time when he was coaching the Hibs youths alongside Jackie McNamara. Having locked up the stadium after Tuesday night training, they were headed along through Abbeyhill when Jimmy nudged Jackie: “Hey! Did you leave the lights on?” he asked, pointing down Easter Rd to where the glare of the floodlights lit up the night sky.

For those who missed the pleasure and excitement of seeing Jimmy play each week, I have been trying  to find words to describe his style of play. It’s not easy, because he was quite unique – in build, in style, in application – but, ultimately, I think his play matched his humour: it was impish! He would pop up everywhere, deceptively skilled for his build, strong as an ox, but capable of the most sublime touches. His goals were a joy – the explosions primed by the finely tuned Tornadoes mechanisms, and it was hard to tell who got most delight from them – Jimmy or the supporters.

That his special song was based on the theme to that most irrepressible of characters, Rupert the Bear, seems fitting, and it was true – everyone did know his name.

And, here’s a thing. For some reason, it was almost impossible to refer to Jimmy without using an Edinburgh accent. My auntie Nellie, deeply rooted in the Southside, would always point out to me that, for all my mongrel English/Scots accent, I always pronounced his name as  “Jimmehoroork”. He was so much part of Clermiston and our city that anything else would have sounded odd – despite  always being  `James’ to his family.

I am writing this about half a mile down the hill from Clermiston on a dreich, grey, wet and miserable day, and sad as I am at the death of Jimmy, an ultimate relief though it may have been, neither the weather nor the sense of loss can quite extinguish the pure joy that this bouncing dynamo of a footballer brought to the Hibernian support.

He was very special man and a very special footballer. He was all we would want an Hibernian Hero to be.

Driving down Ferry Rd, past the site of Holy Cross Academy, I often think of all the connections, and I will always think of Jimmy as I go past – and how, in so many games for the Hibs, he reflected his old school’s motto: “Spes Unica” – “Our Only Hope”.        

Thank you, Jimmehoroork.

Some boy, Bingham

The tributes to football manager Billy  Bingham, who has died at the age of 90, quite rightly highlight his great success as Northern Ireland manager, and mention his time at Everton, but, to me, his place in the pantheon of great managers is a far more personal matter.

Statistics will tell you that his most successful stint as coach, with a 43% win rate,  was in his first appointment, at Southport FC in the  old fourth and then third divisions.

However, as any true football follower would affirm, statistics won’t give you even half the story.

His time at Southport – from 1965-67 coincided with my moving from the age of 13 to 15 – perhaps the most formative years in anyone’s life, and the Southport team he forged  in that time –  Bingham’s Boys – remain heroes to me till this day almost sixty years later.

As a coach, he was  innovative and  ahead of his  time. Arriving at Haig Avenue in his first coaching appointment, at the young age of  35, he found a club which, if not exactly moribund, was fast going nowhere. He understood the need for impact, not only on the field and training pitch but also around a town which had long been famous for its indifference to football.

By the time he moved on, two years later, Southport had reached the last sixteen of the Cup and been promoted for the first time in their history, and were regarded as one of the fittest squads in the entire football league.  They had garnered more national headlines that in any previous era.

The point about Bingham’s flair for publicity was that all of his “stunts” had a positive impact on the club’s playing record.

Poor atmosphere in the  ground? How about flagpoles flying international flags along the open end of the ground – as seen contemporaneously at Fulham’s Craven Cottage? Along with the rocketing playing standard, this innovation improved the matchday experience.

Looking for coverage, and increased attendance, before a crucial cup tie? Here’s a picture of burly forward, Eric Redrobe in ballet tights. The press got their angle, but players were protected from cold weather muscle and sinew  injuries long before such an approach became general.

A must win game against high flying fellow promotion hopefuls,  derby neighbours, Stockport County? Here’s the players running out with strange numbers on their shirts – 11 for the right back, 8 for the centre half, 3 for the centre forward and so on. Before County’s man marking  players had worked out what was happening, Port were well on their way to a rousing 4-0 victory.

There was some comment that Bingham’s side was rather dour and defensive, and notable cup victories away at second division Ipswich and at Stockport might confirm that thought. However, he was also flexible as a manager and well able to switch systems to match the opposition or to surprise them with attacking intent. He was adept at changing players’ positions if he felt they had the skills to perform better elsewhere, and his organisation was such that, in the Stockport cup game, Les Barratt, signed hours before kick off and unknown to the support, was able to slot perfectly in to the system and even score the decisive goal.

Most of all, his side had resilience – frequently shown on the pitch, and even more so after the devastating Boxing Day fire in 1966, which destroyed the main stand  and all the club’s infrastructure, but couldn’t derail their run to promotion.

In two short years Bingham put Southport on the map. In the town’s newsagents on Monday mornings, little old ladies who had previously not known the town had a football team, could be heard asking “How did the lads get on?”

It was a remarkable impact, which left Bingham, in Southport’s terms, as associated with the club as Busby with United, Shankly with Liverpool, Nicholson with Spurs and Stein with Celtic. He was, in short, a force of nature.

There is little doubt that without the exploits of the Bingham Boys, Southport FC may well have fallen into terminal decline, or that, at the very least, their exit from the Football League could well have happened years before that eventuality in 1978.

For those of us who were there to witness those remarkable times, Billy Bingham remains an iconic figure, whom we were privileged to witness at the start of an impressive managerial career. His World Cup exploits may get the headlines, but, arguably, what he achieved on the West Lancashire coast, with another team not accustomed to glory,  was just as impressive.

These days, “influencers” are to be found and feted on social media, but, for this writer, as a teenager, the greatest influencer was Billy Bingham.

Which is why anyone caring to look at the old guy on an Edinburgh station last Friday, staring intently at the message on his phone, may have noticed a couple of tears running down his cheeks.

Thank you, Billy.

Thank you for the Bingham Boys.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

November 16th 2013 Haig Avenue

In more than five decades of watching live football, there have been many players I have admired, and some who I have greatly respected. I have been privileged to watch  players such as Pele, Garrincha, Eusebio, Cruyff, Charlton, Best, and Dalgleish and, understandably, I have marvelled at their skills and abilities.

However, there are only a handful for whom I have developed an outright affection, call it “a one sided sporting bromance”, if you like, and one of those was Alex Russell, of Southport FC, who has died aged 78.

A lot of it is to do with timing, of course. Alex played his first game for Southport about two weeks before I first started watching them in November 1963. The heroes you adopt when you are  eleven year old tend to stay with you, and, for me, watching Southport and Alex Russell in the 1960s were synonymous.

I heard of his death during a tour of the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney – an ironic coincidence, as, when he arrived at Haig Avenue he was quickly nicknamed “Ringo” Russell. At the height of the Beatles’ surge, comparisons were everywhere, and a prominent nose and a Beatle fringe was enough to lead  to the inevitable conclusion, though it didn’t really stick.

Everyone realised when he arrived that he was a cut above most of our players at the time, and it was our pleasure and privilege that, apart from spells at Blackburn, Tranmere and Los Angeles Aztecs, he spent the bulk of his career with the Sandgrounders, amassing  nearly 400 appearances, over 75 goals and God knows how many assists. He played in the team that reached the last sixteen of the FA Cup in 1966, the promotion winning team the following year, and scored the 93rd minute free kick against Hartlepool to give Southport the Fourth Division title in 1973. In the Port’s  greatest moments, he was there.

I always wondered if his allegiance to Southport commenced when his signing for the Port gave him the opportunity to complete his printers apprenticeship while playing first team football – an opportunity perhaps not so available in the Everton set up which he left to join up at Haig Avenue.

But why “affection”, as well as admiration for this talented player? Along with team  mates Redrobe, Spence, Peat and Alty, he generated something extra in our reactions. You felt he cared as much as the support, and his demeanour was everything you would want in a hero.

He never needed to show off – his talent such was that he could dominate the opposition, make our own side tick, control the play, and score goals of all types without needing to grandstand.  He ran the midfield against Cardiff City in the famous fourth round cup victory, he showed steel and determination as we headed towards the fourth division title, he linked the resolution of our defence to the flair of our attackers. The evidence of his talent was in its effect, and when Russell played on top of his form, the team inevitably got a result. When the Scarisbrick End sang his name, there would be a brief acknowledgement, but he never felt the need to milk it. It was not in his character on or off the field.

If he was all that an eleven year old could want in a modest hero, that feeling never diminished over time.

He was regularly to be seen at Haig Avenue in recent years, just a face in the crowd to some, a legend to others. I was delighted to meet him when I went to watch the team on the fiftieth anniversary of my first game at the ground. True to form, he looked a little overwhelmed to be the object of such affection from a retired gentleman referring to playing exploits of fifty years before, but predictably he took my gratitude and admiration in good part  as we reminisced.  It was wonderful to be able to thank him, to reasssure him that his legend certainly lived on in my heart and in our house, and particularly good to be able to introduce my son. In such moments immortality beckons!

Thoughts and thanks go to his family and former team mates for sharing this great man with the Southport football supporting public. If we will miss him, how much bigger must be your loss. I have never forgotten him and never will. He gave us so much joy and success.

Now I am involved in football  and  attend matches every week I still appreciate smooth and visionary midfield play. And, whenever  I watch a cute reverse pass, a ball winning tackle, or a defence splitting ball to the wing, no matter who the player might be, a part of my heart is singing the old chant from the Scarisbrick End.

“Alex Russell. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

A Good Heart

Derry punk band, The Undertones, provided the anthemic “Teenage Kicks” as a run out tune for Hibs’ “Golden Generation” under Tony Mowbray, but a number one single, by their erstwhile front man, Feargal Sharkey, provides an even better fit for an examination of the Academy of today.

“A Good Heart”, the song’s title,  is a phrase which encapsulates the needs of a modern day football academy – and it works on different levels.

Locationwise, an academy needs to be the good heart of a club’s philosophy: especially its approaches to talent identification, development and support.

A good heart will be as strong as possible to support the physical and mental demands placed on an elite sportsperson.

As the supposed root of human emotion, the good heart is crucial in providing the passion and engagement with the club’s history, community, culture, style, and support, as well as that love of football which drives on young academy players towards the professional game

And a good heart is necessary to help develop and shape good people in all areas of the club’s operation – because good people bring trust, honesty, and inspiration, and serve as persuasive role models.

If young players are in good heart – in a comfortable place in themselves, then they are more open to coaching and development, better able to progress – physically, mentally and technically, and better fitted to displaying confidence as individuals in meeting the many challenges they will face,  allied to having the necessary team awareness as part of a squad.

All progress needs a strong jumping off point, and being in good heart can provide that.

All fine words – but how do they translate into practice?

Nobody expects, realistically, to turn out a first team comprising only Academy players – that’s neither feasible nor desirable. However, a senior squad with a core of Academy graduates – at Hibs, think Stevenson, Hanlon,  Porteous – is well placed to embody the club’s philosophy and ethos – explaining the club to newcomers and youngsters alike, carrying the onfield torch for past heroes and current staff, providing mentoring and role modelling to the current academy aspirants.

Just as the central spine of a team is crucial to onfield success, so an Academy-nurtured understanding of what the club is about contributes crucially to the team’s overall spirit and resilience.

Physically, we know the heart is the muscle that needs to be strong and well prepared to bear the load of effort and athleticism, and it needs to be well monitored and cared for by a staff with the fitness and effectiveness of the players at the forefront of their focus. A good heart comes from careful and informed treatment and expertly managed exercise, where the needs of the individual are paramount in shaping the overall team.

But while the heart’s role in physical strength is based on science, our human belief in the heart as the metaphorical seat of our emotions has also a role to play in the football academy.

Young footballers are not machines – though they may be monitored and checked on a daily basis. They cope with all the normal challenges of adolescence in addition to the pressures of trying to make it as elite sportsmen. For this reason, they need to be surrounded by good hearted staff who care for them as people, as much as seeing them as talent to be further developed. Any adult who works  with young people has to be aware that they have a duty of care – whether legally  or morally imposed.

There are many who would suggest that football and winning matches must trump over all in an Academy, and that the high stakes being played for in the top level  game these days mean that the pressure is on everyone involved to “deliver”.

Luckily more are now realising the value of emotional intelligence, empathy, and  positive interaction. This means that the recruitment of Academy staff needs to go  far beyond technical or even coaching expertise. We all know WHAT we want to achieve at an Academy, but successful staff also focus  on HOW it is achieved.

Academy staff are not just teaching skills or fitness or nutrition or game awareness, they are working with young people at the most formative stage of their lives, young people who may be footballers for ten or fifteen years, but who will also have lives to lead beyond that, and alongside that.  Their development has to be personal as well as professional, emotional as well as technical. Good hearted people, folk who genuinely care about their players, are best placed to provide this kind of positive development. They need to do more than pass on skills, they need to give of themselves.

The players need to feel that care, need to trust the staff and feel valued by them – as individuals, not just as positions in a team plan. The good news is that players who are helped into this “good place” by staff, and who feel confident in themselves as people, are best positioned to make good progress on the field, as well as off it. They are better able to take on board coaching and other information, more prepared to take the risks and meet the challenges which will drive their development to full potential.

If they can approach the training centre or game day in good heart, they will have fewer distractions, a calmer approach, and the best chance of performing to their top ability – which fulfills the Academy aim.

Progress needs a firm jumping off point, just as a good heartbeat augurs well for general fitness and mental alertness. For this reason, young players need to be offered a vision – not just in a philosophical sense, but in a practical sense also, answering their concerns about progress. What is the route they will take? What role models can they follow? Is there a loan plan for them? How will they be monitored and supported? Are there dual career opportunities – in trade apprenticeships, college or degree courses, coaching and  sports science qualifications. What role is there for parents and family? The Academy carries a precious cargo and needs to be fit for purpose, and the road ahead needs to be well signposted.

And at the root of all of this is the need for a good heart – in the club and in the Academy.

Because an Academy is not just about football, it is about people.

People with good hearts.

Strong Children v Broken Men

Dani Garavelli’s excellent Guardian/Nutmeg   piece, on the strange 2020 introduction to the game for young professional footballers gave me pause for reflection.

She points out that the normal expectations for the transition from school pupil to professional sportsman have been met with difficulty, if at all. The steady, confidence building routines of training centre timetables, game preparation, playing matches, and debriefing, have all been disrupted, to a greater or lesser extent.

Even youngsters graduating to first team substitutes’ bench, or appearances for the team itself, have done so in the strange atmosphere of empty stadia, with no crowd noise to pump the adrenaline or drown out the nerves.

For those charged with guiding young players’ development, familiar approaches have not always been possible. Social distancing can lead to emotional distancing. The instinct for how comfortably a player is adapting to his new environment can be dulled, the opportunities for one to one support are lessened.

My own role as Education and Welfare Officer for the Hibernian Development Squad has always centred on giving young players a sense of perspective. In signing their first contract, they are not becoming professional footballers as much as being given the opportunity to carve out such a career for themselves.

We know that not all Development Squad players will make the first team – but many, should they wish it, will go on to have the possibility of a career in football – full time or part time, at various levels.

At the same time, as well as adapting to full time employment, in a pressured environment, with constant monitoring and competition, they are, like all 16-21 year olds, negotiating the often tricky emotional path from teenager to young adult. If football is all they have in their lives, they are putting themselves under enormous additional pressure.

As a teacher, my role is not concerned with football’s technical skills, but rather supporting the young players into a place where they can better access those skills by seeing their football as part of their wider life. In this way, they can  appreciate that  working on their general emotional intelligence, their life choices, and their own mental wellbeing, as it is for anyone of their age, provides the best foundation for the development of their football abilities, as well as their social and life skills.

A young person who, for whatever reason,  is struggling psychologically, will find it difficult to focus on developing new skills or honing existing talent, or even taking on board new instructions and information. At a transitional stage in their life, they need to have a firm perspective on what is important and how they can best manage the changes they are experiencing.

We have heard far too many footballers, some of huge talent, describing their personal decline by saying that they only feel ‘comfortable’, or ‘happy’, or ‘themselves’,  when they are on the football pitch. The other parts of their lives, particularly in retirement, is challenging and meaningless. And it’s not just in Scotland, nor in football, that elite sports people find coping with life away from performance is a serious problem.

In general, those with a balanced view of the world around  them tend to  succeed and make better progress in each area of their life. So, even if we see a football club, in a ruthless sense, as being there merely to provide on field success, there is a reason to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their players – especially those starting out on their career

But for a young footballer, perhaps one whose every thought since he was a child has been focused on ‘making it’ in the professional game, how do you provide that balanced view – especially when a first contract has just been signed?

Coaches will keep young man grounded – and the best of them will get to know that each player  has an individual learning style and responds to varying training approaches. The best of young players will also learn from what they see around them – the deportment of   senior players and coaching staff, the values and expectations of the club, the level of openness and honesty that they encounter.

However, this may lie in the realms of hope and  fate, and surely young people deserve something more structured in their development.

The reality lies in the need for a football club and its academy to be a place of learning, and this in itself requires hard work and clear club guidance.

For perhaps a majority of youngsters, signing that first contract is as much an ‘escape’ from school as an entry to the world of football. The temptation is to wave goodbye to what they think of as a “world of learning”. Distracted by football, or with learning styles not fitted to the school system, they may have found their experiences as pupils were challenging or irrelevant, something to be put behind them.

In this area, perhaps the English system of football ‘scholars’ – sharing football and school time from early teens, faces more challenge than our approach in Scotland where we offer ‘continuing learning’ after school, while letting a youngster remain in their own school setting until sixteen or eighteen.

Part of the task of the club education department, then,  is to point out that “learning” never ends, that there are many different modes and stages of acquiring knowledge, and that a dislike for the school learning experience should not necessarily presage a rejection of future models and opportunities. In all walks of life, we need to keep learning if we are  to progress and develop, and this is surely particularly crucial to a teenager transitioning into young adult and professional footballer.

It is incumbent on the club to provide a continuing learning model which the players find accessible, relevant, and useful. Like all effective education, it needs to be based on a needs analysis: what do these young people need at this moment in time to support their successful development in all areas of their lives?

This is where club guidance and values are paramount. On starting to work at Hibernian, it was made very clear by Chief  Executive, Leeann Dempster, and Head of Football Operations, George Craig, that no player leaving the Hibs Development Squad – whether to first team, at Hibs or elsewhere, to part time or lower-league football, or, indeed,  if leaving the game altogether, should feel that their time  at the club had been ‘wasted’. They should have experienced a measurable progression and development in football and also in their maturing from adolescent to young man.

So the education programme is about what they need to know, and to reflect on how that knowledge can help them – as individuals and as members of  a  team.

Like all young footballers at elite academies they study an SFA/SPFL- backed  two year Modern Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence – which gives them the tools to self assess and monitor their progress. This continues structured learning and provides a recognised academic qualification. A First Aid in Sports Injuries qualification is also included.

Outside of that, the programme is a varied and as eclectic as the development needs of a group of young adult elite sportsmen. The development squad will receive an in-house Hibernian Academy Diploma after a series of lectures and workshops from staff members of all departments at the Training Centre. They will learn from Sports Science, Nutrition, Performance Analysis, Sports Psychology, Administration, Talent identification and Communications departments. Each department will explain what they do, why they do it, how they do it, how the youngsters will access their support, and how it will impact on the player’s development. This gives the young player an understanding of the club’s infrastructure and  expectations, and lets each department reflect on their own input and approaches – teaching as learning, you might say.

However, variety and perspective are central to this education model, so visiting speakers – from different sports and disciplines are a regular component of the programme. In the past five years, the development squad have benefited from visits and discussions with staff and players from Cricket Scotland and Scottish Table Tennis international teams, from Scotland Rugby captain Stuart Hogg, from Ireland’s GAA,  and  hands on support from Andy Murray, whose agency manages a number of our young players.  

As part of an ongoing commitment to reflecting on women’s sport, Maureen McGonigle, Shelley Kerr,  and Eilish McColgan have all discussed their experiences with the young players. In terms of men’s issues – a fairly potent area for development in football – successful workshops with Graham Goulden, formerly of the Violence Reduction Unit, have proved thought provoking, as have sessions on racism  and  addictive behaviours. “Managing finance” also opened more than a few eyes within the squad.

There were opportunities for more “off the wall” moments. Allied to nutrition support were cookery lessons; balance and spacial awareness were boosted by dance workshops; and a visit from a Naval Jet pilot training officer provided riveting insight into ‘Thinking Correctly Under Pressure”!

The most popular and perhaps most effective inputs in the programme, however, have been the “Question and Answer” sessions with senior staff and players. Part of an ongoing ‘mentoring’ programme, this has been an opportunity for young players to hear about the various paths followed by successful players or coaches in their careers, and, crucially, none of them have reported entirely smooth sailing. The chance to learn from the combined wisdom of characters such as Alan Stubbs, Neil Lennon, Grant Holt, Marvin Barclay, Daryl Horgan, Darren McGregor and Lewis Stevenson has been a relevant and powerful eye opener to many of our young players over the past few years – a crucial part of the continuing learning experience.

Crucially, in partnership with Napier University, we have now added to the learning experience by offering the opportunity at sixteen for young footballers to embark on a university course which will lead to a degree in Sport and Business. Clearly it is not for everyone, but it effectively removes the binary choice at school leaving age: ‘Sport or Degree?’ It is also invaluable to the process that the young players also see senior players and staff following degree courses as a parallel to their careers, rather than something to be accessed in retirement.

It is understandable that young and talented footballers may see signing their first professional contract as an end in itself – but, really, such a moment is only the opening of a door.

Rather than pushing them over then threshold, clubs have a responsibility to guide these players into the space beyond and equip them to deal with what they find there.

As Frederick Douglass memorably said: “It is easier to make strong children than to repair broken men.”

Shoogly legs would never do.

My brother-in-law  left Scotland in the eighties and has lived in Spain for the past decade, so perhaps his light heartedly deprecating remarks about Dundee, during an exchange of email banter  earlier this year, were not particularly surprising. What gave me more pause for thought was recognising the alacrity with which I then defended, and indeed praised, the City of Discovery.

My connections with Tayside are tangential to say the least.

My grandfather had a nephew, Michael, son of his brother, who was born at the turn of the twentieth century suffering from a serious form of epilepsy and other challenging disabilities. As was often  the norm in those days, he spent most of the eleven years of his short life in an institution, by all accounts well cared for in an unusually enlightened regime for the times. This was at Baldovan to the north of the city, now identified as Strathmartine Hospital. He is buried in the area.

In the mid twentieth century my uncle, James, who had played football for Hibs and Ayr Utd, became a Franciscan priest and spent much of his life at the Friary in Tullidelph. Even sixty years after his death there, I am told by Dundonians of his kindness to their parents when they were ill, his entertaining  talents on the piano, or his inspirational sermons. Visiting his grave in nearby Balgay Cemetery has fostered a feeling of connection to the area for me.

Then, in the 70s, at Edinburgh University, in an ambience not entirely unaffected by posers and the pretentious, I made friends with a number of students from Dundee, who stood out for their down to earth connectedness to their roots and origins, thus cementing my good feelings towards the city.

A couple of years ago a visit to the wonderful Verdant Works Museum left me in awe  – not just of its excellent exhibits, but of the rich working history of this city – not just the familiar “jam, jute and journalism”, but Timex and NCR, shipbuilding and all the other monuments to manufacturing and hard toil. The V and A and the Waterfront are a great advertisement for the ‘new City of Discovery’ –  but they are really only the icing on the Dundee cake.

In recent times, football trips to support Hibs in Dundee have been amongst the most anticipated of the season. I like how the clubs connect with their communities, I like the quirkiness of Tannadice and the Leitch cranked stand at Dens with the standing paddock in  front of it, I like the madness of two stadia in one street, and their surroundings of housing schemes and tenements. I love the potato fritters at Jamie’s Fry on Clepington Road.

All of which brings us, on a route far less direct than the Tay Bridge, to Jim McLean, who died yesterday.

This is not a sentimental take on the legendary manager. There is little point in diminishing his reality by ignoring his rough edges – and he had many, despite them being sometimes smoothed by the sandpaper of success. To ignore his awkwardness would be like refusing to acknowledge that the industry which made the city great, whilst bringing wealth to the owners, created wretched living conditions for many workers.

McLean was a joiner, and at heart remained so – a tradesman proud of his craft. He didn’t make superstars, he built teams. He was a man of exact angles, solid materials, and careful construction. In his world, you didn’t short change the punters, nor did you base your ambitions on vague visions or daft dreams, you worked them out carefully and accurately. In this way, despite being a Lanarkshire man, he was a fitting reflection of Dundee in its many guises – no nonsense, hard work, but capable of unexpected beauty – like a sudden glimpse of the sun on the Tay between two crumbling gable ends.

Every now and then a manager brings together a team that transcends supporter loyalty, whose line-up trips off the tongues of fans of all clubs decades later: Bill Nicholson did it with Tottenham in the early 60s, Shankly with his Liverpool side in the same decade, Busby with his United team that included Best, Law and Charlton, Hearts with the Terrible Trio, Hibs with the Famous Five, and Stein with his Lisbon Lions. No matter your football affections, these were teams you loved to watch in action.

Jim McLean achieved that at Tannadice.

Of course, I hated him and his team when they played Hibs – because they were so good!  

But they were a  team that gave enjoyment to all supporters, not just its own Arabs.

I’ve seldom enjoyed watching a  player as much as Ralph Milne in full flow. Then there was the gallus goalscoring of Luggy Sturrock, the dependability of Hegarty and Narey, the artistry of Bannon, the non-stop energy of Holt, and the drive of Richard Gough to compliment the eccentricity of Hamish the Goalie!

And they were put together with a craftsman’s eye for detail. They were a fitting reflection of a city built on industry and hard graft, but with flair and creativity employed successfully, and a confidence born from its sense of self worth.

Jim McLean, like Shankly and Busby, was  a man of his time, but there is little point in longing for days that are gone. The world has moved on, and football has moved with it, seeking men of a different breed to fit in with changed circumstances. Whether we like it or not, there is nothing to be done about it.

But “Wee Jim” was a complex character – that was, I suspect, part of the reason for his success. The man who could ask an interviewer to avoid pictures of his smiling, in case it wrecked an image “I’ve spent fourteen years building”, could also deck a reporter with a right hook. The manager who could enslave a young player with an unfeasibly long contract and  could destroy tough footballers with a few well chosen words, was also capable of great personal kindnesses. He was human, and that humanity fed his strengths and his weaknesses. I suspect that’s why people  warmed to him despite themselves.

Like the city in which he lived and worked for so long, and to which he brought such success, he was a man whose craft and lightness of touch should never be disguised by the weight and impact of the tools he used to employ them. The silver of the Tay always shone through the murk from the mill chimneys.

We shan’t see his like again, but we will never forgot what he brought to the game. To walk down the slope of Arklay St and see the glow from the floodlights is to recall the excitement his teams brought to so many European nights. His spirit will always haunt the echoes in Tannadice St, and what he built will stand the test of time.

Shoogly legs would never do for this joiner!

Stuck in the Mud

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It’s December 30th 1967.

After a summer of sunshine and promise, the winter has been drab and wet. Christmas has been more Gene Kelly than Bing Crosby and the skies have been grey with rain and steely blue with frost.

Gigg Lane, Bury, might have been designed by LS Lowry – the splintering wood and black corrugated iron of the stadium only brightened by the blue and white vertical stripes painted on the front of the stand at the back of the Enclosure.

Around the ground are neat streets – a level above the often imagined dingy “back to backs” of industrial northern England, tidily kept, front steps painted and swept, the odd car here and there.

I’m fifteen and this is the first season I’ve been following Southport to away games in the Third Division, four years after the lifelong bug of attending live football first attacked me at their Haig Avenue ground.

We don’t know it, but they are in the middle of the best period in their history. They operate in the National League North now, having lost their league status in 1978, but I still go down to watch them when I can.

What Southport gave me as a teenager was a lifelong love of “going to the match” and, incidentally, for a lad born in Edinburgh, a fair knowledge of the geography of the north of England: Bury, Blackburn, Oldham, Stockport, Barrow, Hull, Wigan, Tranmere, Chester, Chesterfield. At times, going to away games was like a seminar on the industrial revolution and its long term effects.

But this pre-Hogmanay Saturday is cold and damp. There is no segregation, and we find ourselves at the front of the Manchester Rd Terrace with a rumbustious section of Shakers’ supporters behind us. They don’t much like the Southport travelling support – seeing us as effete seasiders from a posh town on the coast. Like many of Southport’s residents, they don’t really see the point of football in a place like that. Waiting for kick off, we drink our sweetened tea and keep our heads down in a crowd just shy of 8000.

Neverthess, the game is engaging, with an end to end rhythm on a gluepot of a pitch, and a surprising amount of technical skill amid the fierce physical battle.

It’s 1-1 at half time, and anyone could win the game.

Shortly after the game re-starts, I’m hit a glancing blow from a bottle hurled from behind us. Most games at this level in those days were peaceful, with a lot of camaraderie between opposing supporters, but occasionally you would find teams whose support had excess testosterone and felt they had to impose their presence.

There had been  any amount of threatening chants and some shoving and pushing but I don’t think anybody felt that it was a dangerous situation. Football crowds were like that often in those days. I didn’t take the tumbling bottle personally, as it had arched up over the crowd, hit the metal framework of the terracing roof and dropped on me at random.

In any case, the game was too engrossing to be distracted by such an incident.

With ten minutes to go it was 3-2 to Bury but Southport were doing the pressing. Our big centre forward, Eric Redrobe, (who was, coincidentally, 75 years old yesterday) burst through and lobbed the keeper. Our arms were raised aloft to celebrate the equaliser. The ball bounced once in the six yard box, poised to cross the line, bounced again, and………

stuck in the deep clinging mud of the goal mouth.

It was cleared and we lost 3-2.

The game has remained  clear in my memory ever since. It was the only time I went to Gigg Lane, and I moved back to Scotland three years later, but, inevitably, following the news of Bury’s struggle to survive in the league over the past few weeks, that day has been in my thoughts, as have the Shakers’ supporters.

Looked at dispassionately, it was a game my team lost, a coach journey on holiday-busy roads to get there and back, in cold and damp conditions. The pitch was almost unplayable by today’s expectations, and the football more physical than technical. I was hit by a bottle, and we were robbed of an equaliser by mud in the goalmouth. For most of the game I was stamping my feet to try and keep warm, and the pushing, shoving, and chanting of the crowd around us made for a less than relaxed atmosphere.

In short, you would imagine it to be the kind of experience to put you off live football for life – so why do I remember it so clearly, and, to be honest, so fondly, over fifty years later?

Basically, because it was what I signed up for when I started going to the football every week: a feeling of being part of it, a sense of ownership – of the team, the support, the players, the ground; familiarity, belonging, and passion. The chance to lose yourself in something, in the company of other similar souls who might well have absolutely nothing else in common with you for the rest of the week. Being there was the whole point: the result, the level of skill on display, the state of the stadium, even the excitement provided, or not, by the competition – all of that was secondary – and still is.

And so, I really feel for those Bury fans this week, paralysed by the uncertainty of their club’s immediate future. Like football fans all over the country, they will each have their memories – whether fifty years old, or two or three seasons worth. Gigg Lane to them is more than a football ground and Bury FC more than a team. All of it is part of who they are, their past, and, hopefully their future. They are Shakers by association and everybody who knows them and cares about them is aware of the fact; it is a part of their personality.

And, of course, it’s not just Bury and Southport. It’s hundeds of clubs across the country. I’ll be watching Hibs this afternoon, but watching out for the Southport score and noting the progress at lots of grounds or clubs that have provided me with memories through the years. That’s what Saturday means to hundreds and thousands of supporters.

And in lots of places today an event will happen – a missed goal, a disputed penalty, a piece of wizardry, a wry remark, a refereeing decision, a managerial rant, a  red card, or a witty chant – that people will take away and gather carefully in their memory and remember it, at random almost, throughout the rest of their life. And they’ll be remembering who they were with and how much they meant to each other and they’ll be glad they shared the moment. And it will be about their club.

That’s why Bury are important, that’s why their survival matters, that’s why clubs are in people’s hearts and minds.

It’s not about oligarchs, television rights, pundits, VAR or marketing.

It’s about love and memories, corrugated iron and splintered wood, old fashioned buses in endless traffic jams, the shot that went in and the one that hit the post, the hot sweet tea and the frozen toes; it’s then and it’s now, and, hopefully, it’s this afternoon, tomorrow and next year.

It’s about passion and belonging.

It’s going to the game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watching the grass grow

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Haig Avenue, Southport FC  (pic from Southport FC)

They are replacing and relaying the pitch at the Haig Avenue ground of the National North League’s Southport FC. On their Flickr page there are nearly a hundred pictures recording the process, featuring tractors, drains, sand, sprinklers and the appropriate machinery.

These pictures have received around  1000 views, not least on a number of occasions from myself. For this was the ground where, in my teenage years in the 1960s, I fell in love with live football – “going to the match” as we tend to call it.

It is, in my memory, a place of hot sweet tea, compacted mud terraces on which you had to stamp frozen feet, the incense of pipe and cigarette smoke, players’ shirts so smeared with mud that the numbers were sometimes indecipherable, and boyhood heroes who shine just as brightly for me now, as men in their seventies and eighties.

However, my family has been attached to Hibs for over 120 years, they were spoken about when I was growing up almost as if they were  siblings: a crucial part of the family, but, it was in the ten years I lived in Southport, before returning to Edinburgh at 18, that I fell in love with football live, the matchday routine, and the feeling of being “part of it all”, and so Southport have that special place in my heart.

It is clear that the game in general is heading in different directions. Eventually there will be the “local” game, for those who want to “be there”, and the “global” game, operated at the behest of subscription television and marketing, and the focus of attention for those who watch on huge television screens, tablets, or smart phones.

It is, I suppose, the difference between walking through a very high end wine cellar, impressed by the vintage and quality of all those bottles around you – even if you cannot drink them, and sitting in your local pub with a dubious pint of beer, but surrounded by friends and supporters who will share their memories of the team – your team – at the drop of a woollen bobble hat.

Like the Football Manager games that the European leagues are more and more resembling, those who are armchair fans pick and choose their games, their favourite players, and, ultimately, the teams that they follow. This is a different approach to that of the fan who attends his local ground each week – not better or worse, just different. How the grass grows or the state of the stadium catering is immaterial to them. Seeing the best players from multiple angles, and commenting on the stats and pundits, provides their hook for viewing. No pies and dodgy coffee for them – their food comes from Dominos or Just Eat, their carefully produced craft beer from their latest carry out.

It ill behoves an old lad to be critical of the young generations – our fathers probably thought that what is now referred to as the “football product” was inferior in our day to that which they had enjoyed between the wars. However, it is fair, I think, to point out the differences and comment on what is being lost.

Anticipation, routine, loyalty  and social contact are all major contributors to a sense of mental well being. I believe each of these elements is provided by regular attendance at football matches in a quite unique and consistent fashion. Their presence for the “couch supporter” is possible, but arguably less visceral,  though, of course, the two approaches are not necessarily exclusive.

Just as a gambling addict is in it for the thrill rather than the winnings, so those of us committed to “going to the match” revel in the experience, as much as the team’s performance. Of course we want good football and a winning side, but few supporters have that experience throughout their lives. Of its nature, sport is a roller coaster, and the unpredictability is one of its major attractions. The angst caused by failures can be as all consuming as the joy produced by victories – a good reflection of the emotions of love in any relationship!

So while some may be scanning their social media accounts for some sign of television fixtures – the Super Sundays and European Nights – there will be many others, like those Southport supporters on that Flickr feed – looking for the green shoots appearing, the grass beginning to grow, along with the hope.

Maybe THIS season…………

Boxing Day on the A590

 

I was 17 at  Christmas 1969, with a  holiday job as a postman. Nash was the older brother of a guy I knew at school, and we were  dedicated  supporters of Southport FC. I bumped into him in the bleary early morning of the sorting office, before we went out on our rounds:
“Hey Nash – you going to Barrow on Boxing Day?”

“I might do, aye. You want a lift?”

And so, it seems, are the minor moments upon which  our lives may turn.

If we hadn’t both been doing Post Office student shifts, or had missed each other that morning, the trip to Barrow may never have happened.

It was a  Boxing Day 11am kick off, so Nash arrived in his mini van around 8.00am, with his brother, Peter, sitting sideways in the back. We were celebrating that peculiar Christmas feeling – happy to be at home, but seeking to escape as well. My aunt and her family always visited on Boxing Day, but the early kick off meant I would be home in time to join them, satisfying everyone.

These were heady times for both teams, perennial members of the bottom flight, finding themselves in the unaccustomed heights of the old  Third Division, and, despite the eighty odd miles between us, Barrow, along with Tranmere and Stockport, counted as a “derby” game.

Fifty years ago, roads and infrastructure were more basic than they are now, but most of the journey was fine – dual carriageway  to Preston and then Motorway to Cumbria. However, from the M6 to Barrow on the A590 was basically a winding two track country road.

The conversation was desultory, hampered by the hangover from Christmas  over indulgence. We talked about the prospects for the game, as you do. Neither side was going particularly well, and  we would have settled for a draw.

I was quite drowsy after the early start: there was a fierce and low winter sun which added to the dozy feeling. We were about half an hour outside Barrow when Nash said:
“Bloody Hell, I can’t see a thing!”

The sun had flooded the windscreen completely and he slowed down to a crawl.

The next thing, we stopped. Very suddenly indeed.

I was jerked forward and hit the windscreen. My face was hurting and numb at the same time. Peter was groaning in the back and Nash was shouting:
“I’m paralysed, I can’t move” – till he realised he had put on his seatbelt. Their use was not yet compulsory, but luckily he had chosen to strap in.

We jumped from the car – propelled by some kind of fear that it might catch fire.

Once out in the sunshine, it was obvious what had happened.

The road curved to the right here, but a farm track ran off to the left down a slope. Separating the track and the road was a stone wall, and, driving straight ahead because of  the sun glare, Nash had hit the end of it. Had he not slowed down so much, we may have been in a far worse situation – as was confirmed by the police, who arrived shortly afterwards.

“Aye, well, lads, you’re lucky – couple of guys were killed here last week!”

We checked ourselves out –Peter was bruised from rolling about in the back after the collision,  Nash had a stiff neck and sore ribs. I put my hand to my mouth and realised there was blood, causing me to check my teeth were all still in place. No damage there, thank goodness, though I found myself spitting out bits of splintered windscreen from inside my top lip  where my face had obviously flattened itself against the glass.

I’ve no idea what arrangements were made for the car – it was an obvious write off, with the front embedded in the wall, windscreen shattered – but the cops asked us if we wanted a lift to anywhere.

In what was probably the defining moment in my life as a football supporter, I joined with the others – without hesitation – in saying:
“Holker St football ground please!”

The police duly obliged – no doubt questioning our sanity – and dropped us off outside the ground about fifteen minutes before half time.

By that time we were just delighted to have made the game – oh the priorities of youth – and pleased that the turnstiles were still operating.

We bundled into the ground and on to the terracing, not realising we were surrounded by Barrow supporters. There was a fair amount of aggression involved in following football  in those days, though to be fair, in the lower divisions, it mostly took the form of macho posturing as the support changed ends at half time, so finding ourselves in among the home support was a bit worrying.

However, they seemed strangely quiet at our presence –maybe because they were already leading 1-0 and also, as I came to realise later, because of my appearance.

My gold and black  scarf was covered in blood and my upper lip was heavily swollen, making me look like Plug out of the Bash Street Kids. Alternatively, my appearance may have suggested I had single handedly fought my way into the ground.

Predictably, very little happened for the rest of the game, and we began to wonder how we would get home. Barrow to Southport on Boxing Day was not an easy itinerary.

Possibly still light headed from the crash, I formed a brilliant idea:
“Why not ask for a lift on the team coach?”

The others looked doubtful,  but could think of no alternative, so, after the final whistle, we headed round to the front of the main stand, hoping.

Holker Street in those days, and I suspect now, could never be mistaken for the Etihad. There was a door open to the street and various officials busy with post match tasks.

Suddenly the Southport manager, Don McEvoy, appeared in the corridor. With a boldness born, I guess, out of desperation, I shouted out:

“Hey, Don! Could we hitch a lift back on the team coach, our car crashed and we’re stranded!”

He was hardly nonplussed at all, and motioned us to wait where we were. He may have been preoccupied – given our slide towards relegation and his dismissal, which would come a few weeks later.

Now the disorientation of having been in a car crash was rapidly replaced by the excitement of getting to travel on the team coach!

It would be easy to rewrite history and say it was no big deal – but that would be unfair to our teenaged selves. In those days, supporting Southport meant as much to us as if they were a top division side. Indeed, Best, Law and Charlton were plying their trade an hour’s drive away, but we still chose to watch these Southport guys each week. In addition, the media focus with which we are familiar today was much less intense. What happened “behind the scenes” at a football club was  rarely shared with the public.

Eventually the players came out and we felt the shyness that always pertains when the on field hero becomes the on street person next to you.

We climbed on the coach without  comment  and took our seats. My particular idol, Alex Russell, was sitting in front of me. I wracked my brains for a conversation starter – to no avail. Then he turned round and said:
“Were you lads in a crash?”

It wasn’t the chat you would imagine with your favourite player, but I filled him in on the details.

Most of the journey down the motorway, I sat there thinking:

“I’m on the Southport Team Coach!”

A bit of the mystique of the game was finally broken when I heard the captain, Arthur Peat – a battle hardened veteran,  giving some advice to our young tyro centre back, Chris Dunleavy. It referred to the importance of being able to knee an opposing forward in the back when the referee was unsighted! So much for the beautiful game!

Back in Southport, sadly having driven past nobody we knew, the whole day started to seem like a dream. It was just after 3pm so I was in  time for the family meal and I looked forward to telling them all, or boring them all, about my trip on the team coach.

It was only when my mother opened the door and let out a gasp that I realised I must be looking rather the worse for wear. These days, mobile phones would telegraph such news ahead, but back then, she knew nothing about our adventures.

I had to work quite hard to reassure her I was alright, and then had the presence of mind to go and clean up before I faced the rest of the family – “face” being the operative word.

That was when more glass splinters were spat out and, in the mirror, I finally noted my resemblance to Plug!

It was a day which taught me about the vagaries of fate – though it was some time before I fully took on board its significance.

I had gone to Barrow only after a chance meeting with someone whom  I knew had a car. Had anything more serious happened that day, and 20mph faster and it might well  have, I would have been linked for ever with a couple of guys who weren’t even close pals.  My ending would have come about through a trip to see two obscure football teams in the lower reaches of the leagues, on a Boxing Day morning of sparkling sun and clear blue skies. There would have been no exams, no university, and no career, no partner and no son. Barrow v Southport December 26th 1969 would have meant something much more than a football fixture to everybody who knew me.

The other irony, of course, is that I’m a Hibs supporter  and my family have supported them since 1894. I was living in Southport because my father had died when I was five and my mother had moved there from Edinburgh so she could be closer to family.

However, my thanks to Southport  are due because it was during the ten years I lived in the town, the crucial teenage years,  that I established the routine of “going to the football” every Saturday – a life long habit that has, predictably,  brought  joy and sorrow – but defines part of who I am.

And that day, in retrospect, was the crucial instigator of that passion for live football – when I realised that “watching the lads play” was more important than my own condition or the  tragedy that we had narrowly avoided.

Of course it’s more complicated than that – life always is; but that collision in the Lakes taught me that, just as sometimes you have to treat bad times with humour, equally, on occasion, you have to take seriously some things that aren’t really that serious –  like football.

A good motif for a balanced life.

I am currently Education and Welfare Officer at Hibernian – hopefully giving something back to the club after a lifetime of supporting them – and working with the  development squad youngsters. They know I’m Hibs daft, but also are aware of my affection for Southport FC. One of them set me the question:

“European Cup Final – Hibs v Southport – who do you want to win?”

After some hesitation, I plumped for Hibs, who are, after all, in my blood for generations – but I wouldn’t be devastated if Southport won this game – for, after all, they gave me a lifetime of going to the match.

I still go down to watch “The Port” when Hibs duties allow. The signposts on the road point to  a succession of former league clubs: Workington, Barrow, Southport – as we  drive down the M6, passing the junction for the Lakes and Cumbria.

But whether in Edinburgh or Lancashire, it’s a Saturday  habit happily engrained in me for life, dating, I suspect, from that Boxing Day on the A590.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

I’ve been watching live football since November 16th 1963. It’s been a lot of fun, a consistent presence in my life, and a real eye opener about sport, people and personality.

With around 2000 games under my belt, I thought it might be time to share a little of what I’ve found, and what I think about, the sport which likes to call itself “The Beautiful Game”.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t and sometimes it merely reflects humanity in its unpredictable and thrilling  twists and turns.

That’s why we love it!

Read on!