It is April in Stuttgart. It is damp, cold and grey. We stand in a concrete bubble, surrounded by hundreds of people in bumble bee yellow. It is slick underfoot with rain, spilled beer and other mercifully unspecified liquids. It is a scene that is the stuff of an anxiety dream or the result of taking the wrong mushrooms with one’s well done bratwurst. It is, though, reality.
It is about 5pm on a dismal Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Arena and Borussia Dortmund have just defeated Vfb Stuttgart with some ease and with considerable style. My son, Ally, and his mate, Andy, are briefly lost in the jumping, thrashing, mewling mass as I stand transfixed by the aftermath of a match so one-sided it cannot be called great but demands to be described as memorable.
I am swathed in a Borussia bobble hat, my Borussia scarf and my Borussia heavyweight jacket (with fetching yellow badge and trim). We have flown in for the weekend for the sole reason of watching Borussia Dortmund, though as football fanatics we spend hours on the train the next day travelling to and from Munich to watch 1860 play Eintracht Braunschweig in a second division match. We are not immune to glamour, after all.
But it is all about BvB. It is all about seeing them in the flesh yet again, it is all about savouring the Bundesliga experience that has, in our deeply prejudiced souls, the unspoken need to be garnished by BvB sauce.
The drama, the clamour of my immediate surroundings does not surprise me. Standing amid hundreds of fans proclaiming their allegiance to BvB, I feel no distance emotionally from their exuberance. The Borussia experience was once a bit of a lark for me, an occasional rush to a plane, then a tram or subway to a stadium, and an ever so slightly detached view of a vibrant, enterprising side playing in front of an extraordinary support, home or away. But this has changed. Somehow I have become a Borussia supporter. Not in a renaming my son Burki Mkhitaryan Weigl Aubamayang Kagawa Gundogan Reuss MacDonald sort of way. Not even in a pledging my life to BvB and having a tattoo on the extensive free space on the top of my bald napper sort of way. But a supporter, nevertheless.
Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund have somehow become part of my life. The interior of the Mercedes Benz Arena bounces ever so slightly, the noise resounds off its walls, the damp seeps slowly but into my boots. The dance goes on, accompanied by cries of Heja BvB, Heja BvB, Heja, Heja, Heja BvB. This can be crudely translated as ‘Come on, BvB’ though this deprives it of its innate exuberance. I smile. I even take what passes for a video on my phone. I am elated. I am happy. I am 60 years of age.
It is Anfield. But first it was Annfield. The story of how Ally and I ended up supporting Borussia Dortmund requires an explanation. It is Anfield, April 16, 2016, about a week before our trip to Stuttgart. The dash to Liverpool has been born of a need that has contempt for the normal imperatives of finance and rationality. We have paid the equivalent of the combined SPFL premiership transfer budget for two seats at the back of a stand at Anfield.
The money bothers us naught. The fragility of the Dortmund defence is deeply vexing, however. Famously, and predictably, BvB play spectacularly well for large chunks of the match, mesmerising Liverpool with their pace and passing. With a carelessness that would be shocking if it were not so traditional, the defence conspires to donate four goals. From 3-1 up, BvB sink to 4-3 down, the fatal goal being scored in time added on. You may know this. It was in the papers.
The walk back to the centre of town prompts a period of reflection that has something to do with the power of momentum, the fragility of a largely callow side and the sheer tumult of Anfield. But, more importantly, it references Annfield.
It is the late summer in the late eighties. Ally is three years old and as calm as Jamie Vardy on speed. He needs to be walked like a nervous thoroughbred and tonight’s journey takes us past Annfield, big and brick and bold and the home of Stirling Albion.
“What happens in there, Daddy?”
“The big men play football,” I lied.
The next day we were inside the ground, kicking up dust on a deserted terracing, watching 22 men assault a ball on a piece of artificial grass. I was gently amused, even slightly entertained. Ally was smitten. His sister, pricking her ears at the mention of pies and sweets at the post-match conference in the living room, decided to join us on future trips. We were regulars at Stirling Albion for 10 years. From Annfield to Ochilview to Forthbank. Ten soddin’ years. It was a punishment on the weans that should have attracted the attention of social workers. But they survived. Catriona wandered away from football, Ally took up with Celtic. The latter is a family illness and he was infected when Albion were fixture-free and he went to a Celtic match with one of my mates. He returned with tales of might, bedlam and glory. He was lost to the Albion.
Annfield was bulldozed. Forthbank was given a bodyswerve worthy of Maradona on ephedrine and Ally followed Celtic. I, meanwhile, had surprisingly fallen into a job as a sportswriter with all the pre-meditation of walking along a busy road and stepping into a manhole. I was 50 and going to games with my son was now in the past, except, of course, for the assignation at the main steps of Hampden or before Brother Walfrid at Celtic where I would hand him tickets. Football was no longer a fully shared experience. There would be the odd night sharing a sofa and a pizza (the pizza was invariably tastier) and watching a match. But these evenings were rare.
I worked on big sports nights. It is what editors want sportswriters to do. The football bond now existed through text, email or chats pre or post-match. The experience was diluted. We could be at the same football match – often were – but he would be high up the stands and I would be in the press box. He would then go for a pint. I would, meanwhile, be trying to persuade some footballer to explain precisely how he and his mates won/lost/drew a match.
I was missing in action when Borussia came along. Like many romances, it began quite innocently. I noticed he was referring regularly to the Bundesliga, most specifically to Dortmund. It deepened quickly to Echte Liebe, the true love proclaimed in banner and song by BvB fans. His moment of epiphany came when watching Dortmund play at Manchester City in 2012. He had followed with interest the career of Jurgen Klopp, he had become intrigued about the Wall that stood and throbbed at the Westfalenstadion and he had been captivated by how BvB had come back from financial meltdown to build a club that valued the support rather than patronised it. This is a club with more than 100,000 members who seek to influence how it is run.
Ally looked at the Eitihad and saw that BvB supporters had filled an end, snapping up released tickets as City fans declined to buy them. He was smitten. His casual affair immediately became something more serious. He started flying to Germany, accompanied by his wife, Jill, whose tolerance is saintly, heroic. He would bombard me with information about BvB, about the Bundesliga, about the genius of Klopp and the perfidy of Bayern, the diabolical Munich force. He was a BvB supporter. This, to me, was delightfully odd and gently fascinating. It suddenly became something more. It became personal. I became a BvB fan too.
It is May in Berlin. The mass of fans in the centre stand of the Olympic Stadium have drifted towards the exit. I remain in my seat. To my left, the BvB support sings loudly as if to scare away the reality of defeat. Ally has walked down to the mezzanine, brandishing his scarf, not in surrender but in defiance. It is Klopp’s last game as BvB manager and he – and we – have watched his side lose 3-1 to Wolfsburg in the DFB Pokal final. Borussia, of course, offered hope, taking the lead and then scorning a chance to build a solid, perhaps unbridgeable gulf. Instead, they slip carelessly and fecklessly to defeat. It is a night that is almost emblematic of a disappointing season for Borussia. It is also the night I become a BvB fan.
There is no signing of forms, no application for a season ticket, no taking of oaths. I simply, suddenly realise I care, that BvB have the facility not only to entertain me in some louche fashion but to hurt me, sharply and surely. It comes when Ilkay Gundogan, a midfielder of guile and energy, shirks a tackle on the halfway line. Craps it. Jumps up and out of the way as if he has stepped on a land mine. I am outraged. I rise and shout, Ally roaring at my side. Those on sponsors’ tickets look at us with mild disapproval. I do not care. Gundogan has let his team down. He has let his supporters down. He has let me down. I am, after all, one of them.
This visceral reaction is followed by the undeniable realisation that I am now in thrall to yet another team that has the capacity to wound me. As BvB meander to defeat, I am aware of how much it hurts, how much it matters. Yet I also know that it matters little. The physical presence of my son is an unnecessary reminder of what counts and what does not. The genius of football is that it can seem important when it simply is not.
But that is not to deny its potency or even its significance. In the aftermath of the cup final defeat, Ally slipped away to a BvB bar in Berlin. I was glad just to make it home to the hotel on a night when the transport system conspired to create a hearty joke about Teutonic efficiency. It was 1am when I flopped down on the bed, my legs done but my mind racing. In the calm after the Sturm und Drang, there was a clarity. I saw how football was not just a link with my son but a faithful witness to our shared passions, even obsession. I saw that his love for a team was built on it having values that I, well, valued. I saw how the game had taken us over Scotland, throughout Europe. It had now given us another love, one that led us to know other cultures, other people. It had helped us know each other.
In a room on Alexsanderplatz, I glimpsed something else. I had given football to Ally in the late eighties. He had given it back to me. He and Jill are having a wean. I have not will not offer recommendations to them on a name for my first grandchild. But on those nights when an old man finds sleep elusive I amuse myself by thinking that, boy or girl, Heja BvB MacDonald has a certain ring to it. l