Finding my identity

Identity is the crisis, can’t you see Identity identity.

By Colin McPherson

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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It was like no other Scottish ground and the club’s small band of followers were like no other supporters.

We live in an age of multiple identities.

Confirmation of this lies with the ongoing political upheaval nationally and globally. Mass migration means people born in one location often end up living, working and dying in another place. They adapt, change, assume different habits, customs and passports – and identities. In Scotland, the dichotomous nature of our nation means we define ourselves as being some combination of Scottish, British, European or from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Gender, race, sexuality, nationality: all up for grabs and open to negotiation, part of some ongoing personal journey.

But what of football fans? Typically, the average supporter will follow one club throughout his or her life. That we are programmed to support a particular team seems almost pre-ordained. Lifelong, unbending allegiance is formed through location, family, habit or occasionally chosen preference when too young to foresee the consequences of that choice. These bonds never break and the colours never run. A lifelong commitment; a life sentence. Either way, most fans are stuck forever with their favourites.

My story is different. An uncharted voyage through Scottish football, starting at the top, crashing to the basement and finding redemption – and confirmation of my current footballing identity.

This is where it all began…
Hibernian 5, Morton 0; Scottish League First Division, 2nd November 1974, Easter Road Stadium.
Flecks of rain drip solemnly from an unleavened sky. A powerful wind swirls down the street, whipping up mini-tornadoes of rubbish, blowing everyday detritus across our paths. Tall, dark figures hunch against the November chill, pushing against the gusts, their hum and chatter barely audible on the cacophonous breeze.

The shops are closing or already shuttered. It is Saturday afternoon, and trading has ceased for the weekend everywhere except in the bars which throw sickly, yellow illuminations across the sodden pavement. The air is thick with gloom. The sound of cavalry, a shuffling mass of humanity, announces our gathering. A group of younger lads breaks off to the right and heads away towards a narrow bridge. We carry on and take the next street. After a few paces it comes into view at last: Easter Road stadium. My place of worship, my spiritual home.

I’m 10 years old, and this is the birthday treat: my first-ever football match. More importantly, my first-ever Hibs match. The smell of beer-on-breath, the waft of cigarette – occasionally pipe – smoke entices us towards the turnstiles. Before I can draw breath, my dad squeezes me through the cold, wrought iron, the click-clicking accompaniment announcing our arrival inside the ground. There’s no sunshine on Leith today but in my heart there’s joy.

The dense, wooden seats of the main stand. The grumbling men behind me. The occasionally volcanic eruptions of frustration. The juice and Wagon Wheels at half-time. And my heroes. Turnbull’s Tornadoes, bedecked in that unique uniform, the plain green top with matching cuffs divided by trademark white sleeves. Was it the strip I first fell in love with? Or the name? Or the players? Stanton, Blackley, Edwards and Alan Gordon – tall, languid and deadly in front of goal. How could it have happened that this little lad from the other side of Edinburgh, none of whose family had ever shown an interest in Hibernian Football Club, became a fan?

I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. All I recall is that this club, this place, these supporters, they were me and I was them. My identity. Unshakable, unflinching, unbending. Forever. A Hibby.

The match flickers in my memory. Details are hazy and my impression of the day still centres on the feeling engendered by the occasion, rather than its significance or the scoreline. We won 5-0, the record books show. I cannot remember any sense of elation at the result, but I recall with vividness the thrill of being there. It was like being born all over again.

From that dank autumn day, a passion awoke inside me. I would cajole, nag and plead to be taken to every game. The logic in my young mind was simple: without a television set in our house, going to a match was the only way I would have of seeing football. It worked often enough, but as soon as I was old enough to be trusted, I started going to home games on my own. It felt like a small rebellion, true independence. Doing it for myself and self-reliance, traits and habits which would infect my life until the present day. But in that innocent age of flared denim and cascading hair, something else was stirring. Through the miasma of puberty I was searching to express the inner rebel. Like every teenager, I was looking for something else. Soon I found it and it had a name: Meadowbank Thistle.

Brechin City versus Meadowbank Thistle, Scottish League Division Two, 7th May 1983, Glebe Park.
Sometime between the Sex Pistols implosion that marked the end of punk and the nascency of Joy Division which heralded its lovechild New Wave, Poly Styrene, the inspirational singer of X-Ray Spex screamed at me over the airwaves: “Identity is the crisis, can’t you see?” I could see. I was 14 after all, and about to embark on a regime of torn-t-shirts and self-cropped hair. Gone was the soundtrack to my childhood, fuzzy pop crackling over the medium wave, replaced now by a gathering vinyl collection of spit-and-vomit songs, deafening exhortations to anarchy and change. I stumbled out of my teenage crisis and into Edinburgh’s third Scottish League club. Physically, this curious football journey shifted my allegiance barely one mile as the crow could fly across the city, yet it transported me into another footballing universe and allowed me to assume a new, fresh identity.

Meadowbank Thistle, Meadowbank-fucking-Thistle, the laughing stock of Scottish football, a club cobbled together on a compromise to stop the Highland advance on the Scottish League, serial bottom-feeders of Scotland’s lowest division with no history and little support. Pitied by many, loved by few. It was here I discovered the modern world. Easter Road had become segregated, bitter and angry, Hibs a team in decline in a rotting atmosphere. They sent in the clowns with George Best as ringmaster, a grotesque annihilation of everything the club once stood for, and got what they deserved. By then I was out, savouring instead the long, clean lines of the Commonwealth Stadium, the rows of neat, upturned seats at a venue built on Olympian hopes and dreams, since bequeathed to a football team. It was like no other Scottish ground and the club’s small band of followers were like no other supporters.

I discovered away days, pushing boundaries well beyond my comfortable, suburban life in the capital by visiting some of the goriest places imaginable. With Thatcher’s Britain as a backdrop, I learned that despite the eponymous train station, there was no sunny side to Coatbridge. A trip to Rutherglen risked encounters with unreconstructed Teddy Boys and if you weren’t lying on the floor of the supporters’ bus as it reached the top roundabout in Dumfries, your reward would be a brick hurled towards you. Boys openly sold Bulldog, the racist propaganda of the far right, whilst almost every opponents’ support seemed to consist of cast-off mobs from the Old Firm. Meadowbank fans were just a scruffy collection of soulful young rebels. We didn’t just endure the countless defeats, we positively enjoyed them. If you can laugh at your own misfortune it makes the victory celebration all the more joyous. It was win-win, all the way home.

I travelled with fellow disciples whose friendship I would come to cherish and value to the present day. Lads who shaped my attitudes not only to football, but to politics, music, relationships and life in general. It was the punk mentality which captivated me: not arrogant, but alternative. Change things, don’t destroy them. Laugh at ourselves and with others. Do it yourself, your own way. Whilst the Tory government was using gang-sounding acronyms such as YOP and YTS as ways of keeping Britain’s youth occupied, across Scotland and beyond football supporters wanted change and we were doing something about it: organising, writing, publishing, campaigning. A revolution was at hand and even fans of the smallest teams could be part of it.

To some extent, being involved with football teams at Thistle’s level meant that your support was comparatively more important than at a bigger club. It was invisibility against visibility. If I missed a Hibs game, nobody cared. There were plenty to take my place and the few quid I handed over every fortnight was neither here nor there. At Meadowbank, if one of the regulars didn’t show up, questions would be asked. A family occasion more important than last week’s goalless draw with Montrose? A cold or the ’flu preventing you from making the away bus to Methil? Holidays? During the football season? Put bluntly, the pound you spent at Meadowbank had to go further by far. I viewed my primary identity now not just as a football fan, but as member of a particular sub-species of the human race: a Meadowbank Thistle football fan. I belonged. And with that came obligations.

So we arrive at Glebe Park, Brechin standing in the pale, spring sunshine, bathed in optimism. It’s deep into injury time and finally, after an aeon of agony, the referee blows his whistle to mark the end of the game. In breathless excitement we vault the perimeter fence and run. I can feel the unbridled joy of it still to this day. The pitch seems like it is a thousand miles long as we sprint, sprint, sprint towards the halfway line. Coming the other way is a bigger army clad in red, arms outstretched, faces contorted in emotion. We meet in the middle, two tribes not at war, but united in glorious celebration. The result has brought promotion for both teams. Fans collect in front of the tiny main stand and demand an appearance from their respective squads of heroes. I am 18 years old and feel 18 feet tall. I wave my black and amber scarf above my head uncontrollably. Around me my friends are jumping and cavorting, revelling in the sheer impossibility of it all. In one glorious and improbable season, Meadowbank Thistle had flipped Scottish football on its head and the small band of diehards, of which I was one, could celebrate like other fans for the first time.

Morton 0, Meadowbank Thistle 3; Scottish League First Division, 2nd December 1990, Cappielow Park.
The 1980s was a blissful, creative and golden era for Meadowbank Thistle fans. We luxuriated in the team’s successes. The Commonwealth Stadium became a footballing fortress where many of Scotland’s most illustrious clubs were beaten to a pulp by a team marshalled from the vast open spaces opposite the grandstand by the singular and diminutive generalissimo Terry Christie. The club came within one league reconstruction – all the rage during that decade – of reaching the domestic game’s highest level. Although we felt cheated out of promotion in 1988, away from the games we were at the forefront of a phenomenon which gave fans a voice and a way of expressing themselves: fanzines.

Although some claim you can trace the lineage of fanzines back to the cave drawings of Neolithic man, their evolution really began in the late-1970s with homespun publications dedicated to punk music. This inspired football fans to follow their creative instincts and by the middle of the following decade a welter of did-it-ourselves magazines allowed fans to express their news and views in an undiluted and uncensored way. The bile and boke of Scottish football was laid bare on photocopied pages, as fans began to organise and agitate. Tribal, yes, but the camaraderie which existed between fanzines brought supporters together at a time when violent disorder was never far away from most football grounds. Meadowbank Thistle fans had had a dummy run with a publication named Cheers but in 1986 its bastard offspring hit the terracing. Produced in a mouse-infested, subterranean shebeen by a cluster of underemployed reprobates, AWOL was an uncompromising attempt to bring together in words, photos and cartoons three of our most-loved pastimes: football, music and shoplifting. We showcased local bands, reviewed galleries, films, bars and indeed anything else we could sneak in to undetected. We refused to take advertising to fund the fanzine and drank most of the proceeds anyway. We were outsiders, non-conformists, defiant desperadoes during those dislocated, dysfunctional days. This was the way we were.

It seemed as if nothing could touch us. On a chilly pre-Christmas day on the tail o’ the bank, Thistle cut hosts Morton to pieces with a display of counter-attacking bravado which typified Christie’s cohorts. Three goals, two points and once again the summit was visible. We laid bets in bookies that we were going up and the usual dreich retreat from the soggy west coast was enlivened by an assortment of celebratory songs and what is these days referred to in footballing circles as ‘banter’. What we weren’t to know then was that our club’s board of directors contained a Trojan horse in the shape of the larger-than-death figure of local businessman Bill Hunter. He was already sowing the seeds of our destruction. Within five years, after a convulsive and at times repulsive campaign, Hunter had wrestled Meadowbank Thistle out of Edinburgh and existence and presented it to the bewildered residents of a new town in West Lothian, to do with it what they wished.

It was a sorry episode, one which Thistle supporters fought to prevent using every manoeuvre available to a group of average football fans. Our pleas fell on the deaf ears of authority, our cause not helped by a media infatuated with the money flowing into Scottish football during the Souness-era. In a mirror image of the club’s decline on the pitch, supporters were either banned or abandoned their team and the Commonwealth Stadium, detested and derided by opponents, was largely forgotten on match days. When the end came for Meadowbank Thistle in 1995, it felt like a mercy killing. Stripped of my club, shorn of my identity, I was forced to watch the final home game from outwith the stadium’s perimeter as the owner presided over a celebration of the club’s achievements in a last, grotesque, Soviet-style act of ignominy and orgy of vainglory. It was a case of identity theft, which left me bereft and turning away from football.

Edinburgh City 2, Peebles Rovers 2, East of Scotland League First Division, 4th November 1995, Fernieside Recreation Ground.
It’s six month later. My legs are grazing against a rope which surrounds a sloping, bumpy cabbage patch masquerading as a football pitch. Rain permeates the space between my neck and collar. We stand along one touchline in a single, uncovered row, craning to see the action as tackles fly and the ball bobbles and dribbles harmlessly beyond the goal. Earlier, I had watched nets being flung over goalposts and dog mess being scraped off the pitch. Players of assorted sizes, shapes and weights wearing a collection of ragged training gear haphazardly pinged balls about in what passed as a pre-match warm up, before re-emerging from a cramped Portakabin to join in battle. Welcome to Edinburgh City, as a sign might have read had there been one at the ground. But in this anonymous corner of Auld Reekie, perched on its southern slopes in a ground hemmed in by housing, with no visible sign indicating the presence of senior football let alone a half-time pie, I suddenly rediscovered my love for the game.

The setting may have been redolent of a pub match, but the standard was far higher, and the interest and intensity there to see. Within a few short months, my friends and I were the ones doing the spadework, laying foundations which would eventually see Edinburgh City scale the highest peaks, first in the East of Scotland League, then as two-times champions of the Lowland League before gloriously reclaiming a place in the Scottish League, vacated by the club of the same name a decade before I was even born.

But to get to those exalted reaches, relentless toil and commitment were required. We turned from ordinary supporters into committee men overnight. Scarves were swapped for shirt-and-tie. It was our club and our responsibility to ensure that players turned up, their kit cleaned, the post-match food was hot and that sufficient scratch cards were flogged to ensure we could pay the petrol for players’ cars to away games at Hawick Royal Albert and Eyemouth United. We applied the same rules which had served us as fans in our previous incarnation: we can do this on our own. We don’t know how, but we’ll give it a go. We’ll learn from our mistakes and try never to fall out with each other along the way. Punks in blazers, doing it our way, again. We stuck together even if we fell out with players and managers. Dammit, we actually had to appoint managers. How grown-up did that make us feel? We took the club back to our alma mater, becoming tenants at the Commonwealth Stadium, erstwhile ground of the doomed Meadowbank Thistle. Home. In time, and through persistence and bloody-mindedness we built a club we could be pleased with and a new identity of which we were proud. For us, non-League was better than Champions League any day.

East Stirlingshire 0, Edinburgh City 1; Scottish League Two Play-off Final, Second Leg, 15th May 2015, Ochilview Park.
In 2013, by establishing the grandly-sounding Scottish Lowland Football League, the game in Scotland shattered a glass ceiling: there would be promotion to the Scottish League for the first time since its formation in 1890. This gave ambitious clubs previously perceived as beyond the pale the opportunity to claim a place amongst the likes of Brechin City, Stirling Albion and Elgin City. For me, and my fellow Meadowbank Thistle refuseniks, it offered the tantalising prospect of righting an historical wrong and proving that although money screamed until it was blue in the face, success could be achieved without being bought. On that sun-kissed day in Stenhousemuir, our hard work bore fruit. Captain Dougie Gair’s late penalty separated two clubs travelling in opposite directions and secured Edinburgh City’s place amongst Scotland’s elite. No jumping and fist-pumping like manic teens, rather handshakes and a feeling of quiet satisfaction and pride? No chance! Advancing years might rob us of the ability to dash across the pitch in a delirious invasion, nevertheless there were hugs and tears amongst friends who had metaphorically kicked every ball for  more than two decades and got the club to where it is today. City players and manager Gary Jardine rightly received the plaudits, but it was us who took the spoils.

In politics, we hear talk of the settled will of the people. It indicates that decisions have been made and life moves on. After a somewhat circuitous journey, I have finally come to my destination and to terms with my identity, one which has wider implications than simply being ‘a fan of…’ Irrespective of which division or league Edinburgh City play, there will be no more changing colours and no more turning away: As they sing on the terraces: “I’m City ’til I die”.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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