The wrong decision?

I could have been a member of the Tartan Army, but I chose England.

By Heather McKinlay

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

Bag packed, I skipped downstairs and pushed open the flimsy glazed door into the living room of our little council house. I’d given my friend my favourite short story book to read while I gathered my swimming things. We were about to set off for the local pool, a pair of 12-year-old girls amusing ourselves during the Easter holidays in the mid-1970s. “What language do you call this, then?!” Debbie exclaimed in her harsh South London accent. “I can’t understand a word of it!” She tossed my precious copy of the Broons Annual down on the black vinyl settee.

My favourite annual, with its colourful family-portrait cover, was the traditional every-other-Christmas present, alternating of course with Oor Wullie, from my Auntie Mary. Married to one of Dad’s brothers, Uncle Peter, uncannily she lived on Glebe Street, just like the Broons, only in Campbeltown, Kintyre, a bit easier to pronounce than Auchentogle. To my child’s mind, Auntie Mary bore a passing resemblance to Maw Broon. She organised her household with precision, dealt calmly and kindly with unexpected visitors, protected her brood at all costs and usually came out on top in any wee arguments with her husband, especially about the demon drink. She even wore a pinny. I thought about explaining all this to Debbie but what was the point if she couldn’t make sense of jings, crivvens, help ma boab?

Such culture clashes were the unavoidable consequence of growing up on the edge of South East London in a half and half household, with an English mother and Scottish father. Becalmed in London at the end of the War, Dad had met Mum at a dance and that was that. He never again lived in Campbeltown, only returning for holidays and funerals. With his bushy sideburns, thinning red hair and lilting but gradually fading accent, he recreated a little bit of Scotland in our suburban semi. We always celebrated Hogmanay with a big party. Our home, and its proximity to the glamour of the capital, acted like a magnet in attracting stray Scottish friends and relatives. These visitors would often sit with Dad putting the world to rights deep into the night over copious drams of luxury blended whisky.

I was the youngest of three children. I showed occasional flashes of the Bairn’s precociousness but had mousy looks more like Daphne Broon and a penchant for books and studying akin to Horace. Affectionately described as the accidental result of attempts by the parents to keep warm during a bitterly cold winter, I benefitted from my late and unexpected arrival. As Bob Dylan noted, the times they were a changing. Unlike my elder siblings, I never felt the back of Dad’s hand swiping me in anger. Mum and Dad had matured and relaxed as parents and I grew up spoilt to bits.

Ours was not really a football household; Dad was the only one with a passion for the then not-so-beautiful game. He turned out dutifully to support the nearby team of Charlton Athletic and kept in touch with Scottish goings-on via a weekly dose of the Sunday Post, which usually arrived in our house on a Tuesday. That’s when I got my fix of the Broons and Oor Wullie and soaked up the dialect.

To Dad’s quiet delight and Mum’s obvious displeasure, I inherited his football gene, instantly seduced by the trendy Chelsea 1970 FA Cup winners. Blue was their colour, although it was a dull grey on our grainy black and white telly. Dad took it as a challenge to wear down my infatuation with the wrong club. Repeated trips to the towering but empty terraces of The Valley tugged at my young heartstrings. Eventually I succumbed to supporting the far less glamorous, but much more local, Addicks. Over breakfast every morning, Mum found herself refereeing an undignified fight for the sports pages of the newspaper. I soon learnt there was rarely anything to read about Charlton.

Then a problem loomed on a national scale. Every year in May, Dad got caught up in the Home Internationals and particularly the England-Scotland clash. He’d disappear north for several days whenever the game was at Hampden. In the Wembley years, we’d be invaded by a small cohort of the Tartan Army. They went undercover, Dad and his brothers preferring sober attire of trousers, shirt, tie and blazer, even when heading to the match. My big sister and brother had both already taken Dad’s side and declared their allegiance to Scotland – as I said, they took no interest in football. Now it was my turn. Mental arithmetic being one of my stronger points, I worked out that Mum was outnumbered three to one in her own household. I had been brought up to believe in justice and fairness. I felt drawn to the underdog. Someone had to stick up for Mum. Perhaps, subconsciously, I also wanted to punish Dad for brainwashing me into Charlton instead of Chelsea.

I chose England.

By 1975 I was going regularly to football with Dad so naturally hoped he might rustle up a ticket for the Wembley international for me. I also recognised that England needed a bit more support. To my shock, Dad was insistent that it was far too dangerous to take a young girl. I smarted at missing England’s glorious 5-1 triumph. 1977 was still too dangerous, Dad said, presciently, as it turned out. Even 1979 was dangerous according to my father, though actually it was a bit boring on the telly. Finally my cajoling paid off. In 1981 I was on my way to Wembley, a 17-year-old English prisoner of the undercover wing of the Tartan Army. The penny dropped as we crawled from pub to pub before the match. It wasn’t my safety Dad had been concerned about at all; the danger stemmed from an underage kid cramping their pre-match drinking style.

Perhaps thinking of me, or more likely because they’d been easier to come by, Dad had purchased tickets for what, in theory, was an England supporters’ section on the large terrace behind the Wembley goal. After the shenanigans of the Scottish fans’ pitch invasion in 1977, this end had been divided into sections with high fences in between each pen and around the pitch. Predictably, despite the best attempts of the ticketing authorities, even our cage turned out to be full of Scots, resplendent in kilts and furled in flags. Dad grabbed my hand and led us through the throng until  we reached a little bit of space. “Stay close to me by this crush barrier, Heather,” he said protectively. I was happy to do so: the sweet fragrance of his Old Spice aftershave was preferable to the stale alcohol and fresh urine smells which otherwise wafted around.

The first half of football passed with little incident either on or off the pitch. During the interval, with no football to hold their attention, the crowd of lads in their late teens and 20s started to become a bit more boisterous and restless. I was catching snippets of their conversation, as they swapped stories of the famous victory of 1977, the aftermath on the pitch and the fate of their clods of turf.

“Mine’s got pride of place in the middle of the tenement drying green. Even the old wifey from number three knows not to walk on that bit when she’s hanging oot her washing,” boasted one.

“I didn’t have anywhere ootdoors so I put it in a plastic tray by the windae. But the cat went and peed on it, and it shrivelled away,” the next lad mournfully reported. I stifled a giggle. “You must have got yerself a bloody English moggie!” retorted his pal unsympathetically,

The sharing of victorious anecdotes increased the lads’ frustration at the lack of confrontation with the auld enemy. Suddenly one of them, just in front of me, brandished his hip flask  in the air and leeringly yelled out, “Where are all the f***ing English?” I remembered uttering not quite the same words to myself when watching this fixture on TV back in 1975 as the camera panned the Wembley curve full of saltires and lions rampant. I could not resist. I tapped him politely on the shoulder and simply said, “Here.” He reeled round in shock then regained his composure as much as any man can when he’s wearing a skirt. “Aye,  so you are!” he exclaimed, looking me up and down, his eyes resting in seeming admiration on the Admiral logo on my chest. “Would you like a wee dram, then, doll?” He carefully wiped the unscrewed neck of the hip flask  with his cotton shirt sleeve before politely holding it out to me. It would be rude to reject this gesture of reconciliation, I thought, glancing towards Dad, who nodded his approval. I took a small swig and felt the burning, warming sensation of the cheap whisky on my lips, then my tongue, then my throat. I swallowed a mouthful of saliva quickly afterwards to make sure I didn’t cough and splutter. I smiled shyly and handed the wee flask back.

Early in the second half there was a commotion at the opposite end of the pitch. The Scottish lads started jumping up and down. “A penalty! The French ref’s given us a penalty! Long live the auld alliance!” I stood on tip-toe and peeped among their shoulders, struggling to see to the far end of the cavernous stadium. The small, stocky and unmistakable figure of John Robertson was placing the ball on the spot. “If only we had Shilton in goal,” I announced into space, all too aware that Dad was supporting Scotland and so was everyone else around me. “He plays for Forest too, he’d know which way Robertson will hit it,” I continued in vain. Robbo calmly stroked the ball past the flailing Corrigan.

Once they had stopped jigging about, my new found friends were all very sympathetic, offering me consolation hugs and another taste of the burning liquid from the hip flask , “Och what a shame, ye cannae help it that yer team’s rubbish.”

As an adult I moved to Glasgow, pulled by fond memories of visits to this friendly but grimy place in the 1970s and 80s, pushed out of London by my new husband, a Belfast boy who could not settle in the greater urban sprawl and also had a craving for a colder climate where he could once again wear jumpers.

I’ve been coping with my split identity ever since. I have a Scottish name, but an English accent. I’ve got freckles, but not red hair. I love a drink, but prefer wine to whisky. I’ve seen Local Hero 20 or more times, but have no inclination to watch Braveheart. By day I’m a thoughtful and considerate professional. By night, especially after a drink or two, I can be opinionated and argumentative. “That’s your Scottish side coming out,” friends have commented on more than one occasion.

Not long after our arrival in the summer of 1991 I wanted to challenge a young lad who was swaggering along Argyle Street in a German top, still celebrating a narrow penalty victory over England at Italia 90. My Belfast Boy wisely held me back, cautioning that I didn’t really need a Glasgow kiss. I have since learnt to pull a tight-lipped smile when good Scottish friends and relations announce their new-found footballing love for Argentina, Norway, Trinidad & Tobago and just about any other random country thrown up in the luck of the draw. Costa Rica posed a fascinating dilemma in the most recent World Cup – 24 years on, could the Scots forgive and forget that Genoa humbling and get behind the Central Americans? England’s dismal Brazilian performance made it a moot point.

The new favourite is Iceland of course, after their motley collection of hard-workers outclassed Hodgson’s prima donnas at Euro 2016. To add to my personal pain, even Charlton played their part. Our erstwhile winger, Jóhann Berg Gudmundsson , helped set up the winning goal. Virtually every time he touched the ball, the English commentators couldn’t resist a jibe about “recently-relegated Charlton”. It was their way of heaping more scorn on the Rooneys of this world. But for me it was an unwanted reminder that my club team had just sunk into League One, or the Third Division as I still insist on calling it. 

Iceland. Do my Scottish friends not remember that country’s role in the banking crash? Next time they moan that the local council has closed the library and reduced bin collections to once every three weeks, I must remind them about the millions lost in Icelandic banks. And what about the ash cloud? How many journeys were disrupted just because Iceland could not control one of its unpronounceable volcanoes? Holidays ruined, business disrupted; people even missed funerals and weddings. Iceland. It’s not a cuddly little country. They even hunt whales.

My personal Euro 2016 experience was England v Russia in Marseille, but that’s a whole different story. A fellow Addick witnessed the nightmare against Iceland in Nice. His expletive-laden rant popped up on my Facebook feed. Filmed on shaky phone footage, the match still going on in the background, his big round face is singed pink by both sun and embarrassment. Clad in a pale blue polo shirt, he incongruously sports a straw boater more commonly associated with donkeys on the beach. His anger at both club and country builds: “My f***ing season’s been horrible. I came here to f***ing cheer meself up…” A transcript can’t do it justice and I doubt Nutmeg can find enough asterisks. He berates the players for their earnings and lavish lifestyle. That’s cocaine, not cupcakes, I realise on the third time of listening. “Me season’s been shit and now me summer’s shit,” he rounds off. It touches a raw football nerve. The post quickly goes viral, since viewed over three million times – that’s 10  times the population of little old Iceland so I can’t help but wonder how many times it’s been watched in Scotland already. (Search Facebook for “Barry Platts posts”.)

I may express it in a different way from the Addick in the straw hat but I am equally hacked off with my national team. For all I’ve endured with Charlton, I’ve enjoyed many great moments: I’ve seen us win at Old Trafford, thump Manchester City 5-0, even beat Chelsea on numerous occasions. Thanks to my choice of club, I was there, along with my Scottish Dad, Irish husband and English football friends, at the greatest ever game at Wembley. No, not 1967. I mean the play-off final in May 1998. Charlton came from behind three times to draw 4-4 after extra time, beating Sunderland to a coveted place in the Premiership 7-6 on penalties.

1998. Just over a month later, that extraordinary club footballing high was replaced with country footballing woe. Courtesy of a French connection, we’d bought tickets for every match in Saint-Étienne  at the World Cup. We celebrated alongside Iranian female football fans as they narrowly lost to Yugoslavia – for them, the result was secondary to taking part. We remarked on the parsimony of the Dutch, dutifully clad top to toe in shades of orange, their t-shirts home-dyed or plucked from bargain bins, certainly not official KNVB replicas. What a carnival, if rather clashing, sight as they joined the red, white and green Mexicans waving in the stands. The professionals on the pitch took their cue from the undulating crowd as momentum swayed from one end to the other, resulting in a 2-2 draw. We sipped rough red wine with Spaniards dressed as matadors, wondering how on earth they had smuggled a five litre flagon past the turnstile bag searches. Then we realised that the leader of the pack was not quite as rotund as first glance suggested. We delighted in watching José Luis Chilavert, Paraguay’s legendary keeper, sortie far up the pitch to take attacking free kicks then lumber back to guard his goal. He cancelled himself out in a 0-0 draw.

For our last group match it was time for me to get up close and personal with the Tartan Army once more. For the day, blue was again my football colour. I let a stranger paint mini saltires on both my cheeks. I picked up a full-size flag from a passing seller and draped it round my shoulders. We joined forces and streamed into the city centre then fell in behind the Daily Record’s battle bus as it led the merry band of foot soldiers on an impromptu march all the way to the stadium. Two miles through narrow streets on a Friday afternoon, the double decker left diesel fumes and rush hour traffic chaos in its wake, nevertheless eliciting smiles and waves from bemused French citizens hanging from their wrought-iron balconies.

Drink was banned from sale, of course. Except no-one had told the back street butcher who happened to have a large stock of local rosé. Word soon got round and the bottles flew off his shelves. Now suitably lubricated, the be-kilted marchers were in fine voice. Hendry’s men had done themselves proud in narrow defeat under the fierce glare of the world in the opening match against Brazil. An understated follow-up draw with Norway meant a win against Morocco would take Scotland through to the knockout stages for the first time ever. It went without saying that Brazil would beat Norway in the simultaneous match. The skirling bagpipes were interspersed with much chatter of more time off work and the onward trip to Marseille. I quickly dismissed my cynical English thought that you’re meant to save the celebratory open-top bus parade until  afterwards.

To make matters even better in the eyes of my semi-compatriots, England had lost to Romania the previous evening. The focus of the singing suddenly took that expected turn. I knew from club experience that Alan Shearer had flailing elbows but calling him a “f***ing paedophile” was going just a bit too far. I tugged at the sleeve of one of the guys in kilt and Jimmy wig in front of me just as he finished a swig from his rosé bottle and was about to launch into the offensive chorus again. He turned, surprised to be accosted by a bespectacled woman in her thirties. I was equally startled to realise he wasn’t wearing a wig at all, just a bunnet on top of his own red ringlets. “Oi, I’m here supporting your team so stop singing stuff like that about mine!” My raw English accent left him in no doubt about my underlying allegiance beneath the temporary veneer of the saltires. He slowed down and stepped to the side of the marching masses, gesturing at me to follow. I did, my Belfast Boy hovering cautiously behind like a nervous bodyguard. The singled-out object of my wrath tucked the wine bottle under his arm and held out a slender hand, “I’m Jimmy from Dundee. Pleased to meet you.” From somewhere about his person – I hope his sporran – he then produced a plastic cup, filled it to the brim with pink plonk and gave it to me. “Now drink that and haud yer wheesht!” With a blow of a kiss he melted back into the uniformed crowd, leaving me with nothing more than rosy cheeks and rough wine. Had I just had a brief encounter with the legendary fan who gave the wig his name?

The anti-English songs died down, whether through my intervention or not, replaced by love songs for Scotland and her brave footballers. Was that something about lassies and heather? It couldn’t be for me – I hadn’t even told Jimmy my name. By the time we arrived at the stadium, I was floating on a wave of exuberance, a bit tipsy and grinning at the joyful antics of the Tartan Army. Then the match kicked off and Morocco romped to a 3-0 victory. Probably just as well, we thought, as we slunk away afterwards, hearing that Norway had scored two late goals to beat Brazil. Imagine the heartache if Scotland had won and still not qualified? It would have been a bit like 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990 all over again.

One more match to go on my personal France 98 adventure, in that first knockout round which Scotland had avoided. Group H winners, Argentina, versus Group G runners-up. The defeat to Romania had thrown England straight into my Saint-Étienne  clutches.

This time there was no pre-match entertainment, no sipping of rosé, no flirting, no premature open-top bus parade. Rightly fearing a less relaxed ambience, we avoided the city centre and parked near the stadium. Memories of war between these two countries were fresh – both on the pitch in 1986 and at sea in 1982. The fragmented English football army bore no resemblance to its tartan equivalent. Jimmy wigs ceded their place to shaven heads, bare knobbly knees were replaced by beer bellies, marching and singing by snarling and swearing, the saltire by the union flag in all its inappropriateness.

We knew from earlier experience that the neutral French were adept at touting their tickets to all-comers, making formal segregation inside the ground an alien concept. On this warm June evening, opposing fans were forced to mix but they had no appetite to mingle. Language was a barrier but plenty of gesticulating led to fairly orderly seat swapping and DIY  separation. Perched along the side, in the upper tier, we found ourselves quite close to the packed Argentine end: a tumbling waterfall of sky-blue and white stripes, splashes of white t-shirts twirling above bobbing heads. Their singing was menacing and incessant, only punctuated incongruously by toots from the Sheffield brass band.

As the first half unfolded, I was rapt. The play resembled basketball as the two sides took it in turns to build attack after attack. Every pass found its man, each move was swift and flowing. Twenty four players all hitting the peak of their form simultaneously, the deft pace of young Michael Owen, the angelic poise of Gabriel Batistuta, the uncompromising resilience of Diego Simeone. My heart thumped, my toes curled, I shouted at penalty injustice and leapt for joy when England scored. Two-all by half-time. This was fantasy football. Then Beckham broke the spell with a careless flick of his leg. His floppy hair concealed his shame as he trudged from the pitch. I felt the hope drain from my body.

Now 10 v 11, the match becomes a war of attrition. We’re hanging on manfully and I’m supporting womanfully. Loud chanting from both sets of supporters occasionally boils over into scuffles. I’m chewing the wispy ends of my hair. Full-time. Biting my fingernails. Extra-time. Corner to England. Goal! No, disallowed: a Shearer elbow, so much for sticking up for him. Penalties. Batty misses. Football’s not coming home; England are going home.

As I reflect on those few weeks in the early summer of 1998, a story of club v country, country v country, army v army, fun v football, it pops into my head. The unthinkable. The thought I’ve suppressed for so long. Did I make the wrong decision?

I imagine swapping England’s song about never-ending hurt for a ditty from The Sound of Music. Managerial nightmares would comprise Craig Levein’s lack of strikers and Berti Vogts’ insouciance instead of Allardyce’s avarice and Sven’s sex-life. I wouldn’t have had to flee from ultra-Russian violence and teargas in Marseille at Euro 2016. I might have been there when only one team turned up in Tallinn. I could kick-off endless debates about the merits of Archie Gemmill’s feet versus Maradona’s hand. Instead of losing to a country called after a supermarket, my recent embarrassment would be losing to a country with a dragon-slaying patron saint (twice if you remember Georgia).

I could have lived an international footballing life of near misses and glorious failure on goal difference. And Tartan Army fun. I could even find myself cheering for Argentina, Germany or Iceland when they next play England. Not Costa Rica, though. At least we both hate them.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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