I didn’t learn that Hibs had won the Scottish Cup until a year after it happened. I may have heard before then, but it didn’t register. I barely knew about our relegation at the time. I could not have picked Alan Stubbs out of a line-up, and I couldn’t now tell you what I was doing on 21 May, 2016.
This being the case presents some challenges when I claim my title of lifelong Hibee. But being deprived of the chance to spend Saturdays perched in the West Stand alongside my father taught me that even if you lose each other for a while – or 12 years in my case – your club is likely still in your bones.
My father, John, was the eldest of five siblings growing up in the heart of Fife. His dad supported Rangers, but a trip to Easter Road with an uncle turned young John’s head for good. He convinced a younger brother too, though the rest of his siblings were lost to the Glasgow side.
For the rest of his life, my dad was as dedicated a Hibs supporter as you could find. My mother was landed with a season ticket of her own not long after they got together. When I ask her to watch games with me now, she groans that Hibs are too stressful and that she “did [her] time”.
It meant that the club formed a huge part of my life virtually from birth. A Hibs Kid and taken to games when I was still crawling I, like most of us, was doomed to support my dad’s team. Not long after being told he would have “handed [me] to anyone with a Hibs badge on them”, I unearthed old photos of a group of players including Darren Jackson, Keith Wright and Graham Mitchell lined up on the grass at Easter Road, clutching 10-month-old me awkwardly for the camera straight after a 0-2 loss to Falkirk.
But my dad died suddenly in 1998. They played “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (Glory, glory hallelujah) at his funeral, with the bravest among the crowd amending the lyrics to sing the words he would’ve liked best. This – among other things – meant I lost my main tie to the club. I was four years old and too young to have formed any memories of my family and football, the kind which can trigger nostalgia at the turnstiles for the rest of a person’s life.
I loved Hibs, though, and kept with it when I got a little older. I could hold my own with football-mad peers at school, and neighbours collected Panini stickers out of newspapers which I went round to collect in the afternoons. Pictures of the 2006/07 League Cup winning team, pulled out of newspapers, adorned my bedroom walls alongside glossy photos of boy bands.
My uncle – the brother my dad had recruited to the Hibs fold in their youth – took me to games when he could. A 6-0 win at home over Arbroath in 2006 was magical to me; I was far more interested in the Scott Brown header from a Derek Riordan corner which opened proceedings than the fact that the match was effectively a banana skin avoided.
On the other hand, it has been a struggle to forget the 2-0 League Cup defeat to Livingston in 2004. We sat high behind the goal at Hampden, watching a strip of yellow in the opposite corner of the stadium make more noise than the despondent sea of Hibs supporters we were part of. It was a long coach journey home to Easter Road.
But as I grew into my teens, football and I lost touch. I found other interests, ones shared by the people around me, and I quit my own football training for other pursuits too. It’s tough to stay connected to your football team if you’re doing it alone, I’ve learned, and still look at those with Saturday matchday friends with envy. If someone asked I would identify myself as a Hibs fan, but it felt like more of a statement of genetics than anything else.
I wouldn’t go to another football game until near the end of my teens, when a blue-nosed boyfriend dragged me to Ibrox on one or two occasions. Following football again always seemed like something just out of reach. Such was my disconnection from my own team that I wondered if shifting allegiances to Rangers would be a way back in. It would certainly be easier to find company for games, and it would satisfy much of my family.
Thankfully we are not defined by our fleeting thoughts.
But the older I became, the more questions I had about my dad, and the more football seemed the best way to get to know him. Those questions stretched from the profound – if he met me now, would we like each other? Would our politics align? – to the seemingly trivial. What was my first match at Easter Road? When my family tells me my dad “knew people” at the club, what does that mean? What was his favourite away day?
I wanted to be able to see the world through my dad’s green specs. And even more than that, I missed football. I started by checking the Hibs score every week, getting a feel for the club’s standing. I moved on to listening to games on the radio if I was free, then sometimes putting plans off just so that I could catch a match. I picked up books, watched old games online, started consuming more media covering Scottish football as a whole. It was remarkably easy to fall right back into the swing of things, like the muscle memory I always hoped I had.
There were obstacles. Football is a language. It has its own vocabulary, grammar and cadence, absorbed by young supporters on terraces and regurgitated decades later by pundits and in match reports and around water coolers. It is an instinct, a tongue binding together even rival fans, and can be impenetrable to those who – like me – didn’t have the benefit of growing up around it.
But I was determined to get involved anyway. It’s also, I soon realised, a challenge to hold onto any credibility as a supporter if you admit to having missed some of the most significant events in the club’s history simply because you were not paying attention. The details of each person’s formative experiences with or family ties to their club are swapped like currency, buying the belief of a fellow football fan that you are as legitimate as you let on. It’s not elitism, but it is an inherent nerdiness embedded in the culture.
The person who could tell me those details is long gone. It is not easy to put your foot into football culture, alone, being ready to admit gaps in your own knowledge – and worse, doing so as a woman. I have earned eyebrows raised in suspicion and knee-jerk lines of questioning which seemed so predictably trite they could have been fiction. “You actually care about your team, don’t you? Can you name the current assistant coach?” (I could) “Can you tell me what year they first shut the Cowshed?” (I couldn’t, but it was more than two decades before I was born.) At least I could never be accused of being a glory hunter.
Only once my love for the Scottish game had been reignited did my attention turn back to the treasure trove of Hibs history I inherited. My dad, only 51 when he died, did so with no will and no cash reserves, but he did leave behind hundreds of match programmes and folders of collectibles.
They are the closest I will likely ever get to rifling through the details of his life. Piles of old season tickets, Club 86 paperwork, membership cards for the Linlithgow branch of the supporters’ association, copies of the fanzine Mass Hibsteria, members’ club passes, pictures of my mum and dad holding the Skol Cup, some old club badges I was able to frame. There are other items I will likely never know the full story behind – a pass for the director’s box at Kilbowie Park, half-filled ‘Hands Off Hibs’ sign-up sheets, a leaflet for a mechanic in Airdrie tucked lovingly away with the football memorabilia.
A favourite was a letter from the club to my dad – holder of a small number of shares bought during Wallace Mercer’s attempted takeover of the club, which later fell into my mum’s name – informing him that the takeover bid had been emphatically defeated. He collected newspapers published the day after big wins too, something I’ve taken to adding to when I can.
When the club offered £25 fan cardboard cut-outs in the stands during lockdown, my mum egged me on to arrange them for my dad and I. A way for us to watch the football together one more time, I joked. In the end, there were no suitable photographs of him, and it felt a bit silly anyway. But the pandemic highlighted that, most of the time, action on the pitch is the side-show to what the game really means.
We lost my uncle Colin – another of my dad’s brothers – to Covid-19 last year. He was 62. Known among Rangers circles as Jinx, he was a generous larger-than-life character who left everyone with a good story to tell. A man who installed soft drinks machines for work and, rumour has it, did so at Ibrox, Easter Road and Tynecastle, but refused Celtic Park. I was lucky to be one of the few who could attend the funeral and grabbing a Rangers scarf to wear felt like a matter of deep responsibility. Football is a language and sometimes it’s the most profound.
Like many I was kept afloat by Scottish football pay-per-views punctuating my time in lockdown. My hope is that soon I’ll be able to make the journey to Easter Road for the first time in well over a decade. What a privilege it would have been to be able to attend all these years. I suppose I can add the tickets I bought for a game against Celtic, scheduled for just days after the UK shut down last March, to my dad’s collection.
Nothing in my dad’s archive is one-of-a-kind, but it’s tangible evidence of a life lived. It can transport me back the same way watching old game footage can, knowing he was in the stands, this being the closest I’ll get to seeing the world through his eyes. And I realise that none of it can answer any of my questions or help me piece together details, not really. The things I’m told we have in common – our height, the sense of humour, an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop songs – I can’t hold those in my hands. But I can think: here we were, both captured by the same frustrating club at different points in time, and here’s proof. That’s family.