It was the first day of the new season, an hour till kick-off. The curtain had not risen; those heroes and villains, strolling players and strutting fools who make up Scottish football’s dramatis personae were yet to make their entrance, and so this moment of expectation belonged, as always, to that loyal audience, the fans.
One of these fans, perhaps the most dedicated of all, sat in the supporters’ bar at Firhill, sipping a bottle of lager, one of two he allows himself before each game. A ritual within a ritual. Henry Calderhead, better known as Auld Harry, better still as Harry Bingo, is 97 years old and has been going to see Partick Thistle since the end of the Second World War. How extraordinary to think that Harry’s brown eyes – not as sharp these days – had watched Thistle play for more than 70 years, since Clydebank was rubble, and his voice – not so loud these days – had urged on players who were now old men themselves. To be a supporter for so long, to give your life to it, requires us to accord that word “passion” its older, deeper meaning: that of endurance, even suffering. The Passion of Harry Bingo was what I had come along to witness, in the hope that this old, rather frail man, swathed in a scarf of gold and red, could teach me to care like he cares, could help me to understand why the suffering is worth it. I wanted, in short, to learn to love football.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the game. I like it. But I don’t feel it in my guts. This, I say without resentment, is down to my father. He was, in theory, a Stirling Albion fan, but I never knew him to go. He’d had a bad experience at Ibrox or Parkhead, something to do with urine streaming down the terracing steps, and had vowed never to return. The idea that I might be taken along to a match and thus exposed to those animals was out of the question. So, although we lived in Glasgow in the era of Dalglish and Greig, although we lived near Aberdeen at the time of the Gothenburg miracle, none of it registered. I wore a Scotland strip to the primary one fancy dress party, a white ribbon seven stitched lovingly on the back by my mother, but I might as well have gone as Kenny Everett for all that number and shirt meant to me.
This has turned out to be a problem. A passion and knowledge of the game seems to be a basic entry qualification for Scottish manhood. It’s so much part of the national conversation. Oh, I can fake it for a few minutes with a taxi driver, a barber, or a stranger at the bar. I can talk pidgin football, but I’m not a native speaker, and I’ve long felt this as both a lack in myself and something that excludes me from the easy society of other men. I don’t have a team and I don’t have a clue.
At the age of 43, have I left it too late? Perhaps not. On Monday, September 28, 1931, the author CS Lewis was travelling to Whipsnade Zoo in the sidecar of a motorcycle being driven by his brother Warren when he found that, all of a sudden, he was a Christian. “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did,” he recalled in his memoir, Surprised By Joy.
I would dearly love to go through something of the same, but with football rather than faith. I want to be surprised by Moyes. Or Mourinho, or McInnes – the manager doesn’t matter, nor the team. What I want is a conversion experience. I want to believe. In fitba.
“Naw, naw,” said Harry Bingo, “you’re never too auld.” If I was to start going to Firhill now, he winked, I could fit in another 50-odd years. “One thing about Thistle, you’ll always get a good day out. Once you start following them, there’s no other team. There’s no going back.”
This was a particularly good day for him. He was the recipient of a golden ticket, presented by the manager Alan Archibald, which gets him into games for free for the rest of his life. It is a reward for his loyalty. “Just think of all the pain he had to go through to get that,” said some wag at the next table. Harry ignored him, or perhaps didn’t hear, his hearing aids being a great filter of cheek.
He was here with his family. His granddaughters Mary and Heather, and Heather’s wee girl, Cara, who is seven. What, I asked, does this club mean to him? “Everything. Everything. My life goes around Partick Thistle. And the bingo. See when Thistle get beat, I go home and I lie in bed and I can’t sleep.” And when they win? He stuck up his thumbs. Those thumbs contain multitudes.
It was at the bingo that I had first met Harry. A few years ago at the Carlton hall on Dumbarton Road, which Harry still called the F&F, as it had been known back in the days when it was a Palais de Dance. He was already a nonagenarian, and had thus gone beyond the scope of the bingo books, which only go up to 90. He was there every day, he had explained, except for when the Jags were playing.
“If we were going to an away game in maybe Perth or Dundee, we could get back in time for him to go to the bingo,” Heather had told me. “He’d be sitting on the edge of his seat making sure that driver was going as fast as he possibly could. He wouldn’t miss the football to get to the bingo, but if he could do both in the same day then that was the best day ever for him. If we had a new driver who didn’t know about the bingo, he’d be up to high doh.”
Heather is 36. Mary is 50. They are both committed fans of Partick Thistle, having been introduced into the true faith, in childhood, by their granda. They had the experience I lacked – a love of club handed down the family like an heirloom, or, depending on how you look at it, a hereditary disease. As wee girls, they’d sell programmes, making pocket money from tips. “I used to rope in some of my friends from school,” Heather had said. “I’d say, ‘If you sell programmes with me, you’ll get in for nothing and you’ll get a free pie.’ But most of them fell away eventually.”
She herself fell away in her mid-twenties for six or seven years when her partner, not a Thistle fan, didn’t want to go to the games. “But then we split up, and it was a place where I could go back to and felt, ‘This is where I belong’.” It was a bad break-up and her confidence had had a knock. Football offered a familiar embrace. “I knew I would fit in. That was very important. A lot of the friendships that I had together with my partner, I didn’t want to continue, and I had to cut ties. So it was nice to go back to having my football pals, or to make good new pals on the bus.”
Why does football mean so much to so many people? “That’s a very simple question which has many answers,” says John Williams, a senior lecturer in the sociology department at Leicester University. Williams is a Liverpool supporter and a specialist in fan behaviour. “It is still substantially, for many people, about family and place. The world changes very quickly these days. Lots of people feel quite alienated about their relationships and connections with place, and football is a kind of anchor.” Football as a provider of identity has strengthened, Williams believes, as other traditional providers – work, religion, the stable family unit – have declined in influence. “I think for a lot of post-industrial towns in England and Scotland that is precisely what is going on.”
Harry Bingo was born in 1919. He’s from Port Dundas originally, but now lives in Bishopbriggs; his first job was as a “trace boy” – leading the heavy horses that helped pull carts loaded with beer barrels from Spiers Wharf to town. He’s had lung cancer and skin cancer. A cold in the winter can go into his chest. The week before this season-opener against Inverness Caley Thistle (“the fake Jags” as Heather calls them) he had keeled over while watching his team take on Queen’s Park in the league cup. “Low blood pressure,” he explained. “Conked me oot.” Yet here he was back.
“Right, come on boys,” said Mary, taking her granda by the arm, and the supporters seated by the stairs in the Jackie Husband Stand leaned out their left shoulders so that Harry could rest on each as he made his way down the rows to his seat. There was no sense that they pitied him. This was a guard of honour.
Three o’clock approached. Constant drizzle. Floodlights in early August. Just shy of 3,000 people here. There was a minute’s applause for a 16-year-old fan who had been stabbed to death not quite two months before. “Once a Jag,” said the voice on the Tannoy, “always a Jag.”
It wasn’t much of a first half, but a Chris “Squiddy” Erskine goal in the 36th minute brought things to life. I’ve rarely seen anyone look happier than Harry Bingo when Squiddy scored. It was a look of pure transcendent joy, the sort of expression you might find on a stained glass window to illustrate the adoration of the magi. “He cannae shout,” Mary explained. “He husnae got the voice any more.” But he didn’t need to. His feelings were clear. “I’m happy,” he said.
Last season, Mary explained, her granda had informed her that he wasn’t going to go to the football any more. “I’m a burden,” he’d said. Well, she wasn’t having that: “No, you’re no’.” She would get no pleasure from going to the football, she told me, knowing that he was at home. It was not a thing to be countenanced. His commitment to the club, after all, is greater than that shown by any player or manager. Harry Bingo is Partick Thistle in a sense. As Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch, “Football is a context where watching becomes doing,” and Harry’s 70-plus years of watching football at Firhill, of bearing witness, made him the most senior, experienced and representative figure in the ground that day. He had celebrated his 70th, 80th and 90th birthdays there, and the director Jacqui Low hoped to host his centenary. That day will come, God willing, but for now he’ll settle for a decent season.
“We’re looking for a win the day,” he had told Alan Archibald sternly as the manager presented him with the golden ticket, and a win is what he got. The lanyard around Harry’s neck, I noticed, said Thistle Forever and Ever.
We were somewhere along the A9 when an idea took hold. “Here,” said Shep, “that’s us going past Stirling Castle. Is the bar no’ gettin’ opened?” And suddenly the air was full of rustling as poly bags were produced, their contents taken out and offered round: pre-mixed vodka in two-litre bottles of own-brand fizzy orange, lemonade and cola (diet for health). “Pretty classy,” said Keith. “Nae Buckfast on this bus. This is Queen’s Park.”
Stirling Castle, high on its rock, has had many noble functions over the years – royal palace, besieged fortress, army barracks – but today it served as a beacon for a coach load of football fans heading north from Glasgow so they’d know when was a decent moment to get the bevvy out.
It was nine in the morning on Saturday, September 10, 2016 – a massive day in British football. A day of derbies, grudges. Manchester United versus Man City was being talked up as a personal battle between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. In Scotland, all the focus was on the Old Firm as they met in the Premiership for the first time since Rangers’ return. The action, clearly, was elsewhere. Yet it felt good to be driving almost 200 miles with around twenty Spiders fans – the entire travelling support – to an away game in Peterhead. There was a slight air of “we few, we happy few” about the occasion, if Agincourt had been fuelled by Greggs sausage rolls and ersatz Fanta. No one was unaware, nor did they seem to mind, that there was something tragicomic about it all. “Epic scenes,” Martin had observed when we stopped for passengers on the High Street, “as five folk get on in the toon.”
Martin, Keith, Shep; Higgy, Ian, The Vicar – I was getting to know these Queen’s Park fans. I’d been to a home game the weekend before, an unexpected 2-0 win against Morton in the Irn-Bru Cup, and had been introduced to a few of them. Higgy is Michael Higgins, a 53-year-old railway worker who has been going to see this team since he was a boy. In the social club, before the match, I had explained about my quest to learn to love football. “I’ll give you a challenge,” he had said. “Go and watch Queen’s for five games on the trot, and that’ll be you. Folk talk about Barcelona and Real Madrid and all that, but if we bludgeon out a 1-0 win the day, that – for me – is better.”
Queen’s Park is my local team. I can walk to Hampden from my house in 20 minutes, so it makes both practical and a kind of moral sense for me to support them. I also enjoy the oddness of their history: that they are the oldest club in Scotland; that they invented the passing game; that they have chosen to remain amateur, their players unpaid, which keeps them true to the purity of the sport’s roots, but is also a form of masochism and self-debasement as it means that they will never again compete at the highest level. Those famous black and white jerseys, which the players wear untucked to signify their amateur status, are hairshirts of sorts, and all of that begs the question – who supports a team like this? “Freaks and weirdos,” said Gordon McCallum, a middle-aged fan in a black Harrington and oxblood Docs, who lives in a flat in Govan with six parrots. “I fit in perfectly.”
We had been talking at the Morton match. It is one of Queen’s Park’s pleasant absurdities that home games are played at Hampden, a 52,000-seater stadium, in front of crowds of 500 people. There is no atmosphere, except when a burst of Enjoy Yourself by The Specials blares over the Tannoy to mark a Queen’s goal. This tradition is a nod to the Two-Tone movement with which Queen’s, in their monochrome hoops, and with their cohort of ska-loving fans, are associated. Home game aficionados might also find themselves in idle moments playing “vicar bingo” – mentally ticking off the repertoire of shouted insults from Stewart Hendry, known as The Vicar, a 76-year-old supporter who has been going to see the team for so long that he witnessed the debut of a 16-year-old Alex Ferguson in November, 1958. Each outburst from The Vicar comes wafting across the crowd, fragranced by the Clan tobacco which he favours in his pipe, a suitable perfume for heckles from a gentler era. “Intae these chanty-wrastlers!” is about as fire and brimstone as he gets.
All of which is by way of explaining how I found myself en route to Peterhead. Ian Nicolson, a zealous convert to Queen’s Park after a lifetime as a Hibee, had emailed to say that the supporters’ bus was the best in Scotland. “To really get being a football fan you need to experience an away day,” he had written. “I’d like to think that we’re civilised drunks. While a bevvy is taken, we can still discuss the finer points of Marxist philosophy, alongside the collected works of Mark E Smith.” This, it turned out, was the case, although he might have added that the conversation would likely also touch upon Tony Benn’s diaries, Nick Cave’s music, and which is the best episode of Columbo. Opinions on these matters varied widely and were the subject of spirited debate, but a touching moment of unity occurred when, while passing the entrance to Donald Trump’s golf course, everyone rushed over and gave the tongs to the sign.
In some ways, this journey was the point, rather than the match itself. Queen’s were not expected to win against Peterhead. This is very different from supporting a big club, where defeats are regarded as intolerable humiliations. Everyone on this bus was used to getting beat, had experience of relegation, had known the black moods that accompanied losses. Yet there was an awareness that this was part of what it meant to support the team – trial by ordeal. “We’ve had more bad years than good, and you just thole it,” said Keith McAllister, a 59-year-old accountant with a Shakespearean beard and a Stoic bent who has been head of the supporters’ association since he was 15. “Win or lose, I enjoy the day. But there have been certain games we’ve lost where I’ve felt absolutely dreadful.”
The worst was a 1982 quarter final of the Scottish Cup against Forfar in which they conceded a last minute goal. Had Queen’s won, they would have played a semi against Rangers at a time when that team was in poor form. A place in the final was so close Keith could taste it. “So that was probably the worst day of my life. I was absolutely devastated. But then I’ve had moments that will live forever. There was one game in 1981 when we were three-nil down at Stenhousemuir and we won 4-3. I can still remember the feeling. In fact, look at that.” He lifted his left arm to show me the hairs standing up at the memory of the winning goal. He could see it, in his mind’s eye, replaying in slow motion some 35 years after it crossed the line.
Keith hasn’t missed a game, home and away, since 1979. “Three o’clock on a Saturday, this is what I do. I’ve told my daughter, ‘If you get married on a Saturday, I might not be there’.”
He is quite serious about this. He seems like a reasonable and thoroughly decent man, yet he has this monomania, this compulsion at the centre of his life. Does he really get any pleasure from football? Isn’t it more like a burden? “No, I don’t see it as a burden. I know exactly what you mean, though. There are days when I’ve woken up, when we’re playing really badly, and it’s Ross County in February and it’s pissing down, and I think, ‘Oh shit, do I really want to do this?’ But I know that if I don’t go, I would really regret it. There have been a few times when I’ve felt like death, and I didn’t want to go to the game, but I went anyway.”
He showed me a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm – a white rose and a few lines of romantic verse by Hugh MacDiarmid. This reminds him about a particular love affair, about his feelings for Scotland, and about what it is to follow Queen’s Park. “You know it’s going to break your heart, but that’s okay,” he said. “You’re happy to take the lows because you know you’re going to get the huge highs. That’s football. That’s my team. That sums it up.”
“Suffering following your club is a very necessary thing,” John Williams of Leicester University had told me. “It’s crucial and central to what being a fan means. To experience real suffering demonstrates your support. You don’t lose faith in your club even though they perform badly. For real fans who feel they have a deep and authentic connection with their clubs, they have to suffer in order to be able to enjoy what you hope in the future might happen. Somehow, suffering earns you the right to be happy and successful with your club. You can’t really know how that feels, or how important that is, unless you’ve been there in the dark times.”
Or, as CS Lewis puts it in The Problem Of Pain, “tribulation is a necessary element in redemption”.
We arrived at Balmoor about an hour before kick-off. It was a bright day. Seagulls ghosted overhead. Stovies were on sale in the clubhouse at 50 pence a helping. Scottish country dance music came lilting over the PA, lending a romantic air to the views of pebbledashed houses and the power station. Percussion was provided by the home fans banging pitchside advertising hoardings for a funeral director and the Press & Journal. Here, perhaps because they were away from the civilising influence of The Vicar, who no longer makes these long trips, the Queen’s support were less genteel. Shouts of encouragement (“Mon the Spiders!”) mingled with rhetorical enquiries directed at the referee – “How’s he offside, ya fuckin’ walloper?” – and the threnodic keening of the gulls.
After the long, boozy trip north, the game itself went by in a flash. Queen’s missed an early penalty and were punished for it, conceding two goals in the second half. The fans, loyal to the last, applauded their team off the pitch, but the mood on the bus home was subdued and reflective. I admired these men, their commitment and companionship, but I could not yet share their faith.
“Sometimes,” said Higgy, “I take a walk to what’s left of Cathkin Park, Third Lanark’s old ground. I’m an aethiest, ken, but it’s kind of like a church for me. It’s quiet and there’s naebody aboot, so I do a lot of thinking there. I’ll sit on the bit terracing that’s left and think, ‘This could be my team. This could be Queen’s just disappeared. What would I dae?’ Imagine that happened. It would be a huge part of my life just taken away.”
He spreads his hands, shakes his head, clearing the dark thoughts like stoor. “I don’t know, maybe we’re aw just nuts.”
Driving down from Glasgow, I passed the spot. On a sloping grass verge of the roundabout, where, in newspaper photographs, the bus lay tipped on its side, there was now a shrine. Flowers and football tops. The red, white and blue. Two weeks before, here on the A76 between Mauchline and Kilmarnock, a coach carrying Rangers fans to a match against Partick Thistle came off the road and overturned, injuring several and resulting in the death of one man, 39-year-old Ryan Baird.
He was from the village of Magheramorne in Northern Ireland, and the funeral would be held there; an Orange ceremony was planned, with regalia worn, and the Rangers manager Mark Warburton in attendance. I was on my way to the memorial service, in the Dumfries and Galloway town of Sanquhar, where Baird had made his home. He worked as a joiner, had two sons, and was engaged to be married.
Outside St Bride’s, a pretty 19th century church, Billy McLeod was shaking hands, welcoming folk. A stocky man of 55, McLeod had played for Ipswich Town, Partick Thistle and Queen Of The South in the late 70s and early 80s. These days he is a stalwart member of Nith Valley Loyal, the Rangers supporters club which had been travelling on the bus that day. He wore a dark suit and a Rangers scarf. His face bore an expression of grim compassion. It seemed clear that he was suffering, but you had no doubt that he would do his duty by the friend he had lost and the fellow club members who he considers a kind of kin.
A banner tied to a fence outside the church displayed the red hand of Ulster and the words Prod Boys On Tour. Inside, the pews were full. A couple of hundred people at least. Country music played on the PA and some of the mourners sang under their breath, tapped their feet softly on the wooden floor: “We love to see the lasses with the blue scarves on, we love to hear the boys all roar …”
The public response to the crash had been remarkably ecumenical. Rival football clubs and fans offered condolences, and Rod Stewart, one of Celtic’s best known supporters, made a donation to a fund set up in the aftermath of the crash. Yet in St Bride’s there was a sense of a distinct people grieving for one of their own. Almost everyone was wearing Rangers colours over their funeral clothes. One woman, I noticed, wore an orange scarf on which the words No Surrender were written in gothic script. That, of course, is a contentious slogan with a particular historical and religious context going back to the 17th century, and many people would consider it a provocative and inappropriate thing to wear. But here, in Sanquhar, it seemed to take on another, better meaning – defiance in the face of tragedy and a refusal to give in to grief.
Large windows on the north side of the church showed the Lowther Hills. The music ended and the Reverend William Hogg, a kindly looking man with a grey beard, began his sermon. “You are wondering and I am wondering,” he said, “where are the words of comfort in the face of such a painful loss? Someone you have cared about and respected has had his life ended in a moment of utter disaster. We cannot and must not avoid saying that.”
The minister wore a blue stole over his vestments. Not quite the right shade, he admitted, but it felt like an appropriate gesture. “In modern Christian thinking, blue is the colour of hope, of the sky, of heaven above. I assume that any football fan knows everything about hope. You can experience it minute by minute during a match or season. When things are a bit rough and disappointing, there’s the hope that things will get better, that difficult times can’t last forever…it is on that hope, that promise that we rely this morning, as we commend Ryan to God’s safe keeping. And we have, as a reminder, the blue.”
Football fans in Scotland, Rangers supporters in particular, often get a bad name for their behaviour and attitudes. While this may, at times, be well deserved, what I saw in Sanquhar was a side of fandom that is less often acknowledged and discussed. Football is tribal, which can be problematic because tribes define themselves against other groups and cultures, hence sectarianism, violence and all that rank rottenness. But a tribe is also a kind of family, which means solidarity, sticking together, us against whatever the world throws. It means a scarf around the neck, an arm around the shoulder. We Are The People, the Rangers fans sing; another contentious phrase, yet it has become clear that – in the darkest hour – “we” is the important word.
There were a lot of people in that church who had been hurt, physically and emotionally, in the bus crash. But they had come together, based around a shared love of football, of club, to offer each other comfort. This is passion. Harry Bingo feels it. Higgy and The Vicar feel it. Ryan Baird, surely, felt it too.
I don’t. Not yet. Maybe not ever. But perhaps it is not such a small thing, a privilege even, that I am able to sense it in others and can write here Billy McLeod’s words when he told me what it has been like to return to Ibrox in the aftermath of the crash. It has meant getting back on a coach and passing the crash site, which cannot be easy, but it has meant, too, a feeling of unity and love; the embrace of something bigger.
“It’s comforting,” he said. “People at the games see our Nith Valley badges on our tops and jackets and instantly recognise that we were the club that were in the crash. It was a tragedy, it was an accident, it was an ill-fated day. It’s been difficult for the boys that were on the bus, and difficult for some that weren’t and feel terrible guilt about not being there and able to help. This supporters club has been put on the map for a reason we didn’t want, but the tragedy has brought our community closer together, and the big Rangers family has been absolutely amazing.”
Afterwards, after the hymns and prayers, the dark vale and falling eventide, we walked outside and lined the mossy kirkyard path as the coffin was carried shoulder high to the hearse. It was a bright autumn day, and, in the mourning hush, the noise of kids playing football drifted up the hill from the school. Shouts and whistles; sniffs and sobs; death and life. No surrender.