Confessions of an expat Jambo

Trying to follow Hearts from Finland over the past 15 years has been by turns illuminating, frustrating and hilarious. And in terms of seeing the media landscape evolve, it’s been an instructive journey.

By Chris Smith

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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Following Scottish football from abroad, one can find that the kind of slickly cohesive product offered by our friends down south isn’t an option. Instead, there’s a confusion of channels and platforms offering all kinds of partial and impartial perspectives.

The build up to matchday begins with a notification to the wife. There’s a game next Sunday, stick it in your calendar. It’s noted. The day before, I remind her again, then again on the day at ever shrinking intervals up to the point of kick-off.

She asks who’s playing. Hearts – Celtic. She knows that’s a big one. Though not as important as Hearts – Hibs; or Hips, as the Finnish language so rarely employs the soft B. The wife gets a slight thrill from the exotic sounding team names: Aberdeen, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Dundee. Motherwell is a particular favourite. If it were up to her, we’d play Motherwell every week.

Unfamiliar names are met with a raised eyebrow, as though I just made them up on the spot. Raith Rovers? It’s a cup match, I assure her. Huntly? They’re a real team, honest. Auchinleck Tal-what? I’ll have to check that.

I’ve lived in Finland for 15 years now and, like many expat Scots, I’m forever drawn to following our idiosyncratic version of the beautiful game. It’s rarely beautiful. It’s hard and cold, and wet and windy. There are moments of beauty, to be sure, though you’d be a fool to expect them. But it’s our game.

In those years, the only constant in the media has been change. Fifteen years ago, broadband was still in the process of overtaking dial-up as the primary method for internet access in OECD countries. YouTube was three years from launch, the iPhone was but a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye and if you’d told me 140 characters would be the limit of many people’s interactions, I’d have thought you a twit.

Aside from connection speed and other technological advances, we now have social media, the ubiquity of which would have been unimaginable in 2002. How does this constantly developing landscape shape the experience of following Scottish football from abroad? It’s a story of conflicting narratives, diminishing objectivity, people power and endurance.

Game time finally arrives, out of sync with GMT by only two hours (spare a thought for those diehards in New Zealand who have to cope with a whopping 12 hour adjustment) and there begins the messy business of actually following the game.

When it comes to watching games live, the expat Scottish football fan is presented with a dilemma: the legit way or the other way. There can be a curious advantage to following your team from abroad as SPFL member clubs have the right to show a live stream of games outside the UK and the Republic of Ireland, whereas for those club TV subscribers situated within the British Isles, only audio commentary is available.

Shockingly, there are scores of territories around the world (including such outposts as Azerbaijan, Mauritania and Yemen) in which Scottish football matches are accessible on either terrestrial or cable TV. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a market for it up here in the tundra.

At present, club TV offerings roughly differ according to levels of active support. Glasgow’s big two broadcast every league match live to international subscribers, though somewhat incongruously the Rangers TV subscription costs almost double that offered by their Hoopy neighbours.

Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen and Partick Thistle provide a service of all home and selected away games live in HD as well as audio commentary for every match. All the above mentioned packages include additional material of archive games, interviews and behind the scenes features.

The rest of the teams, due to the laws of supply and demand, don’t bother with their own browser-based TV channels, though Motherwell get special mention for at least offering live commentary of games. Even if one doesn’t regularly get to experience the aesthetic ambience of Fir Park, there’s always the soundscape to contemplate.

Outside of these packages, there can be a lack of options. Some clubs house a YouTube channel within their own website, or just link to it. Others seem content to let the fans do the work of finding material themselves. For some, the odd game can be bought for a one-off fee. At least when things aren’t going well, the misery might be mitigated by the limited opportunities to watch your heroes live.

Not surprisingly, there’s a specific club-centric point of view presented in these channels, in the interviews and features, and not least in the commentary for live games. Far from being an annoyance, this adds an entertaining slant on the experience, no matter your allegiance.

One thing is for sure, as technology improves and becomes cheaper, so the means of live streaming games becomes easier. Add to this an ever-increasing appetite from supporters and the potential for more revenue; we are likely to see more clubs take up the club TV option for international subscribers.

And the non-legit option? There is a multitude of websites hosting live soccer streams, as well as any other sport you could care to imagine. Of those sites, some add their own paywall, while others work from the old adage: if something is free on the internet, you are the product.

For those going down that route, a delicate dance plays out whereby one must close the endless pop-ups while at the same time not accidentally clicking on the wrong thing. Many such sites threaten to infect your computer with invasive malware. As they say, there’s no such thing as a free pie and Bovril.

Finally, all extra windows closed and pop-ups dispatched, one can settle down to watch a rough rendition of the game, with bad audio and occasional freezes, depending on how the internet connection is working.

Like bad conceptual art, I’ve been left contemplating one pixely fullback frozen in mid throw-in for longer than I would a painting in an art gallery or the proud scribblings of my own offspring. Waiting for time to come unstuck, I consider all sorts of eventualities… a crunching tackle, a red card, a penalty, missed, the rebound… saved! When the stream restarts, there’s invariably another throw-in.

It’s a peculiarly Scottish improvement on the one million-plus frames-per-second ultra-slow-motion cameras introduced during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Ethically, this streaming practice is questionable. While it’s not entirely legal to view live-streamed football on these sites, nobody has ever been, or is likely ever going to be, punished for it. There’s more traction going after the hosting sites than individuals. So while it is a breach of copyright laws, the argument goes that you shouldn’t do it because it’s harmful to the sport you love.

Following Scottish football from abroad, one can find that the kind of slickly cohesive product offered by our friends down south isn’t an option. Instead, there’s a confusion of channels and platforms offering all kinds of partial and impartial perspectives.

For the ultimate comparison between the game in England and Scotland, consider the practice of watching an otherwise unavailable Scottish Cup match on Periscope as opposed to the EPL match one can have beamed straight into the big screen in the living room.

For the uninitiated, Periscope is an app for live streaming video shot on your phone, launched in 2015 and owned by Twitter. Presently, there’s no fee, no ads and it’s very easy to use. It’s the ultimate two-footed lunge on old media models.

The English Premier League: dozens of high-end cameras, pin-sharp images, beautiful graphics, swishy sound effects, erudite commentators… the EPL has nothing on Big Barry’s Periscope broadcast from the middle of the South Stand at Easter Road.

Big Barry TV trumps the EPL coverage where it matters most: authenticity of experience. If you want to have the feeling you’re at the game, check it out on Periscope. It simply doesn’t matter what the resolution is like, you get swept along by the game narrative regardless. As long as Barry can keep his phone consistently pointing in approximately the right direction, it’s fine.

I sometimes wonder what bairns who’ve grown up watching the EPL on TV would think of the experience of going to an actual game. The one barely resembles the other. There’s a startlingly limited set of views and certainly no replays. Analysis, from those seated around you, may prove enlightening but is most likely biased, blunt and profane.

Going to a match is a treat for the senses. The sight of strangers’ faces as their everyday worries visibly fall away for a couple of hours, the smell of the brewery wafting down Gorgie way, the biting cold wind funnelling your attention onto the green rectangle in front, wishing for something to happen, good or ill, just to get you out of your seat to jump about a bit.

Traditional football coverage makes no attempt to replicate this experience, but by chance, Periscope streaming gets us far closer than any other method.

If there’s no live stream available, there are other options for keeping up to speed. I have found myself following matches on betting sites, which provide a meaningless array of statistics not dissimilar to playing a football management sim. They at least give an immediate account of the actual score alongside the beguiling means of parting with money.

The BBC website provides updates that tend to be sparse, lagging and clogged with tweets. In the past it has been possible to access live open-all-mics commentary from outside the UK. Any attempt to indulge in that today is met with a stern but fair Richard Gordon telling us that for contractual reasons it’s not possible. Is it my imagination or can I hear in his voice a tinge of regret?

Back in the motherland, the BBC is under increasing pressure to modernise and eventually compete with video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. However, so slow is it to turn around that huge, creaky ship, any hope that they might get their act together soon and provide comprehensive Scottish football coverage for outside the UK is futile.

Twitter is a case study in skewed narratives. Each club in the Scottish top flight and some of the bigger ones below provide game event updates, as well as a whole bunch of extra content, from team news and videos of player hijinks, to travel information and press conferences. There’s the qualitative and quantitative difference one would expect according to the respective sizes of the clubs.

Twitter is in its 11th year, and Scottish football is still working out how best to utilize it. Footage of players arriving at away grounds used to be employed solely as the B-roll to a soundtrack of pre-match hype. Today, thanks to the wonders of social media, such raw footage is delivered unfiltered right into the fan’s Twitter feed. Hurrah, you may exclaim. I’m left pondering who has the time to digest this kind of banality.

Then there are the fan forums. For the discerning Hearts fan, the drug of choice is Jambos Kickback. It’s a space populated by the inverted bell curve of glass-half-full types at one end of the spectrum and as many doom-mongers at the other, with a smattering of ‘realist’ peacemakers in between. At least that’s how it can seem.

Fanzines have been around for a lot longer than internet forums and while they appear to operate in a similar territory, the harsh realities of how differently people behave in print compared to online means they are incomparable.

The printed word calls for measured, composed thoughts. Online anonymity revels in bitterness, borderline illiteracy and verbal violence. The most innocuous thread can quickly dissolve into name-calling, bickering, pedantry, trolling and counter-trolling. A dip into other teams’ forums reveals similarly polarized and irritable groups. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

The most recent development in the ongoing democratisation of football-related media coverage is the rise of fan TV channels on YouTube. Amateur aesthetics abound as a torrent of opinion and analysis straight from the fan’s gob is let loose on a decidedly suspecting public.

Fan TV has proven its worth only partially in England where sheer numbers dictate that there will be a core of enough people interested in such ventures. Using Twitter followers as a barometer for support level, the big teams from Glasgow are the only ones who can match or better the middling teams from the EPL. Celtic, with currently approaching half a million followers (by far the biggest number in Scotland) still come in at less than one-twentieth the size of Manchester United’s online Twitter fan base.

Outside of those two, the next best-followed clubs in Scotland are at a level with the likes of Peterborough United and Northampton Town, found slugging away in the middle of the English third tier.

Regardless of how niche the market is, fan TV is a growing trend. Almost anybody these days has the power in their pocket to shoot, edit and upload to YouTube their own video on their own channel. Imagine that. If someone had said to you at the turn of the millennium that in a few short years anybody could have their own ‘TV channel’, that it could be entirely produced by a phone and could be accessed anywhere in the world, you’d have thought them nuts.

And it’s a beautiful meritocracy where the best efforts rise to the top, unlike content selected and presented to you on ‘old’ TV by commissioners, involving creatively-compromised collaborative efforts by large teams of people. Why compromise when you can do everything yourself?

But of course there’s still something to be said for professional content. Some of the most-viewed fan channel uploads tend to be expletive ridden rants, the like of which would have you surreptitiously looking for the nearest exit in the pub.

It would be convenient if we could neatly trash the phenomenon thusly, but we can’t. There are also smart folks presenting cohesive and impassioned arguments about club finances, tactics, signing policies and so on. And as long as there are people watching, whether for insight or a laugh, there’s a market for it.

For some posters, reaching a few thousand similarly passionate fans is an end in itself. Others might hope that the platform provides a step up to something else, maybe even traditional media. Certainly nobody is getting rich making fan videos about Scottish football. Whatever the style or the motives of the YouTubers and their viewers, this phenomenon will grow, evolve and ultimately be shaped by what people want to see.

Years ago, when the spectre of the demise of his beloved Millwall hove into sight, Danny Baker mused that it might not be such a bad thing. It might be nice to be freed, once and for all, of the shackles of supporting a team. Think of all the time and other resources that would suddenly become available. It’s easy to see where he’s coming from. But of course he’d miss it.

For fans of the vast majority of clubs in Scotland, following your team isn’t about the glory. It’s barely about the football. It’s about belonging. It stretches beyond your own team and into Scottish football as a whole, and eventually into football fandom the world over. English is said to be today’s lingua franca, but really it’s football. Go almost anywhere in the world and you can talk to utter strangers about the game.

As old media models persist, their content is chewed up and regurgitated by new media. The media landscape will continue to evolve. Some aspects will become more frustrating or more expensive or even more revealing. It will continue to be partial and divisive and ruled by an ever-changing cast of gatekeepers with oftentimes oblique agendas.

But as long as there are folks out there who feel the need to follow their team from afar, there will be a drive to show and share and experience that priceless commodity of community that football brings us, no matter where we are in the world.

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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