Three men were sitting on a train, glancing sometimes at football newspaper supplements, sometimes at the scene moving across their window. The carriage we shared was drudged and hauled through those rust and green lands that might be Lanarkshire and might be Midlothian. When not pondering team news and fixed odds, they stared patiently at post-industrial sidings and factory carcasses, as if waiting for something to happen, for the shift to start or the coal to be dropped into a wagon.
They came from England. This type of Scotland was unknown to them, unknown beyond screen or print. At the same time, it sang to their sense of the familiar. “We’re from the north-east” said one of them to me, “so this feels like home to us.” The conversation played its usual tune. They asked me where I was from, how long I’d been “up here”; I asked them which portion of the north-east was theirs, and why they found themselves discussing the difference between Coatbridge Sunnyside and Coatbridge Central.
The men answered football. They were going to watch Albion Rovers. They’d always fancied pinning a tail on the fixture list and catching a train or three. Now here they were, ready to walk through a new town to a new ground to see two teams new to them. “There’s something about those Scottish names,” one of them said, “The Thistles, the Saints. And I loved Scottish shirt colours in Subbuteo.”
Oh to feel this country’s game afresh once more. I could not have been more jealous. Today alone they would discover the trek out to Cliftonhill, undertaken with back arched, head down, the gallows shuffle of a reluctant Monday morning millworker. Then, the radiant reds and yellows of the ground’s main stand, enchantingly piercing and in-part sarcastic against a whale-flesh Coatbridge sky. They would be greeted at the turnstile, foreign, exotic objects, and be able to wander among cement, wood and corrugated iron, wander through the ages. The tea in foam cups would be the colour of jiffy envelopes and the temperature of a newly-bled radiator. The football would be raw, tackles audible.
It wasn’t just about today. If Scottish football trapped their hearts as it had done mine over a decade ago, theirs was a whole world left to discover. They would be back, back to marvel that Central Park has doughty terracing, that Cappielow is a working-class museum, that Somerset Park seems to breathe with a life of its own, that Palmerston feels like the height of an extinct civilisation.
None of the three men knew about the views. None of them knew that here, a bad match does not always have to be suffered, that many clubs let the real world in. Recreation Park and its imperious Ochils. Dumbarton and its rock. Passing trains at Stark’s Park, sea spray at Gayfield…
They alighted and left me to my envy.