Thanks for the memories

From humble beginnings 13 years ago, a nationwide sports reminiscence project for people living with memory loss has become a huge success story.

By Hugh MacDonald

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

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There is then one moment that makes all the chat seem not just enjoyable but – and there is no other word – important. Perhaps even vital.

Memories are not just the insistent pulses of who we were. Memories are who we are.

The thought comes unbidden on a bright Ayrshire day when the winter sun has the capacity to fool the naïve that warmth is its mandatory gift. The wise and the experienced leave the chill exterior, casting off layers of clothing and relishing both the warmth and the intriguing, rather couthy interior of the boardroom of Ayr United Football Club.

The trophy cabinet is full, a silent invitation to the unoriginal comedian, a table is strewn with football memorabilia and a gathering of men remove their caps, take their seats and clear their throats. It is time for business. The fascinating, unending and profound commerce that is talking football.

A local football memories group that meets regularly in Prestwick has convened for its annual visit to Somerset Park, a marvellous and physical nod to Scottish football history. The talk will be of players seen and goals missed, of terracings trod and pies consumed. The speakers will be of a range of ages and with problems that range from severe memory loss to the minor amnesia that afflicts all of a certain age.

Amid the chatter, there is an unspoken bond. We are football fans and we are fated, sometimes condemned, to remember. The recollections are diverse, unlikely and invigorating. The men around the table come alive. Football Memories Scotland is in action in Ayr.

The project started humbly, even tentatively in Stenhousemuir in 2004. There was an idea, perhaps just a hope, that talking football could engage those experiencing memory loss. Its success has exceeded the bounds of the most optimistic imagination. There are now more than 150 groups across Scotland. This is merely a number, albeit an impressive one. But the glory of the project lies in its effect on those who attend their meetings, whether those living with memory loss or those coming along as volunteers or speakers. People who are isolated or lonely are also now encouraged to come along.

The effect is audible and visible. It can be dramatic and intensely moving. A woman once said of a memories group meeting: “I come along with a confused man and leave with my husband.”

There is, of course, no miracle of a cure for the serious problems endured by many of those present. But there is the miracle that football can energise the most withdrawn of attenders. It can give a voice to those who seem resigned to silence. It can comfort those who believe they are alone and find they remain part of the football crowd.

The warmth of the boardroom in Ayr is complemented by the passing around of a plate of pies and the invitation to partake in a brew of Bovril, the nectar of the terracing tribe. But the true sustenance comes when slowly but inexorably the memories of individual members are provoked by a statement from someone else.

It is then that the precise dimensions and camber of the track that surround the playing field at Shawfield seem a matter of extraordinary import. It is then that a personal reminiscence of Stanley Matthews becomes crucial, not just because of its wonderful poignancy but also because of the normally unremitting silence of the speaker.

Football has come alive in a room. Its fans have briefly but passionately testified to its ability to live on in memory while other matters perish.

It is Hampden Park on one of those sparkling spring days when even a member of the Tartan Army cannot quite dispel an odd, almost unnatural flickering of hope and well-being. The Hall of Fame within the national stadium is packed and while the famous roar is muted there is an air of expectation. We are gathered for good news, that most unexpected of offerings for the Scottish fan.

The announcement comes from Aileen Campbell, minister for public health and sport for the Scottish Government. Five national sporting bodies and two sports museums have joined forces to deliver a community-based, nationwide sports reminiscence project for vulnerable people living with dementia and other forms of memory loss.

The organisations are the Scottish Football Museum, British Golf Museum, Camanachd Association, Scottish Rugby and Cricket Scotland. They will work under the banner of Sports Heritage Scotland. More than 100 volunteers will help spread the message. Museums and Galleries Scotland are providing funding for the project. These headlines prove good news can exist. They are also testimony to the enduring validity of that first step in Stenhousemuir 13 years ago.

This venture into the benign properties of sporting memory was followed by a pilot scheme in 2009 involving Falkirk, Hibernian and Aberdeen through the Scottish Football Historians Network. This led to a partnership with Alzheimer Scotland which started in 2011 and has been entirely funded by the organisation.

Supported by Scottish Professional Footballers Association, Scottish Football Association, SPFL Trust, the League Managers and Coaches Association and Supporters Direct Scotland, there are now 150 groups in Scotland. They meet in day centres, care homes, church halls, pubs and hospitals. And, of course, at football grounds.

Robert Craig, chair of Sports Heritage Scotland, points out that the idea that sport can be vital in helping those with memory loss has spread across the world. In the USA, baseball groups have sprung up. Scotland is now a world leader in this field.

There has to be understandable pride in all of this. There must be satisfaction too. But there is a determination, quietly articulated, to increase the geographical scope and the personal scope of what has become a joy to many it has touched.

It is Firhill for chills. I stand on the doorstep of the stadium on the sort of day that recalls memories of freezing ash pitches and the application of a speeding Mouldmaster to the inner thigh. The door creaks open and I enter the sanctum of Jaggery. I am the first to arrive at the monthly football memories meeting in the stadium.

The room quickly fills with a retired referee, a pair of buddies from Renfrewshire, a quorum of Jags fans, a couple of carers and two principal attractions. The first is Robert Reid, the club historian. The second is Alan Rough, club and national legend. Robert has strewn programmes and other pieces of interest across the table and picks them up, pointing out curiosities and unusual statistics. He is both funny and fascinating.

Roughie fields questions with a relaxed, humble ease. He has played in three World Cups but has a sense of humour that is wonderfully self-deprecatory. The retired referee is put at his ease and makes observations about the way it was and the way it is now. His voice carries not only the echoes but the irrefutable truth from a past where refs could escape the damning judgment of a thousand replays. Almost unwittingly, he sparks a discussion about fouls, hard men, diving and daft rules.

There is a passion in all of this but no belligerence. Firhill on this Monday morning is a place where fans are united in love of the game, not separated by their team allegiances.

The discussion swirls around the table, ably conducted by Mr Reid who has just the right statistic, just the precise piece of football knowledge to illuminate a topic or lead to another. There is tea, there are biscuits and the time flows quickly.

There is then one moment that makes all the chat seem not just enjoyable but – and there is no other word – important. Perhaps even vital.

Robert points to a pair of old boots in a case and the gathering murmurs a collective surprise that anyone could run in them, far less propel the ball into a net. A gaggle of praise to scorers breaks out and Robert names a great Jags hero.

A frail chap, dapper in dress but deeply withdrawn, has sat in silence for all of the meeting. He is addressed directly but politely by Robert.

“Did you know the player?” asks Robert.

There is a brief pause. “Know him? He was my favourite player,” replies the man with a soft voice and strong certainty. His face is suddenly illuminated by a smile. The rest of us laugh out loud.

We recognise that love of a player is immortal. But we are warmed by the realisation that memory – or even some small part of it – can somehow survive too. 

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

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