In 1992, when I was a thrusting young(ish) reporter on The Scotsman, my then girlfriend (and now wife) and I went on holiday to the west coast of the United States. We were walking down the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, when we came across an international newspaper stand – a relic of the pre-internet age which offered ye olde worlde travellers a link back to the homeland, albeit with the immediacy we would all associate with Kris Commons doing 40-yard sprints in training.
We shelled out $11 for a copy of a four-day-old Guardian. It carried all sorts of interesting news on politics and international affairs. I remember a column written by Roy Hattersley – very handy in case of toilet paper emergencies. However, there were no Scottish football results. Money wasted. Day. Fucking. Ruined. Celtic may (or may not) have beaten Aberdeen in the league sometime within the week or so and I had no clue.
Fast forward to this week.
We are driving south down Highway 101, heading towards Santa Cruz. The sun is blazing, the sky is the colour of peace. It is a beautiful day and my good friend Harry Brady of the Celtic Underground is yapping through the car radio.
I love Harry. He talks utter mince at least 27.4% of the time but I love him anyway, in large part because of the confident way he talks nonsense about football. Imagine going to a restaurant and the waiter comes out with your main course. He is wearing a green bow tie, a crisp, white-linen jacket and white gloves. The plate is hidden underneath one of those small silver domes. You are invited to watch the big reveal. There’s Harry with his big cheesy grin, which only gets wider as he lifts the dome to let you see what is underneath. And, blow me, if it’s not a plate of chips. Crap chips, too. Not the dry, crispy kind but those wet and greasy, slug-like chips you’d only eat after six pints on a Friday night.
That’s Harry on the CU podcast. But I love it. I especially love it when Saint or Lachie Mor, two of the greatest Celtic fans I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, are on. Miserable bastards, the pair of them. Doomsday is always just round the corner for Saint and Lachie. Brilliant.
My wife and son have had it up to here with the CU podcast, especially on this drive down Highway 101 towards the surf mecca of Santa Cruz. They claim the sound quality is rubbish and don’t know what anyone is talking about. I love my wife and my son beyond words but they can get tae. This is Celtic we are talking about and, barring some Trump-inspired nuclear holocaust, we are listening right to the very end of this podcast.
All good things come to an end and so, eventually, Harry bids us all farewell. My son cheers from the back seat and asks for the phone so he can stream the latest Imagine Dragons album through Spotify.
It is time for some fatherly truths. I tell him three things:
1. Imagine Dragons, nein danke.
2. When he has enough money to buy a car with a Bluetooth facility that allows you to stream audio from your phone, then he gets to pick the toons.
3. I have another Celtic podcast to listen to so he had better buckle up his ears and listen, unless he wants to walk to Santa Cruz.
The truth is I have another 57 Scottish football podcasts to listen to. They are lining up on my phone like a Saturday night crowd at the Sub Club in 1986. Not just Celtic podcasts, of which I count five. There’s also The Terrace, BytheMin Aberdeen, Fitba Hacks, Nutmeg podcast, MFC Podcast and, for those occasions when my blood pressure is trending dangerously normal, Superscoreboard and BBC Sportsound. I’ve even recently subscribed to Heart and Hand on Patreon – four dollars a month for a Rangers podcast. A Rangers podcast, for fuck’s sake.
My point is, now that I live in California I have never been more tuned into Scottish football. God bless the internet and all those who invented it.
Never mind, a four-day-old copy of the Guardian – if something SPFL-related has happened four seconds ago, then I probably know it. I find myself on the phone to Scotland, telling a pal stuff about Ross County that he doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know. Motherwell’s latest transfer targets? I’m your man. The ‘tactical genius’ of Brendan Rodgers unpicked? Have you got a spare five hours?
I am typing this in the study in our house in a small California town called Mill Valley. Look it up. It’s like Walt Disney’s hipster brother built a theme-park for smug, wealthy white people. Mountain biking was invented on the hill outside our front door. The beach is 15 minutes away. The surfing is great (though there are sharks out there). Some of the best skiing in the world is a two-hour drive north. But here’s the thing: if there is a Celtic game on, if there is an SPFL game, I am doing none of these things. I am watching the game.
I love it. I love Celtic. I love Scottish fitba in ways I never loved it when I lived in Scotland. Not just the SPFL, but the other three leagues as well. Being a thoughtful kinda of person (not really), I occasionally wonder why this is so?
The swanky, pseudo-psychologist explanation is that a form of detachment aversion is at play, that I am 5,000 miles from home and desperately clinging on. Well, maybe. But if it was really about maintaining my ‘Scottishness’ then why do I make a special effort to stay away from all the expat stuff going on in these parts. For example, there is a very famous Scottish pub in San Francisco called the Edinburgh Castle. A great pub, by all accounts. I haven’t been in it once.
This brings me to the football itself. Celtic. The SPFL. The fitba.
What if this obsession had nothing to do with a Scotsman being torn from his roots and desperately trying to swim back? What if it was to do with the raw and rugged brilliance of Scottish football itself?
Now this is a very unfashionable view in 2018, especially amongst the cognoscenti (self-appointed and self-regarding) who seldom mention the SPFL, except when they want to road test a brand new form of contempt. Verily, the standard of play is crap so why bother? (Is verily still a word, by the way?)
Fair enough, I suppose, although I could make a case for Rodgers’ team being a very decent outfit on their best days. But having sat through PSG 12 Celtic 1 this season, I will leave all of that to one side and ask another question: what is football all about? What should it be about? What was it about when it was at its best? The answer to none of these questions is PSG. Or the tourist-filled stands at Barcelona. Or the English Premier League.
The answer is Celtic (insert your own SPFL team here). It is about roots. Not national roots, but football roots. It is about connection. It is about something real, something that connects us to our past and, we hope, our future. Sure, the football isn’t perfect but so what? The problem with perfection is that there is nowhere else to go except down. There is beauty and hope in imperfection. That is it for me. It’s nothing to do with clinging on to Scotland. It is about clinging on to football.
I listen to people dismissing Celtic and the SPFL in general and I imagine them in 15 years time, puzzling over how it is the World Soccer Super League isn’t all it was cracked up to be. They’ll be like those muppets who threw out all their 7-inch punk singles and rushed out to buy CDs, trying to recapture a past they were far too quick to abandon.
Well, not me. No way.