In 2014 I quit my job in the Netherlands with the aim of moving to Gorgie for a year to follow Heart of Midlothian for a season and write a book about the experience. Not because I was a Jambo, oh no. The simple reason was that Hearts were at that moment the most interesting football club in Britain. And it just so happened that in 2006 Hearts were also the first Scottish club I had seen in action, thanks to a megalomaniac plan by Vladimir Romanov.
That I have taken up permanent residence in Scotland now is less of a surprise than you may think. Scotland has always been the country of my dreams and I have been following Scottish football since I was nine years old. I know that makes me sound like some shady overseas billionaire who, upon buying a football club, says that as a boy he would sleep in that club’s pyjamas. Well in my case it’s true. While it may seem peculiar for a Dutchman to have an obsession with Scottish football, it is less so for someone from the Dutch town of Tilburg, where I was born and raised.
What ties Tilburg and Scotland? Let me take you back to 1944. After more than four years of being occupied by Nazi Germany, Tilburg was at the centre of a two-week battle between the Germans and the 15th Scottish Division. The Scots eventually liberated Tilburg and the festivities that followed gave rise to many stories told by my two nans and one grandad (the other one being in an internment camp in Germany). It was then that they heard a bagpipe for the first time. The festivities went on for days and the number of red-haired babies born nine months later was remarkable.
The grateful citizens of Tilburg have maintained ties with their Scottish liberators ever since. The town centre boasts a statue of a Scottish soldier in full regalia: kilt, bagpipe and all. Every year, on Liberation Day, many Scottish veterans would return to commemorate their fallen comrades. Our school would be visited by one of them, telling in unintelligible English – well, to us children anyway – about the events of those fateful days. These days, the town invites the Scots back every five years, but their number is dwindling. I think 2019 will be the last commemoration to feature veterans. Tilburg’s common cemetery is home to the graves of 76 British soldiers – it is a sacrifice that will never be forgotten.
This should explain, at least in part, why I have always had a soft spot for Scotland and the Scottish. Scottish football came into my life in 1988. The day PSV Eindhoven was set to play the European Cup Final, the BBC showed us footage of past finals, with Real Madrid, Benfica, Internazionale and AC Milan all included in the review. There was one club that struck a chord with me: Celtic. The gorgeous kit, the background history about all the players being local and their attacking game had me following Celtic there and then. I’d check the results in the paper, but at the time this provided little pleasure as Celtic had a few poor years after 1989. Still, my spirits were lifted when a couple of years later I was given a Celtic shirt on my birthday. I was dying to travel to Celtic Park some day, but being a student it was well beyond my means. This was some time before EasyJet and Ryanair would offer cheap flights from Holland to Scotland.
In 2003, however, I came across some kindred spirits on the internet, all of us obsessed with British football and all of us unable to express this obsession in everyday life. That is why we set up a forum on British football, where we could discuss the dubious owner of Doncaster Rovers, Dens Park’s main stand and League Two without anyone giving us funny looks. After some time, we planned trips by car to England to go and watch matches, usually at lower league teams, as they would still play at older grounds. In fact, that was often our main reason for going: clubs whose stands were under threat. Portsmouth (a plan that was never executed), Barnet, Boston United, Swansea City, Shrewsbury Town, Colchester United – not a month would go by without us visiting such clubs. Scotland was mentioned once in a while, but the distance was an issue.
That all changed in August 2006. Because of Vladimir Romanov we bought tickets to the Hearts v Celtic game. Not because any of us had an affinity for the Jam Tarts, but because Romanov had announced plans to tear down the old Archibald Leitch stand. Anyway, on Saturday we went to Preston North End, as they too had plans to replace their old main stand with some soulless new construction. After Preston, we drove for a few hours until we arrived in my beloved Scotland. We parked the car outside the McDonald’s in Gorgie (strangely enough we didn’t get a parking fine), and collected our tickets for our first match in Scotland.
The fun started outside the ground. Many Dutch grounds are located outside city centres, on industrial estates, but Tynecastle is bang in the middle of a residential area, surrounded by pubs, shops and programme sellers. I was particularly impressed by the Tynecastle Arms, beautifully done up in maroon paint. The highlight, however, was the facade of the Archibald Leitch main stand. The brick, the name of the ground and the badge: it all came together. Not even the hideous offices that had been erected in front of the stand – whoever came up with that idea is a deeply misguided person – could ruin its beauty. This was what a ground should look like. It gave me goosebumps, and the match hadn’t even started.
I was aware that Hearts and Celtic fans didn’t care much for each other and that there was a history of sectarianism behind this rivalry. I was about to find out just how deep this sectarian divide ran. Our seats were in the Roseburn Stand, right next to the Celtic fans. For us Dutchies, who on away games are treated worse than rabid dogs, this was quite something. The seat in front of me was taken by a big loony skinhead sporting a Chelsea tattoo on his arm. For the entire 90 minutes of the match his sole concern was the away fans. Though he looked a bit of a dimwit, he turned out to have a sound grasp of history. He sang of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, about the Irish famine, a Glasgow street gang, the death of Bobby Sands and how he would never surrender to the IRA. The stewards were busy baiting kids and found the historian far too intimidating to intervene.
The match was played in a tempo I had never seen in Holland. The number of mistakes was enormous because of the breakneck speed, but it was hugely entertaining. What struck me most was the fierce passion displayed both on and off the field. The hatred seemed heartfelt. Neil Lennon in particular suffered a lot of abuse. When he ended up against the boarding after a vicious challenge, the cheer from the crowd was louder than those accompanying Hearts’ two goals. I was totally sucked up by the atmosphere. The Jam Tarts beat Celtic 2-1 and all we talked about in the car was the intense experience offered by the match. This had been a singular occasion even for us, who were used to attending matches in Holland, Germany and England. It is this profound, genuine passion that in my opinion makes Scottish football unique.
The Hearts-Celtic match made me keen to return to Scotland. Lo and behold, Ryanair suddenly started offering affordable flights to Glasgow. So in November that same year I went to my second Scottish match: Celtic-Hearts. And again the ferocity on and off the pitch was breathtaking. I must admit to liking the Celtic Park atmosphere a lot less than that at Tynecastle, but being seated close to the away fans provided lots of entertainment after all. Many Jambos had brought Union Jacks while my part of the stand was awash in green, white and orange. Hearts took an early lead, but in the end lost courtesy of a stoppage-time own goal by Craig Gordon. Some of the away fans had trouble swallowing this late defeat. One of them, clinging to his seat, had to be removed forcibly by four stewards. And me? If I hadn‘t been sold on Scottish football before, I was now.
Translater: Ben van Maaren