Like most people, I have a routine when I go to the football. I always take the same route to the ground, buy my programme from the same seller each time, go through the same turnstile. I walk up the stairs to my seat and after the game’s done I leave through the same door, always exit number seven. I suspect there are thousands of us who do these same things each week, whether out of habit or superstition. What makes my experience more unusual is that I’m also autistic. Mildly so but enough to be going along with. For me, watching Hibs is like therapy. When I’m in my seat the world stops. For the next 90 minutes or more I’m only there to see the Hibees. I’m quite shy but at the football I can let all the stresses of the week and all my inhibitions (well, most of them) go by yelling,
cheering or sometimes even singing, though that’s mainly reserved for a derby.
Where I sit at Easter Road is ideal. It’s near the top of the East Stand so I get a view of the whole pitch but without being miles away as the stand is quite steep. I am also one of the few people who doesn’t mind how lousy the sound system is. It’s quite quiet without being distorted, just braw for my particular blend of sensory sensitivities. I’ve been in plenty of other grounds where it’s been a lot harder to cope. Hampden, for instance, has a system that combines too high a volume and a boom that goes right through my skull. Plus whenever I go to our national stadium it tends to be for big games when they put on the monster chiller theatre music with the heavy bass and of course the fireworks. I like to think 50,000 fans can create an atmosphere just fine without having to compete with Mixmaster Hampden’s Ministry of Sound castoffs.
Stuart Cosgrove wrote in issue four of Nutmeg about the young ultras who follow many clubs in Scotland, including Hibs, St. Johnstone, Motherwell and both halves of the Old Firm. With those ultras usually come tifos, which I like, and drums and flares, which I really don’t. One of the most stressful games I’ve had was at Tannadice last season. The drummer was just along the row from me and it was hellish, like every beat was directly against my skull. Celtic Park was even worse, with two drums, one in the away gully where I was and the other across the park in the hands of the Green Brigade. I can cope just fine with singing and even drumming but preferably when it’s at the other end of the ground from me. Easter Road’s drum is now in the Famous Five Stand, and it’s okay, like the distant reverberation of a train against tracks, the drumming muffled by being at the end of the stand.
What I find hardest, though, is the getting to the game. Living in the west means I inevitably have to brave the Glasgow Queen Street-Edinburgh Waverley train, invariably absolutely thronged with people. Going through during the Six Nations is particularly bad, like when I had to sit at the door, across the way from some poor bugger who had spewed on the floor. The Edinburgh Festival is even worse, even with the extra trains. I usually get to Easter Road and my heart quickens, not just out of excitement but of the thought of walking through the line of stewards between me and the turnstile, the narrowness of the gap between people making me uncomfortable each and every time. I spend half my life looking ahead, plotting a route along pavements and through crowds but it doesn’t stop being stressful. Then when I get through the turnstile I make sure I always have money in my hand for my ticket for the half-time draw, fishing change out of my pocket beforehand. My fine motor skills aren’t the finest so it saves the seller standing looking awkward as I fumble around for two quid. On a cold day, you can get away with that, not so much in May. Then I get to my seat and I’m on my own amongst the crowd. I’ve spent enough of my life alone that it doesn’t normally bother me. The social side is where I struggle most in life but going to the football is like going to the cinema: the main event is what’s happening in front of you. I’m there to see a game of football, just like everyone else.
It helps that I get to the ground early. Most grounds are pretty much deserted at 2.00, 2.15. There might be a bustle outside the stadium but inside the place is quiet. I like it that way, being able to get into the stadium at my own pace, find my seat and let the ground fill up around me. It’s more gradual, more relaxed, especially from a sensory point of view. I can check the teams and watch the warm-ups. The routine has evolved over time, happening sometimes by accident rather than by design, even in grounds far from home. If I’m not there and kick-off is drawing closer, I begin to get nervous. The crowds will be heavier on the way up to the ground. I might need to work my way along a row, uprooting a whole line of people, rather than being able to glide in, sit and settle for the duration. I am also chronically clumsy and with more people in the ground, there is more possibility of embarrassment, such as at Kilmarnock when I somehow managed to cowp a cup of hot Vimto over my hand, programme and two Killie pies. I was only trying to sit down. The Sportscene cameras also captured for posterity how I got knocked over celebrating a goal at Ross County, falling sideways into the aisle as the crowd just erupted around me.
Every day has its stress. I’m easily overloaded and the football is an immense assault on every one of my senses. But I can handle it. I’ve learned over many years and many games what I can cope with. It’s built up tolerance and resilience, helpful both in a massive crowd and when my team’s two down with ten minutes to go. Being able to shout and yell is cathartic, especially if Willie Collum or John Beaton are refereeing, while going radge when we score is a vital release valve for all the pent-up emotion amassed over the last week. The loud roar of ‘yes!’, in truth more of a stretched-out, rawer, east-coast ‘yaassss’, seems to come from the soles of my feet, an almost primal reaction for a person normally so restrained as I am.
A lot of people are surprised when I tell them I’m a football fan. I come across as quite a serious, smart guy, intellectual and genial, hardly the image folk have of someone who spends their Saturdays on a terracing. But I’m not that, just as I’m not the stereotypical autistic person, a diffident loner with an eidetic memory like Rain Man.
Being me has its drawbacks, sure. I support Hibs, after all. Football is how I escape from daily life, from people and having to fit into the neurotypical world. Strange how I share my escape with 20,000 others. Even with the drumming, the sound systems and the flashing LED boards, I can tune all that out and just focus on the game in front of me, its outcome unpredictable when so often I crave order and control. It is the jammy result against the run of play, the little shimmy past three defenders, the tackle right out of the Super Bowl, the lifting of a cup when a few minutes before we were behind; that all makes it worth it, all the stress, all the fumbling, all the silence as everyone around me blethers and I acquaint myself with the programme. It’s just what I do every other Saturday.