First time I saw you

You turn the corner, and it is there. To see a football ground for the first time is bliss.

By Daniel Gray Photographs by Alan McCredie

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

You wake and for a few seconds think it is one of those other mornings. The dreary 345-or-so in a year when you’re not going to a match. It takes a few seconds to remember what day this is. Who you are, even, especially if Friday night was good. If there was a Friday, though, then this is Saturday. If this is Saturday, the right kind of Saturday, then it is sacred. A day of worship. It is even richer if your pilgrimage will take you somewhere new. To walk around a rosy corner and see a football ground for the first time is bliss.

Happy as you are, there is no leap from bed. You lay there for a few minutes, thinking about the day ahead – even the smiling sun sometimes rises groggily. You think about the travel, the timings, the things that can go wrong, the walk to the ground, and whether there will be a useful pub on the way. Too much thought, however, can spoil this day’s finest quality: the unbridled thrill of the new.

Public transport, preferably train, is the best way to arrive in a football territory you do not know. Travelling by car brings too much distracting frustration and conversation, indulgence in which leaves you less able to look out of the window. The broad panes of bus or train open our senses to the different and the new. They widen our eyes, ready them for later spectacles – that first glance around the corner, seeing this particular green for the first time, the game itself.

You drift towards locals in home colours then stalk them loosely like a shambolic private detective. Up pops a pub to fall into. A quick pint, two if you’re good, and then off. The last sup is gulped and the glass landed with a thud. To the ground, those beers having tuned your senses further and polished heartstrings. You are ready to take it all in.

The rhythms of matchday are the same, the lyrics altered. The many are on the march, just as happens at home. In hope they stride, here, there and everywhere. But vive la différence – in this foreign land, the shirt colours that seep from beneath jackets and over jeans are blue to your red. Accents drop different sounds and rise where yours sinks. Heroes have different names.

Everywhere, the streets you walk down seem to be lined with ambivalent residents who don’t even care that they live near a ground. You rarely see anyone looking out of the window, spectating the parade. Blinds are down, curtains drawn; ye Gods what sacrilege! The hollers of programme-hawkers seem to quicken the pace like church bells hurrying tardy parishioners.

And then you turn the corner, and it is there.

The old ones are the best ones: a slither of ground squatting at the end of a long tenement row; a main stand shrouding a neat estate of inter-war semi-detached houses; the away end panorama blocked by a church of the other kind; a beautiful, scraggy home of football set by industrial scrubland. The first sight of an urban ground is obscured or distracted, making it more tantalising. It has context. The out-of-town ground makes it too easy, puts out on the first date.

Look at Firhill like a Spanish cigarette factory. Look at Ochilview like an island chapel with the roof blown off. Look at Stark’s Park like a secret naval war machine. Look at Easter Road, a robot ready to unfold and eat Leith. Behold the raw museum loveliness of Dens Park and the bold handshake of a Pittodrie welcome (and what lout would demolish either?)

What corners they are to turn, your visit stacked with a double-joy: that rush of a first glimpse, and then these grounds’
own unique beauty. In their company, a normal streetscape becomes treasured and surreal. A street’s name has so much more meaning. They enrich the tarmac
as nothing else can.

Why the locations of football grounds were chosen, we may never know. Who scouted the sites that would be consecrated? What were the criteria? How long did it take for these corners to become hallowed? Thinking from above, it is possible to picture some Godly architect dropping terraces upon the righteous.

But to ponder too much is to stifle the tingle. You can over-think infatuation. It is emotion that counts most, the way those tender heartstrings can still be pulled after years of football. These grounds may not be yours, but there is a flirt in all of us.

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

Issue 12
out now

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