I can tell you the exact moment when I decided to hate football for life. It was 11 June 1978 at 6.08 p.m. Scotland were playing Holland in the first stage of the World Cup Finals in Argentina. It happened to be the day of my tenth birthday party: my mother had to have the party after my actual birthday owing to a cock-up involving a cement-mixer and the police, but the party was called for that afternoon, and the cream of St Luke’s Primary School turned up at 4 p.m., armed with Airfix battleships and enough £1 postal orders to keep me in sherbet dib-dabs for a month.
Things started to go badly the minute my father rolled into the square in a blue Bedford van. He came towards the house in the style of someone in no great mood for ice-cream and jelly, and within minutes, having scanned the television pages of the Daily Record, he threw the entire party out of the living room – Jaffa Cakes, Swizzle Sticks, cans of Tizer, the lot – all the better to settle down to a full 90 minutes with Ally’s Tartan Army, now taking the field in Mendoza.
A full cast of Ayrshire Oompa-Loompas (myself at the head) was then marched upstairs to a requisitioned boxroom, where several rounds of pass-the-parcel proceeded without the aid of oxygen. I managed to eat an entire Swiss roll by myself and take part in several sorties of kiss, cuddle or torture before losing my temper and marching to the top of the stairs. From there, looking through the bars, I could see the television and my father’s face. Archie Gemmill, at 6.08, wearing a Scotland shirt with the number 15 on the back, puffed past three Dutch defenders and chipped the ball right over the goalie’s head. The television was so surprised it nearly paid its own licence fee, and my father, well, let’s just say he stood on the armchair and forgot he was once nearly an altar-boy at St Mary’s.
My school chums were soon carried out of the house on stretchers, showing all the signs of a good time not had, by which point my mother was mortified and my father was getting all musical. ‘We’re here to show the world that we’re gonnae do or die,’ he sang unprophetically, ‘coz England cannae dae it coz they didnae qualify.’ My birthday was spoiled, and I decided always to hate football and to make my father pay. I had a hidden stash of books in a former breadbin upstairs – the revenge of the English swot! – and I went out to the swingpark to read one and to fantasise about becoming the West of Scotland’s first international male netball champion.
Hating football was a real task round our way. For a start, my brothers were really good at it; the fireplace had a line of gold and silver strikers perched mid-kick on alabaster bases, and they turned out to be the only part of the fireplace where my father wouldn’t flick his cigarette ash. For another thing, I went to a school where Mr Knocker, the teacher, was football-daft, and he’d sooner you packed in Communion than afternoon football. But Mark McDonald – my fellow cissy – and I broke his spirit after he gave us new yellow strips to try on. We absconded from the training session and stretched the shirts over our knees, all the better to roll down Toad Hill in one round movement before dousing the shirts in the industrial swamp at the bottom. The destruction of footballing equipment was beyond the pale: we were too young for Barlinnie Prison, so we got banned to Home Economics instead and were soon the untouchable kings of eggs Mornay.
My father gave up on me. Mr Knocker put me down for a hairdresser and a Protestant. But there was always my Uncle Peter, a die-hard Celtic supporter – not like my brothers, but a real Celtic supporter, the sort who thought Rangers fans should be sent to Australia on coffin ships, or made to work the North Sea oilrigs for no pay – and Uncle Peter for a while appointed himself the very man who would, as he delicately put it, ‘get all that poofy shite oot his heid before it really does him some damage’.
Game on. But not for long. Uncle Peter arranged to take me to see Celtic and Rangers play at Hampden Park. He was not unkind and had put some planning into the day out, but not as much planning as I had: for a whole week it had been my business to make sure that the only clothes available for me to wear to the treat were blue. For the uninitiated, I should say that Celtic fans tend not to wear blue, especially not to the football, and never, in all the rules of heaven and earth, to a Rangers game.
My uncle was distressed. He called me a Blue Nose to my face (strong words for a bishop) and when we arrived at the ground he made me walk behind him. He said that if Rangers scored and I made a noise he would throw me to the Animals (the stand in Celtic Park where men peed and drank Bovril was affectionately known as the Jungle). When Celtic lost the game 1-0 he called me a Jonah and said everything was lost with me and I should stick at school because I was bound to end up at university or worse.
Easier said than done. Academic distinction at our secondary school was mostly a matter for the birds, so the best a boy could do was to set his mind on surviving four years of PE without ending up in the Funny Farm (Mrs Jess’s remedial class, only marginally more humiliating than being excluded from the school team). It was a wonderful education in the intricacies of human nature. I had pals, good pals, and as a resident smoker at the corner and a fearless talker-back to the nuns, I was in a position to feel confident about their loyalty when we came before Mr Scullion, the chief lion at the gym hall.
Not a bit of it. No sooner had Scullion given some Kenny Dalglish-in-the-making the chance of picking a football team than all affection and loyalty would fall away like snow off a dyke. First lesson: let nothing stand in the way of winning. My good-at-football erstwhile mate would choose one loon after another – a bandy-legged chaser here, a cross-eyed soap-dodger there – until the teams were nearly complete, except for me and Mark McDonald and some poor dwarf called Scobie left glistening with shame on the touchline. A new deputy headmaster came to the school; you could tell by looking at his hair that he was all brown rice and liberal experiment, so I wrote him a well-spelled note about reversing the method used for the picking of teams. I remember the day and the very hour.
‘O’Hagan,’ the PE assistant said, ‘pick your team.’
I walked the few yards onto the field like General Patton contemplating the sweep of his 3rd Army over France. ‘Scobie,’ I said, ‘McDonald.’ And so it went on until every lousy player in the group had smilingly succumbed to an early invitation from the worst football picker in the history of St Michael’s Academy. My hand-picked Rovers and I got beat 12-0.
When I was 12, I had nearly run out of juice on the football-hating front; it was an exhausting business not playing the game. But then I had an idea of quite intense perversity. Even my friend Mark had to shake his head sadly and note that in the arsenal of anti-football weaponry my new device was just too much: for a moment he pitied my trophy-winning brothers, he truly felt for my Scotland-deluded dad. I had gone nuclear: Jacqueline Thompson’s School of Ballet.
Ah, the pleasures of disownment. Before setting off to Dancewear in Glasgow to buy my first set of pumps, however, I was dragooned by the seething Scullion to take part in a hateful five-a-side against Kilwinning Academy. What happened? With only two minutes to go I ran into the ball with the ferocity of a POW making a dash for the barbed wire. Reader, I broke my leg. As I fell to the ground in agony I was sure the sylphides were coming to fetch me en point, but – after even more delusion – I woke up in Kilmarnock Infirmary wearing a plaster cast the size of Siberia, and my father drove me home in perfect silence. The years have passed now, but I can still see him smiling in the audience many months later, the night of Jacqueline Thompson’s Christmas Dance Display at the Civic Centre in Ayr, as his youngest son came onto the stage, football boots and socks pristine, whistle in mouth, to make his first appearance onstage in a dance number called – I swear to God – ‘Match of the Day’.
For long enough – 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, oh how they trip off the tongue – I have comforted myself with the notion that my sense of defeat about football is entirely in keeping with my nation’s performance on the field. But I am getting older now, and Scotland are not getting any better; being a Scottish person means growing into your sense of defeat, and like every other square-shoed man trying to get a bit closer to the bar, I find myself now occasionally looking towards football to offer a sense of nation-sized glory at least once before I pack up my pistols and grow a moustache. Imagine the horror. No sooner had Scotland failed to qualify than I was moved to treat my friends to John Steinbeck’s comment to Jacqueline Kennedy: ‘You talked of Scotland as a lost cause,’ he said, ‘and that is not true. Scotland is an unwon cause.’
Bloody hell. Better make mine a double. Five minutes later I was thinking about Ireland and five minutes after that, God bless us and save us, England. This is the hallmark of the truly hardcore football hater: he is a turncoat, naturally, and he will sometimes give in to sentiment, but at heart he is without grief or care about the prospect of victory or defeat, and all he really wants is for his birthday party to take place in a nice big room with tables and chairs.
Into the bargain come the jokes: like all would-be playground subversives, I was, more than anything else, a sniggering wreck, an absolute pest who would do anything for a laugh. For instance, I’ve never heard a joke about Scotland’s crapness at football that I didn’t find funny, and, by the same token, just the other week, when I saw the Tennent’s lager advertising campaign for the World Cup – ‘Och Aye Kanu,’ it says over a Nigerian flag, ‘C’mon the Tartan Argie’ over an Argentine one, and ‘Support Sven’s Team’ over Sweden’s – I took the train back to London in a swoon of certainty about the wisdom of Scotland’s dislike of England. Once you get into the swing of it, there’s nothing so addictive as inconstancy; the only trouble comes when football-hating becomes a sort of love, when you find yourself not saving hours but dispelling days in your pursuit of understanding the whys and wherefores of the unbeautiful game.
I would by the way encourage anyone inclined to pursuits of that kind to keep their distance from the World Wide Web. The Internet – a thing which at times seems designed for and by nut jobs of all stripes – is never madder than when hosting any sort of discussion about football by any sort of fan. Take the following which picks up the England-Scotland resentment theme just alluded to. Topic headline: ‘I Wish You Would Stop Sponging Off Us’.
Browser A: You are a twat. We want to be free of you inbreed half-breed Anglo-Saxon scum and one day we’ll get rid of you and your German Queen.
Browser B: I am making it my mission in life to inform my fellow countrymen (English) what a bunch of pathetic cunts you Jocks are. Get ready to reap the whirlwind. Tourism will die.
Browser C: Yeh. England is your master, bow down, you subservient nation. And bugger the Argies as well.
I hate to cut out of the debate at such a crucial juncture, but you get the idea, and it does go on for thousands of hours. I have to say, though, perhaps surprisingly to some, that this kind of sophistication has yet to cause the generally football-appalled like myself to see the light.
I have this bunch of pals in London who are mainly Scottish but who play in a team called the Battersea Juniors. They are more persuasive in this regard. The team is a bit up-and-down, a bit part-time, even for a Saturday league, but I went to see them recently with a view to turning them on to the virtues of figure-skating. It didn’t entirely work out: a feature of the genuine egomaniac is that we can’t ever truly understand other people’s obsessions, but these boys were absolutely for real – I recognised their determination from my youthful days with Mr Scullion. ‘You’re a fucking pure tosser,’ said Alan to the referee, a Christian who gives up his Saturday mornings for £10.
‘You keep it shush!’ said the referee.
Paul was trampled on by the home team and screamed like a pig and got a twisted ankle. Raymond was out of breath and shouted to me that he’s been on a pizza and fags diet for the last six months and had just crashed his TVR Griffith into a central reservation.
‘A low-slung car for a high-profile guy,’ said Russell.
The linesman was smoking a gigantic joint and shouting down the phone to his girlfriend in the rain. A young English player called Kez was up and down the park: ‘He’s new to the team,’ said the injured Paul, ‘young, fast and talented – unlike us. Oh. My leg’s fucked.’ He stared into the mud and the driving rain. ‘I wonder if I should take a sicky.’
Alan eventually got a red card. The referee said that repeatedly being called a ‘knob’ was like being accused of sexual deviance. Alan apologised. ‘OK,’ said the referee, ‘I’ll let it go this time, but any more of that and it’ll go through.’
‘Cheers, Ref,’ said Alan. And when the Christian departed the field of play Alan turned to his team-mates. ‘Knob,’ he said.
Meanwhile, these last weeks, the World Cup has come to spread the values of commitment and fraternity at an international level. I remember my dad buying me and my four brothers Celtic strips one Christmas; my brothers doing keepy-up with the new balls and tearing off their pyjamas as quick as possible to don the green and white, and me, standing at the door, looking into all this carnage with eyes like My Little Pony. ‘I told you he would hate it,’ said my mother, who reached behind a green sofa, producing a Post Office set to gladden the heart of any housebound hooligan.
I phoned my father the other day in a fit of questionable delight after England beat Argentina. ‘England are a shite team,’ he said philosophically, ‘they get one goal and they think they’re the champions of the universe.’ I tell him I’ve been buying dozens of packets of Panini football stickers for my girlfriend’s two boys. ‘You lay them all out and stick them in the book,’ I said, ‘and then you mark down the results and all the information about the players and you can cross-reference them and all that stuff.’
‘Typical enemy of the game,’ said my father. ‘Turns everything into office work.’