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Sunday, 16 October 2016

Hunted: Ask the expert

Hunted is a TV show in which ten folk have to go on the run and stay hidden for 28 days. The contestants are allowed to take anything they are able to carry and are granted access to a bank account containing £300. They are being pursued by a crack team of investigators who have all kinds of surveillance powers available to them (including the ability to seize computers, hack email accounts and open mail). Any contestants who can evade these ‘hunters’ for 28 days will win a share of £100,000. Apart from being an entertaining programme, Hunted is a grim reminder of just how much access the state has to your personal information and all of your electronic communications. British citizens are the most observed people in the western world and the average person is caught on CCTV around seventy (yes, 70) times a day.

Two young Londoners working together –Madu Alikor and Ayo Adesina- have been making life difficult for the investigative team, so last week the hunters upped the ante. Dr Donna Youngs is described as an ‘Investigative Psychologist’ and her job is to help profile the lives of the fugitives, predicting how they might react under pressure. On last week’s show, she interviewed the wife of one of the men. As she built up her sophisticated psychological profiles, she unearthed some vital clues to help the investigative team anticipate the next moves of the two fugitives.

Madu and Ayo were good friends, said the wife, “But they argue a lot.” Dr Youngs then reported back to the investigative team: “These men argue a lot” she said. “And this is a relationship that is under stress.”

These two men are on the run, being pursued by professional investigators who have hacked their email accounts and their phones, interviewed their families and used social media to offer financial rewards to any member of the public providing information leading to a capture. The men are tired, hungry, sleeping in ditches and dreaming about that £100,000 prize. Apart from this information and the statement from the wife that 'they argue a lot', Dr Youngs had nothing on which to base her remarkable observations.
Only someone who has undertaken years of professional training could examine such flimsy evidence, yet produce an insight which will surely lead the investigative team to their prey.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Scottish Cup, Round 1: Facsimile of Steak

When the draw for the first round proper of the Scottish Cup was made, I drew up a wish list of the ties I fancied attending. As a football tourist with no fixed loyalties, my plan for this year’s competition is to visit some grounds and, perhaps, some places I’ve never visited before. A number of intriguing possibilities presented themselves, but events conspired against me. The weekend of those first round ties coincided with my wedding anniversary and my wife had selfishly booked a weekend abroad to celebrate. Not only did she expect me to go with her, she could not be persuaded that a visit to Deveronvale, Galashiels or Inverness to watch a first round Scottish Cup tie would surpass any of the supposed delights to be found abroad. Astonishing, I know. 

While I was away, I found it difficult to keep up with the scores. You’d think that most of the major news agencies would want to keep the world abreast of Beith Athletic v Strathspey Thistle or Inverurie Locos v Buckie Thistle, but even the Scottish Football Association’s website was tardy about posting the results. Upon returning to Scotland, I was relieved to find that the dedicated Scottish Cup channel on youtube contained brief highlights from most of the ties.  I’ve been at games where the ‘highlight’ has been a fight between players, a comedic goalkeeping blunder or a dog running on to the pitch, so I was hoping that the youtube clips would do a bit more than just focus on the goals. As if to conform to the stereotypical view of Scottish football, the first round produced a few goalkeeping errors. In the game between Keith and Banks o’ Dee, the Dee centre forward manages to score from a difficult angle, mainly because the home goalie, in a foolish attempt to feign nonchalance, allows the ball to run past him, clearly expecting it to go out of play. Only once the nippy striker has played the ball across him and into the empty goal does he realise that he might just have made a catastrophic error of judgement. As he puts his hand up to his head (as if to say: “Damn … I knew I had forgotten something. My job is to stop the other team from scoring”), you can’t help but respect him for having the grace not to try and pin the blame on his defenders.   

(As an aside, if there ever was a United Kingdom non-league cup, I’d like to see Keith drawn to play Leigh, with the winners away to Dave in the next round).  

If everyone attending the game between Civil Service Strollers and Hawick Royal Albert had brought a pal, the crowd would still have been on the ‘lean’ side of sparse. The few who attended witnessed the Hawick custodian dropping a clanger of Clemencian proportions to allow a soft equaliser. Supporters of a certain vintage will understand that reference, while younger readers may wish to google ‘Scotland v England, Hampden Park, 1976’ to see what I mean. On a positive goalkeeping note, the Wick Academy goalie made the save of the round in their 3-1 victory away at Dalbeattie Star. Wick is the most northerly professional league club in the United Kingdom, but they took what sounded like a decent support to a tie in which the home team had a man sent off for the heinous crime of ‘falling’ and another dismissed for saying something naughty to the referee. The man in the middle featured rather a lot in the brief highlights package, which isn’t a good sign; as a general rule of thumb, the referees you don’t notice are better than the ones you do. At Claggan Park, in the foothills of Ben Nevis, Fort William got clobbered 4-1 by Brora Rangers, their only consolation coming from the knowledge that their ground was more picturesque than most. Miles down the west coast, at Girvan-in-the-gloom, the home side lost 2-1 to Huntly. This game also featured a controversial refereeing decision, when a very good home shout for a late penalty was turned down. If I were a Girvan fan, I would definitely have been chanting “Who’s the teuchter in the black?” By the sounds of it, the best atmosphere was at the Inverurie Loco Works v Buckie Thistle match, where the Buckie boys, in their not-quite-Celtic strip, knocked six past the home keeper. By coincidence, the victorious team featured a John Hartson lookey-likey, who almost scored a spectacular goal from inside the centre circle.

If you watch the highlights of Turiff’s game with Bonnyrigg, look out for the middle-aged guy in the shirt and tie standing on the stairs in the little stand behind the goal. His celebratory jig after Turiff open the scoring is delightful; my guess would be that he runs the club bar and that he was already dreaming of Celtic, Rangers, Hearts or Aberdeen visiting the town. ‘Just think of what we’ll take at the bar’ he expresses, through the medium of dance; or, if not ‘dance’, then the medium of jumping about and shouting ‘Yaas!’ Unfortunately, his team got cuffed 4-1 in the replay.
One of the best things about these youtube clips is the fact that they don’t have any commentary, which means you invariably pick up some fruity contributions from the spectators. There is a lovely little moment in the game between Deveronvale and Gretna 2008 (a reformed club which, in a previous incarnation, came within a penalty shoot-out of winning the Cup). Already trailing by a goal, the home defence, stumbling around like drunk men trying to avoid standing on lego, concede a soft second, at which point you can hear an anguished cry of “That’s a shambles!” I can just picture the guy who shouted this. He’ll be a lifelong fan, middle-aged and unable to break the football habit his old man got him into. I’d wager that, on many a Saturday afternoon, he’ll have let his eyes stray from the pitch across to Banff Bay and, in a quiet moment of existential angst, asked himself why the hell he has paid money to watch this pish. Just listen to that plaintive “That’s a shambles!” and tell me that you don’t feel his pain.

The most exciting tie was undoubtedly at Mosset Park, home of Forres Mechanics, where the match with Lossiemouth provided a great example of early-round cup-tie football, red in tooth and claw. Among several moments to savour is the 94thminute equaliser by the home goalkeeper, Stuart Knight, who comes up for a corner and scores with what, at first glance, appears to be a header, but a closer look reveals that he probably knocked the ball in with his clavicle. Scenes of wild abandonment follow as fans and players invade the pitch, while Lossiemouth reel from the sense that some kind of injustice has occurred. But there was no injustice; it was clearly a clavicle flick, as Stuart might have said in a post-match interview on Sky Sports Scottish Cup Special:

"Yeah, no, I’ve gone up for the corner in the last-minute. Dazza’s whipped it across and I’ve lost my marker and just got the clavicle on it. Credit to the lads, we’ve worked on that at training all week and it’s obviously paid off. But like I said, it’s not about one player, or one player’s clavicle. It’s about getting this football club into the next round of the cup.”   

I’ve never been to Grant Street Park, home of Inverness Clachnacuddin, but it looks like a great little lower-league venue. Watching the highlights from their tie with Stirling University illustrates, among other things, why the home club chose not to be part of the entity formed in Inverness in 1994. With a place in the Scottish League in the offing, two of the three Highland League clubs then playing in Inverness -Caledonian and Thistle- amalgamated (in spite of lots of opposition from supporters of both sides) to form a club called, unsurprisingly enough, Inverness Caledonian Thistle. It’s just as well that Clach, formed in 1885 (yes, they’re older than Celtic), didn’t want any part of it, because if they had, the new team might have had the longest name in world football: Inverness Caledonian Clachnacuddin Thistle. Or maybe Inverness Clachnacuddin Caledonian Thistle. I’d probably have gone for Athletico Inverness Clachnacuddin Thistle Caledonian Rovers, just to cover all the angles. The merged neighbours have since worked their way to the top national division, while Clach have remained as a Highland League club. I’ve no idea whether or not they have any ambitions to join the Scottish League, but it’s clear that if they ever do, it will be done on their own terms. Behind one of the goals at Grant Street, there is a structure called the ‘1947-48 Clean Sweep Enclosure’, commemorating the season that Clach won the Highland League, the Scottish Qualifying Cup, the Highland League Cup and the North of Scotland Cup. In spite of this illustrious history, they contrived to lose 2-1 to Stirling University, although -for what it’s worth- I don’t think all of those Stirling lads looked like students.

Scottish football has recently witnessed the emergence of several ‘new model’ football clubs, including Edusport Academy, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld Colts and BSC Glasgow, each professing to take a community-oriented approach to football development. For all of the worthiness of these projects, I find the idea of seeking out a cup tie at East Kilbride or Cumbernauld somewhat unappealing, for a variety of reasons. I’m not going to say anything about the aesthetics of town planning here; I’ll merely observe that both of those settlements are close enough to my home city to be quite familiar. The size of the respective populations has been used to support the case for professional clubs in these towns, but a few inconvenient, elephant-in-the-room sized facts get in the way. For one thing, the West of Scotland is not exactly short of football clubs; for another, both towns are very close to Glasgow and the football-minded folk are almost certainly Rangers or Celtic supporters already. Twenty years after Clyde moved to Cumbernauld from the south side of Glasgow, their average attendance at home games is around 500. They share their home with Cumbernauld Colts, who were granted more than half a million pounds of public money to develop their facilities and install a 3G pitch. According to their website, Colts have more than 330 playing members, with “four operating strands, a senior male first team, a female first team, an extensive grassroots Football Academy and ‘Colts in the Community’, which provides a range of community-focused outreach programmes that are delivered throughout the year.”
Cumbernauld has a population of 52,000. This may sound brutal, but have a look at the highlights from the home team’s 1-0 replay win over Leith and take a guess as to how many people in the town are interested in watching the team.  

Where the grounds of Deveronvale and Clach are picturesque or characterful, East Kilbride’s is bleakly utilitarian, with a synthetic pitch and a big green fence behind one of the goals. It looks like one of the least soulful sporting venues on the planet, but at least the team is pretty decent. They shared ten goals with Vale of Leithen in their first round tie, although -as the home team- they insisted on their share being 90%. Last year, East Kilbride got to the last sixteen of the Cup and only lost by two goals to the mighty Celtic, a result which had the hoops supporters incandescent with rage on the radio phone-ins. East Kilbride was formed as recently as 2010, with the intention of bringing senior football to one of Scotland's largest towns. Their motto is ‘a priori’, which indicates an attempt to claim a heritage link with clubs which previously existed in or around the town. It has 28 teams and over 600 players in all age groups; according to their website, they “also have a thriving Sunday Club for children with Additional Support Needs and an ever growing Girls Section with girls from 6 to 15 years.”

There is a scene in David Cronenberg’s 1983 horror sci-fi film ‘The Fly’ in which the brilliant scientist Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum) is trying to perfect a transportation device. He has two giant ‘teleporting’ pods set up in his laboratory, with which he successfully transports non-organic matter from one side of the room to the other. He understands that the next stage of his experimentation must involve the successful transportation of organic matter. As he works towards this astounding goal, he decides to transport a steak from one pod to the other before persuading his journalist girlfriend (Veronica, played by Geena Davis) to eat it. Upon trying the teleported ‘steak’ she gags, because it tastes horrible, lifeless and synthetic. It looks like a steak but it isn’t really a steak. It’s something else; it’s a facsimile of a steak. And that, in my middle-aged, conservative, ‘things-were-different-in-my-day’ prejudice is what I feel about some of these new clubs. They do lots of good work, particularly when it comes to encouraging community participation; they are licensed by the Scottish Football Association; they have all the correct procedures and policies and can attract the kind of funders interested in supporting politically-prescribed notions of social gain.
I can accept that pretty much anything that gets hundreds of people exercising on a regular basis is, in and of itself, a good thing. But, deep in my gut, I feel no emotional connection to these socially-aware enterprises with their aims and objectives that go far beyond winning a few games of football.

By contrast, although I don’t actively support teams like Ayr United, Queen of the South or Clachnacuddin, I can still feel some kind of emotional connection with them. These clubs (and others like them) play in their own unique temples of ramshackle beauty, each one echoing memories of glorious successes, inglorious failures, moments of low comedy and high farce. A football club is -among other things- a living socio-cultural document and the players who pull on those jerseys are representing more than just a club or a town; they are writing another chapter in history.

I’m not an idiot. I understand that ‘new’ history can be made. When Caley and Thistle merged to form that club in Inverness in 1994, few would have predicted that they would work their way so quickly through the league structure and make such a great contribution to the Scottish game. In ‘The Fly’, Veronica’s ‘steak-tasting’ moment presaged a world transformed by the possibilities of molecular deconstruction and successful re-assembly; perhaps, like her, I’m just on the wrong side of a significant historical development.   

Perhaps I’m wrong to believe that the last thing Scottish football needs is some new professional clubs; perhaps I’m wrong to state that public money might best be focused on celebrating, preserving and developing the clubs we already have. Perhaps I’m wrong and there are thousands of people in Cumbernauld and East Kilbride keen to find an alternative to bussing it into Glasgow to watch the Old Firm trample on their latest victims.    

Perhaps, in time, these new clubs will accumulate enough history to be something other than what they currently appear to be: facsimiles of steak.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Android in La La Land.

'Android in La La Land' is a film by Steve Read and Rob Alexander. It follows Gary Numan and his wife as they leave the UK and try to settle in Los Angeles with their young family. It isn't the‘career-by-numbers’ fluff piece that some might have expected (or feared). By the looks of it, the crew was given more or less unlimited access to the Numan household, with the result that Read and Alexander have produced an amazingly candid piece. There’s no sense here that we’re being presented with anything that has been particularly dressed up for public edification. Gary and his amusingly bonkers missus Gemma come across as a lovably eccentric middle-aged couple, a less annoying version of The Osbournes.

The narrative tension focuses on the fact that, having hit a creative brick wall and suffered a serious bout of depression, Gary is under pressure to produce a special ‘comeback’ album. It’s going to be his first new work for about seven years and –as the family acclimatises to their new surroundings- we get the impression that their future depends upon the success (or otherwise) of Poppa Numan’s new record. He talks frankly about his Asperger’s syndrome and about how it has informed his creative process (and imposed limits on his social intercourse). He candidly admits that if he hadn’t been a pop star, he would never have had a girlfriend in his life.
Through the difficult times, the three little Numanettes are impossibly cute and it’s lovely to see them mocking their hair-dying, guy-liner wearing electropop dad. ‘Does dying my hair black make me look younger?’ Gary asks. ‘No’ he’s told. ‘It just makes you look old with black hair’. 

The film is honest, insightful and funny; it also has some moments of genuine tenderness. The only time I felt that the directors stepped back from the edge was when Gary talked about the big fallout with his parents, a row so significant that he felt that he had no longer had a stake in remaining in the UK. I attended a showing at Glasgow Film Theatre, which had a Q and A with Steve Read at the end. He fielded the questions skilfully (including some truly international-class anorak queries from a couple of ageing Numanoids) and explained why the film was content to let the viewers ‘fill in the gaps’ on the big family fallout. Gary’s mum Beryl died this year and there was simply no need to rake up the ashes of an old dispute. Thankfully, some of the damage had been repaired before she died.

When you recall the amount of press derision that followed Numan’s marriage to fan club member Gemma O’Neill in 1997, it may be surprising for some to discover that this film is –above all else- a love story. The couple endured several miscarriages and failed bouts of IVF before giving birth to Raven, the first of their three girls, in 2004.  As Gary’s creativity dried up and Gemma suffered a prolonged bout of post-natal depression, their marriage hit the rocks. They managed to pull back from the brink and the film makes it clear that they are devoted to each other. The lyrics on his triumphant ‘Splinter’ album from 2013 explore that trauma and the recovery.

Gemma”, says Gary, “is everything I’m not.”

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Scottish Cup, preliminary round 2: I fought the law (but our updated ‘health and safety’ policy won)

There were a couple of decent options for the neutral supporter last weekend in the second preliminary round of the Scottish Cup. I opted to drive to Castle Douglas to attend the tie between Threave Rovers and Linlithgow Rose.

I assumed that the local team, rather than opt for something like ‘Castle Douglas United’, had named themselves after the nearby Threave Castle, once the seat of the Earls of Douglas. But the club website revealed that Rovers, formed in 1953, actually got their name from the former Threave Tearooms in the centre of town. Their supporters must be thankful that the founders hadn’t opted to have their initial meetings at Archie’s Greasy Spoon. Castle Douglas has strong links with Glasgow, perhaps because it housed many of the city’s evacuated children during the war. It is a pretty town and, according to a local contact, fiercely protective of its idiosyncratic character. I was told that Tesco was only permitted to open a shop there on the condition that it would not have a butcher or a baker (I had, alas, no inside information on any issues concerning the candle-stick maker). And, walking down the main street on Saturday afternoon, one couldn’t help but notice that there were several local butchers and bakers, each appearing to do decent business. I can also report that it is possible to get a nice cup of tea and a scone within five minutes of the football ground. These things are important. 

When Threave signed up to the Scottish Football Association’s club licensing system a few years ago, they were invited to join the newly-formed Lowland Football League, part of a long-overdue attempt to introduce a pyramid system to our league structure. Unfortunately, they found it too difficult to compete and -at the end of last season- opted to re-join the South of Scotland Football League. Their honours list includes victories in the Cree Lodge Cup, the Tweedie Cup and the Haig Gordon Memorial Trophy (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Sir Alex Ferguson). On top of that, they once knocked Stenhousemuir out of the Scottish Cup, an honour they share with a number of other teams. The thing that struck me most as I browsed the club’s website the night before the game was that no fewer than seventeen different policy documents were given prominent space. There seemed to be policies for everything. Given the modest attendances at their games, perhaps the long-term goal was to have a policy statement for every spectator. I would have been particularly interested in the policy for people with a vague sense of existential ennui. I wondered what the club might do if a fan had some upsetting thoughts about the nature of free will?

I noted with interest that their ground regulations stated that:  

The moving from one area of the ground to another without permission of a steward, Police Officer or other authorised agent of the Club is strictly forbidden.

And that:

With the exemption of persons authorised by the Club management and press representatives holding passes, the taking of photographs or use of video equipment inside the ground is prohibited. 
Given that these were two of the activities I planned to undertake at the game, I was a little concerned.

I then had a look at the Linlithgow Rose website to see what I could learn about the club. It is one of the most successful in the Scottish Junior (i.e. non-league) set-up; not only have they won lots of trophies, but their record home attendance of 3,626 is only a few hundred bodies short of the entire population of Castle Douglas. The most famous player in their history is Tommy Walker, who also played for Hearts and Scotland. The current squad contains a number of ex-pros, including former Hearts stars Joe Hammil and Graham Weir. The latter had changed a bit since the last time I saw him on TV; his photo on the squad profile page suggested that he might now have a sideline playing in a Biffy Clyro tribute act. 

The website also boasted six rather hefty club policy documents under various headings, along with a statement that they were “committed to making participation in the club’s activities as a player, member of the coaching staff, Committee Member, Spectator or in any other capacity a very pleasing and fulfilling one.”  
I wondered if the person who coined the phrase fulfilling and pleasing knew anything at all about the history of Scottish football. My footballing experiences, for the most part, involved angst, boredom, frustration, humiliation and a crushing sense of the inevitability of failure. And there was some bad stuff as well. In order to ensure that we were fulfilled and pleased, ‘offensive behaviour’ was usefully defined as ‘any actions that are designed to or negligently result in distress to others, including Use of Foul and Abusive Language, Discrimination based on a person’s religion, gender, colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability’.   

Alongside the stuff about various potential misdemeanours like racism, fighting, spitting, drunkenness, farting, cruelty to animals and misquoting eighties song lyrics (OK … I’ve made a few of those up), there was something in capital letters about FOUL LANGUAGE.
Spectators were urged to report anyone they considered to be ‘out of order’ with regards to the use of FOUL LANGUAGE. I wondered how ‘out of order’ could be defined, because it seems like such a subjective term. I think, for example, that my brother-in-law is ‘out of order’ for enjoying the hits of Westlife. Could I have him evicted from family gatherings on that basis? How could a policy based on subjective interpretations of an imprecise phrase be reasonably enforced? Should such a policy be enforced? In my experience, FOUL LANGUAGE is part and parcel of the Scottish game. Some of my most entertaining moments watching football have involved being witness to world-class shouting and swearing. At a Clyde v Queen of the South match in the mid-80s, I heard an unfortunate goalkeeper, having dropped what is technically known as a ‘clanger’, being assailed thus by an apoplectic supporter: “Shocking! Fuckin’ shocking! You’re a fuckin’ disgrace! You’re a fuckin’ useless fucking cunt! (pause for dramatic effect) … and your wife has left you for a fuckin’ hairdresser!” There is, I think, a place in the game for passionate foul-mouthed ranting of the kind that occasionally leads to the exponent being hospitalised for high blood pressure or a mild heart attack. And it’s not just the fans who should be allowed to indulge in this activity. My son recently played for a team whose coach exhorted his defenders, several times in the course of the average game, to “just get the fucking ball to fuck!” I don’t know about you, but I’d happily re-mortgage my house to pay for the privilege of sitting behind the Arsenal dug-out and listen to Arsene Wenger shouting that to Per Mertesacker.  

It is clear, however, that the authorities do not share my view that swearing can be both big and clever. I’d imagine that the reason these small clubs have gone all ‘policy-tastic’ is that they are now required to comply with the Scottish Football Association’s licensing system. The SFA, no doubt for reasons they believe to be well-intentioned, think that all clubs -even those watched by very few spectators- should adopt their approved templates. Depending on your point of view, that could be interpreted as either progressive administration or excessive micro-management. According to the SFA website: 
National Club Licensing operates a Gold, Silver, Bronze and Entry level system. Clubs are granted an overall award reflecting the lowest level that the club achieves in the four sections of criteria (Ground, First Team Football, Youth Team Football and Legal, Admin, Finance and Codes of Practice).  
There are some bigger points about society to be made here, but I’d suggest that something in our mentality has altered over the last few decades. We are now more likely –than we were in, say, the 1980s- to acquiesce to bureaucratic micro-management and to power being focused in the centre. We accept that official bodies have a regulatory input to societal mores. We accept that the state has some dominion over matters which would once have been considered private. We are more likely to take offence, more likely to resort to litigation, more likely to expect ‘authority’ to intervene in social intercourse. Just how serious were Threave Rovers about those club policies? Would they really stop someone from taking pictures or walking from one end of the ground to the other? Were those rules designed to be followed, or were they put in place to placate the football authorities? 

In Scotland, we certainly have a government that likes to micro-manage. 

Acting in the belief that they were ‘tackling’ the ‘problem’ of sectarianism, the Scottish Government introduced the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act in 2011. 
This legislation was designed to catch any songs that created or risked public disorder. In cases where the chants or songs might fall short of the ‘public disorder’ benchmark, it was to be left up to individual police officers to decide whether the chants and songs were offensive enough to incite wider disorder. To summarise: What you’re singing at a football match might be likely to get you thrown into jail. Or it might not. It depends upon who is on duty at the time. And any ‘offence’ which is potentially taken need not actually be taken or complained about by anyone who witnesses the singing. In fact, it doesn’t matter if nobody witnesses the offensive singing. That ‘risk of public disorder’ will be assessed by the commanding officer on duty. I trust that clears things up.  

The government thought this legislation necessary because they believe that we are all either potential victims or potential perpetrators; we’ll either suffer psychological damage by being called a fenian or a hun, or we’ll be the kind of person who starts off using those words and ends up sending parcel bombs to people they don’t like. There may be a connection between shouting something inappropriate at a football match and sending someone a parcel bomb, but it's the same kind of connection that exists between having a knife in your kitchen drawer and actually stabbing someone. The result of this egregious legislation is that Scotland is now a country where silly teenagers get jailed for singing a song, or for posting idiotic opinions online.

Things were certainly different when I started regularly attending matches. Sectarian chanting was de rigueur at some club matches and I remember attending a Scotland v England game in the mid-eighties when the ‘marvellous’ Tartan Army made monkey noises every time the black English player John Barnes got on the ball. Oh, how we laughed at their native northern wit. There was, too, an occasional frisson of violence. I recall walking back to Glasgow city centre with some friends after a game between Celtic and Aberdeen. Our spider senses alerted us to the fact that a group of Aberdeen casuals were heading in our direction. As they started to gather pace, we guessed that they didn’t want to talk about the game or anything like that. Reasoning that velocity was the better part of cowardice, we bolted as fast as we could in the general direction of get-us-outta-here. I stupidly ran up a tenement close, not thinking about what I’d do if I were to be pursued to the top of the stairs. As luck would have it, my pursuers must have lost interest, because I got to the second floor and realised that I hadn’t been followed all the way into the close. Perhaps the cognitive abilities of the Aberdeen casuals didn’t allow them to shout "Die, ya fuckin’ Weegie Bastard!" and manage the stairs. On a less violent note, it was once the case that -during a big game on a packed terrace- having someone pee down your leg was something of an initiation ceremony. While you’d be concentrating on the action, the drunken clod behind you would be trying to pee into a can, invariably missing or splashing off the can, ensuring that his beery piss was shared with those in the immediate vicinity. Nowadays, if someone were to pee on you, you’d be entitled to scream "out of order!" at the stewards and have the offender charged with a hate crime. 

I'd like to make it clear at this point that I’m not arguing that racist or sectarian abuse (or indeed peeing on someone’s shoes) is acceptable. But outlawing words doesn’t create a more virtuous society. Virtue can’t be imposed; it can only be chosen, because it is a by-product of free will. In the pursuit of what they perceive to be a virtuous end, the authorities have merely introduced a gagging policy. They don’t appear to understand that the outlawing of something that is perceived to be bad (in this case, singing ‘sectarian’ songs) does not make the person who is cowed into not singing any more virtuous; it just means that that person has been cowed into not singing. In that sense, the legislation represents not progress, but merely the imposition of corporate will. That’s why, in spite of the banning of ‘sectarian’ songs, supporters persist in keeping them alive, in one way or another.

As for the game itself, it took place in Threave's picturesque Meadow Park ground, cosily tucked into the corner of a small industrial estate on the edge of town. It was £6 to get in and my half-time pie and bovril came in at a very reasonable £2.30. I’d have liked the pie to have been a bit warmer, so I’ll be suggesting an addition to the club policies. My impression from the opening exchanges was that Linlithgow were going to be way too strong for the home team. After about five minutes, Graham Weir used the outside of his foot to place a shot beyond the Threave goalie. Just a couple of moments later, Linlithgow added a second, through a powerful header from Blair Batchelor; at that point, I thought we were going to witness a massacre. The Rose looked faster, stronger, more organised and more skilful. In simple things like passing, movement and using upper body strength, there looked to be a big gulf between the teams. Two-nil down in no time at all, the locals appeared to be resigning themselves to a sound thrashing, but then - because football, as has been scientifically proven, is a funny old game- Threave conjured a goal out of nothing. A high cross into the box was killed on his chest by centre-forward Ben Irving and then volleyed low into the bottom corner. From where I stood, it was Van Basten-esque in execution, a goal fit to win the cup itself. Although local hopes were raised, Linlithgow continued to look the more impressive team. I liked the way Andy Shirra in midfield did the simple things and kept the ball moving, while the nippy Graham Weir always looked like causing problems for the sometimes ponderous-looking home defence. It was obvious that Threave’s best hope was to play it long and hope that their industrious front two could rustle something up from the scraps, but -hard as they tried- they didn’t really threaten their opponents. Linlithgow won 2-1, but should have polished off their opponents more comfortably. 

And thankfully, those extensive health and safety policies were not rigorously enforced. Photographs were being taken (some of them, as you can see, by me) and people were moving around the ground without permission from the stewards. One man was even swearing, with some proficiency, whenever someone in maroon misplaced a pass.  

As my boy's former coach might have put it: “Just get those fucking policies to fuck.”

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Scottish Cup: plus ├ža change

You may have noticed that this season's Scottish Cup has already started. There's something great about the cup, particularly if -like me- you’re not a fan of the Old Firm. In fact, the phrase ‘not a fan’ does not do justice to my Old Firm antipathy. I’m more like the opposite of a fan; an unfan, if you will. For unfans of the Old Firm, the best thing about the Cup is that, unlike the League Championship, in which no club from outside Glasgow has triumphed since 1985, it gives us a decent chance of witnessing some other team lifting the trophy. Once the competition starts, we live in reasonable hope that one of the so-called ‘provincial’ sides will overcome the odds to triumph in the final. In recent years, I’ve attended finals won by Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St.Johnstone and Hearts.  

When the draw for the first round was made a few weeks ago, there were several romantic-sounding names in the hat, like St. Cuthbert Wanderers, Burntisland Shipyards and Bonnyrigg Rose. Perhaps the least romantic name -but the most interesting story- belonged to Edusport Academy. Edusport is the first independent football academy to be allowed to enter the old competition. The company was set up by the former professional footballer Chris Ewing in 2011, with the idea of modelling an academy on the American scholarship system in order to provide young people with a sports-based life experience. Based in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Edusport is a business and therefore designed to make a profit. This, along with the fact that it has recruited most of its students from Europe, appears to have annoyed some conservative elements within the football community.  

In the first preliminary round, they were drawn against Colville Park, who had qualified by winning the Scottish Amateur Cup, which is the Wagner’s Ring Cycle of lower level football, with hundreds of entrants each year and seemingly dozens of rounds. On Saturday, I went along with my youngest son to see the replay, the teams having drawn 2-2 the week before. The venue was New Tinto Park (home of Benburb Juniors), chosen because Colville Park’s ground did not meet SFA requirements. I have no idea what those requirements are, but –given the basic amenities available at New Tinto- I can only imagine what isn’t available at Colville’s home ground. It was a fiver to get in and I estimated the crowd at somewhere between 60 and 70. It was odd to think that a low-key occasion like this would, in nine months or so, lead to a major final played in front of 52,000 fans at the National Stadium, with live coverage on television. If I was writing for the Daily Record, this is where I would use the phrase: “the magic of the Scottish Cup”. 

It felt mildly surreal to watch a team comprised mostly of young French, Swiss and Belgian players playing in a meaty Scottish Cup tie against a group of guys who looked, well … more or less what you’d expect an amateur football team from Lanarkshire to look like. In the early exchanges, it looked like there was going to be a clash of styles. Edusport set out to play in what some pundits insist on calling ‘the right way’ i.e. by passing the ball, a lot, to people wearing the same colour of shirts as them. Colville Park were by no means up-and-at-em-hoof-the-feckin-ball-up-the-park merchants (stop me if this gets too technical); once they got into their stride, they played some decent football, although it would be fair to say that their goalie would not quite satisfy the ‘sweeper-keeper’ requirements of Mr Guardiola at Manchester City. 

Once they took the lead, Colville looked likely to add to their tally. Edusport suffered an injustice when one of their players was sent off for an innocuous bit of shirt-pulling. The referee (‘card happy’, according to one sage behind me) may have been technically correct, but –in the context of the game- his decision looked fussy and pedantic, particularly as the ‘victim’ of the shirt-pulling appeared to be giving as much as he got. In the first half, one or two of the Edusport lads demonstrated a neat line in handsome Southern European indignation whenever a pass didn’t land where they wanted or when they were rudely tackled by opponents, but the half-time team talk brought about a change in attitude. Perhaps it was the sense of grievance at having lost a player, but, with one man down, their performance actually improved. 

The Scottish Cup is said to be the oldest surviving national trophy in world football and here we were witnessing something new, with this team of lads, most of whom were foreign, adapting to the muscular demands of the Scottish game. When I was my son’s age, it would have seemed absurd or outlandish to have had a team of players from France, Belgium and Switzerland playing in the Scottish Cup; stuff like that could only ever happen in comic books. My boy lives in a different Scotland to the one that I grew up in and he is all the richer for it, but –for all this newness, this ability to be comfortable with what would once have seemed exotic- if he wants to watch Scottish football as much as I have done over the years, there are some things he’ll just have to get used to.

Saturday's tie was taking place at the same time as Rangers -barely half a mile up the road- were entertaining Motherwell in a league game. Tinto Park is close enough to Ibrox Stadium to be able to hear the roar of the crowd. Having been informed that Rangers were a goal down at half-time, I surprised my son (I won’t say impressed, because use of that word would imply something altogether less tragic than what occurred) when, hearing a roar from the direction of Ibrox around twenty past four, I turned to him and said: “Equaliser … Harry Forrester”. My boy checked his phone and found that Forrester had indeed got an equalising goal. Around half an hour later, as Edusport pressed in vain for a late equaliser and Colville Park started to dream about further Cup adventures, another huge roar came from the direction of Ibrox. I turned to my son once more and said: “Last-minute winner … Kenny Miller”. 

He checked his phone and, sure enough, old Yoda had once again named the correct scorer.

My boy may have thought otherwise, but guessing who had scored for Rangers wasn’t all that difficult. What I know –and what he will learn- is that decades of observation lead you to understand that certain things (particularly in Scottish football) happen again and again and again. My speculations were merely educated guesses based on observable evidence. 

Colville Park held out for a 1-0 win and, although they'll now face a tricky tie against the mighty Girvan on September 3rd, they will continue to dream about a long run in the Scottish Cup. I’m sure there are going to be some great stories along the way to Hampden, but, having had an unusually glorious run of four provincial winners in five years, we unfans may now have to prepare ourselves for a return to the old order. Hearing that roar from along the road at Ibrox, I wondered if there was anyone at our game who would bet against Celtic and Rangers meeting in the final next May.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Let’s not jump to conclusions (unless we feel like it).

A lot of the mainstream media and many commentators on social networks are busily and scrupulously pointing out that it is wrong to jump to conclusions about the ‘motivation’ of the madman responsible for the carnage in Nice. According to this point of view, there is no link to be made between this latest outrage and any religious, political or cultural grouping and it is, at the very least, morally dubious to draw any conclusions from the ethnicity or religious affiliations of such a deranged individual.

Fair enough. I can see why that seems like a reasonable line to take. Just because the adherents of a certain politico-religious movement -in the cause of furthering some clearly delineated global ambitions- behave like mediaevalist savages doesn’t mean that everyone who follows a certain religion should be tarred by association.

I accept that premise, although I do struggle to understand why some folk will deny that such a link could possibly exist, even when the perpetrators of attacks make explicit claims about their motivations. To ignore or repudiate the avowed aims of these perpetrators (in effect, to deny them agency), requires quite an intellectual leap on the part of those doing the repudiating. Some might put it down to arrogance, but I’m not convinced that this is necessarily the case. I’d be more inclined to the view that it represents a conscious reaction to a sub-conscious wound; terrorism wins, not when it blows people up, but because -when it blows people up- it forces some otherwise rational minds to rebrand ‘fear’ as ‘conscience’.  

As someone who generally tries to form my opinions around rational interpretations of the available evidence, I’d agree that it’s usually unwise to jump to conclusions from a base of flimsy evidence. But over the last few weeks, I have gathered the distinct impression that jumping to conclusions has become all the rage; some of the very same people and news organisations urging caution and restraint over Nice have been doing quite the opposite over the binary choice faced by the British electorate at the recent EU referendum. 

First there was the disgraceful citation of the murderous actions of a mentally ill individual as ‘evidence’ that the Leave campaign had somehow unleashed dark and powerful forces. It was depressing to witness seemingly rational people choosing to interpret a psychotic episode in a way that satisfied their own prejudices. Since the vote, various attempts have been made to suggest, for example, that relatively minor examples of stupidity and nastiness (like someone posting anti-immigration graffiti) represent evidence of a gathering tidal wave of racist enmity in the UK. Anyone who can argue, on the one hand, that some racist idiot shouting ‘Paki go home’ (disgraceful as that undoubtedly is) is evidence of malicious intent among 15 million voters while, on the other, suggesting that the latest in a very long line of atrocities has got ‘nothing to do’ with Islam is, intellectually speaking, unlikely to pass go and unlikely to collect £200.  

It is either acceptable to jump to conclusions from little available evidence, or it is unacceptable to jump to conclusions from little available evidence. Whichever side you’re on, you can’t pick one of those options when it suits your own particular prejudices and then pick the other option when it doesn’t.

Although … now that I think about, it’s obvious that some people can do just exactly that.

Which people? 

The kind that you shouldn't take seriously.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Let's blame the old bastards.

Given the amount of propaganda spewed out in the EU referendum campaign, it is hardly surprising that some folk reacted to the result in a way that would more appropriate to, say, an invasion of the earth by hostile aliens. Within our increasingly large over-reaction community, it would appear that losing an election is not something that is considered to be a legitimate part of the democratic process. 
On the morning after the vote –admittedly a difficult time for any losing side- I listened to interviews with Anna Soubry, Caroline Lucas and Tim Farron which would have been quite funny, but only if they had they been scripted as comedic parodies designed to illustrate the attitude of the political class towards the electorate. Each interview was marked by a complete absence of grace, seasoned with a toxic sprinkling of weapons-grade disdain. 

Ms Soubry, a Tory junior minister who has clearly been promoted beyond her abilities, expressed her sheer ‘horror’ at the result, claiming that it was one of the ‘worst days’ in her life. She talked of voters being ‘horrid’ to her when she had been out campaigning in the racist swamplands of the East Midlands (where I understand that lynch mobs still roam the countryside) and claimed that many Leave voters had probably never encountered an immigrant.  
Caroline Lucas of the Greens was ‘devastated’ that her vision of ‘a generous and outward looking country’ committed to ‘making the world a better place’ had been rejected by the electorate. By inference, the Leave side must have been committed to establishing a mean-spirited, inward looking country, determined to make things worse for everyone. Ms Lucas said that we had to ‘find ways to heal our broken democracy’, evidently oblivious to the fact that we had just participated in the most extraordinary democratic exercise. If the result had gone the other way, my guess would be that Ms Lucas wouldn’t have been up for too much healing with the beaten Leave side. Call it a hunch.    

Tim Farron, leader of the Lib-Dems, resorted shamefully to blatant age-ism, claiming that young voters had been ‘betrayed’ by the older electorate. In assuming that all young people had voted Remain, perhaps he had concluded that they would regard the youth unemployment rates across the continent as just a feature of the system. I wonder if anyone has asked the unemployed kids in Spain, Greece and Italy how the EU is working out for them? The corollary of Mr Farron’s line of thinking is that some votes should be worth more than others. Perhaps he’d favour the introduction of a sliding scale for elections. I'd suggest something like this:  

Age group 18 – 30: two votes per person.  
Age group 31 – 45: three votes per person.  
Age group 46 -70: one vote per person.  
Age group 70 and above: These votes could be lumped together. Maybe twenty or thirty of them from like, a nursing home or whatever, could get one vote to represent the views of their group.  

Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to Mr Farron that society is a covenant between those currently living, those who lived before us and those who are yet to be born. The voter in her mid-80s has the same rights as the voter in her teens. That woman in her 80s helped shape the country we now live in, being part of the generation that made the sacrifices necessary to create the free and prosperous world we are lucky enough to inhabit. She will have worked, paid taxes, raised children and grandchildren and –something that ageists don’t seem to understand- she will have thought about the world she wants her children and grandchildren to inherit. Being in her twilight years does not mean that she has no stake in our future, so shame on anyone who is prepared to dismiss her opinion on the basis of age; shame on anyone who is willing to exploit generational differences to bolster their grubby political arguments. 

Rather than look down their nose at people, perhaps professional politicians should have a think about why there was such an anti-establishment vote. There are many reasons why Leave prevailed (personally, I think Eddie Izzard’s hectoring drag act on Question Time might just have tipped the scales), but it is clear that Labour’s abandonment of its core vote was a significant factor. Labour’s old working class voters helped deliver this result and they delivered it because their perception is that ‘progressive’ politics has -for some time- held them in contempt, regarding them as stupid, dangerous, racist and probably a bit smelly, certainly not to be trusted on anything important.

All of the reactive guff about being ‘ashamed’ of the result illustrates, among other things, a failure to understand that in a democratic system, the taxi-driver really does have the same voting rights as the college lecturer. Like a maiden aunt in some Victorian melodrama getting an attack of the vapours at the sight of a swarthy, uncouth gardener, the people who get all giddy and upset about politics red in tooth and claw really need to get over themselves. If you can’t accept that people who don’t see the world the way that you see it can ‘care’ every bit as much as you, then you’ve got a problem; if you believe that someone who doesn’t agree with you is simply ‘misinformed’ by their sources (in a way that you evidently don’t think you have been misinformed by your no-doubt-impeccable sources), then you’ve got a problem.

When you pitch your tent on the moral high ground, you’ll invariably look down on other people, but if you’re inclined to condemn millions of voters as racists, idiots or selfish old fools, then there is something you really ought to know.

That ‘shame’ you feel about the electorate?
It’s your problem, not theirs.