We’ll be coming down the road..

Though it’s been a while since we’ve been coming down this particular road.  And no one from this eyrie will be milling with the Tartan Army throng in Trafalgar Square.

No matter: the last time I was this excited about a football match was in 2011 when the Glorious Ayrshire Killie reached the League Cup final.

There’s nothing like a match against your closest neighbours and sporting rivals to whet your whistle and frankly, it’s been 14 years too long since the last one.

Being of a certain age, I can remember the famous Wembley victory in 1977.  As the folklore testifies, I grew up treasuring a piece of the turf which grew in our garden.  As every other child in the village and indeed, Scotland did.

For 1977 was the year that our menfolk departed en masse to the match.  It was akin to them all going off to war – and some of them treated it so, such was the solemnity of their preparations.  It seemed like every car, bus and van departed in convoy, horns tooting, bodies, flags and scarves waving enthusiastically through open windows and sun roofs. Tumbleweed blew through our streets that weekend, the pubs were bereft, women and weans left behind to their own devices.

My dad and his pals were no exception. Despite incessant pleading, I could not go: football was not a place for wee lassies in those days. In any event, a trip to Wembley was man’s work. I watched the match – I can still see Gordon MacQueen rising to head the ball, knowing it was goal bound even before he struck it.  What a win.

The return of the conquering heroes was a much more lowkey affair, largely due to their all coming back in dribs and drabs.  My memory might be failing me here, but I’m pretty sure wir ain lot were posted missing in dispatches.  They came back at least a couple of days later than expected – when the beer money ran out.

They also had managed to lose many of their possessions, including their clothes. Trust me, the sight of grown men emerging from a car dressed only in four days’ beard growth and extravagantly patterned kaftans is not one that can be erased readily.  Where they got them from, no one could remember. What had happened to their own stuff, well no one could remember that either.

Ventures to Scotland matches have always barely been about the football.  The banter, the nonsense, the japes, high jinks and tales to retell live far longer than the goals and the occasional flowing passing moves.

Except when it comes to England.  Then, only the football matters.  And only a win will do.

The only time I’ve seen us play the Auld Enemy was at Hampden in the 1999 European Championship play-offs. The match was scheduled for the Big Yin’s birthday. He had attended every home match since the age of four – every dismal friendly, every miserable loss, every glorious draw. It was therefore imperative that tickets were obtained.

At that time, home tickets were always available, not least through Safeway’s sponsorship so joining the then Travel Club was an unnecessary expense. But of course, everyone wanted to be at this match and briefs were scarce.  Only by calling in every favour owed and leaning on every connection ever made did my dad produce the goods a few days before the game. A handover in Moffat was also required, necessitating a cumulative round road trip of 400 miles. Who says football doesn’t matter?

Two seats numbered 13 and 14 – it’s an omen, cried the patriot pop. And so, travelling to Hampden in supreme confidence that a win had been written in the fortuitious numbering of seats, armed with a box of birthday cake to celebrate a great sporting occasion at half time, what could possibly go wrong?

Paul Scholes, that’s what.

Worst. birthday present. ever. I’m not sure he’s forgiven me yet.

Did we have tickets for the return leg when Scotland almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat?  Dinna be daft.

And so to the game tonight. Apparently, someone who clearly knows little about football has designated it a friendly.  Ha!

The Big Yin is ensconced in the US and will be oblivious, but at ten, it’s time to make a man of Boy Wonder and introduce him to the character building agonies of supporting a team which is not all that impressive, most of the time. It’s his national duty, after all. Who knows, he too might wear a kaftan one day.

So here’s to the return of a great sporting occasion.  And forever travelling in misplaced optimism and expectation, here’s to a famous victory over the Auld Enemy.

And here’s to making sure that next time, we’ll be coming down the road with the rest of the Tartan Army.

Vote! Are you supporting England in Euro2012?

Yesterday, me and a colleague – yes, a female one – had a wee blether about the football.  That’s right.  Women in Scotland who like football and like to think they know a thing or two about it.

We were discussing Engerland’s prospects and both of us admitted to having a wee soft spot for Roy Hodgson.

Particularly as we felt there was more than a touch of sniffiness evinced at the time of his appointment and since then.  This, I reckoned, was because he hadn’t followed the usual, expected path as a football manager, eschewing the glories offered by the lower leagues, choosing instead to manage *abroad*.  With enough success to eventually result in a gig in his homeland, with the Fulham job leading to a much bigger posting at Liverpool.  We all know that job ended in tears but he wasn’t exactly welcomed in the post nor given a fair chance at it.

There’s also the small matter of his unconventionality – for a footballing type.  His interest in culture is remarked upon, as his ability to speak a host of other languages.  That foreign-ness thing again.  And then there are those who just don’t think he is up to the top job in football (sic).

The cautious 0 – 0  1 -1 (I was having a senior moment clearly – apologies) draw in the opening match against France allowed the detractors the opportunity they had been seeking, to start questioning his appointment openly.  Yep, this early. Yet, I think his approach is the right one.  Safety first, a gentle easing into the tournament, without unleashing everything in one big bang seems to be his way.  And as it’s worked for teams like Germany in the past, who are we to question the tactics?

Especially when he managed a win against hoo-doo team Sweden.  The first half was far from pretty and the second was occasionally slipshod.  But he changed the tactics at halftime and it worked.  And a win is a win is a win.  The fact that the triumphalism usually accompanying English adventures in championships is missing suggests that everyone agrees a win against Ukraine on Tuesday is far from guaranteed.  And is perhaps evidence of a new realism.

Whisper it – England is not nearly as good a team as it used to be.  The so-called Golden Generation is on its way out and Hodgson has clearly decided to give them a shove, as the decision to leave Ferdinand behind (inexplicable though that might seem) suggests.  This is an England team in transition with Hodgson building for the future – so long, of course, that he gets the chance to do so.

That Ferdinand decision speaks of a man who knows his own mind and what he wants to achieve, who will refuse to be blown off course by the force of public and media opinion.  Something else to admire.

Which all suggests that we will see a different England at this tournament.  One that has lower expectations stepping on to the field more in hope than innate belief at their greatness.  And a little success in such circumstances would be a very good thing – a success borne of endeavour rather than arrogance.

Not least because of the constitutional flux in which these islands find themselves thanks to the Scottish question, or questions, to be put.  And actually, a little success for England – in their ain colours, not the ones belonging currently to us all – might also be a very good thing for doubters everywhere.  If England can stand on the country’s own, so can the rest of us.  Divvying up the political – and therefore, cultural and sporting – furniture can be achieved, without recrimination and without the prophecies of doom so beloved of Unionists everywhere being fulfilled.

There’s also the neighbourly question.  Or the Andrew Wilson Doctrine, as I like to think of it.

No one likes a surly neighbour.  You don’t wave yours off on their summer holiday wishing them a flat tyre on the way, a missed ferry and a two week downpour.  So why when it comes to our national neighbour are we so consumed with ire and ill-feeling?  Yes, yes I know the media don’t make it easy for us all.  But we can simply tune them out and turn them off surely?

Moreover, it says something unpleasant about us when we allow ourselves to be defined by the people we share a border and language with, as well as chunks of culture, heritage and history.  This doesn’t make us the same, far from it, not least in our political outlook and leanings.  So not quite siblings then, more like cousins.

And just like the cousins we meet up with on family occasions, we might wince a bit at their choice of attire, their life choices, at their brashness, their loud laugh and ridiculous moves on the dancefloor.  They might embarrass us – worse, some of them might have a few skeletons we hope they’ll keep firmly in the cupboard – but when it comes to bigger stuff, well they’re family.  And mostly, families look out for each other.  All families have their disagreements, some even manage to have fall-outs that last for years, but in the main, either we’re agnostic about what goes on in their lives or are content to wish them well.  Just as they are with us.

So it should be with England in Euro 2012.  As we stand on the cusp of taking the biggest decision Scotland will face in hundreds of years, we should be shrugging off the old ways and trying some new ones on for size and fit.

Dumping the one that requires us to support anyone but England on sporting occasions would be a start.  And if we’re brave and mature enough to try on one that has us at least smiling at their progress in this football fest, then we might find we actually quite like the fit.

Are you supporting England in Euro2012?  Yep, I am.  And I might even buy the T-shirt too.

Euro2012: racism, human rights, poverty and er, football

With so much else going on, the European Championship finals – Euro2012 – have somewhat snuck up on us.   We’ve only just got our chart up, although the wee chicklet determined weeks ago that we’d be supporting Spain.  The boy is good at backing winners.

Of course, we have had a daily call-off from the England camp, with the angst perceptible among commentators.  It must be a sign of my age, for they have players turning out in their country’s colours I have never heard of.  Ireland, meanwhile, have gone about their preparations fairly quietly and – unlike them – with a degree of rather chilling efficiency.

The burdz tips are to be avoided at all costs – I’m rubbish, as anyone who has ever read my electoral predictions can aver – but there’s a lot of chatter about dark horses Russia and France.  Whatever, we’ll be glued to it all, right from the kick off tonight.  We’ll even tune in for the near neighbours and giving them a cheer.

And that’s despite the politics whirling around this finals, thanks to the co-hosts Ukraine.

There’s a whiff of hypocrisy from these shores about Ukraine’s fitness or otherwise to host the European Championships.  There’s also the usual thing of a bored media whipping up a storm beforehand, though you’d think they might have learned their lesson over the World Cup Finals in South Africa.

Ukraine has a problem with race, as documented in several newspapers and also on BBC’s Panorama recently.  Xenophobia and prejudice are commonplace and epitomised by the political rise of far right parties.  But then, I’m not sure a nation which somehow manages to postpone a court case involving one of its star players accused of racial abuse to allow him to participate in this footballing jamboree has much wiggle room here.  Especially not when there is scarcely a storm of protest – a few complaints certainly – over his inclusion in the England squad in the first place.

Then there’s the curious case of Rio Ferdinand.  Passed over originally for inclusion in the squad, the rate of call-offs through injury might suggest a last minute change of heart.  But no matter how flimsy England’s defensive line-up now looks, it appears there is no room for the central defender, despite his having had a great season.  What he lacks in pace, he makes up for in experience and presence, quantities that often prove invaluable in such tournaments.  As Ian Smart suggested in a tweet, there’s some suggestion of similarity with the case of Basil d’Oliveira here.

Roy Hodgson has been pretty tight-lipped about it all, but a look at his chosen squad suggests he’s gone for youth and seems to be building for the future (albeit with a few crocks left over from the supposedly golden generation).  Which just about explains the exclusion of Ferdinand.

Meanwhile, black players in the squad are not taking their families with them and Sol Campbell is urging black fans not to travel.  Yet, the Ukraine is not the only European country to have dirty laundry where racism is concerned:  there have been well documented cases of abuse on and off the field in Spain and Italy.  The common denominator is that for all its handwringing and vacuous soundbites, UEFA does nothing.

Now it seems that UK Ministers won’t be going to Ukraine for the group stages.  Personally, I’m glad to hear it:  we pay them to run the country, not to go off and watch football games.  Frankly, if they want to go to Euro2012 they should buy a ticket and pay their way like the rest of us have to.

On a diplomatic level, the boycott is ostensibly because of poor human rights practices and the imprisonment of former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, she of the extraordinary hairstyle and prime mover of the Orange revolution.  Not that human rights stops our Ministers courting despotic regimes elsewhere, when it suits them, you understand.

Yet, here we are in the UK, welcoming the Olympic torch around these isles with madding crowds, with the memory of the last Games in Beijing becoming ever more distant.  London also has a less than exemplary record on race and human rights issues.  Stop n search, Mark Duggan, kettling, Jean Charles de Menezes all suggest we have a few issues of our own to resolve before we can claim the higher ground.

None of which excuses the appalling racism and human rights practices in Ukraine at all: one small glimmer has been the focus on the terrible situation of Ukraine’s street children.  But what might foreign journalists find if they manage to escape their minders and are prepared to look beyond the stadia and venues this summer?

We’re not as bad as Ukraine, and Ukraine is not as bad as others, not that there is nor should be a hierarchy on such issues.  When it suits them, folk like to separate politics from sport, and to trot out the weary line about sport opening doors and shining a light.

Those of us queasy about such countries’ records could boycott all such sporting fests on principle.  But I tried that and failed.  Miserably.

So like everyone else, over the next two weeks, we in the eyrie will be watching and cheering, hoping that the football lives up to the billing and trying not to let guilt overwhelm us.