Changing Allegiances

The current COVID-19 pandemic has seen fans rally round, dig deep and support their teams, either financially or by other means. It has been heartening to see just how far supporters are willing to go for their team, despite the noise in the background of Scottish football’s latest tiff. The adage ‘you should support your team, through thick and thin, no matter what happens’ is perhaps as important as ever. But what if I were to tell you that I did the opposite (albeit some years ago) and began supporting another? Read on and find out.

I’ll get it out early doors. Despite living my entire life in the East of Edinburgh, I was brought up a Hearts fan. I had little choice. My Mum’s side of family, before moving, came from Fountainbridge, and my Grandfather was born in Wheatfield Street. Even though my Dad being from Perth, and choosing to embarrass me greatly by wearing St Johnstone gear when he could, it was always going to be Hearts. I had initially been taken to watch Meadowbank Thistle, in the mid-80s, mainly to see if a youthful Boaby would sit on his arse for 90 minutes. Once I had proved sufficiently that I could, a trip to Tynecastle was made. The first game was against Motherwell. A 3-0 win if I recall correctly, with Wayne Foster seeing red. I was suitably impressed.

I was brought up at the end of an era where some fans would go to Tynecastle one week and Easter Road the next. The latter was binned pretty quickly. There was something more alluring about Hearts. It might have been the games under the floodlights. It might have been the tricky winger John Colquhoun (who fast became my first footballing hero). It certainly was not the horrific, boak-inducing stench from the nearby brewery.

After a few games, and enough nagging, my Dad bought season tickets, in the old Panini Family Enclosure (and yes, you could do sticker swaps!). This allowed me to thrust my autograph book in front of a number of players, none more so than the aforementioned Colquhoun, whose signature I got every home game. Some years later, JC was Rector of Edinburgh University. He was handing out our ‘graduation awards’ for a summer school I had attended, during the gap between leaving school and starting uni. At a drinks reception, after, we happened to be in each other’s company. He remarked that I looked familiar, before asking if I was the young lad that used to stand at the Tynie tunnel. Yes, John. That was me.

Anyway, after many years of having a season ticket, being placed in every ‘new stand’ at Tynie, and whilst seeing Hearts win their first trophy in three decades, I had begun to fall out of love with the club and, indeed, football (something I’ve never fully recovered from). I was attending more of my first love, ice hockey. I had started to read about the world and was pretty disgusted at some of the racist, sectarian and homophobic language in the stands. When challenging this, I was firmly told that ‘this is a traditional club, son, so sit down and shut the fuck up’. I had seen Chris Robinson tell a child, of not more than 7 or 8, to ‘go fuck themselves’. The crime? Asking politely for his autograph. When challenging Mr Robinson, I was threatened with ejection and removal of my season ticket. So, with that, I was done with going to Tynie.

I attempted to fill the in-person football gap by attending Scotland matches at Hampden. This did not last long as some of the Tartan Army, in full rigoot, threatened to knock me and my mate out for robustly questioning the positioning of Tom Boyd. It took until 2005 (around five years later) to make a return to live matches. After being thoroughly exhausted with wall to wall football and hating what the Champions League had become (hipsters, I was well ahead of that curve!), I was almost lost to the game entirely.

That was until my friend, Elliot, had convinced me and another mate, Craig, to go and watch some team called Edinburgh City. They played at Meadowbank, only a few yards from my front door. Craig and I were a bit sceptical and had that snobbery, that many have, about lower/non-league football. After some, ahem, gentle cajoling, we ended up going; the main selling point being £2 entry. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. 22 guys, giving their all, for not a whole lot more than a handshake and a ‘well done’. We decided to continue going and were fortunate enough to see City win their first (and hopefully only!) East of Scotland Premier title. All three of us had been taken by the level of play and a few of the players, in particular, the ‘half back’, Scott Hunter and the left winger, some boy named Dougie Gair. So, we continued to go.

It was not long until I became immersed in City. I started to look up fixtures and began badgering the boys to go to away games, to such sexy hotspots as Selkirk and Rosewell. What was happening here? I was getting right into watching City. I was desperate to go and see them. I was shunning tickets for infrequent matches at Tynie (though I drew the line at missing Edinburgh Capitals games). Whisper it. I was becoming a fan. All of us were taken at watching this level of football. As corny as it sounds, there was just something more ‘real’ about the game. Despite the doubters, the football was of a surprisingly higher standard than most would expect. There’s also something appealing about seeing the game in really old grounds or public parks. Hearing everything that is said, feeling every thunderous tackle going in. No segregation. Being able to talk to fans, all ages, all backgrounds, without any ulterior motive. There’s a further attraction of being able to take 6 cans and drink them at the side of the pitch, as Craig and I very much enjoyed, whilst seeing the Citizens win with a last gasp winner at Stirling Uni. No divided loyalties for me being an alum either, as their number four received a proper GIRFUY, after he’d tried to hack his way through our first XI. Such was our frequent attendance at these games that the then chairman, City legend Jah Lumsden, allowed us to vote for our Player of the Year (‘it diznae matter if ye dinnae ken thur name, the number will dae’). Indeed, without Jah being so welcoming, to those ‘strangers’, we might not have continued returning. That personal touch is something you don’t get higher up the football chain. I’ll be forever thankful to Jah for being so inclusive.

As the years went on, we continued to go, and something called the Lowland League was invented. This was the beginning of the new pyramid in Scottish football. It finally gave the chance to those, in the Lowland and Highland Leagues, to move into the SPFL, if they won two playoff rounds. Whilst we would have all preferred another form of promotion/relegation (and still do), it was better than nothing. We were excited by the prospect. There was to be no playoff in the first season, with bitter rivals Spartans winning the first title but having nowhere to go (*snigger*). Anywho, the next two years were, to put it mildly, quite successful. Gary Jardine had built, arguably, one of the best (and most together) squads in Lowland League history, bolstered by the signing of the vastly experienced centre half, Joe Mbu (more on him later).

We won our first Lowland League at a bit of a canter, losing just one game, but sadly falling short in the playoff, losing in a penalty shoot-out to Brora. I believe Joe’s penalty is still rattling the crossbar (sorry big man!). The season after, we continued where we’d left off, with an undefeated streak equalled by Kelty (but on a tiny fraction of their budget). This culminated in an absolute horsing of Cove (where Ross Allum’s two goals and, more importantly, shithousery, would rival anything, anywhere in the world) and a playoff final against East Stirling. A 1-1 draw, in the first leg, left the tie in the balance. I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous, in my whole life, as we went to Ochilview (and chugging cans of warm supermarket cider, did nothing to help). I was even more jittery than the build up to the 1998 Scottish Cup Final. The game? Not exactly one for the purists. Nervy, dull. Not a lot of football to be quite honest with a lack of confidence, from both sets of supporters. This was typified by East Stirling fans asking where the best Lowland League away days were – after 60 minutes! It could not have been more fitting to see all time appearances, goals and holder of every other City record imaginable, Dougie Gair, smash home a penalty with three minutes to go. He says he was the calmest person in the stadium. I’ve absolutely no reason to doubt him. The party began and off it was to City’s social club. Every player got a round of applause. But one. One had a song – Joe Mbu.

Joe became a hero of every City fan in his three years with club and I’m proud, along with 5 others, to have been his sponsor for his entire tenure with the club. It may also be true that he was going to retire after promotion, but my good friend Neal and I plying him with Jagerbombs, may have convinced him to change his mind (sorry Mrs Mbu!). This is something I would not have done, still attending Tynecastle, due to a lack of connection with the player themselves – sponsorship or the drinks! Colquhoun may have been the first footballing hero but Joe’s the latest.

There are also not many fans that can say they were there when their club made Scottish football history. The first Scottish club to be promoted by EARNING it. Not election. Not being asked nicely. EARNING it. Other clubs may talk about 9 in a row and what not. But there will no other club that can say that can say they were first to be promoted into the Scottish leagues. None.

You may ask, after reading, ‘are there any feelings for Hearts left?’. Honestly? None. Subsequent owners have killed my feeling for the club, Ms Budge in particular. I contributed to the Foundation of Hearts, for a short while, but it just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t comfortable with how the club and the FoH were administering things. Those monies were stopped, and I now happily give them to the Fans Trust of Edinburgh Monarchs Speedway instead, knowing exactly just how much of a difference it makes to keeping the club alive. Whilst the old habits die hard (Fuck the Hibs), I attended a couple of games in the 18/19 season. Both against Celtic. One being the Betfred semi at Murrayfield and the Scottish Cup final a few months later. I went to the former because of where it was being held. I did not like watching the fighting, the venom and hatred being spewed out by both sides (see above). Indeed, I had attended City away at Stirling Albion the day before, with none of that. I even said to Neal, in a visit to the Tynie Arms, that this had absolutely convinced me I was a City fan and not a Hearts fan anymore. The Scottish Cup Final was attended to see if someone could break Celtic’s domestic stranglehold. But I felt nothing coming out. Not anger. Not grief. Nothing. I’m not joking when I said I was still more angry at losing to Clyde in the League One playoff semi. I was even told to shut up about it!

Since watching City, I have been to more Scottish grounds than I would ever have with Hearts. Whilst I went to away games with Hearts, the feeling of being in a smaller away support, enjoying pile-ons with the players (see Arbroath away in the Irn-Bru Cup – videos are available), is something that cannot be matched. I’ve even been past where Depeche Mode partly filmed the video for ‘Enjoy the Silence’, due to the train route back from an away day to Elgin; a major bucket list tick. I’ve seen us as far north as Brora (don’t do it in a day!) and as far south as Connah’s Quay in Wales, where I was interviewed live, on national television. I’ve done interviews for football podcasts. I’ve written articles about the club, which I absolutely love to do. I said I would never, ever, be on a City committee. But here we are doing just that with the Supporters Club, whilst presenting Player of the Year awards. I’ve attended more City games than Hearts. I’ve met more people than I ever would going to Tynie. And I can, unquestionably say, I’ve had more enjoyment going to these games too. Would I go back? Would I change it? Not a chance.

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