Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Beautiful Game

The Beautiful Game

The rise of the internet and social media has been generally a positive feature of modern life. Those old pub arguments about who scored a certain goal or whether a player was offside or not are now solved with the flick of a button and a glance through YouTube or Twitter. Another positive of the internet age is that the once all powerful press is now regularly ridiculed online and held to account in a manner unthinkable in pre-internet days. For instance, the contradictions and downright absurdities they tried to sell the footballing public over the liquidation of old Rangers were ruthlessly torn apart as the nonsense they were by an increasingly clued up and articulate online community.

It’s refreshing and somewhat democratising to see the old media being challenged by the new. In a world of news manipulation, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post truth’ it’s easy to be sceptical about what we see and read but now and then there is still good old fashioned reporting which reminds us that decent journalists are still around. Of course there can be a tendency to praise those who see things the way we do and if social media has one great failing it is that communities of like-minded individuals follow each other into an echo chamber of seamless conformity. Within the bubble of orthodoxy it takes a brave person to stand up to the herd mentality and espouse contrary views. It is however necessary to good open debate that we hear other views and can disagree without rancour and abuse.

It’s interesting to see how Rangers supporters view Journalist Graham Spiers after his many statements on bigotry and racism among a support he was once part of. Some quietly agreed with much of what he says even if they thought he banged on about it a bit much. For others of limited intellect though, Spiers was a traitor who had turned on his own. Statements such as these cut them to the bone:

‘I have always happily ignored one of the traditional and cowardly rules of Scottish sports journalism - the rule which says, always apportion equal blame to Celtic and Rangers when talking of bigotry - by pointing a much bigger finger of blame at Rangers, the club I grew up supporting.’

In 2011 after the League Cup final between Celtic and Rangers, Spiers pointed out a feature of the game the vast majority of the watching press pack chose to ignore…

‘The incessant bigoted chanting by Rangers fans at Hampden was shocking. They are unarguably the most socially-backward fans in British football. The really damaging thing for RFC is, it’s not the mythical ‘small minority’. There appear to be thousands upon thousands singing these songs.’

Those of you who understand the pernicious sub-culture which sadly still lurks in the shadows of Scottish society will understand that it takes courage to speak out in such terms. We saw for instance the campaign of abuse aimed at Journalist, Jim Spence, for expressing the perfectly reasonable opinion that the resurrected Rangers of 2012 was a new club. Some lobbied to have him sacked from his job while a few aimed venomous and cowardly abuse at him from the anonymity of the internet.

In days past we produced some excellent sports writers in Scotland who wrote eloquently on the issues of the day without fear or favour. Some, such as Ian Archer took the bull by the horns and spoke about issues others for whatever reason ignored. Following a riot by Rangers fans in Birmingham in 1976 he called out bigotry in a manner few of his contemporaries would have contemplated…

"This has to be said about Rangers, as a Scottish Football club they are a permanent embarrassment and an occasional disgrace. This country would be a better place if Rangers did not exist."

This is not to say that Celtic are free from anti-social elements among their support for all big clubs have their share of less cerebral followers but the issues swirling around Rangers are on a much larger scale and have not been helped by being ignored by large parts the media for a century or more. Perhaps Scottish society wasn’t ready to confront the elephant in the room. Every attempt to address bigotry became mired in pointless obfuscation about the role of Catholic schools or the ‘Old Firm’ problem when in reality there is no excuse for teaching a child to hate or allowing impressionable young minds to be polluted by a ‘culture’ of division and prejudice.

Most right thinking people wish it wasn’t so but our society still has work to do to ensure our sports reporters can attend sporting events and write freely about the passion, drama and action on the field. When greats like Hugh McIlvanney are unleashed they write with an eloquence and a poetic beauty that anyone would recognise. In the bowels of the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon in 1967 he described the following scene…

‘’When he had been rescued from the delirious crowd and was walking back to the dressing rooms after Celtic had overcome all the bad breaks to vindicate his confidence Auld – naked to the waist except for an Inter shirt knotted round his neck like a scarf – suddenly stopped in his tracks and shouted to Ronnie Simpson, who was walking ahead. "Hey, Ronnie Simpson, what are we? What are we, son?" He stood there sweating, showing his white teeth between parched lips flecked with saliva. Then he answered his own question with a belligerent roar. "We're the greatest. That's what we are. The greatest." Simpson came running back and they embraced for a full minute.’’

Great writers take you there, make you feel the same emotions and passions they did as they watched the scene before them unfold. Whether writing about boxing or football, McIlvanney was the master of prose which not only informed the reader but stirred the imagination. This paragraph on the wonderful Real Madrid side’s victory in the European Cup final at Hampden in 1960 is typical of the man…

“Fittingly, the great Glasgow stadium responded with the loudest and most sustained ovation it has given to non-Scottish athletes. The strange emotionalism that overcame the huge crowd as the triumphant Madrid team circled the field at the end, carrying the trophy they have held since its inception, showed they had not simply been entertained. They had been moved by the experience of seeing sport played to its ultimate standards.”

He was a writer who described George Best as having ‘feet as sensitive as a pick-pocket’s hands’ and on one wild windy day’s reporting at Ayr races he wrote; “It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.” Such turn of phrase is uncommon in this age and more’s the pity. One of Hugh McIlvanney’s greatest pieces was written in the aftermath of the death of Jimmy Johnstone. It carried such affection and poignancy and began…

‘Solemnity was always handed its coat early in Jimmy Johnstone’s company and something as ordinary as death had no chance of altering that. What else but laughter could be the predominant sound when the wee man was buried in his native Lanarkshire on Friday? The shadow cast by the horrors of diminishment that punctuated his improbably long struggle against the implacable ravages of motor neurone disease, and by knowing he was only 61 when his resistance was finally exhausted, was a darkness bound to yield to a thousand memories of somebody driven — sometimes destructively, often hilariously — by an instinctive conviction that life was meant to be lively.’

He went on to speak of Jimmy’s many escapades and the brushes with Jock Stein but never failed to recognise the genius of a wonderful football player who was, despite his very human flaws, a master of his chosen profession…

All of which guarantees that Johnstone will not be remembered simply as a footballer of electrifying virtuosity, though he was certainly that, with a genius for surreally intricate dribbling so extraordinary it is impossible for me to believe any other player before or since quite matched his mastery of tormenting, hypnotic ball control at the closest of quarters. As I have acknowledged in the past, other wingers might fairly be rated more reliably devastating (Garrincha, George Best, Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews are obvious candidates) but none of them besieged opponents with such a complex, concentrated swirl of deceptive manoeuvres or ever conveyed a more exhilarating sense of joy in working wonders with the ball.’

McIlvanney’s great gift was of course his identification with the ordinary fans who invested such emotion, even love into their club. As a working class lad from a mining background in Ayrshire, he understood what football meant to ordinary people. He would take short incidents or scenes he had witnessed at sporting events and build a very human story around it. This, again from Lisbon in 1967, is typical of the man…

‘It was hard work appearing so relaxed and the effort eventually took its toll on Stein when he made a dive for the dressing rooms a minute before the end of the game, unable to stand any more. When we reached him there, he kept muttering: "What a performance. What a performance." It was left to Bill Shankly, the Scottish manager of Liverpool- and the only English club manager present- to supply the summing-up quote. "John," Shankly said with the solemnity of a man to whom football is a religion, "you're immortal." An elderly Portuguese official cornered Stein and delivered ecstatic praise of Celtic's adventurous approach. "This attacking play, this is the real meaning of football. This is the true game." Stein slapped him on the shoulder. "Go on, I could listen to you all night." Then, turning to the rest of us, "Fancy anybody saying that about a Scottish team."

Those of us who love football and recognise in it all the triumphs and disasters, heroes and villains we see in life itself, will always find time to listed to or read the words of those who share our passion. Writers like Hugh McIlvanney are rare but there are some fine scribes out there. I just wish more of them were given the freedom to write in the manner they want to and that editors had the integrity to trust them and back them up when they take on the difficult issues surrounding our game. In an age when clubs have PR departments trying to control the news agenda, we need a few mavericks asking hard questions and we need a few artists painting pictures with words.

I’ll leave you with the words of McIlvanney who described watching Jimmy Johnstone play in the following manner….

‘That last characteristic gave an extra dimension to the impact of watching him play for Celtic and Scotland. It went beyond excitement or aesthetics or entertainment. When he was at his best, the performance was so extravagant and idiosyncratic, so full of wildly imaginative impertinences and a small (5ft 4in) man’s defiance of the odds that it touched us profoundly but lightly, as sport should. The natural reaction was not to gasp in awe, which would have been in order, but to smile or even to laugh out loud.’

The old game is still capable of being beautiful. Our sports writers should aspire to writing prose of equal worth and not simply regurgitate press releases from those out to control the message.


  1. Thank you - once again you produce a terrific piece of writing; a pleasure - and an education - to read.

    1. I appreciate you stopping by to read it Donald. Thank you.

  2. An excellent piece. Once again a thought provoking, enlightening well written article. Long may they continue

  3. Your own prose supplements McIlvaneys wizardry adequately.

  4. I enjoyed reading that. McIlvaney would be proud of you.

    1. Cheers Bud, hope the Twitter Celts can all meet up again one day soon HH