Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Tale of Two Cities- a TSA report

It is Friday evening in a newsagents just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. A football phone-in show is jabbering familiarly from a radio: the presenter baits a Hearts supporter, suggesting that Glaswegians still don’t take their team seriously, the Hearts supporter responds indignantly. In a few minutes the presenter will bait a Celtic fan with the notion that his team are really, genuinely, worried; the fan will be indignance with a slightly different accent.

On the back page of the Edinburgh Evening News Hearts new owner and the fuel for their current velocity, Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov, has ‘slapped’ a £5 million price tag on their young Scottish international goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, in order to illustrate the fact that his club intends to hold on to its best players, and, by inference, its current eminence.

It’s a bit of chest puffing on the day before the game that will be the barometer of the true prevailing conditions in this most curious of Scottish seasons.

As with any country where two metropoles dominate the civic and cultural landscape, Glasgow and Edinburgh have long squabbled over bragging rights. This is only exacerbated by their proximity: it is forty-five minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley Station to Glasgow Queen Street.

Glasgow championed its industrial might, its earthy humour, more latterly its architectural and artistic importance and an increasing sense of the cutting edge. Edinburgh pointed to its mediaeval and royal splendour, its position as the bastion of Scotland’s political and legal system, and felt it housed a better class of Scot.

Glaswegians derided Edinburgh’s shortbread tin Scottishness, the tartan tattery of the Military Tattoo and the Royal Mile; the fact that it was full of English Tory students, a travesty of real Scotland populated by people with names composed of two surnames, like Campbell Mackintosh and Fulton Mackenzie.

Edinburgh people classed their compatriots to the west as ‘soap-dodgers’, dole spongers, and maleducated detritus from an incomprehensible industrial nightmare, black soot clad and drunk.

But in sport, the contest was a mismatch. The country’s passion, football, also had two focal points, but these were both located in the one city, Parkhead in Glasgow’s East End, and Ibrox south of the River Clyde. The two powerhouses have carved up about 80% of the country’s league titles, a statistic that is kind to the rest because of the more egalitarian Victorian years when the likes of Queens Park and Vale of Leven were big time.

Edinburgh had, of course, Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian, who always bubbled around the upper echelons of the game, particularly in the immediate post war years, but the city’s sporting eminence came in rugby. This reflected the city’s social fabric, drawing from elite private schools and, along with the border region, providing the majority of the internationals who graced Murrayfield, the home of the nation’s rugby in the west of the city.

Since Hearts agonisingly lost the league title in 1986, in the closing minutes of the last day of the season, on goal difference, to Celtic, the lot of the city’s football teams has been identical to that of those elsewhere in the country: hopeless subjugation by the Glasgow giants, spiralling debt and a sense of drifting away from anything approaching success.

Now Romanov’s revolution has not only reeled in the Old Firm, but has them in the unusual position of being in the chasing pack. Add the relative success of Tony Mowbray’s young, free-spirited Hibernian side, and for the first time in a long time it is football that is the subject of the age old struggle for bragging rights between Scotland’s two great cities.

They say its only like this usually for Old Firm games and European matches. But today’s the day that Celtic will reclaim their birthright, put the uppity Jambos in their place and go top of the league.

Parkhead buzzes like only it can.

You walk to Celtic Park up the Gallowgate, through the Barras, teeming like a middle-eastern bazaar, at once foul and splendid, green and white black market merchandise spilling onto the street, rebel songs blasting from pubs that rejoice in their dinginess. It’s the heartland, and you feel part of this particular congregation, but also you think of the hundreds and thousands of people all over Britain doing the same thing, streaming purposefully through back-streets and out of pubs in their own heartlands, and there is little sense of being an individual, and none at all when you take your seat in the upper deck of the Lisbon Lions Stand, juicily close to the hostile pen of Hearts supporters.

The game roars by, like a coal train through a mid-west plain, and is everything a top of table battle should be. Flare-ups that stop short of full-on rammies, lots of chances, two teams manful and mindful, a scrappy goal apiece, ample opportunity to howl at the officials, a final charge by the home team for the three points and the primal roar that accompanies it, and then gone.

The post-match analysis questions Gordon Strachan’s decision to return Alan Thompson to the starting line-up in place of the effervescent and in-form Shaun Maloney, castigates Paul Telfer for his part in Hearts’ equalizer and commends goalscorer Craig Beattie’s increasing maturity. The tone, though, is not irate, or despondent.

It is the acknowledgement, an exceptionally grudging one, that this league campaign would appear to have, at the very least, a significant third main player, and one that could very likely be involved until the final act.

On the train back to Edinburgh, a young Hearts’ fan interrupts the ‘Weedgie’ baiting banter amongst his mates, with a comment: “This is a quiet train for after taking a point from Parkheid”.

They’re obviously getting used to this being top of the pile lark.


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