4th October 2009

Nick Hornby has a lot to answer for. Fever Pitch showed that there was more to being a football fan than simply turning up on a Saturday (or whenever) to watch your favourite team. Unfortunately, he spawned a load of self-aggrandising imitators, all anxious to share their experiences of supporting their great clubs. When hooligan literature first came on to our shelves, it was a welcome antidote to what was often little more than yuppie propaganda for a multi-million pound industry, which gets more than enough free p.r. anyway. It was also refreshing to hear from voices who followed the game before it was appropriated by satelitte television. Inevitably though, this genre became another tedious exercise in self-promotion; interesting if you were part of that mob, but dull as ditch water if you weren’t. Like the sub-Hornby school of fiction so loved by their nouveau footballing counterparts, in most cases the pleasure was all theirs. All this had conspired to put me off football literature. While some gems have emerged recently, Phil Thornton’s excellent Casuals being an example, I generally run a mile when I see another publication about what it means to be a football fan. The latest recruit to the socceratti is Aidan Smith, which gave me high hopes that Heartfelt: Sipping Bovril from the Devil’s Cup would be more Derek Riordan than Stephen Thomson. Admittedly, there was an element of selfishness here, as the author, like myself, is a Hibernian supporter. He’s also an excellent writer, who never shirks from putting the boot into all that is twisted and evil in the Scottish game. But more of the Old Firm later. What really struck me about Heartfelt was its original concept; the writer decided to support the opposition team –Heart of Midlothian- for a season. After all, if we want to learn about ourselves, we often gain greater insight in the examination of enemies rather than allies. Heartfelt looks unflinchingly at football rivalry, about how much we gauge ourselves by our opposing tribe, and therefore how essential they are, if only as a measurement of our own supposed virtue. It’s good to be able to report that this20book is a decided triumph. Aidan Smith has produced an excellent read, and I doubt I’ll ever pick up anything better about my home city. Full of insight, Heartfelt transcends his personal story and that of (both) his clubs. It’s therefore absolutely essential reading not just for all Hibby’s, Jambo’s and students of Edinburgh social life, but also for anyone who is interested in the culture of the beautiful game. Hibs and Hearts is the oldest major footballing rivalry in Scotland, and outside the bile and poison of the Glasgow sectarian circus that overshadows it, it’s probably the most intense local rivalry in the UK. I’ve regularly attended derby fixtures in Liverpool, Manchester and North London, (though not in the north-east) and I’ve found all relatively tepid in comparison. The fiercest rivalry in an English game I’ve witnessed has actually been in Sheffield, a derby often passed over as it usually happens off-camera between two clubs supposedly lacking in glamour. Smith is keen to remind us that he’s a nice, middle-class lad, self-depricatingly upfront about his personal lack of enthusiasm for aggro. His avowed cowardice does him an injustice though; Heartfelt is the work of a man who has moral (and physical) courage in abundance. It’s risky enough infiltrating the other side in a city of Edinburgh’s size, but to do so when your picture appears weekly in a national newspaper, where you’ve repeatedly nailed your green-and-white colours to the mast, seems a bold undertaking and one fraught with potential risk. So what did Aidan’s adventures in Jamboland tell this particular Hibby about our rivals? Mostly that they’re decent, stand-up guys and genuine football fans; just like us, in fact. But I knew that already; I’ve got relatives and close friends who are dyed-in-the-wool Hearts fans. I also had a distinct prior inkling that the maroon clitoris gets stimulated more by football based on effort and commitment rather than the skill and flair we Hibby’s hold at a premium. What surprised me was not the racism and sectarianism amongst the Jambo nation. No one with any genuine knowledge of Scottish football could be shocked by this, though I do have to confess that the extent of it was a wee bit alarming. The obsession with homosexuality also seems more overt than at grounds I’ve spectated regularly at; Hibs, Ajax, West Ham and Bohemians, but this just comes across as a bit silly. It was strange to read in Heartfelt about the various songs and chants which talked about Hibs fans being ‘gay’. This seemed to me a remarkably p.c., even paradoxically poofy way of abusing your neighbours, constituting an ongoing own goal in the slagging stakes. There were a few times when Aidan Smith’s cover was blown, notably through the power of the web and the supporters forums, one of which carried his visage mocked up on a WANTED poster. Still he gamely carried on, with the occasional disaster averted by his new Jambo mates, Billy and Ricky. Smith commendably doesn’t shirk the racism and indeed, the infantilism, even when practiced by his own friends. Rather than cast himself as self-righteous judge, he endeavours to explain this behaviour in a footballing cultural context. Some will argue that you cannot discriminate with antisocial behaviour, merely due to the context it takes place in. This however, is exactly what the authorities do. Getting involved in a punch-up outside a football ground on a Saturday can lead to a jail sentence. On a Thursday night in Lothian Road the same behaviour might result in both parties being told off by a policeman and urged to get down the road. The Hearts fans booing of the minutes silence for the Pope in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden was embarrassing. But then many people who aren’t Orange bigots and some of whom regard the pontiff as the head of the world’s biggest paedophile ring, found the SFA’s need for this gesture singularly inappropriate. Any Hibby picking up this book and expecting a long sneer at our rivals across the city will be justifiably disappointed. Smith has bigger fish to fry than the scoring of petty points, and besides, the author clearly likes and respects his new friends. Heartfelt reminds us that a lot20of old school fans haven’t had the middle-class, educated experience, and unlike the ‘new’ fan, are less obsessed with making the right-on statement. And yes, people do often have inappropriate soft targets for their frustrations in life, but when the rhetoric is stripped away it doesn’t make them lesser beings. The most touching aspect of the book is the relationship Aidan Smith has with his father and his football allegiancies, which continues unresolved after Smith senior’s death. I won’t give away the twist in the tale, but it adds another fascinating dimension to the story. The conclusion Heartfelt reaches might be sobering and prosaic, but it’s resolutely human. Like lovers and friends, our football teams might not just be the wonderful soulmates whom cosmic powers have ordained that we were meant to be with forever. Perhaps they were simply the ones who, for whatever reason, got there first. Maybe, like drug addiction, supporting a football club is largely a disease of association. But, crucially, you can choose whom you associate yourself with. Aidan Smith leaves the question hanging ‘who am I going to support next season?’ Easter Road and Tynecastle now, as footballing experiences, have a lot more similarities than differences. In the past, historical and cultural factors led many Hibs fans identifying with Celtic and Hearts fans with Rangers. Now these Glasgow clubs seem like McDonalds and Burger King; bland, branded, souless corporations sucking in glory hunters from all over the globe, growing fatter and richer on the sectarian divisions they’ve promoted and help sustain. With the dominance and the money comes the arrogance, the destabilisation of other clubs through raiding their best players, like a supermarket buying up the stocks from a local corner shop, usually to let the goods rot in the basement, out of sight from the customer. Though the Edinburgh footballing rivalry is fiercer than ever due to both clubs being relatively strong at the same time (a rarity in my lifetime), a discernible empathy, engendered by a shared animosity to the Glasgow power centre, now often runs alongside it. Hibs and Hearts, with their tight, atmospheric stadiums, lodged in the heart of two of the last thriving, vibrant inner-city working-class communities replete with pubs, shops, restaurants and cafes full of genuine football supporters, now seem like the best possible places to watch a game of football. Many years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson postulated that it was the well-being of the Edinburgh clubs that was so vital to the health of the Scottish game. The fact the both of them are now stronger than they’ve been for a long time makes for a decent league, instead of the ongoing joke Scottish football had become. I suspect that the author of Heartfelt ultimately has too much style and class not to be back at Easter Road this season. However, I would hope just as fervently that he has enough humanity not to turn his back on the great friendships he obviously made during his Tynecastle sabbatical. Whatever his choice, he’ll be watching the game in what is now Scotland’s (and probably Britain’s) most intriguing and exciting footballing city.


Originally featured in the Scotsman.