A piece I wrote for The Herald commissioned by their sports supremo Stewart Weir, a man I’ve shared many a press box intimacy with, not least in the fox hole at Starks Park (May 2017).
ONE of the great mysteries of the universe, or my one anyway, is how would I have spent the 3000 odd Saturdays I’ve clocked up so far if I hadn’t been fitba daft.
It’s not often the Herald sports’ editor makes one ponder such a profound philosophical question.
Would I have been a tartan Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen haunting the aisles of B&Q for flock wallpaper, or a bit of an Alan Titchmarsh fiddling about with my begonias at the garden centre?
No, my fate and my Saturdays were pre-destined.
Other sports would play a peripheral part on this sacred day like gowf, cricket (I took the first wicket ever for Drummond cricket club – not a lot of people know that) and a spot of rugger. This is Embra, after all, where even schemie schools chase the oval ball. There have also been Saturdays frittered away in Musselburgh at the best little racecourse in the UK.
But so many of these 3000 Saturdays were spent at where else, Easter Road. I’ve been known to kid my old pal Rod “exhuberance’ Petrie that I’ve poured more money into the Leith San Siro than him and Sir Tom.
My dad Gerry (Girardo Pia) was Hibs daft like most of the Edinburgh Italians and loved Gordon Smith and Giuseppe Baker, as they called him.
He had five boys (and a girl who’s also a Hibbie) and although there was a short spell when none of us lived in Edinburgh today, come five o’clock on a Saturday, you’ll find the brothers in the Windsor Buffet on Leith Walk for a post-match anaesthetic.
Saturday mornings I still religiously buy newspapers to scour the sports pages, but as a boy it would kick off with a scramble for hand-me-down boots and kit as the brothers dispersed to all corners of town to play for school teams. All three of my older brothers were captains (I never made the grade) and the two either side of me were better footballers which gave me that bit more of a competitive edge or, as they put it, “a dirty wee so-and-so”. Some, such as my wife, still prefer that term of endearment.
The afternoons saw us all gravitate to Leith, often with muddy knees after our endeavours on the playing fields of Auld Reekie. My first game was an Edinburgh derby in the late summer sunshine of 1962. Easter Road was glistening that day but Hibs weren’t. The Jambos won four-nowt.
A minor setback as for the next two decades, my formative years, Hibs were kings of the city. In these good old days there was little adult supervision so you went with the brothers and pals, getting “lift-overs” and chips (with sauce) on the way home. There was a dash to get “The Pink” after the game for the results, but mainly the “Fitba Daft” cartoon by Earle Wright.
For teenage kicks I graduated to the “Cowshed” behind the goals at the Albion Road end where neds, bampots, hooligans, call them what you may, hung out.
Other bams, sorry fans, would also congregate in the Cowshed. No apartheid in those days. For a young altar boy, it was an education – the reek of beer and urine, cigarette smoke, foul and abusive language and Irish rebel songs.
My wee brother once got hit by a bottle against Dundee but I warned him not tell his mum or he wouldn’t get to come back. “Just say I did it”.
Travelling to away games introduced me to the joys of under-age drinking and small-town Scotland. As a naive laddie I once hitched a lift to Ibrox with of all people, the Prestonpans Rangers Supporters bus. One of the bears tried to empty a can of urine out the window flying along the M8 and it blew back in my face. The bus convener ordered him to give me his scarf to wipe it off.
In later years as a football reporter I would savour Saturday afternoons visits not so much to Parkhead or Ibrox but the likes of Starks Park, Gayfield, Brockville even Gretna. It was as good a guide as you can get to real Scotland – the warmth, humanity, community and, of course, the comedy and idiocy of our nation.
I was privileged to go to Uni, but more importantly it introduced me to
the Saturday morning Intra-Mural League and the mighty Inverleith Forrest. I played in various Sunday pub leagues on-and-off but stuck with the Forrest for 20 years as it was a perfect way to start a Saturday. It was an eclectic mix of students, jailbirds, junkies and the occasional former old pro.
I always played my best running off a Friday-night hangover. Then it was a post-match pie and a pint, down to Easter Road, back to the the pub and then the bright lights. If you hadn’t scored in the morning, you might at night. I can count on one hand the times I did both.
But despite years as a football reporter, nothing beats being a fan. Now as I climb the steps in the East Stand every other Saturday to join two grumpy old men (both old pals from school) I can spot my brothers ten rows below. Easter Road is my spiritual home. These are my people.
Late on a Saturday night a year ago, somehow these 3000 days conjoined in an epiphany. We’d finally won the Cup for the first time since 1902. I was spread-eagled in the back green, staring up at the stars, next to a sod I’d planted that would be forever Hampden.
“You know,” I slurred as my curious wife leaned over me “I’d have been a very different person if I wasn’t a Hibbie”.
“Just as well, as at least I never ended up married to Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen or Alan Titchmarsh.”