To Easter Road, then, for what has become an annual pilgrimage to Easter Road, the home of my favoured football team, Hibernian F.C. (after first meeting two creative types in Valvona and Crolla, that most middle class of Edinburgh Italian establishments, to discuss a multi-media sf project – ah, the juxtapositions!)
The weather is a traditional Scottish February admixture of rain, sleet, snow, horizontal hail and occasional faint glimpses of a yellow ball in the sky, such that the flesh is thoroughly mortified by the time we reach the ground.
My companion on this peculiarly Presbyterian pilgrimage is Kirsti Wishart, a writer you should have heard of by now if you haven’t, and who I’m convinced you will yet hear much more of. Kirsti it was who, two years ago now, persuaded me to break a long drought of non-football match attendance to go and see Hibs again. Although I’d seen my local club, Raith Rovers, a few times in the interim, the last two visits to Easter Road in the course of decades had been to a) see Raith take on the might of Bayern Munich in one of football’s less likely fixtures and b) to launch my chapbook, The Secret of Scottish Football (copies still available from, er, me).
Previously Kirsti and I have been lucky enough to see Hibs beat Kilmarnock 5 -3 and the aforementioned Raith 3 – 1; however, on this occasion it’s clear the football is to mirror the weather, namely grim, with only occasional flashes of illumination. Early on one of the Hibs defenders blocks a pass with the inside of his thigh – the wet slap of ball on ham is unmistakeable – bringing back memories of similar experiences on the school playing field, nerve endings pulsing, clustered, upwards in the cold and damp to render an impact sting like a monstruous, predatory jellyfish.
Mid-season, both teams are within a point of each other mid-table, with the distant prospect of a European place about the only thing to play for. Neither this nor the conditions exactly encourage expansive attacking play, and at half time, the score is nothing, nothing, and nothing, as one particularly dour Scottish football pundit once had it.
At least there’s a number of Hibs fans there to help create some collective warmth, as well as the occasionally incomprehensible singing – the Famous Five Stand hosting a section where such unPresbyterian activity is actually actively encouraged, as well as family-only sections – the attendance being reportedly around the 15,000 mark.
At the other end of the ground, around 200 of that number form the travelling support, shivering in the lee of Arthur’s Seat, pictured. These are hardy souls indeed – the true Elect, one might say. Not for them the delights of Livingston’s extensive, and covered, shopping mall: ‘No, dear,’ they might well have said to their significant other, ‘A spot of retail therapy followed by a reasonably priced lunch in one of the many food outlets available sounds lovely, but it is surely my predestined lot to suffer near-zero temperatures and, perchance, a total-zero scoreline at Easter Road today. I will assuredly not be there to enjoy myself.’
After half-time and, perchance, a few choice phrases from both managers for their semi-defrosted players, there is one of those rare flashes of sunlight when, just for a moment, in a crisp exchange of passes, the Livingston defence is prised open and Christian Doidge slams his shot into the top corner. We rise to praise him, and indeed, to give thanks to whichever footballing deity bestowed such a state of temporary grace upon us.
The man sitting next to me, suitably cheered by Hibs going one up, starts talking to me, and we’re agreeing on Boyle, the Hibs Number 10, being a genuine prospect, when Livingston go up the other end and score. A Calvinist gloom descends again as, despite Hibs’ best efforts and the denial of a stone wall penalty (although Scott Allan’s attempt to convert the one awarded in the first half had been so woeful the lack of another go is probably a blessing in disguise) the game stumbles inexorably to a draw which, all in all, is probably a fair result.
Hibs have hibsed it again. Perennial underachievers, there is, somehow, still a romance to them, their heroic failure to become greater than the sum of their at-times talented parts part of their charm. At least, that’s how it feels to a lifelong Hibee. The 200 Livi faithful may well hold different dreams.
It is, in fact, a perfect example of the Scottish game. Two teams composed largely of journeymen – those who aspire beyond that rank being predestined to be snapped up by Celtic, Rangers or an English club during a transfer window, to sink or swim in the bigger pond – it’s hard to criticise the players for taking the safe option of passing square or to the keeper more often than not. So often such games will be decided, not by a stroke of genius, but by some woeful error: a missed clearance; a fumble on the goal line; a rush of blood to the head giving rise to a sending-off. Far safer, then, not to try to thread the defence-splitting pass through and instead offload to the nearest available team-mate.
And yet, we, the faithful, those Hibs and Hearts and Aberdeen and Dundee United fans, in fact all Scottish football fans other than the roiling masses of Celtic and Rangers faithful, travel more in hope than expectation, inwardly praying for one of those poor sods down on the sodden pitch to be touched by a Higher Power, just for an instant, gather up a loose ball and weave a mercurial path through ranks of confounded defenders before slotting the ball past the oncoming, disbelieving keeper, their very own Archie Gemmill moment.
We can but hope. But it is, as that anthology of football stories I was in all those years ago had it, the hope that kills us.
Just adverts down here. If you have been affected by any of the issues raised above, follow cricket instead. It’s a much more civilised game.