That Saturday Feeling

its more than ninety minutes

Waking before his alarm went off is not a workday experience Martin enjoys, but – on days like this – the eagerness and anticipation is all the wakeup call he needs. Five thirty am, he is ready for the phone calls, the texts over minor details, the bus collections, and the  lastminute ticket requests. It is part and parcel of what is normally the longest day of his week. Belfast port is calling. The A77 awaits. They are going to a place called paradise. This is matchday. Martin loves it.

In the 2018/19 season The Scottish Premier Football League boasted an average attendance of 16,016 per game, with 3,171,149 supporters attending in total. This makes the SPFL the best supported league in Europe as a percentage of population size. It’s an incredible amount of people, especially in this current climate of nonattendance because of COVID-19. I thought, though it would be good to get past the headlines of clubs needing fans back for the finances. To the supporters it is so much more than that. What makes that happen though? Why would so many men, and women, and children make that pilgrimage to their stadiums on such a regular basis?

Martin Gilmore (39) is a family man from Ballymena Co. Antrim who works in ICT. “I got my first Celtic top when I was eleven and I saved up my pocket money for the trips to Glasgow to see the Celtic.” Even across the Irish Sea he felt part of the community of supporters. “It was more than ninety minutes, it was the travelling, the banter, the energy” says Martin. “In our community we were always told to pick an English side as well, to avoid trouble, but I never saw any, I just saw Celtic fans.”

Eddie Toner (58) is a taxi driver in the east end of Glasgow. A former advice advocate, used to helping people work through many different issues in their day to day – he too was born into a Celtic family, “My grandad was head grounds man at Celtic Park from 1950 to 1977. My first game was as a four or five-year-old. We would gather in my grans, with my aunts and uncles and the plates of sandwiches, then those heading to the game would go.”

Douglas Barrie entered into life as an Airdrie supporter quite differently. As a university student, his friend and now MP, David Linden invited him along to a game. Douglas very quickly began to write the match programme, and from that opportunities opened up that were the basis of his career as a journalist. “My uni class had supporters of five or six different teams, but we all enjoyed our football.”

Mark Fleming, as well as being a life long died in the wool Jags (Partick Thistle) fan is the director of Sports Chaplaincy Scotland. “For me” says Mark, “it is an important part of my life.”

Each of the guys talked about their lives and told stories along a timeline of their football games. “I gave Johnny, the leader of our bus a hand around the age of 18, and it wasn’t long before I was more involved in helping to organize” Martin shared, “my work is forty hours a week, but the bus is about twice that, it takes a lot of work, and you get a lot of calls and texts, but it’s worth it. I love watching the younger guys mixing with the older supporters on the ferry. Watching Celtic, it doesn’t matter what you work at or anything, we are all the same. I like that. I might not miss the organizing as much, but I miss the Celtic.” Martin captures beautifully that football is one of the last social areas where the young and old mix freely and well and the old get to pass on their stories of matches AND matchdays gone by.

For home games Eddie likes to get to Celtic Park around 1pm for a 3pm kick off. “We all gather around the pools office, guys from all over. We catch up, we chat. The community cultural and social part of it means so much.” the pools office is only a hundred yards away from the front entrance of Celtic Park, and is a great place to watch the community of supporters begin to wash the area in green and white as kick off draws closer.

“We have a group of four or five of us“ says Douglas, “same seats and same faces, we always look out for each other and catch up on the football and what is going on in our lives”. Airdrie might be a club with a smaller support, but that strong community identity is just the same.

Experts will talk about the scientific reasons behind supporting football. They wax lyrical about the hormones and the chemicals washing around the brain. And that is all good, but for me it misses the point and makes what is special about football support sound very clinical. The author CS Lewis in an essay on “Meditations in a toolshed” says that we can stand outside an event and analyse, but it’s not the same as being in the event and enjoying it. We all know tales of the mild-mannered businessmen that never utter a word in anger during the rest of the week, but at a football match, they transform into the most foul-mouthed caricatures of themselves. This is where football is essential to so many of the working-class people that it developed for. It gave them an outlet, “now” says Eddie, “they have nowhere to blow off steam.”

Mark Fleming, in his chaplaincy role, knows the importance of this. He talks about having someone you can connect with and let loose. “It’s important to remember the players in all this,” says Mark, “They are just normal guys and football supporters themselves. They too must miss the energy and connection with other supporters at games. Chaplains perform an important role in the lives of players, but they are not at games either. A decision I Understand” he says ”but it’s not easy.”

“You miss the moaners and groaners” says Eddie. “That’s as much a part of the game as the tactic guys”. My brother, who sits behind me at games falls into the moaners and groaners category, so I laugh at this.

Daily Record Journalist Mark McGivern, on what the lack of matchday experience meant professionally says that, “Football is the biggest story driver we have, and without supporters at games, there is a massive reduction in newsworthy stories.” Mark also commented on another area of the matchday experience, and what is missed because of it, “people talk about the violence and that’s true, but the cheer and joy that matchdays generate is also gone. It’s just not the same.” There is a an overflow from attendance at games that spills through in a great way in society, that maybe isn’t celebrated enough.

One thing all these supporters had in common, was a concern for their fellow supporters in these strange times. Martin’s voice slowed and became more contemplative as he said, “Socially, mentally and physically it’s what you do at the weekends. You can’t take that away without long term consequences”. Eddie said that “we have the social media and chat groups to try and keep the members together”. Douglas also uses social media to stay in touch with his football mates. They all mentioned that they don’t know how those not involved in a collection of supporters of some sort manage in the current crisis.

They all share the same opinion on the poor substitute of TV, “it’s rubbish” says Martin, “not the same, I hate it” replied Eddie. Both Douglas and Mark agreed that it just could not be compared to the full matchday. “It’s about more than ninety minutes” Douglas said. They talked about their favourite matches and why that is. For all of them, it was more to do with live events rather than the ninety minutes. “That game was important to me” says Eddie, “very poignant, cos that’s when my dad died.”

“For me it was a cup semi-final against Dunfermline. Great game with loads of goals. Half a dozen of us there, but we had all chipped in to bring another mate that had no money. We could not bear the thought of him missing it”, was Douglas’ favourite.

All the life events marked by what team their team was playing. More than ninety minutes. Another area where the community expression of support was even bigger than the individual game.

 For Martin, it was a game against Dundee United, Celtic had lost the league to Rangers, who had won it at Hibernian. “The atmosphere was intense and incredible that day, it was about more than results, it was an expression of who we are, as Celtic supporters.”

Martin longs for those early Saturday starts again, but he finished with this dose of reality, “My hope is that we don’t lose anyone before they get another chance to get the ferry, go up the A77 and walk through the turnstiles at Paradise.” All the guys accepted the reality of the pandemic we are living through, but they long for that day when they can gather with the other members of their support, community and congregate in their temple of worship blasting out songs of support and identity in full voice. 

This POST is part of a wider collection to show the journey that would eventually lead me to the cross of Jesus Christ, my personal redemption, and my journey of faith afterwards. If you would like to know more of my story, please click on my “About” page and take it from there.

Alternatively, you can visit the Media Links page and see a short visit done by BBC Radio Scotland for an interview I did there.

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