Part 1                                                                                                                                                                Posted 11th August 2013


ENGLISHMEN AND THE SIMPLE-MINDED BELIEVE THAT Wembley Stadium is approached by a broad, straight avenue called Wembley Way. Scottish football supporters know different. From years of experience, they know that the Scottish route to Wembley is about as direct as the Hampton Court maze. The most difficult thing about any Wembley international has always been just getting there.

The scene is the compartment of a Wembley Football Special from Glasgow. Slumped in one of the window-seats is a man in his 30s. He is ruminatively drunk. Every so often his eyes rake the other passengers. But there's no cause for alarm. He's merely flexing his malice for London.

His mate comes in and sits beside him.

`Aye then.'


`Whaur i' the rest' o' the boays then?' the man at the window asks. `Faurer up the train. They've flaked oot like. The beer's a' by. It couldny last forever, eh? Only twa dizzen cans.'

`Aye. Right enough.'

The man at the window wipes the misted pane with his hand, peers out. `Whaur's this we're gawn through onywey?' he asks.


It is the following day, as the saying is, aboard another special train going from Euston to Wembley. The coach is incredibly crowded. People are folded against one another. It seems it will only take somebody to cough to create the first recorded case of communal rupture. But suddenly, miraculously, a man who has been sitting down shoots to his feet, his arms fully extended, and bellows, `Sc-o-o-o-t-l-a-a-a-n-d!' His voice describes an enormous vocal loop, fading reluctantly like a skyrocket. He collapses back into his seat, his heed rolling in terrible ecstasy, a mystical transport.

A tall Englishman hanging from a strap gives the impression that he's trying to climb up it. His laughter is a tentative question.

'Whit a fuck I' you laughin' et?' the mystic asks.

The Englishman is not laughing. His is the definitive non laugher's expression. He is, in fact, involved in a thorough investigation of an unusual stain on the ceiling of the coach, a stain he apparently hadn't noticed before, That stain is becoming something of a passion with him.

The mystic repeats his performance several times, leaving a litter of injured eardrums in his wake. Then suddenly he goes calm. His eyes cloud with vision.

`Penicillin!' he screams.

It isn't, it transpires, an appeal for medical attention. For he goes on. `Taur MacAdam! Steam Engines! The Big Ships! We've did the lot! The greatest wee nation ever Goad put braith in. Sc-o-o-o-t-l-a-a-a-n-d!'

He subsides again, begins to mutter. The moment is past. After the mystic's ecstasy, the chafed knees, the petty aches, all the seedy little mundanities of everyday life.

`Somebody's fartit,' the ex-mystic snarls. 'That wis an English fart!'

It is his final sally. Instantly, spectacularly, he passes out. Sic gloria transit.

At the station his body is claimed by friends. They carry him up the Wembley Way like someone who has died before the citadel is stormed but who has earned the honour of getting there nevertheless. In the car park they cajole and slap and harangue him but he's beyond their help. They leave him behind a car and sell his ticket.

Meanwhile back at the park, the sun shines on a patch of heraldic green across which players move in complex armorial ciphers, expressing nation‑hood, whatever that is. Denis Law has discovered again that enthusiasm against which he hones his amazing reflexes. He is playing with a verve that suggests jackets for goalposts. Jim Baxter doesn't just beat opponents, he demeans them. There are some people with white shirts there as well. Playing nearly all of the game with ten men, the Scots massacre the English 2-1.

Later that same evening: the scene is London - all of it, it seems. Nearly every tube disgorges its statutory quota of wild faces and raucous Scots voices. Nearly every taxi at nearly every corner nearly runs down a Scotsman. London is a swirl of tartan scarves, a bob of tammies.

At a corner in Fleet Street a big man has a smaller man by the arm. 'Naw,' he is saying. `Luk, son. Ye huvny really a bad team. Wan or two o' yeas can play a bit. Yese jist huvny that extra somethin' we seem tae ha'e,' He is smiling in a kindly way.

In Blackfriars Underground Station a man at the head of a phalanx of nudging, grinning friends is stopping a well-dressed native to say, 'Excuse me, sur. But could ye direct us tae Soho?'

In Soho itself half-a-dozen betartaned figures volley out of a narrow doorway. The small card beside the doorway reads: 'Jane. Model. 3rd Floor."Come oan, boays,' one of the men is gasping. 'Rin fur itl' Crippled with laughter, they make their escape as a fat woman appears in the doorway, hurling insults after them. The night absorbs the incident without explanation. Ah, sweet mystery of life.

On the train back up, a man leaning out of an open carriage-door is rescued by his mates as the train thunders towards Carlisle. Presumably, he had felt the rest of his life would be an anti-climax.

That was my first trip to Wembley. Ever since then, every second year except when I was living abroad, I've gone back — from what muddied motives I'm never sure. Maybe it's just that I think belonging to a country means acquainting yourself with all its manifestations. Certainly it is for me, and perhaps for most Scots who undertake it, a very private journey.

In my mind's ear I hear the girl who lives in the Tannoy-system saying: `The train standing at Platform One is the Wembley Football Special. This train has an Inferiority Complex Car where light traumas will be served throughout the journey. This train goes by way of Paranoia, calling at Little Dependency, National Neurosis and Ultima Thule.'

Ambivalent, confused, struggling with my vast, invisible luggage, I'll be there.

(To read the next post in this series click here.)


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