LOSING THE RIGHT WAY

The Goldstone Ground, a rundown remnant of the halcyon days of pre-Sky football. It was a tremendous, traditional ground with an old fashioned wooden stand and terracing on three sides. This was proper football, or at least proper reserve football. I had already played at Stamford Bridge, Highbury and White Hart Lane for the reserves as I fought to establish myself at Oxford and as we reached Brighton that Monday evening, the feeling of excitement and anticipation was no less palpable.

We had a very young Oxford side that night, the first team had a game against Manchester United midweek and so the Youth Team were sent to the south coast to represent the club in the Division 1 Combination League, like lambs to the slaughter. The reserve league at that time was regionalised, we were playing against teams from London and the south west and night games were fantastic under the lights as very often there’d be a small band of season ticket holders who’d gain free entry to the ground and those couple of hundred people would create an atmosphere worthy of a Wembley Cup Final, or at least that’s what it felt like to me, at 17. As I ran on to the pitch to warm-up, all that was missing was a Harry Carpenter commentary or a David Coleman trademark “one-nil” in the background. This was the stuff I’d only dreamt about. I was always allowed up late on a Wednesday to watch Sportsnight and now, here I was, treading the hallowed Goldstone Ground turf, that I’d seen many, many times on the 24-inch Ferguson in our front room in Dennistoun.

Old school

I passed a familiar, well worn face in the tunnel, big Doug Rougvie, an intimidating, colossus of a man, and as I used to do whenever I was in earshot of anyone of a Scottish persuasion down there, I’d say something in the hope of striking up a conversation with the token Jock.

“Awright big man.” I said it with an implausible mix of confidence and fear.

“The fuck you wantin’?” was about as much as he could muster through that familiar gap in his teeth and with that, I spluttered a “nothing’” and made my way out. As I looked around the pitch,  I was surprised to see more familiar faces in the Brighton side; Perry Digweed in goal, Gary Chivers and Keith Dublin joining Rougvie at the back, Alan Curbishley in midfield and Gerry Armstrong, Kevin Bremner and Steve Penney up front. That explained the big man’s reticence to enter into a conversation with a skinny, far too forward for his own good, youngster from the East End of Glasgow. This was Brighton’s first team and it turned out that after a poor result and performance on the Saturday, the manager, Allan Mullery, had made them play in the reserves on the Monday night as a punishment and clearly, big Rougvie didn’t want to be there.

Unfortunately for us though, we were to be their whipping boys as they took out their obvious anger on a naive, weak youth team and hammered us 8-0. It was to be the worst result in my 27-year career in professional football. The only other time I even came remotely close was when a Paul Gascoigne inspired Rangers put seven past us at Ibrox, although on that occasion, I was suspended and only had to watch the game through the gaps in my fingers in the stand. Thank heaven for small mercies.

The journey back to Oxford on the coach was a quiet one. Sure, we weren’t expected to win after pitting our inexperienced wits against their first team and, I’m certain we weren’t the first group of guys heading back from Brighton after having had their pants taken down, but it was no place for celebration. There was a silence, the same uncomfortable silence I always remember after a heavy defeat. Players talk quietly and even the inevitable card school is more sedate, which is an achievement itself given the obvious demands of three card Brag when a Run has just trumped an Ace Flush. Then there’s the worst thing of all, having to phone home when I arrived back in Oxford at 1am to inform the old man we had lost 8-0. He was of the belief that no professional football team should ever lose by such a scoreline, and rightly or wrongly, it always made that particular report home an awkward one.

So to see reports that our Scotland Elite Under-17 squad – after having had their own arses smacked 5-0 by France – were encouraged to “play the music loud and have a laugh” was, on the face of it, surprising.

New school

I don’t know Scott Gemmill and I have never seen him coach, although I have no reason to believe he is anything other than very good. Certainly within the protective corridors of power, he seems well regarded and I should also clarify that he was a far better footballer than I ever was and played at a much higher level, but is encouraging our elite, young players to enjoy the moment after a heavy defeat, really the way forward? I have no doubt that many of those impressionable young players would have been shuffling very uncomfortably in their seats as Gloria Gaynor reached the high notes in “I Will Survive” and the Tommy Cooper fez’s were being handed out, as they tried to recall the part they played in the match.

And so they should. Heavy defeat is a time for contemplation and reflection, dignity and humility. A time for self assessment and the inevitable looking in the mirror. Many footballers find looking in the mirror and being self critical the most difficult thing of all, continually blaming their team mates, the crowd, the pitch, the formation, the physio and the hair dryer not being hot enough. Some young players will jump off the team coach and immediately forget they had just played a game, their only interest being how quickly they can get home and get the X-Box on to see if they can boost their rating on FIFA 15. Giving them the opportunity to bypass that initial pain of defeat and chance to self analyse on a quiet journey back from Dingwall, is in my opinion, a dangerous precedent. I also understand the argument that there can be a level of ‘false disappointment.’ That sombre, uneasy position where one or two players are sitting, heads bowed looking to see who can outdo each other in ‘who looks the most gutted.’ Those types of player are thankfully, usually in the minority and surely it is better to afford one or two their apparent feeling of self pity than putting the whole squad through the charade of false joy.

Middle school

I’ve sat on many a team coach on the way back from a defeat and the displeasure I felt when certain players would break a smile and the disdain with which I held for a minority of others as they secretly laughed and joked their way through the defeat, hidden at the back of the bus, never went away. I can only imagine what people like Alex MacDonald and Billy McLaren would have said, if we’d asked if it was ok to fire on the tunes and dig out the Chubby Brown DVD on the way back from a 5-0 defeat at Pittodrie. On second thoughts, I don’t really need to, as we’d have been taken by the scruff of the neck and pinned against the back window, before being told unceremoniously to sit down, shut up and think about whether or not their performance was funny. That way might not be everyone’s cup of tea and there is no doubt that modern football and modern coaching methods are changing. You only have to look at FIFA directives on tackling and taking any kind of physical contact out of the game to see that. Win, lose or draw though, it’s still a beautiful game, but it’s got to hurt when you lose. I’m sure a lot of those elite young players’ club managers, were scratching their heads in disbelief when they read about the aftermath of that 5-0 defeat to France.

No-one is suggesting that the coach, or the players, don’t care, but in my opinion it sends out the wrong message to have a laugh and be encouraged to enjoy the journey. You’d have tried that on with big Billy or wee Doddie at your peril. There’s a right way to win, making sure you do so with humility and respect, but equally there’s a right way to lose, and to me, their way, and that of many, many more well respected others, is far more palatable.

My first book – JOURNEYMAN: FOOTBALL FROM THE INSIDE is now available to pre-order from http://www.tecklebooks.co.uk All pre-orders before November release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

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WALKING ALONE

I lost my Dad last week. The man who was the inspiration behind everything I did and who instilled in me the socialist, working class values I have tried to live by to this day. As I’ve said, he was born and raised in ‘the Garngad’ which explains his, and my affiliation to supporting Celtic. It was a predominantly Catholic area and still is to this day; even more than that though, he was a football man. Like you and I, football and family were his life and many a weekend was planned around how we could get to and from wherever Celtic were playing. In those days he didn’t drive and very often he’d be working weekends and it would be buses, trains and Shanks’ Pony to make sure he got a morning shift in, made the 3pm kick off and got back again in time for Sportscene. The years in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s spent bunging the bouncers on the door of The Wellie Boot pub in Aberdeen a couple of bob, so I could be sneaked in to stand in the corner to allow him and my Uncle John a well earned pint before yet another thrashing from a great Aberdeen side at Pittodrie. He was also the hardest man I ever met.

Honour

Supporters used to think that I was quite tough on the pitch, but that was something I created to allow me to make the grade, to cover up my inefficiencies if you like, but my Dad WAS hard. He was only 5ft 6in but what he lacked in stature he made up for in heart and presence. He ran with the Shamrock and, as a teenager, he would be involved in many scrapes. He’d have taken on anyone in one-to-one combat and try and manoeuvre situations to give himself the upper hand. As a player, I took a lot of those attributes into matches as I played against many, many players who were better than me, but I’d do everything possible to make sure they didn’t GET the better of me, and that was him all over. I’d be stepping on toes, tugging at jerseys and winding players up by whispering in their ear that the next time they took more than two seconds with the ball, I’d be there, ready to make sure they didn’t do it again. Growing up in Royston, my Dad had to use all those tricks and more, to keep on top of HIS hard man reputation. Their main rivals were from Blackhill (and not as was to become the norm in MY teenage years, The Monks) and this time the leader of the Blackhill gang had challenged him to a ‘square go,’ a Glasgow term for a fist fight, no weapons, one-on-one. This also meant meeting on common ground, in an open space so you could see that your rival didn’t have anyone else with him as back up when he was getting a pasting.

The honourable way to do things was the only way my father would have been capable of as anything other than him turning up with just his Stetson for company would have been an affront to his status. Their top man wouldn’t come to the Garngad, so my Dad, being the man he was, went to Blackhill. He stiffened as he approached the spare ground and went hammer and tongs. My old man started to get the better of him as they rolled onto the spare ground and his enemy took blow after blow before my old man noticed, through a gap in the spread-eagled combatant’s legs, that this Blackhill hard man wasn’t quite the honourable foe he had envisaged.

The bastard had arranged for his cohorts to finish what he couldn’t, as he could see a crowd of the Blackhill team gathering like buzzards around a carcass. My Dad got one last punch in before rolling over and curling up to allow the bold boy a few sly digs at his now sprawling rival. My old man, lying motionless, had feigned taking a beating from one, rather than a hammering from six. They stood over him pointing and screaming “piss off and don’t come back to Blackhill” and as the cowards came walking over they embraced, taking their plaudits and fawning each other in equal portions.
As they were now about 10 yards away, my Dad squinted, opened an eye and seized the opportunity to get one last dig at his apparent conquerors. He jumped up and, as the Blackhill mob turned to have one last gloat, they witnessed the miracle of Lazarus proportions as he arose unscathed, other than some dusty marks on his clothes, and with outstretched arms ‘Broonie style’ proclaiming, “SHAMROCK!!!” He told me at that point he had no fear of being caught as, unlike my stealthy athletic prowess, he was very quick on his feet. He turned and ran, but made sure he was only just quick enough to keep them a few yards away whilst turning and taunting them with profanities and hand signals all the way to Germiston, the border between the Garngad and Blackhill that represented safe ground for the Shamrock and with that, the Blackhill mob turned and beat a hasty, broken retreat after both a physical AND mental beating.

Their leader wasn’t to be so lucky the next time he ‘bumped’ into my Dad though, as unfortunately for him, there was no set-up and no baying mob hiding round the corner to save him. I’d have loved to have seen that one…

Lesson

His principles were unrivalled; he would drum into us how to look after people, that you were to be honest and to treat people the right way. He didn’t have to tell us the difference between good and bad, or right and wrong, we just had to look at him, or listen to him, as an example. I remember sitting in the living room one night watching the highlights of a Celtic game on Sportscene. It wasn’t long after I had signed for Hibs and as a new professional I had started to pick up some of the little things from the older pro’s, the tricks of the trade. The sneaky, ugly, dishonest side of the game that we only ever pay lip service to. I could intimidate and manipulate situations with the best of them, but I wasn’t a cheat, although I was about to show, from my reaction to an incident on TV, that my principles would be tested to the limit in the professional game – but not if my Dad could help it.

Paul McStay took a pass and strode elegantly past the first defender and, as the next one came across to challenge, Paul managed to nick it from his dangling, outstretched leg. It was as clear a penalty as you’d ever see, proven and enhanced by one, single replay (as was the case back then) or at least it would have been had Paul gone over the centre half’s leg and made sure there was contact. But McStay being the man he was, skipped over it and in doing so, lost his balance just long enough for him to lose control and the ball ran harmlessly into the goalkeeper’s arms.

“What’s he doing?” I said.

He sat up, startled and a bit miffed at the same time because you didn’t interrupt my Dad in the middle of the football, least of all a Celtic game.

“He should have gone over his leg, made sure he got clattered and got the penalty.”

“What?” he said.

His tone and manner led me to believe he wasn’t happy, but I ventured further, hoping he hadn’t understood the technicalities of my assertion. I explained further…

“He should have bought the penalty, the defender left his leg there and gave him the chance….”

My explanation was brought to an abrupt end;

“Don’t ever let me hear you saying anything like that again…BOUGHT the penalty!!!”

I was severely chastised, in fact he slaughtered me. He was immensely proud of the fact I was a professional footballer, but would only continue to be if I done things the right way. At that moment, my mind drifted back to his ‘square go’ in Blackhill. You didn’t fake death unless you feared for your life, and diving or ‘buying’ a penalty certainly didn’t constitute that. It was a lesson learned in morality and integrity, attributes that are all too often lost in the clamour to succeed, particularly in football. I was as driven as anyone to be a professional footballer, but I wouldn’t sacrifice my principles to get there. James Patrick Farrell wouldn’t have let me.

Finally… Looking back on my predictions from one of my earliest blogs, I tipped Celtic, Rangers, Morton and East Fife to win their respective Championships. Two winners and two in the play-offs wouldn’t constitute the worst results ever tipped by anyone’s standards, but for those still in the mix, promotion is still a long way off. In the Championship in particular, the prospect of another SIX games will not be something an already tired looking Rangers will be looking forward to and for me, the team coming down from SPFL would have to be favourites on that alone. If Hibs can beat Rangers in the second play-off, momentum could well be enough to give them a real chance of promotion, but for either, it will be very tough to overcome the slightly better quality of the team from the league above. In East Fife’s case, I think they have the experience to negotiate their way through after maintaining a good end of season run to get there. It remains to be seen of course, and come 31st of May, when the dust has settled, we’ll quickly be thinking about doing it all again next season. And that’s why we love it.

My first book – JOURNEYMAN: FOOTBALL FROM THE INSIDE is now available to pre-order from http://www.tecklebooks.co.uk All pre-orders before November release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell