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.
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.
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.
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.
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