Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Only fitba makes you this mad

"Will you be supporting England, Magnus?" A theatrical shrug of epic 11-year-old proportions; a look of pitying contempt: "I stopped supporting England years ago, Dad."

Hmm . . . this is news to me. It seems like only yesterday that Mag, and by definition his worshipful younger brother, were demanding England strips for Christmas and imitating Michael Owen on the violently sloping peat-bog they use as a football pitch. "But you're Scottish," I would tell them, only to meet with withering scorn.

"Dad, Scotland are useless," Magnus would say, eyes raised to the heavens. "I don't support rubbish teams." And he didn't know any of the players in the Scotland team, he pointed out. They weren't famous. They didn't adorn cornflakes packets and Saturday morning children's TV shows, like various Knights in White. I say "knight", but I was thinking of the word with a silent "kn" and the "sh" carefully pronounced. For when it comes to sport, I have a serious problem with England.

Now, nationalism is simply unthinking sentimentalism devoid of intrinsic moral content. Which makes it ideal for football supporters, and useless in the political arena. At least that's my excuse for supporting the idea of a united socialist republic and wishing with all my heart for the defeat of England at the hands of any and every team they play.

Make no mistake, if England beat Scotland in the upcoming fitba matches (and sanity says it seems more than likely), I will not be switching my allegiance to Keegan's chaps for the rest of the tournament. I will be praying fervently for their humiliation.

I know, it's pathetic. But my punishment came with my children's own equally unthinking desire to be England fans. "But . . . but you're Scottish," I said. "Dad, it's only a football team," replied Magnus patiently. Which had me somewhat stymied. Because if I transferred my football- following philosophy to politics, I'd be closing the border at Berwick and insisting on some kind of trade embargo. Whereas, in truth, I'd rather be in Newcastle than Edinburgh any day. It is only football.

Except it isn't. It is a monstrous, demonic force that possesses you; anti-intellectual, beyond any kind of conscious control. And not just on the level of national competition, where years of conditioning by viciously contemptuous pundits on television have left some Scots baying for England's defeat just for the sake of seeing Jimmy Hill die of a heart attack on live telly.

Take Rangers, for example. I have spent large chunks of my life in denial about Glasgow Rangers. When I lived in the west of Scotland, for example, it was completely unacceptable, within my circle of friends, to support Rangers. In much of the Scottish Labour Party, it still is, even though the bigotry at Celtic is just as bad.

My sons take a different view. They decided to support Rangers because their schoolfriends did, and they recognised some of the players, such as Gazza.

Because I was reared to support the Teddy Bears, I connived at their fandom, despite the long years of politically correct official opposition. Soon we were on first-name terms with Ibrox's youth support development executive (yep, they have one), who was offering personal tours round the ground. A friend supplied free tickets for a home game, and I will for ever remember the boys' awed excitement at sitting in a ground filled with more than twice

as many people as live in their native islands.

Yet I had to explain things. That they couldn't wear their strips in the street, not in Glasgow. Nor their scarves. That some Rangers supporters were bad, violent people, and so were some Celtic ones. But I did point out that Rangers had for years refused to sign Catholics and that this was A Very Bad Thing.

Recently, after a particularly horrific sectarian attack by a Rangers fan on a young Celtic supporter, I angrily announced at the dinner table that I was going to ban the familial wearing of Rangers tops. Magnus went white as a sheet and rushed to his room, utterly inconsolable. Later, after a stern wifely talking to, I was forced to explain the reasons for my outburst, and then agree that blue acrylic garments costing fortunes were once again wearable.

It is out of our control. I tried to interest the boys in supporting Ross County (sneers) or Aberdeen (incredulous laughter). But now Magnus is lending his allegiance to Scotland, not England. Trying to disguise my relief, nay joy, I asked him why.

"I don't have any choice," he replied.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people