In their own version of rhyming slang, Glaswegians sometimes inquire after your well-being by asking, “What’s the Hampden?”. The question is short for “What’s the Hampden Roar?”, rhyming with “What’s the score?”. In other words, “How are you?”.
The phrase “Hampden Roar” was once familiar to all Scots. Usually heard whenever Scotland scored against England, it was the most visceral sound in sport. The awesome power of the decibels generated by 100,000 throats erupting as one was overwhelming and unforgettable. But the Roar is no more.
Observers of the Scottish game argue about whether the Hampden Roar was last heard in 1973 when Joe Jordan headed home the winner against Czechoslovakia to earn Scotland qualification for the World Cup. Or was it that stunning moment in the following decade when Dalglish cut inside not one, not two, but three Spanish defenders and despatched the ball into the top corner to finally earn his rightful acclaim as King Kenny?
It matters not. The Roar whimpered away many years ago as the famous ground collapsed into decrepitude, its decaying terraces, paltry cover and non-existent facilities no longer tolerated by a modern audience who resented being covered in urine by drunks who couldn’t find an empty beer can, never mind a toilet.
A sad end seemed certain for this magical place. Despite its extraordinary history, Hampden all but died in the 1980s.
Neglect killed it. Rust and woodworm abounded. Hardly a lick of paint had been applied for years. Its owners, Queen’s Park FC, the last senior amateur – that’s not an oxymoron – club in Britain just could not afford to restore it.
The Scottish Football Association stepped in. Numerous bold plans were conceived, and just as quickly rejected, for the resurrection of Hampden. It was, after all, our national stadium. Or so the SFA’s chinless blazers told us. Hardly anyone stated the bald truth that with Ibrox, Celtic Park and Murrayfield in new-minted magnificence, Hampden was needed only because of tribal events in Ulster several centuries previously that seep their bigotry into so-called modern Scotland even today.
Hampden had always provided neutral territory between Celtic and Rangers, a place for cup finals between the two and for Scotland to play free of the accusation that one or other of the Old Firm was being favoured. So Hampden had to survive. Millions of pounds were poured into stop-gap schemes in the 1980s and 1990s which at least made the terraces covered and tolerable. Scottish football’s administrators and the Tory government knew, however, that something had to be done. The old ground was beyond a bad joke.
An ambitious scheme was conceived – largely by Queen’s Park and the SFA – to make Hampden a millennium project, with Lottery-funded refurbishment on a large scale. Ironically for a populist project, two of the greatest hate figures in recent Scottish history, the former Tory Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth and the sacked SFA supremo Jim Farry, were principal movers in the plan which saw Queen’s Park retain ownership but a new company, The National Stadium plc, being set up to rebuild and operate the stadium using largely Millennium Commission, European, government and Sports Council cash. The dynamic, alias abrasive, chief executive Austin Reilly took charge.
He was a director of Queen’s Park FC, who are the principal beneficiaries of all this public largesse, but that was lost on most people. Some £63 million later, at least two-thirds of it public money, Hampden is undoubtedly a magnificent world-class stadium with the finest playing pitch in Europe – but it is still a mess, albeit off the field of play. The simple fact is that it cost more than was in the kitty.
The builders Sir Robert McAlpine have lodged a £4 million writ for unpaid fees, many other contractors have not been paid, the Fraud Squad is in to check the books, the stadium company’s finance director left in a hurry, Reilly’s position looks forlorn and the Scottish executive appears to have inherited a nasty can of worms.
Independent consultants are on the verge of sorting the whole thing out with the main funders, or so we are told, but even if they do there are many questions to be answered, something the executive has so far refused to do in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP and the Tories are queuing up for a kick at the Hampden ball, to the Scottish executive’s obvious discomfiture.
Cries of scandal and outrage are heard daily. They have not reached Hampden Roar proportions yet, but the clamour is growing around Glasgow’s finest acres.
The author is a sports writer for “Scotland on Sunday”