The day I was three minutes and thirty seconds late to the game

There is something about the first day of a new football season that makes it more exciting than any other on the calendar.  There is a hope and expectancy that comes with it, a tangible belief that anything is possible when you’re working from a blank page.  There has been an entire summer to learn from the mistakes made over the previous season, an opportunity to put in place new routines and systems which will surely lead to better results over the coming year.

When I roused myself from a fairly ordinary slumber on Saturday morning I was filled with intentions of ensuring that I didn’t repeat the missteps I took during my first year as a season ticket holder at Celtic Park.  I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get so drunk on a Friday night that the train journey the following morning to Glasgow would be an unbearable trek through the various stages of a hangover:  Wishing the world would end, remorse, discomfort, a need for sleep and, finally, an unquenchable desire for another drink.  I also vowed that I would dress appropriately for the climate; make sure that I reach the queue for food at half-time before they run out of steak pies; eat some form of breakfast in the morning; watch more of the game than the stewards; become more fluent in my understanding of the Northern Irish accent.  On the opening day of the season I was convinced that I would have learned from my mistakes of the previous campaign.

As I stuffed my green and white scarf into my olive satchel I became increasingly aware of the fact that, despite my better intentions, I was feeling a lot like a person does after an evening spent at the bar.  I found myself contemplating how a football scarf must feel between the months of May and August, when it sits unused and unloved in the dusty bottom drawer that you keep all the things you no longer wear.  Because, really, there is no use for a football scarf once the season has finished.  Nobody is walking around town in July with their club’s colours wrapped around their neck in some crazy, woolen warm show of support.  A grown adult wearing a football shirt in a non-sporting environment is ridiculous enough of a sight.

I planned my day so that I woke up early enough on Saturday morning to allow me adequate time to get a bacon roll from the corner shop close to the train station.  I took care of matters of personal hygiene as best I could given my condition and arrived at the fast food outlet just as the girl behind the counter was thrusting a tray of light pink bacon slices under a grill.  She informed me that there were only hot drinks available at that moment as “we open at eight o’clock on a Saturday.”  I looked at my watch in the manner a person does when they know what time it is but they want to emphatically make a point.  It was 8:35am.  My famished frustration turned to a concern that this humble employee didn’t know how to cook bacon.  I had visions of some hungry patrons walking into this establishment at 10am expecting a bacon roll only to be told that they open at eight o’clock on a Saturday and they would have to wait until the portions of pork have been turned before they are ready for purchase.  In my confused panic I poured a medium cappuccino from the machine at the side into a large cup, when what I really wanted was a small coffee.

I departed the corner shop hungry and over caffeinated and made my way towards the train station, early for a change.  I located the carriage relevant to my reservation and found that my table seat was positioned opposite a fairly attractive young woman.  Ordinarily this would present a pleasing opportunity, but with a hangover and a large cup of coffee filled only with a medium-sized cappuccino I was in no position to pursue any kind of romantic agenda.  I pushed my earphones deeper into my ear holes, as though to indicate that I was not to be spoken to under any circumstance, and plopped into my seat by the window.  As I performed this grand spectacle I noticed the slender woman opposite me reach into her bag and proceed to parade a variety of items across the surface of the table.  A bottle of water; a black Bose headphone case; an iPod; a copy of the Sunday Times Magazine dated 12 March 2017.  It was this latter item which caught my eye the most.

As the train progressed its painfully slow journey through the West Highlands I began to question why this woman had a copy of the Sunday Times Magazine from 12 March 2017.  Surely she was aware that today was Saturday?  And, despite what the weather later in the day may have suggested, it was most definitely August.  It is possible that the 12 March issue was an especially good edition of the Sunday Times Magazine, but I have never heard that said in every day conversation and it wouldn’t explain why she didn’t thumb through a single leaf of the issue.  If it wasn’t a noteworthy edition worth keeping for future reference then it is perhaps reasonable to assume that this stranger is a slow reader.  After all, it is said that the Sunday Times can be read over an entire week; maybe this girl needs five months to read a copy?  It was probably around Ardlui when it struck me that she was probably employing the same strategy I use on the train of leaving a piece of high brow content sitting in public view next to me in order to intimidate potential train talkers from interacting with her.  My deployment of this tactic is typically to convince my fellow passengers that I’m not some kind of drunken scumbag, but I definitely recognised this is a variation of the tactic.

It turns out there was a reason that the journey was feeling more arduous than usual:  a signal failure in the Helensburgh area caused a 13 minute delay to the service, which wasn’t ideal when I was already pressed for time in making the 12:30pm kick-off.  I walked off the train at Glasgow Queen Street with some urgency and found a ticket machine to purchase a single journey to Bellgrove, which is still a significant walk from Celtic Park but I felt confident that I could make it without missing more than maybe ten minutes of the football.

The 12:18 service to Edinburgh Waverley screeched alongside platform 9 at the exact moment I was bounding down the steps to the lower level of the station and I began to feel that things were finally going my way.  I stepped in to a fairly quiet carriage and waited for the train to depart, knowing that in four minutes I would reach my destination.  The conductor announced that we were on the delayed service to Edinburgh Waverley, confirming that I had successfully managed to get on the right train.  He continued in his flawless tone to inform passengers that as the train was so far behind schedule it would be skipping several stops and would next call at Airdrie, far beyond where I needed to go.  I stormed off the train as emphatically as a fairly aloof, placid guy can and clambered up the stairs I had just come down, unsure of how I would now get to Celtic Park.  I meandered around the station concourse before deciding that I would take a taxi, which I should probably have done in the first instance.  There were a couple of taxi’s waiting outside the front of the station and so I got into the back seat of the first car, asking the driver to take me to Celtic Park.  He asked me to repeat this instruction, leading me to suspect that he might either be incompetent or a Rangers fan.  With some hesitancy I asked him again to go to Celtic Park, fearing that he was intending on driving me to some wildly distant part of the city far from the football.  Kick-off was nearing and I sat anxiously in my seat listening to the league championship flag being unfurled on the radio, an event which really doesn’t lend to an exciting radio commentary.  I stared intently out the window, soon recognising the familiar landscape of the Gallowgate and feeling my fears of being double-crossed by the taxi driver subside.  He drove me close to the stadium and I told him to keep the change from £10 as gratitude for him not taking me to Govan.

I arrived inside Celtic Park with 3:30 shown as having elapsed on the stadium scoreboard.  I walked down to my row to find that my seat had been taken by a young woman, probably around my age.  I decided that I wouldn’t challenge her over her erroneous seating, accepting that the empty seat next to my own would offer the exact same view of the game in an equally uncomfortable green plastic.  Of course, this put me right next to the Northern Irishman whose thick accent proved incomprehensible all last season.  He provided a running commentary on every aspect of the game, all the way through.  Every word spoken in an accent I couldn’t understand.  I would throw in an occasional “aye” so as not to appear rude, but really I could have been agreeing to anything.

The half-time whistle brought some respite from the barrage of opinion, which came as frequently as Celtic attacks on the Hearts goal.  I stood in the queue at the pie stall for close to fifteen minutes and observed how peaceful it felt.  Finally I made it to the front of the line and ordered a steak pie, which I noticed had increased in price by 10p since May.  The young cashier took my money and then asked me once again what I wanted, presumably because she had forgotten.  I told her and she slumped over to the hot cabinet, returning seconds later empty-handed.  “Sorry, we only have Scotch pies left,” she informed me.  A curious thing to say after she had taken my payment for a steak pie, I thought.  However, a pie is nothing if not a pie, in my opinion, and so I accepted the substitute meat offering and ate it before the start of the second-half, despite my failure to find a single sachet of brown sauce anywhere.

As it happens the pie was almost as warm as the sun which beat against my forehead for most of the afternoon.  It felt like a pleasant summer football experience, at least until the walk back to the city centre brought the most almighty downpour of rain I can remember.  It wasn’t a long shower, but for a while it rained and rained and rained.  Every article of clothing was soaked through until it felt like the water had gone beyond my skin and into my bones.  It kept raining, harder and more viciously with every step I took, my clothes clinging to every identifiable part of my body and my socks sodden in my boots, until eventually I was little more than a man wearing wet clothes walking into a bar.

Final scores:
JJ 0-1 Lessons Learned
Celtic 4-1 Hearts

 

The weekend where many small things happened

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Anyone who frequently reads these blog posts would quite reasonably be able to draw the conclusion that my life is not made up of a series of staggeringly exciting events.  It is highly unlikely that there is going to be a cinematic release of the biopic of my life, and if such a film is ever made it will surely go straight to Netflix with a single star rating under the category:  “Films only a completely mad fool who has exhausted all other forms of entertainment would consider watching.”

This post promises to make a mockery of such thoughts, however.  Whilst ordinarily I have one single event to focus on when I make these trips to the football, this weekend could have produced exactly eleven different blog titles:

  • The night I joined a choir
  • The night I talked to a woman without making her cry
  • The night I drank minty green shots
  • The afternoon I sat at a table on the train opposite an attractive young lady and was vocally impotent
  • The night I ate Malaysian food and couldn’t figure out how to use the chopsticks
  • The night they played KISS in the hipster craft beer bar
  • The night I found the best coffee and chocolate milk stout
  • The day I didn’t eat a half-time pie
  • The day the guy next to me jinxed the weather
  • The day Celtic went an entire league season unbeaten
  • The night the quiz ended prematurely

The weekend was blossoming with new experiences.  It is often said that if life gives you lemons you should use them to make lemonade, but over the last few years I have been of the view that why would you want to wait until someone hands you a fruit which is fairly boring and not immediately pleasing when you could instead go out into the wild and pick all of the juicy and delicious berries you want.

It was with this fruit salad in mind that I made the drunken decision to go along to a ‘scratch choir’ on Friday night – an event where a group of people come together and learn how to sing a song from the beginning, in this case the audio treat being Erasure’s “A Little Respect” – and on Saturday to put aside my usual reluctance to dabble with unfamiliar ethnic cuisine by making an impromptu judgment to eat Malaysian food.

It was perhaps unfortunate that in my enthusiasm to savour life’s fruits I walked through the door of a restaurant and was greeted by a friendly busboy who directed me to a table suitable for a solo diner and handed me a menu, which I immediately recognised as being one for the Italian restaurant next door to the Malaysian place I thought I was entering.  I sat fairly sheepishly at this table by the door, listening to the authentic Italian Muzak taunt me as I feigned interest in the menu and considered ways of leaving without it being too awkward.  I contemplated inventing a story whereby my ‘friends’ had decided that they were going to eat elsewhere, but then I had already told this dude that I was going to be eating alone, and I looked very much like someone who would eat alone and so feared that he would see right through my web of deceit and insist that I order.  The server returned and I panicked, my mouth operating far in advance of my brain by announcing that I had just remembered that I had already eaten this weekend and that I would have to leave.  He looked baffled as I stood up and made a sharp exit, barely able to get my arm through the sleeve of my jacket by the time I had reached the door.  My confidence was dented and I took a walk around the block before returning to the Malaysian restaurant next door, where I enjoyed what was at least my second meal of the weekend despite the adversity of trying to master the chopsticks.

Against the backdrop of a sky which was thick with grey clouds Celtic Park was a carnival of colour and noise on Sunday afternoon.  I arrived in time to take part in the full stadium display in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Lisbon Lions winning the European Cup, squeezing into my row between unfamiliar faces as every seat was taken.  The older man to my left uttered some words which were not quite as incomprehensible as those spoken by the Northern Irishman who ordinarily sits close by, but his Irish brogue did require a second listen.  He repeated:  “It looks like the sun’s going to come out.”  Three hours later I walked back into the city centre in a deluge of rain which soaked all the way into my skin.  It was probably the only thing that was gotten wrong at Celtic Park this season.

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It takes a little rain to help you grow, though, and Sunday was so strewn with historic happenings that drenched denim was never going to be cause for accepting lemons.  A win for Celtic ensured that they became the first Scottish team since the 1890’s to complete a league season without defeat, and the first to do it in the modern 38 game era.  A feat so phenomenal that it almost put into shade the fact that for the first time this season I didn’t eat a pie at half-time, so full was I from the two meals I had the previous day.

My first year as a season ticket holder at Celtic Park brought a lot of joy and some fun new experiences, even if I never did learn the name of the eccentrically dressed grey-haired man in the row in front of me, or find myself in romantic rapture with the most beautiful steward in the world.  My seat may be located right underneath a drip on rainy days, and sometimes the pies have a frustrating habit of clinging dearly onto their foil tray, but you have to go picking berries.  I can’t wait to do it all again in August.

Final scores:
Celtic 2-0 Hearts
JJ 1-0 Lemons

The day Celtic encountered a real-life Football Manager and made history


It isn’t every day in life that you wake up in the morning knowing that there is a fairly good chance you are going to witness a piece of history being made, particularly when you are returning from slumber in an unremarkable room in a Travelodge in the centre of Glasgow.  How many people, I wonder, have woken up in the bland surroundings of a Travelodge hotel with its basic cable television and PG Tips teabags (no sachets of Nescafe coffee were even available) and bleak early 2000’s decor and gone on to be present when a historically significant event occurs?  There was certainly no-one attending the Gettysburg Address having spent an evening at the local Travelodge, and I doubt that any of the revellers who cheered as the Berlin Wall came down went back to a twin room at the Travelodge.

Yet this would go on to be a historic day, despite a night in the cotton linen of the aforementioned hotel chain.  Rodger Federer won his 18th Grand Slam title.  The United States of America completed its transition to a Fascist state.  I stood in a queue for a pie at Celtic Park for a record length of time – WITHOUT EVEN GETTING A PIE AT THE END OF IT – and most of this occurred well before lunchtime, bearing in mind that Sky television coverage decreed that this fixture kicked off at one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon.

The other piece of history we were about to witness was Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic team eclipsing the 26-match unbeaten domestic run of the 1966/67 Lisbon Lions Celtic side. The platform at Central Station was teeming with supporters eager to brave another ScotRail engineering fault to get to this game, whilst Celtic Park was swelling with anticipation.  There was a real buzz about this game – it felt like a genuinely big sporting occasion – and all that stood in the way of a passage in the history books was a Hearts side managed by Ian Cathro.

I have no idea if Ian Cathro has ever played the popular PC game Football Manager.  He certainly looks like he could be a Football Manager player, and many of his critics in the Scottish media derided him as being some sort of Football Manager, power point presentation coach when he was appointed manager of Hearts at the end of 2016. However, if this was a Football Manager save I would be seriously considering starting over again as manager of Real Madrid or Manchester United if were Cathro.

I myself am a moderately successful Football Manager player.  I dedicate several hours a week to the cause of getting Portsmouth promoted from League Two, and right now I’m doing a pretty darn good job, sitting nine points clear of second-placed Mansfield in February 2017 and with an FA Cup fifth round replay at home to Crystal Palace to look forward to.  I’ve turned Blackpool’s Jack Redshaw into a goalscoring sensation, have Manchester United loanee Josh Harrop pulling the strings in midfield and my possession style of football even saw us knock local rivals Bournemouth out of the FA Cup on their own patch with >60% of the ball.  But could I manage the third/fourth biggest club in Scottish football, for real?  That is disputable.

Cathro’s Hearts resistance here was as weak as a Travelodge tea, as soft as the water pressure in a Travelodge shower.  They tried, for a while, but ultimately they would have been better off trying to get a pie from the kiosk in block 140, because once Celtic opened the scoring through a slick counter attacking move involving Scott Brown, Scott Sinclair and, finally, Callum McGregor there was only ever going to be one winner.

From that moment on we were witnessing history develop before our eyes,  Despite the guy behind me insisting that Scott Sinclair (two goals and an assist) should have been withdrawn because “he’s been shite from the first minute” the second-half was largely played out in a party atmosphere.  There was Just Can’t Get Enough and the entire stadium doing the Huddle, where I wrapped my arms around the Northern Irishman next to me whose words I can’t understand, but words weren’t needed because we could sing and celebrate in this day.

There is an air of invincibility around Celtic at the moment, on the pitch and in the stands. Whilst singing songs about winning the league in January and going for ten in a row before six is mathematically complete has a scent of hubris to it, it is difficult to argue against. This team was missing five bona fide first-team players in Dembele, Griffiths, Sviatchenko, Armstrong and Rogic and it still comfortably swatted away the fourth team in the SPFL.  One feels that there may be many more history making days ahead with Brendan Rodgers at the helm.  And they might even begin from the bed of a Travelodge hotel.

Final scores:
JJ 0-1 Availability of pies at the kiosk
Celtic 4-0 Hearts