Grampa Hugh Wight was always smiling. I have a photo of him as a goalkeeper with his local amateur team, in the ubiquitous jersey and cap. My grandparents lived in King’s Park, Glasgow, less than a mile from Hampden Park, where cup finals and international fixtures were held. At one time it was the biggest football ground in the world; in 1937, nearly 150,000 passed through its turnstiles to watch Scotland beat England 3-1.
A Glaswegian by birth and inclination, I have always supported Scotland. I never had any doubts, despite having only lived there until I was four. In the early years that wasn’t too hard. The first game I remember seeing on TV was England v Rest of the World in October 1963 – England won 2-1, Denis Law scoring for the “Rest”.
For some reason I didn’t bother to watch the 1966 World Cup Final, preferring to go out and play with my friend Alan. However I do remember the glee with which my Uncle Bill – and millions of people north of the border – celebrated Scotland’s 3-2 defeat of England in a European Qualifier at Wembley in April 1967. We’d been listening on the radio at Uncle Archie’s barber shop in Barrhead. This, naturally, made Scotland the new world champions – if only in Scotland. That was about as good as it got. (In subsequent years Scotland usually qualified for major tournaments but couldn’t progress further. Invariably they were plucky but “unlucky”. I got used to that, but it still hurt.)
Grampa would go to any game of football within range – be it Rangers, Celtic, Partick Thistle, Clyde, Queen’s Park or Third Lanark. He and Dad accompanied me to my first match, the Glasgow Cup Final of 1968, just up the road at Hampden. Celtic fielded pretty well the same team that had humiliated Internazionale in the final of the European Cup the year before: the immortal Lisbon Lions. Clyde were but cannon fodder. “Wee” Jimmy Johnstone had a field day, and after 35 minutes the Celts were 7-0 up. Bobby Lennox, one of the best forwards in the world, scored a hat trick. They eased off in the second half, the final score being a modest 8-0. In my heart I wanted to support Celtic, but I knew that wouldn’t really have made sense. My family, though no bigots, are Glasgow Protestants. It would have to have been Rangers, or at least Partick Thistle or St Mirren.
As we left the gigantic stadium on a chilly evening Grampa said, “It’s not always going to be as good as that you know”. As my next experience of live football was to be in the cowsheds at Tranmere, I soon came to see what he meant.
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If it hadn’t been for my mates Paul Neagle and Chris “Mad Axeman” Stevenson, I probably would not have become a regular at Prenton Park. Things got interesting in the early 70s, when the Rovers played their home games on Friday evenings. They were managed for a while by “Big” Ron Yeats, who had recruited two other Scottish Liverpool legends: goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence (A.K.A. “The Flying Pig”) and centre-forward Ian St John, who was literally past his sell-by date. We enjoyed some memorable evenings under the floodlights. Then we’d go on to patronise some of the gloomy, smoke-filled boozers of Birkenhead.
Tranmere continued to yo-yo between the old Third and Fourth Divisions, beating a few top teams in the cup now and again, but never being able to sustain it. Then in 1990 they won the Leyland DAF trophy (a header from “Big” Jim Steele, a Scotsman). The following year they lost in the final, 3-2, to Birmingham City, a much bigger club. Rovers got promoted to the old Second Division.
To everyone’s surprise there was a Great Leap Forward and for three years in succession we got into the playoffs and dared to dream that we’d soon be playing Liverpool and Everton in the Premier League. But, as with Scotland, it never quite happened.
The fact that I am stuck with Tranmere and Scotland for the rest of my life rather than Liverpool and England, or – better still – Barcelona and Spain – has never bothered me. Only joking. It has been a continual source of frustration, rage and self-pity. The only good thing is that I have managed to convince my wife to join me in my suffering.
What doesn’t kill you makes you… feel unwell
In 2000 Anne and I went to see the last cup final to be played at the old Wembley Stadium: the Worthington Cup Final: Tranmere Rovers v Leicester City.
Leicester won 2-1 (Scottish International Matt Elliott netting twice for the enemy). It was to be expected, but it hurt. We were drawing 1-1, despite going down to 10 men. Anyway… I will get over it one day, I expect.
Over the years I (and often Anne) have watched Tranmere draw, lose and occasionally win at almost every ground in and around London: Brentford, Charlton, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Leyton Orient, Luton, Millwall, QPR, Reading, Southend, Stevenage, Watford, West Ham, Wimbledon… I have been to exotic places like Crewe, Hartlepool, Yeovil, and horribile dictu Scunthorpe. I have watched grizzled campaigners like George Yardley (a Scotsman), Eric Nixon, “Wee” Pat Nevin (a Scotsman of course), Ian Muir (sounds like a Scotsman) and the Great Aldo wearing Tranmere’s colours, and youngsters who may or may not have reached their full potential, such as Ronnie Moore, Roy McFarland (sounds like a Scotsman), Steve Coppell and Jason Koumas.
Twice in the last two years I have been to a play-off final that would have seen the Rovers escape from the National League (= 5th tier) into which they had slumped. The first, which we should have won, was lost to vegans Forest Green Rovers (where?). The other, which we should have lost, we won against Boreham Wood. Now we are approaching being the 70th best team in the country, mainly thanks to the country’s top scorer, James Norwood. Another play-off at Wembley beckons.
The glory years are just around the corner…
If I’d been born where I now live I would be a fan of Dulwich Hamlet and/or Crystal Palace, come what may. I can understand supporting your Dad’s team (even if he’s Italian or German) but it is just not acceptable to support a team you saw on TV because they were sweeping all before them at the time or have a history of winning trophies. That is too easy. Such people are despicable and not to be trusted.