Trying to find the spirit of Scottish football through fiction: books for anyone missing their place in the stands

I’ve been to one football game in the past 15 months (Forfar v Edinburgh City in the Scottish Cup back in April). This is more than a lot of football fans have had so I realise how lucky I was to even be asked to cover that for the paper. But it’s been shite hasn’t it? It’s one thing to watch games on streams or on TV, and I’m grateful to have had that, but Saturdays without a trek to watch the football just aren’t the same.

So as with most things in life, I’ve tried to find some solace in books. There are hunners of non-fiction titles about the Scottish game ranging from biographies to travelogues to think pieces about the state of it. I’m sick of non-fiction this year though – a glut of it last year and a constant barrage of catastrophic headlines will do that to a lass – so I’ve tried to read as much Scottish football fiction as I could get my hands on.

The Thistle and the Grail is the classic. Written in 1954 by Robin Jenkins, of childhood torture device The Cone Gatherers, this is the story of a wee team in a wee town in Lanarkshire on the road to the Scottish Junior Cup. This is just as much about the people in the town and how the fortunes of the football team are such an intrinsic part of their lives. As someone who (before C-19) spent their weekends sitting in the stands at lower league games around the country, seeing passionate but ever dwindling crowds, it was bittersweet to read about big crowds at a Junior game. The kind of crowd where almost everyone in town packed into the stand to support their local team. The kind of crowds you never see in the lower leagues anymore unless either side of the Old Firm are rocking up for a cup game.

But there was also a lot in the book that showed that for all that, much remains the same: the spirit, heartbreak and pain those still in love with their clubs feel each and every season. It shows the hope we feel each August that this will be the time we see our club get promoted, or at least not face a relegation battle, or that this could be the season to see some silverware. No matter what happens, at least we always have that hope.

“Glory, without a fragment of which no faith can survive, was become as scarce as whisky at a poorhouse Ne’erday. Former glory, such as being runners-up in the League in 19– and reaching the final round of the Cup in 18–, was now quite used up: there was no substance in it any longer; faith could gnaw on that dry bone no more. Yet at the start of every season hope springs up.”

Robin Jenkins – The Thistle and the Grail

The much younger cousin of Thistle, There’s Only One Danny Garvey by David F. Ross, is just as much of a love letter to the Juniors. Ross perfectly captures the feeling of a lower league club: from the people who have dedicated their lives to it to all the peripheral characters that keep these clubs connected to their communities.

What Ross does particularly well is show the real pressures faced by those in the game. Pressures that can come with devastating consequences. What is asked of players, managers and the clubs themselves these days is more than most fans realise. This is something that has been abundantly clear this season when lower league teams were regularly playing three or four games in nine days to catch up from the C-19 imposed break. All with the looming threat of relegation or dropping out of the league entirely (Brechin) or at the other end of the scale carrying hopes of promotion and cup success that could bring a bit of light to the fans in all the current darkness. These are part-time players, lads that are working full-time jobs made all the more difficult due to the pandemic as well. With that as the current background this book is made all the more poignant. Football, for those involved in it, is all encompassing.

“Being involved in football makes you think differently about the passing of time. You think in seasons, not years. Starting in August and finishing in May. Fuck all in between.”

There’s Only One Danny Garvey by David F. Ross
There's Only One Danny Garvey by [David F. Ross]

That’s not to say it doesn’t have humour throughout. Scottish football is, to quote Monty Python, a silly place. Not a week passes without some carry on from an AI camera thinking the linesman’s baldy head is a ball to, well – just look at this list, and it’s the tip of the iceberg, ...Danny Garvey absolutely nails it with carrying on that tradition from descriptions of the team itself to chaos at games (desperate both to tell yous what happens but also not spoil it so leaving it there).

But if you’re looking for the utterly sublime and ridiculous, you really can’t go far wrong with The Tartan Special One by Dundee FC fan Barry Phillips. Based on the author’s Real Leigh Griffiths Blog it follows the fortunes of earnest youth player Lloyd George and his batshit manager Jocky at a paralelll universe Dundee FC. It’s about the dreams of a young lad who wants to make it to the big time but is content just to slog away at a down on its luck club just for the sheer desire to play. It’s another one that really gets into the heart and soul of what football means to Scotland. Just in a really demented way, ken.

I took a seat in the home dugout next to Wally and my fellow substitutes. The gaffer, resplendent in his “futba jaikit,” came out last and paused only briefly at the away dugout to inform Raith’s physio that there was a square-go at the station after the match if he fancied it.

The Tartan Special One by Barry Phillips

Obviously, when you’re talking about Scottish football, the Old Firm will come up sooner rather than later (I mean, this is the second mention in this wee essay already). So here’s two for balance and a third that’s based around the pair of them.

Pack Men by Alan Bissett is the sequel to his cult classic Boyracers and centred around the 2008 UEFA Cup Final. You know the one, Zenit St Petersburg v Rangers in Manchester. The book is less about the football and more about a group of pals going to the game but it still has a lot to say about fan culture. It’s an interesting one that holds some sectors of the Rangers fanbase up to a mirror they don’t want to see themselves in. As a statement about toxicity: whether that’s toxic masculinity or toxicity within the sectarian divide it’s well worth a read.

Pack Men by [Alan Bissett]

“Aye there’s bampot Rangers fans…but there’s bampots in every support.”

Pack Men by Alan Bissett

On the Celtic side, and hands up I’ve not read this one yet (full disclosure: as a Rangers fan a book about Celtic in Lisbon keeps getting knocked down my TBR, god knows why), there’s The Road to Lisbon by Martin Greig and Charles McGarry. The blurb says the book intertwines the story of Tim, a Celtic fan, and Jock Stein, the manager, in the “seven days up to and including that legendary night in the Estadio Nacional. It is about the underdog’s quest for identity against the odds, of hopes and dreams, of self-discovery, courage and of triumph over adversity.” So it sounds pretty on-brand with the themes included in most of the books I’ve already mentioned.

The last of the Old Firm related books I’ll mention is the children’s/YA novel Divided City by Theresa Breslin. Don’t let the age target put you off though, this is a compelling story with believable characters that goes a long way to encourage the kind of empathy that is sorely needed from some quarters of society.

I’m getting to the end of this, promise, but a massive shout out to the authors that include fitba stuff in their books. It’s these wee snippets – mentions of a weel-kent name or well-remembered game – that give a wee shot of warm and fuzzies regardless of team. Whether it’s a mention of Easter Road from Irvine Welsh or Kirsty and her dad’s game day rituals to watch Rangers on telly in Ely Percy’s Duck Feet it’s always a wee high point in a chapter for me.

Finally, a word on a short story collection that’s a fair age now but still full of relevancy: The Hope That Kills Us published by Freight in 2002. With stories interspersed with photography by Paul Thorburn of five-a-side teams, fans and players it’s a real treat to immerse yourself in. For me, the joy of being at the football has been about being around the people, either fans in the stands of other moany journos, this collection was an excellent throwback to that. And a much needed reminder that we’ll get it all back someday.

Books mentioned

The Thistle and the Grail by Robin Jenkins

There’s Only One Danny Garvey by David F. Ross

The Tartan Special One by Barry Phillips

Pack Men by Alan Bissett

The Road to Lisbon by Martin Greig and Charles McGarry

Divided City by Theresa Breslin

The Hope that Kills Us

Further reading

Pitch Black by Alex Gray (crime fiction centred around a fictional Glasgow football club)

Children of Albion Rovers (a short story collection that has absolutely heehaw to do with football apart from the name which is really mostly a piss take of the poetry collection Children of Albion. I dunno, thought I’d mention it…)

A Would Be Saint by Robin Jenkins (another one about youthful ambition)

In my research for this wee essay I came across this piece by Andy Mitchell from a few years ago – there’s a lot more about older books in it, and a few more contemporary ones to look out for as well.

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