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by Islay McLeod

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18 September 2012

Streets of gold:
the shallow roots of
the new hero worship

Kenneth Roy

He knew heroes. Photograph by Islay McLeod

When a Glasgow taxi driver switches on the intercom, you know you're in trouble. It is always about only one thing, and I know very little about football. I was once accused in a book of having an unhealthy interest in the lower reaches of the Scottish League, but since Rangers upset the delicate equilibrium of the Third Division there is no pleasure in that any more. So I crouched in the back wondering if I might qualify for victim support.

'I come from the only Protestant family in Glasgow that supports Celtic', he began. Oh, wonderful. We're to have the package deal, football and religion, two for the price of one.

'Really?', I replied with deceptive animation.

'See, my grand-dad was a coach under Jock Stein'.

'Wasn't he a Proddy too? Jock, I mean?'

He didn't reply, he was too busy banging on about his grand-daddy, so I retreated into a private reverie, thinking back nostalgically to my first encounter with Jock, at Ochilview, when his then club, Dunfermline, were playing the Warriors in some cup game. He rattled off the team list, including a guy called McKenzie. Or it could have been MacKenzie. Or it might even have been Mackenzie. 'How do you spell that?', I asked him. 'How the f*** do you think you spell it?', Jock thundered. Of such memories are sporting heroes made.

My new friend the taxi driver had almost run out of stuff about the family connections, so I slipped furtively into a small gap in the midfield and dared to mention the fall of Rangers. 'Hasn't made any difference', he said darkly.

Any difference to what? I would have asked him, but he was off again with memories of Lisbon 1967, when Celtic won the European Cup. I reckoned that would take us nicely up to half time, so I fell into another semi-catatonic episode, dreaming of the afternoon when Willie Waddell, the manager of Rangers when it was still a power in the land, threatened to finish what was left of my career. More effing and blinding, I regret to relate. Yet the late Waddell, like the late Stein, is still alluded to with affection, even reverence. I’m no good with sporting heroes. I seem to rub them up the wrong way.

But when I rejoined the monologue, I discovered something genuinely interesting. The only Celtic-supporting Protestant taxi driver in the whole of Glasgow informed me that the 11 players in that European Cup-winning team were all born within 30 miles of the city.

'You're kidding', I said in genuine astonishment.

He listed the lot, the living and the dead. He spoke with feeling of Wee Jimmy who was no longer with us, of another who's got Parkinson's Disease but keeps it quiet, of others who still play golf together every week. I detected a pride in his voice as he described the familial quality of this team, as meaningful to him now as it was 45 years ago when he was just a lad. And it occurred to me, with my limited knowledge of the fanatical loyalties inspired by football, that what made the Celtic team of 1967 profoundly heroic was its belonging to a small, identifiable community, with roots both deep and intimate.

By comparison the amorphous mass adulation of Olympic medal-winners is an increasingly odd phenomenon. It is hard to believe that, so many weeks after the first starting pistol was fired, we are still in thrall to the idea of individuals running faster or whacking balls harder. It seems to be about something else now. Maybe it always was.

The athletes themselves – though with exceptions – are in danger of milking it, of being a little too eager to accept the cheers of a grateful public. One senses agents, deals, endorsements. Well, why not? It's business after all. But it also seems to be showbiz. The personalities in the making will face the hazards of celebrity. Some hero of the recent hour will be found in a less than heroic position not to be confused with the breast stroke; there is a clang of the inevitable about it. After months of unadulterated wholesomeness, it will be a relief. With hard men like my own sporting heroes, Stein and Waddell, at least you knew where you were.

But the something else (that it seems to be about now) goes deeper than athletes as performers, though not much. It's about us, the hero worshippers. We no longer join political parties or trade unions. We no longer march for the brave causes. We have forgotten the name of our MP if we ever knew it (I'm speaking personally here). We don't go out much, except to shop in Tesco (Waitrose if we're posh) or eat vast quantities of food. We have allowed our city centres to become no-go areas after a certain hour. We don't intervene if there's trouble on the trains and we know what’s good for us. We have acquiesced in the slow death of citizenship. Taking our cue from sportsmen, we spit in public. We cringe if the talky taxi driver attempts to engage us in conversation. The default setting of our life is the predictive text.

And yet, there we are – on the streets – there at the appointed hour – even getting a little exercise – with our flags – waving and cheering – our heroes – our country – and the cameras are there, too – and it's leading the 6 o'clock news – again – and we're all over the front page – again – it could almost be an evangelistic revival of some sort. I begin to think it could last till Christmas, maybe a bit beyond. But what's it really about? It feels more and more like a pastiche of something of real value, long lost, that dimly remembered community thing we once had.

I wondered what the taxi driver made of it. He didn't make much of it. No, not a lot. He wanted to tell me about Wee Jimmy who was no longer with us...oh, the things he could tell me about Wee Jimmy...well, that was a different story. Of course.

2Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review

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