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.
JJ 0-1 Lessons Learned
Celtic 4-1 Hearts