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“Football is a central part of both human and Scottish popular culture. Poetry, on the other hand, is allegedly about high culture but the two are mixing together more and more.

– Alistair Findlay, Editor of “100 Favourite Scottish Football Poems”
(interviewed in The Scotsman).

Brissit brawnis and brokin banis,

Stride, discord and waistie wanis.

Crukit in eild syne halt withal,

Thir are the bewties of the fute-ball

Anon, 16th century.

Football is Scotland’s passion, the sport occupies a giant and sometimes all-consuming space in our national culture. It is, according to one of the game’s Scottish legends, not just a matter of life and death but much, much more important than that.

Given the way culture grows and feeds upon itself, it’s only to be expected that this most agonising and/or ecstatic of national pre-occupations should mingle at times with poetry, often the most agonistic and/or ecstatic of cultural practices.

In this feature article, the GRB got together with five well-kent Scottish poets (Thomas Clark, Hamish Macdonald, Jim Mackintosh, Julie McNeill and Stephen Watt), all of whom have dedicated some of their talent to the important matter of Scottish football: its context and culture, traditions and triumphs, characters and crowds, the small clubs and big matches, diddy cups and massive nights, chances taken and chances missed.

We asked them about their proudest achievements as football poets, football’s exclusion from most other forms of cultural discourse, and for their thoughts on the current revival in our national team’s fortunes. We’re grateful for their answers, which are by turns cheerful, insightful and impactful – and we hope our readers will find them similarly so.  

What’s been your proudest achievement or happiest memory, that’s come about from writing poems about football?

Jim Mackintosh (JMck): Perhaps being appointed Poet-in-Residence for St Johnstone Football Club – the first poet officially attached to a full time professional football club in Scotland, arguably in the UK and likely the world – is enough to be proud of but to then have my debut as their poet at the 2016 Hall of Fame Dinner and read my work called Mind The Time to 500 not especially sober Saints fans wasn’t a bad first impression.

JMcK: In fact the poem title became the inspiration for arguably my equally proudest football achievement – the production of an anthology of football themed poetry in support of the charities Football Memories and Alzheimer’s Scotland. To launch the book at Hampden and thereafter promote its message raising awareness of the work of Football Memories across a year of events and festivals culminating with an event in the Scottish Parliament perhaps tops the proudest achievement in football poetry terms.

Hamish Macdonald (HM): Writing the book ‘Kilbowie Dreams’ which gave me the opportunity to reflect on a lifetime of memories.

Julie McNeill (JMcN): A highlight for me was being asked by the BBC to write and perform a poem for the start of the new Scottish Premiership season 2022/23. I wrote a poem entitled ‘We are Scottish Football’ and invited poets and members of the public to record sections of it on film. The film poem was really well received by the fans and appeared as the opening section on Sportscene. It was a great feeling to bring poetry into that arena and try to write something representative of fans of all persuasions.

Whats the best piece of feedback youve ever been given on one of your football poems?

Stephen Watt (SW): When Dumbarton reached the Irn Bru Cup Final in 2018, it was the club’s first national cup final in 121 years. I had written and filmed a poem called ‘Diddy Cups’ which was viewed by tens of thousands. The kitman at the club, Colm McKinley, had found a tea trolley and television inside McDiarmid Park and rolled it into the dressing-room, playing the film to inspire the players just before going on the pitch. Dumbarton lost 1-0 to a 93rd minute goal but hearing this made me feel incredibly proud. The club Chairman said that “when people reflect on the adventure that was the ‘Diddy Cup’, the video is as prominently etched on the memory as anything that happened on the pitch”.

Thomas Clark (TC): I’m not sure about the best feedback, but the most meaningful feedback you ever get on a football poem is when you read one out at an event where poetry is not usually on the agenda – at a supporter’s club, for instance, or an end-of-season awards bash – and someone who wasn’t expecting to enjoy it actually does, and tells you so. That always means a lot.

Football looms larger and lives more centrally in the Scottish cultural imagination than most other ‘cultural’ pass-times – theatre, ballet – poetry, even. Yet, it is typically excluded from cultural discourse. What are your thoughts on this?

JMcN: I would love people to see what football clubs actually do and all the great work that goes on attached to clubs and charitable foundations. There’s nothing more grounded in a community or in the culture of a place than the local football team. It’s an easy marriage for me – football and poetry, people think they are odd companions but poetry is born out of heightened emotions – pain, grief, loss, elation, hope – as a football fan you can feel all of these things in the first 45 minutes!

JMcN: The sense of community, solidarity, history and culture are vital elements of the fan experience. The work that I’m involved in through the Hampden collection shines a light on the cultural and historical significance of football. The story of the Scotch Professors, the unearthing of the first Hampden Park, the first purpose built football ground in the world, in an unassuming bowling club in Glasgow’s south side – these are the stories, the legacy, this is the cultural fabric of Scotland we should be shouting about.

JMck: Football is the ‘beautiful game’ in its purest form from the grass roots, from its importance in the  lives of so many without much else to cheer about but the poisoning of its beauty by the Murdoch Empire and other corporate greed-mongers has overseen the subsequent death of coverage of our national team (men’s anyway) and having to fork out more money is a national disgrace and even more so when one understands the importance that Scotland played in the development of the modern game in which we all have come to be so deeply invested. 

These days, one of the main roles given to poetry is to ‘memorialise’, to mark occasions of loss or other national events – do you see your poems as memorialising your team, its fans, their big[gest] days, win or lose? Or is it more important to capture the ephemeral things, that most people might not notice?

SW: It is important to recognise the ingredients which make this “the beautiful game”. Players hugging vulnerable supporters. The plight of the pie vendor. The trials and tribulations of the grounds-person. The smells associated with matchday. As groups such as Football Memories and Sporting Memories have demonstrated, these components can jog the memories of people suffering from dementia and bring them back to some of the most familiar and happiest moments in their lives. Poetry plays an important part in that gift.

TC: There’s this very Calvinist attitude throughout vast swathes of Scottish football that match-day is a thing to be endured rather than enjoyed, and that what one actually gets out of football isn’t the euphoria of winning, but the feeling of continuity and community a life-long connection to a local team provides. That’s where the real poetry is, for me. And if anything, I think those feelings of connection are under greater threat at bigger clubs, where the possibility of trophies is counter-balanced by the near certainty of continued commercialisation, than at your wee teams.

JMcN: For me the small things are always the big things. The songs, the drums, the pies, the away days, the lucky scarf – these are the important things for me as a poet. The results will ebb and flow as they always do but the hope, solidarity, disappointment and elation resonate through poetry and flow like a river out of football.

Football, in any country, has a relationship with violence (domestic or public) and other less savoury aspects of national character – racism, sexism, sectarianism. To what extent do you feel you have to address this in your poems?

JMcN: It’s important for me to write about things I care about, and feel strongly about so I don’t shy away from the problematic areas of the game. I have written a lot about the treatment of women in football in particular and what it takes to ‘make it’ as a female in football in Scotland. What I would say though is, I’m equally happy to draw attention to the, often unreported, excellent work done to address wider societal problems by both individual players, clubs and country. Football gets a negative reputation, sometimes for very valid reasons, but there’s no better vehicle for driving social change than through community sport and the engagement of football clubs. 

JMck: All these social aspects, open wounds of our culture and our ability to have informed  discourse are things that bleed between our football  poetry and our non-football poetry. It is very difficult to separate them and on many many occasions nor should we paper over the cracks with football shaped veneers.

At the same time, football is one of the few great remaining social unifiers, drawing families and communities together to support their team in hope and celebration and (sometimes) in defeat – usually in defiance of the weakening of other historic community bonds (work, place etc.) How important is it to celebrate the ways in which football brings people together, and what part can poetry play in this?

SW: During a time when the world feels fragmented and off-kilter, the unifying and routine presence of football in our lives is needed more than ever. The sense of togetherness at a game is something absent in a lot of people’s lives, and the collective emotion expressed at scoring, or losing, a goal, is one all supporters will relate to.

HM: The closure of industries in Clydebank left the town with all the social and economic scars familiar to post-industrial decline. Further to this, the mismanagement of our club as a senior entity, when it was taken over and destroyed by a group of ruthless individuals with no interest in the club’s fortunes, meant that the community had to get together to resist these moves. When the owners sold the club’s league membership to the highest bidder, Clydebank supporters were left with only a name and a crest.

HM: It was from these circumstances in 2003 that a supporter-owned community club was formed, now involving kids from early ages to teenage years and development squads winning national trophies. All of which is a long explanation of how important this is – poetry can chart all of this, not only in sharing memories but by documenting our fortunes and ambitions as a community and club.

SW: On a personal note, my final contribution as Dumbarton FC’s Poet-in-Residence was a request from a local family to pen something in tribute to their late father whose ashes were due to be scattered behind the goals. I contributed a piece called ‘Perpetual Season Ticket’, and in the son’s words, “it meant so much to my Dad’s widow as she now has a poem that will carry my father’s memory which is immeasurable”.

To what extent does your sense of a national Scottish identity colour the poems you write about football?

TC: I think for some Scottish people (particularly men) of a certain age, football IS, or at least WAS, our national identity. If you were growing up in, say, the Eighties, when there was no Scottish Parliament, very little in the way of Scottish history, literature or culture taught in schools, and a very weak Scottish media presence, it was entirely possible that your principal (or even only) experience of a Scottish national identity was eleven guys in dark blue jerseys getting put out the World Cup every four years. I like to imagine Scottishness is now a more capacious concept than that, but there are nevertheless hundreds of thousands of people out there, like me, for whom the most significant date in the history of modern Scotland is not 2014 but 1978. And that is absolutely reflected in my poetry, whether I like it or not.

SW: Our identity is very tongue-in-cheek. You need only look at the veneration of John McGinn’s arse or the comedic appeal of managers like Dick Campbell to understand what gives Scottish football fans their kicks. I believe that to understand Scottish football, you need to have that gallus sense of humour. It gets us through the frequent dark days.

JMcN: I am a child born of Scottish parents and Scottish grandparents but I spent the first seventeen years of my life in Carlisle, in the north of England. Supporting Scotland, and then St Mirren was a very natural thing for me, I was raised with it all around me but I was aware of the disconnect between my sense of ‘Scottishness’ and the reality of the fact I lived in, and sounded English. I wouldn’t say it colours the poems I write, as I write about being a fan but I do sometimes take a breath before sending them out into the world in my own voice.  I think it’s important to take the breath but send it out anyway though as I celebrate the fact that Scotland, Scotland fans and the wider footballing community is a richly diverse place to be and I’m happy to add my voice to that rich fabric.

On a related subject, how far do you think Scotland will go in Europe, this time – and are we seeing the ‘right team, at the right moment’ or the green shoots of a lasting revival of our team, squad and national fortunes?

T.C: I think the big difference is Steve Clarke, and whether we’re at the start of a sustained period of something like success will depend largely on how long we keep him, and how well we’re able to build on his achievements.

HM: The signs are good with so many young players playing at a higher level in the English Premiership as well as Lewis Ferguson in Serie A, though it would be good to see our own domestic game more enriched with young talent.

JMck: My first International was vs England in 1970 and I was a child of innocent belief throughout 1974, 1978 and into the 80’s that we would always qualify for the World Cup. One of these days, maybe just maybe, one these days we’ll qualify regularly and maybe just maybe get out of a Group Section – whether that is the Euros or World Cup.

JMcN: I’m an optimist by nature. There’s a lot to be excited about in the current squad and I know the hard work that’s going into identifying the right players and supporting those coming through the grassroots programmes. We’ve seen good progress over the past five years and are now in with a good chance of qualifying which will be a great achievement.

SW: We are the world’s greatest pessimists when it comes to expecting any fortune to come our way. My breaking point was that missed Gary McAllister penalty in 1996 against England but it never stops us hoping, praying, shouting, singing (or drinking!) either way. The current national side is greatly exciting and we have all had our daydreams of Scotland sticking it to the rest of the world – but let’s just see how we get on with our next game, and then the one after that.

How much of your football poetry, would you say is to do with the match itself, and how much is concerned with the things that go on around matches – the rituals, the camaraderie, the singing, the landmarks of the journey to and from games, the quirks that make different grounds special etc.? Which matters more to you, the match or the context in which the match happens?

HM: In the case of a memorable win against Celtic at Kilbowie, it would be the match, while in the case of sheltering from a blizzard in the hedge at Brechin watching a hard fought 1-0 victory being played out on furrowed turf it would be the context.

TC: One of the things being closely involved with a football club brings home to you how small a part of the bigger picture the ninety minutes on a Saturday really is. How much goes on off the field in order to facilitate the relatively trivial stuff that happens on it. Obviously none of us would be here if we didn’t find football at least moderately engaging, but it’s far from the most interesting thing that’s happening at your local club.

SW: I am keen to recognise the people who make Dumbarton Football Club tick. The turnstile operators. The club shop volunteers. The winner of the 50/50 half-time raffle. Human interest stories always work well in football poetry. But there will still be games which come to the fore either for one magical moment during the ninety minutes, or for several reasons (a poor referee, an outrageous tackle, a ‘worldie’ goal, a display of devastating skill). I think that there is so much going on at any football game that it can be difficult to pin down what is most important to write about – it is all these special ingredients which keep us coming back time and time again.

TC: It’s easy, and possibly not terribly interesting, to imagine what motivates your average, say, Raith Rovers midfielder to get out there and play. What’s a lot harder, and for me a lot more worthwhile, is trying to figure out why anyone else is bothering to get involved. What’s the groundkeeper getting out of it, or the club treasurer? The punter in the stands or – dare I say it – the poet in residence? Those are the really interesting questions, in my book.

By its nature, football is something that happens at pace – games can turn in an instant, one minute the ball’s idling by the half-way line, the next it’s in the back of the net. Poetry, by contract, is usually thought of as something that unfolds slowly, with care, that is reflective and quiet – how do you handle this contrast in your poems?

HM: I did a poem about Davie Cooper. At the beginning, I’m observing the surroundings and the team line up, then Cooper picks up the ball and begins a move so there’s a a change of pace. In a longer poem about my grandfather playing at Queens Park, the action on the pitch is set alongside flashbacks of his recent experiences in the WW1 trenches until the two themes converge with him scoring at the end of the poem.

TC: You do have, at some point, to try to capture what’s happening on the field, and the challenges inherent to that are what makes it worth doing. I started, for instance, to think of haiku as being like slow-motion replays – ways of depicting the action on the pitch, and identifying important details of it, without being grossly unfaithful to our usual experience of watching the game.

JMcN: Lots of football poetry is not quiet and reflective. Poetry CAN be pacy and excitable and change direction. The poetry scene in Scotland is vibrant and dynamic and every open mic or live performance I go to, somebody absolutely blows me away. Poetry is good at building pace, capturing the rhythm and energy of a moment in just a few lines. The best poets can pull the reader/ listener though with care, with pace and with delicacy as required to capture the mood they want to on the page.

JMcN: Also, poets are becoming more confident using their own words – Scots & Gaelic language as well as local dialects and regional variations. They are using the voices of the fans. I think this is something to celebrate. I’m excited by poetry that resonates across communities who might not have thought poetry was their thing.

Our thanks to all of our five poets, for their answers and the thought and care they put into them. You can find an accompanying selection of football poems, one from each of them by clicking here.

About the poets:

Thomas Clark is a poet, writer and translator who works mainly in the Scots language. A born and bred Hamilton Accies supporter, he spent a good part of his life living down in the Scottish Borders, where he got involved with, supported, and finally wound up as poet-in-residence of non-league club Selkirk F.C.

Hamish Macdonald: is a lifelong Clydebank supporter (despite being exiled to the Highlands). He’s what would probably be called a ‘page’ poet but also a performance poet winning the Scottish Slam finals in 2022 and then taking part in the World and European Slam finals too. He has always seen poetry as a means of direct communication and as an element that can bind communities, possibly this comes from the indirect route of writing songs or reciting poems for the people round about him from a younger age, at parties, on the terraces, etc. In 2020 Clydebank FC invited Hamish to become the official ‘Bankies Bard’, a poet who would celebrate the past and present and chart the future of the club and the community which gave rise to it and sustains it.

Jim Mackintosh: is a poet based in Perthshire, Scotland who has published six poetry collections, edited four anthologies, published one collection in translation from Italian to Scots and performed at hunners o different Festivals and produced the odd stage show into the bargain. He has supported St Johnstone FC since before he was born and was honoured to be their Poet in Residence between 2016 & 2019. He was the Poetry Editor for Nutmeg Periodical between 2017 and 2022 – still the only sports journal in the world with a regular poetry section. He was the Makar in Chief for the Hampden Collection between 2019 and 2022 and whilst there founded the Scottish Women’s National Team Poets Society and Primo Poetica to encourage new writings on football. He is also the Makar of the Cateran EcoMuseum in east Perthshire and the Angus glens.

Julie McNeill: is the poet-in-residence for St Mirren FC Charitable Trust, Makar for The Hampden Collection and a Saint Mirren supporter. She writes all kinds of poetry – observational mostly. She’s interested in people, behaviour, injustice, community, family and parenthood as well as the extraordinary power of sport. She has published a poetry pamphlet (“Ragged Rainbows”) through hybriddreich and a slim volume (“Something Small”) through Drunk Muse Press. Her ‘day job’ is in a high school supporting children and young people with additional support needs and I’m the author of children’s book ‘Mission Dyslexia’ written to help young people develop strategies and use their strengths to overcome challenges.

Stephen Watt: says there is no pigeonhole for his poetry although most spoken word opportunities present themselves from his football scribblings. Otherwise, he writes mostly about crime, social issues, supernatural/paranormal, and music. He has followed two teams since 1988. These are Aberdeen and his hometown, Dumbarton. A coalescence of disinterest in the Old Firm and choosing the next best team in the 1980’s swung it for him where Aberdeen is concerned.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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