I said in my introduction to this series that the special qualities I bring to it are an outsider’s total lack of knowledge of Scottish football coupled with a rudimentary knowledge only of Scottish geography and culture. But I’m starting with a visit to the one ground in an area I do know about – Easter Road, home of Hibernian FC, in Leith on the northern side of Edinburgh.
For Leith is where I moved to last month, my new home, and the place where I’ll be journeying from on this voyage of discovery around the Scottish game. And it wasn’t accident that brought me here, it was choice, because on my first visit here two years ago I fell in love with Leith.
It’s a place of total contrasts and endless surprises, where gentrification lives seamlessly with deprivation, where Michelin-starred restaurants and trendy bars are on the same streets as old-school Leith boozers, and newly-built dockside apartments are a short distance from vast concrete blocks of sixties-brutalist social housing.
It’s these endless contrasts and the diversity of “Old Leith” and “New Leith” living side-by-side that I love, but as well as the physical environment there’s a real Leith state of mind, a feeling of independence and being its own town with its own people – part of Edinburgh but also in an uneasy state of co-existence, bordering on hostility, with the City that surrounds it. I don’t doubt that a lot of this dates back to the way Leith lost its independence against its wishes – after the First World War the burgh was prosperous from port duties and provided services far in advance of those in Edinburgh, such as such as proper sanitation and electric trams, and a plebiscite asking Leith residents if they wanted to become part of the City was soundly rejected by 26,810 votes to 4,340. Despite that, though, Edinburgh went to parliament with legislation forcing through the merger, and in 1920 Leith ceased to be an independent entity.
And this lingering resentment and barely-hidden spirit of impendence is an almost tangible part of the Leith’s state of mind – being part of Edinburgh (legally at least) but still being its own Burgh, with its own identity, and always ready to give a great big “Up Yours” to the City, the country or the rest of the world. But this feeling of rebellion simmering just under the surface is tempered by many other palpable emotions – tolerance, creativity, a respect for diversity, and an “anything goes” acceptance of differences. Rightly or wrongly, I suspect these sentiments may well come from Leith’s long history as a port – as in many ways Leith feels to me like a Scottish version of San Francisco, a unique melting-pot of ideas, cultures and broad-mindedness.
So I’m happy to be able to say “I’m a Leither now” – although whether that’s acceptable to the locals I have no idea. Does moving here by choice make you a Leither, or is there a birth or long-term residence requirement? That’s something I genuinely have no idea about, but one thing I do know is that Hibs is an integral part of Leith and the Leith identity, so Easter Road was where I decided to start my Fitba Odyssey.
Heartened by a nice welcoming tweet from the football club themselves I set off on foot to Easter Road, and my 25-minute walk illustrated perfectly the contrasts of Leith. The route took me past the trendy bars and restaurants of The Shore, down Constitution Street and then Leith Walk with an eclectic mix of old and new – elegant town houses, now many of them now turned into offices, and smaller one and two-storey houses, some noticeably in need of sprucing-up. But despite the state of repair of some, all of them show real signs of solidity and permanence – nothing short-term or timber-framed here. And there’s real authenticity, too – none of the bland anonymity that’s the hallmark of the South of England, where every town is a virtual clone of all the others, populated with near identical chain stores at the expense of character or individuality.
In fact the only blot on the landscape is New Kirkgate, at the foot of Leith Walk, a mercifully small and completely characterless concrete shopping centre where a few well-known brands congregate under cover whilst everyone else rejoices in the variety and individuality of the rest of the area. Leith Walk may be a little raw and a little too rough-and-ready for some, but surely no-one can fail to love its variety and character. Yes, a predominance of charity shops and money lenders may suggest that this isn’t a prosperous area, but a mix of other new shops and restaurants also says that it’s an area that’s not going to slump without a fight.
This schizophrenia of Leith is shown perfectly by two bars I pass in Constitution Street, early in my walk. The first, “Nobles Bar”, is a comfortable gastropub with three menus (“Day”, “Brunch” and Evening”) and a slick internet presence highlighting their sophistication and use of artisan produce. But only a drunken stumble down the road, though, is the “Port O’Leith”, a much more authentic and traditional Leith boozer. It looks as I imagine it looked when Irvine Welsh’s characters drank there in the 1980s – basic and without the sophistication/pretension (delete as you prefer) of Nobles or other newer venues. Sadly, though, I think the Port O’Leith is a bit too intimidating for me for the moment, at least until I acclimatise a bit more and tone down the English accent. I said Leith was all about acceptance, but I’m not sure that applies to absolutely everyone here…
Five minutes’ further down Leith Walk, it’s time to bear left towards Easter Road. I’d decided I’d be able to find my way to the ground by following the crowds, and whilst there’s not exactly a throng there’s enough green-and-white scarf wearing traffic in that direction to allow me to find the ground with ease.
As I turn a corner, the ground looms ahead of me.
Simon Inglis, doyen of football grounds, described this ground in the 90s as looking like a “giant liner docked in a harbour.” Developments since then have made the ground larger and higher, more obvious but I can still see what he meant, but my strongest impression is of just how well the ground fits into its environment and its community. This is no soulless plastic “bowl” parachuted in next to a motorway junction or plonked down as an “enabling development” for a shopping centre– this football ground is part of its landscape and a vital part of its community. The ground and its environs achieve a synergy no out-of-town development will ever quite be capable of. The ground just belongs here – it obviously enhances the community and the community obviously loves and supports it.
Walking closer I can see the layout better – four similar but individual stands, very high and very visible from a distance. I can also tune-in to the conversations of many of my fellow match-goers – the consensus is that this should be a pretty straightforward home win.
Walking around the ground, I find my way through the automated turnstiles and tackle the seemingly-endless stairs to find my seat, which are plain and fairly free of any decoration, but I can’t help but smile when “Lust for Life” comes over the speakers – a nod to Trainspotting and local heritage that I thoroughly approve of.
I take my seat at the front of the West Upper stand towards the away end. When buying this on-line, I had picked a single empty seat in an otherwise full row, but when the match starts there are empty spaces to either side of me. Either quite a few ticket-holders (maybe season ticket holders) haven’t turned up for this match, there’s a glitch with the ticket system, or that system is extremely clever and has put in place some kind of “exclusion zone” around the Englishman! But I like elbow room anyway, and after exchanging a few words with the family behind me I settle down and wait for the game to start. And as I’m waiting I’m shocked slightly by the pre-match anthem, “Glory, Glory to the Hibees.” I do know about this already, and also that this is the “#GGTTH” in the welcoming tweet, but never in a million years would I have worked out on my own the pronunciation – it’s “hee-bees”, to rhyme with “freebies”, not “hib-ees” to rhyme with “kiddies”. Boy, do I have a lot to learn!
After the first few minutes of play the question on my mind was just how many Hibs would win by – with the bulk of possession, and with their number 20 pulling the strings in midfield they were clearly a class above Raith Rovers. Several times they created great chances, but were unable to apply the killer finish – a couple of times the ball fizzed inches wide of the posts, and once ricocheted off the outside of it, but for all their slick build-up Hibs just couldn’t get the ball in the net in the first half.
Raith, for their part, huffed and puffed, but only two players stood out as noticeable to me – their number 7, who had the physique of Christiano Ronaldo if he’d been on a crash diet, and who time and time again was happy to run at the Hibs defence without ever looking as though he’d break through it, and their number 27. The latter was almost a textbook example of the big, battering-ram target-man – lots of strength but not much pace, and even less finesse. His only contribution though was to repeatedly launch himself at the ball – or at Hibs players – but there was no tangible end-result from all his huffing and puffing.
It was during the first half I realised again how little I know, and how much I need to learn. Yes, anyone can turn up and watch a football match, but although you can enjoy the plot of that one game as it unfolds, without knowing the context of the game or anything much about the teams and players involved so many of the subtleties and sub-plots are lost. Why, for instance, were the home crowd so ready to boo this Raith number 27? Just what had he done to deserve this hatred? An ex-player, maybe, or had he perhaps been sent-off against Hibs in the past or possibly refused to join them when an offer came in? I love football grudges, so not understanding what was behind this one was a real irritation.
Noise-wise the majority of the home noise came from a group of around 200 young Hibs fans at the front of the stand opposite me – they did a good job of maintaining the atmosphere, assisted by drum. At quieter moments, though, they were drowned out by the Raith support of around 500, and that highlighted another area of embarrassing ignorance for me. For a good few minutes, the away fans kept up a prolonged chant of “You’re so loud you sound like ….” – and despite all my efforts the only thing I could make out from this was “You’re so loud you sound like Aldershot”. But it can’t be, can it? That must be my own football history taking over my subconscious, surely?
But that just highlights the problem my ignorance of the game north of the border gives me. From a starting point of not actually knowing where Raith is, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of knowing who they hate. At this point, though, I’ll state that at least I do know Raith isn’t a place – I’m not quite that ignorant, and I’m not going to make the famous mistake of the BBC commentator who said “They’ll be dancing in the streets of Raith tonight.” In any case, they had a very banner that was extremely helpful to me, as it proclaimed Raith as “Fife’s Finest.”
That’s something else I thoroughly approve of. Too many mediocre teams have supporters who endlessly proclaim them, laughably, as “the greatest football team the world has ever seen.” Not Raith supporters – they have much more realistic ambitions. Never mind the world or even Scotland, they’ll be happy if they can dominate their own little part of it. But knowing they came from Fife was still no help in telling me who they might hate, and I’m still none the wiser after racking my brain trying to think of Scottish football teams with three syllables who might be Raith’s sworn enemies. If anyone out there can enlighten me, I’d love to know…
After threatening and failing to score all through the first half, Hibs started the second half with an almost immediate goal. I’d love to describe it, but sadly I can’t. As the ball crossed the line I was just walking away from the refreshment kiosk, hot chocolate in hand, after an almost glacial wait to be served. But I subscribe to Douglas Adam’s opinion “A crowd that has just watched a rather humdrum game experiences far less life affirmation than a crowd that believes it has just missed the most dramatic event in sporting history.” So I’m happy to imagine the goal of the century had just been scored.
After that early excitement the game settled back into its familiar pattern, with Hibs playing the better football and pressing forward looking for a second goal. But once again it wouldn’t come, despite all their efforts – in fact, midway through the second half they managed to miss an unbelievably good chance. I don’t understand how the ball was slammed against the bar from just a couple of yards out with a completely empty net – one of those clichéd situations where it was easier to score than to miss.
But then again the whole game, really, was turning into a bit of a cliché, because as the half went on Hibs faded and Raith grew in confidence, and as that happened their single-goal lead looked more and more fragile. And, almost inevitably, just as the game ticked over into time added on a rare Raith corner was nodded in to the Hibs goal. And, just to make it doubly inevitable, it was the Raith number 27 who was left unmarked at the far post to make the telling header. All his huffing and puffing did have some end-result after all, and if he’d been unpopular with the some of the Hibees earlier he was now completely persona non grata with just about all of them.
There was no time left for Hibs to get back into the game, and I’m afraid now if you go to a dictionary and look up the phrases “failing to make their dominance pay” and “not converting chances into goals” they’ll lead you to a match report of this game. A classic smash and grab, but if Hibs had taken their chances they could have had all three points sewn up in the first half.
But for me it was an enjoyable introduction to Scottish football, and the “matchday experience” at Hibs was a good one. Even if I don’t end up supporting them (you can change your job, your car, your wife or your name, but you never change your football team!) I think I’ll be making a good few more visits to Easter Road, because the vibes I got on my first visit is that Hibs is a nice community club that I very much like the feel of.
But that’s only one down and there are still forty-one to go, so there’s a lot of other clubs left in this Fitba Odyssey…