My friend Greg, a Scotland and Killie fan, died on Saturday morning. He was only a few years older than me, but a couple of weeks ago he had a terrible accident which caused irreversible brain damage. His life support machine was switched off late last week and he passed away a few hours before his beloved Killie secured their place in next year’s Scottish Premier League.
Greg loved his football. I first met him in New York when he lived in Boston – he would travel down every weekend to play Sunday league and watch Scotland games. That’s a 4-hour drive each way, but he didn’t think twice about it. Greg was extremely enthusiastic for the game, massively knowledgeable about Scottish football, and generally full of life – which makes it such a tragedy that his was cut short.
The goalie in my Sunday league team, Jack, turned 50 at the end of April. He often plays two games every Sunday, spending much of the day away from his wife and daughter. He tore his calf muscle during the promotion run-in, but not only did he turn up (in his gear!) knowing he wasn’t going to play, he stood behind the goal when we were 1-0 down to act as a ball-boy and cut down on time-wasting by the opposition. That’s dedication. We got promoted.
Another guy I played with in New York, Gary, moved to Sydney ten years ago and has played regularly there since. He’s now thinking of hanging up his boots, but only so he can devote more time to coaching and administration.
In 1988 I visited Cappielow Park for the first time, to watch a midweek Morton-Falkirk game which turned out to have the lowest attendance of the season: a mere 2500 people turned up to watch. Even in Cappielow, this meant there was acres of space on the terracing, so I picked a prime spot on the halfway line. Five minutes before kickoff, with no-one near myself and my pal Steven, this old fella walks up: “You’re standing in my spot, son”. He’d been watching the ‘ton for decades, and I was indeed standing in his spot. I hope he’s still there.
Contrast any of these guys with Benoit Assou-Ekotto, the Spurs defender, in a recent Guardian interview: “It’s only a job. Yes, it’s a good, good job and I don’t say that I hate football but it’s not my passion… All people, everyone, when they go to a job, it’s for the money. So I don’t understand why, when I said I play for the money, people were shocked. Oh, he’s a mercenary. Every player is like that.”
Davie Weir has just turned 40, making him younger than Greg was, but he must love his football too. To play every minute of all 38 SPL games in a season is a pretty special achievement, but to do so at an age when most people are reaching for the pipe and slippers… well, that’s unique and not something you can do without deep-seated passion. It would be easy for him to make excuses, to ask to sit on the bench for that mid-February game in the rain at Motherwell – but he doesn’t. He trains, he earns his place in the team, and then he coaches the 18-year-old novice alongside him while chasing the 18-year-old forwards trying to race past him.
Or look at Neil Lennon, jumping up and down like a maddie on the touchline for the last two months. Or Jimmy Calderwood, who was clearly gutted at being fired by Aberdeen and couldn’t wait to get back into management, even if it involved a miserable relegation battle at penniless Killie. Or Henry McLeish, who had no need to devote a large chunk of his time in the past year to produce a comprehensive report on Scottish football – especially as his recommendations may never be implemented and his reputation is at stake.
Players, managers, coaches, scouts, kit men, tea ladies, groundskeepers, bus drivers… All over the country, in the professional leagues, in the part-time divisions, in the juniors, in the amateur leagues, people give up their time and spend their energy to maintain this beautiful game of ours. So while I can understand the argument Assou-Ekotto is making, and he is at least being honest with himself, I want him – and you – to remember that there are thousands of people out there who aren’t a bit like that. It’s something that Paul Le Guen, Tony Mowbray, and Vladimir Romanov failed to appreciate – love for the game makes a difference, and money can’t buy you love.
Photo Credit : Barcelona Nil