Aidan Smith: The crazy, Agnews carryout-swinging hopes and dreams we invest in football
I love the story of Frank McAvennie, Booker Prize muse. Macca, it’s been revealed, was the inspiration for a character in Shuggie Bain, which has just won first-time author Douglas Stuart the prestigious literary award.
Glasgow-born Stuart confesses to not being a football man but, growing up on the city’s Pollok estate, the name and fame of the playboy goal-getter was unavoidable. So for his tough tale about a boyhood not a million miles from his own during Thatcher’s 1980s he decided to give a family the name McAvennie and call one of them Francis.
This keeps Macca buoyant in the cultural whirl. Things were looking grim for him when BBC Scotland announced recently that Jonathan Watson was retiring the teeth. After this year’s Hogmanay edition of Only an Excuse?, no more will the football funster be mimicking the Celtic centenary season legend, gnashers gleaming, and portraying him as a long-lost cousin of Dick Emery’s frustrated spinster, finding innuendo everywhere.
Now, though, he can be Frank “Whaur’s the Booker?” McAvennie but this is not the first time Scottish football has, as it were, got into bed with literature and its most significant bawbee.
The Booker was inaugurated in 1969 and a Scot made it onto the first shortlist. Gordon Williams was nominated for From Scenes Like These, an unflinching portrait of growing up in the wild West of Scotland, not a million miles from Shuggie Bain. The Paisley Buddie would go on to work in TV and the movies. He would write the book which became the scandal-torn film Straw Dogs, and also The Upper Pleasure Garden, one of the very best novels about the dark arts of journalism. And he was a football man, no question.
The game - and the crazy, Agnews carryout-swinging hopes and dreams invested in it - was hugely fertile ground for a writer who liked to pick at the scabs of the Scottish condition, whether in his fiction or the essay See Scotland?, which kicks off the splendid anthology We’ll Support You Evermore: The Impertinent Saga of Scottish Fitba (Mainstream).
There was more. Moving to London Williams hung out with Swinging Sixties footballers, ghosting Bobby Moore’s memoirs in the wake of something or other achieved in ’66. Between books, he worked as Chelsea’s commercial manager. With Terry Venables he penned the football novel They Used to Play on Grass, this partnership also producing the jack-the-lad telly tec Hazell.
I was thrilled to meet one of my literary faves before he died and, interviewing Williams in 2012, was most envious of his friendship with Denis Law. “I loved our nights out. Denis always insisted we finish with a game of ‘Capitals of the World,’” he told me. Now, how much fun does that sound?
He didn’t sugarcoat our relationship with football. Asked by a Saltire-waving newspaper for 50 words on “Why I’m proud to be Scottish” he remembered a Tartan Army invasion of Wembley: “Guys bare-chested and paralytic in the gardens of a street called Acacia Avenue, a roasted chestnut vendor in tears over his smashed-up cart, the stadium corridors awash with piss.”
But then again - for what is the Scottish football supporter if not schizophrenic? - Williams would write in We’ll Support You Evermore: “ … Just as the teams are coming out I could die for Scotland. Honest. Tears, the lot. What else is there? See if we get an assembly or a parliament? Want a bet it’ll be the same old gang of bigmouths and windbags and chisellers?”
In See Scotland? he admitted to the same fantasy as fellow writer Alan Sharp, also featured in the anthology, of answering an urgent Tannoy message to fill in at left-back: “I wish I’d put the hours into learning something useful. If a scout had tapped me on the shoulder and I’d had one game, just one, A.N. Other in the reserves, just one game to be able to say … I mean it’s your whole life at stake when Scotland goes out there, those strips of ours always look so neat, the blue, the badge, oh God please give Scotland a break otherwise what have I been doing with my life?”
And look at us now. Grateful recipients of a break in Belgrade and bound for the Euros. Sharp, who wrote the screenplay for Rob Roy and another sadly no longer with us, used to take his place on the Hampden slopes with a Scotland shirt under his jumper, just in case, but the team have no need for Newmans and emergency recruits when, as Steve Clarke remarked the other day, everyone is turning up desperate to play.
This is how it should be, this is how it was in the Lawman’s day. You must have seen in the past few days that wonderful five-minute montage of Scotland goals and delirium from previous campaigns (take a bow, producer Byron Lynch). Try and tell me that when Denis has to fight back the tears to explain that representing the country is the ultimate, you’re not greetin’ too.
Good old schizophrenic Scotland have rather mucked up their last two games but let’s concentrate on the positives: a win in the Booker, a new gig for Macca, a big-time tournament on the near horizon. Gordon Williams said of us that we’re “the greatest talkers of rubbish in the world” and “wee boys looking for fairytales”. But maybe now, not just old scribes but actual wee boys will be asking for those neat strips with the badge for Christmas for the very first time in their lives.
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