Saturday 30 April 2016

Glasgow Spectator Sports Part 5. Football.

I spend most of my time as a spectator of sport in Glasgow at football matches, more specifically at Firhill watching Partick Thistle. With my team being out of action a few weekends in April with international matches on the go and Scottish Cup semi finals, I have been exploring the other sporting offerings in the city in the past few weeks. I took my children along to plenty of other sporting spectacles during the Commonwealth Games last year, but we never really stuck with any of them. Although my children go to swimming clubs, athletics and badminton clubs we rarely go to these sports as spectators. In recent weeks we have enjoyed some sporting imports with Braehead Clan ice hockey matches and Glasgow Rocks basketball. We took in some sports steeped in nostalgia with speedway at Glasgow Tigers and greyhound racing at Shawfield Stadium. On Friday night I was watching Glasgow Warriors rugby team at Scotstoun, before coming back to football the following day.

I enjoy watching sport, pretty much any old sport (except maybe Formula 1). In the days when there was less wall to wall sport on television I would happily watch all that was available; horse racing, FA cup finals, the boat race or the wrestling on ITV. When Channel 4 came along that introduced me to American Football, kabaddi, the Tour de France and sumo wrestling. As a child watching live sport usually meant standing at roadsides cheering on my dad taking part in road races and marathons or being taken to see our local football teams in Maryhill; Partick Thistle or Maryhill Juniors. The sport which has hooked me as a spectator ever since is football. 

I have been going back to Firhill to support Partick Thistle since I was introduced to them by my parents in the late 1970s. I have enjoyed re-visiting some alternative Glasgow sports over the past few weeks, but football is the only one that I really feel any emotional attachment to when I watch it.

Football - the world's favourite sport

If there is one sport that is played in all corners of the globe it is football (or soccer if you are playing it in America). Away from the corrupt world of FIFA and its grasping rush to make as much money from the game as it can, viewing the world as "potential new markets", whatever country you are in you can stumble across groups of kids kicking some sort of ball about. It may now have to compete with other sports, with people watching at home on TV and with modern distractions for younger audiences, but it is still the most watched spectator sport on planet Earth. 

Whenever I am holiday I manage to drift off to locate the local football grounds. If it is out of season and there are no matches on, it still gives you an idea of how local people live and relax. You end up wandering around weird, out of the way residential streets. You read up the local club's history, often intertwined with stories of immigrants or local industries and you can learn about a town or a city in a slightly tangential way. In Greenland I learned about the challenges of internal travel in the country and trying to maintain football pitches in their weather. On holiday in Germany I got a feel for St. Pauli's slightly anarchic neighbourhood in Hamburg.

Crowd at a Greenlandic league match
FC St Pauli, Hamburg , Germany
In Greece I wandered around the down at heels ground of FC Aris with their colours reflecting the Byzantine history of the Thessaloniki area. I also visited the stadium of PAOK (Pan-Thessalonian Athletics Club of Constantinopolitans), whose history links back to their roots as a team of Greeks living and playing in Istanbul, before being deported to Greece in the population transfers that happened after World War 1 in the region. In Iceland we saw that the national stadium had more images of women players than men on show, and their nearby pitches had hundreds of children taking part, boys and girls playing together, in a national tournament. These facts may give some clues as to why this small country is soaring past Scotland in the international rankings. The Netherlands has a team named after the Telstar satellite, who play in a stadium sponsored by Tata Steel when we visited it. Who knew that Tata will continue steel production in their nearby, profit making businesses in the Netherlands after they close their British plants? All these things I have learnt on holiday, because of my mild obsession of tracking down local football teams when I am away. 

FC Aris, Thessaloniki, Greece
PAOK at Toumba Stadium, Thessaloniki
My son hamming it up outside the Icelandic National Stadium
Telstar, a Dutch team named after a satellite and a stadium previously sponsored by Tata Steel
Driving to London last year my son was delighted when I stopped off in Milton Keynes to have a wee nosey at the MK Dons stadium, or in Halifax on the way back up to cast an eye over my grannys's childhood home, and nearby stadium of FC Halifax Town, The Shay.

Hampden Park

In Glasgow most people are aware that football has a bit of a divisive history, with most people expected to align themselves with either Rangers or Celtic. The absence of their poisonous rivalry has not been missed by everyone over recent seasons (despite what many Sky and BBC journalists claim), with Rangers working their way up through the lower leagues. However, for good or bad, Glasgow's two most well known teams will resume hostilities again in the 2016/17 season. In Glasgow, Celtic Park in Parkhead has a capacity of 60,000 and Ibrox Stadium is able to house over 50,000. Unable or unwilling, to disentangle football in Scotland from religious bigotry and the politics of Irish nationalism, the Scottish national team cannot realistically be seen to use either of these grounds. It is maybe worth noting that the crowd drawn to watch Scotland does not heavily rely on Old Firm fans anyway. So the Scotland team are based at Hampden Park in Mount Florida, giving Glasgow three 50,000 seater football stadiums. This has been home to Scotland's oldest senior football team, Queen's Park, in one form or another since 1873, six years after their foundation as a team. Although at one time 149,000 could squeeze in here to (try to) watch a match, since it was redeveloped as an all-seater stadium in the 1990s in can now accommodate around 52,000. Most weekends however it is still home to Queen's Park FC and their average home crowd of around 750 hardy souls. 

Hampden Park, transformed into a serviceable
athletics arena during 2014 Commonwealth Games
Out with the athletics, and re-laying the
Hampden pitch. A not infrequent necessity
Though temporarily out of action for football recently, when it was refitted to accommodate athletics for the Commonwealth Games (quite successfully it has to be said) it has reverted back to being our national stadium. Personally I would happily demolish the whole place. Nowhere in the stadium is there a decent view of the football, the flatly banked former terraces leaving you miles away from the pitch and draining any atmosphere the crowd manages to whip up. Getting to and from matches is always a slog, with roads in the residential streets nearby gridlocked for hours before and after the matches. The only sense of history that can be gleaned from the place is in the wee football museum housed in the main stand. It manages the tricky task of being recently modernised and completely out of date.

(Cost of visiting Scottish Football museum - adult £8, children £3. Combined stadium tour and museum visit £12/£5)

Hampden Football Museum
So if you are not going to Ibrox, Parkhead or Hampden to take in some football in Glasgow, what other choices do you have?

Women's football 

Although more and more women and girls are playing football, at higher levels one team dominates in Scotland - Glasgow City FC. I do like the fact that they don't bother with the words "Ladies" or "Belles" or anything in their name. They are just Glasgow City FC. I have taken my children often to see them, more often when they played at Petershill, but we still take in the occasional game at Airdrie's Excelsior stadium where they are now based. The team are in discussion with East Dumbartonshire council, who are planning to build a new community facility which will be the future home for the club. If this happens it will be the first time in the UK a stadium has been built for a women's football team.

Formed in 1998 and playing in bright orange, for many years Glasgow City have gone unchallenged, as the rest of the women's game in Scotland has struggled to keep pace with them. In 2012 they won the domestic treble, and won every league match that season. In 2014 they suffered their first league defeat in over six years, when Spartans got the better of them. They have consistently got into the last 32 of the European Champions League, being knocked out by Chelsea last year and by PSG at the quarter final stage the year before. Other clubs are slowly emerging and Glasgow City are regularly pushed by Hibernian in league and cup matches these days. Celtic and Rangers are now also putting some effort into their nascent women's teams. Partick Thistle Ladies' team have recently been formed and play in the SWFL Division 2 Central. 

To make the matches more competitive the league has been re-arranged with two tiers now, Scottish Women's Premier League 1 and 2, each of eight teams. The league runs from March to October.

Glasgow City coming onto the pitch against Aberdeen
The Glasgow City team is now coached by one time Aberdeen player Scott Booth, and features many Scottish and Irish international players. Some familiar faces are Irish international Clare Shine and Julie Fleeting and Leanne Ross who have notched up over 200 appearances between them for Scotland. The Scotland Women's team are currently outshining the men's team, on the cusp of qualification for the European Championships.

Scott Booth on the touchline
At cup games, friendlies against English opposition and Champions League matches there can be a decent sized and lively crowd, with a large number of families and children present. However when I recently went to see them, on a cold Sunday afternoon in April 2016 when Celtic and Rangers were playing a few miles away, there was a pretty low turnout for a league match against Aberdeen. To get to the stand fans had to come up the tunnel onto the pitch as there was no need to open the concourses of the stand today, which was a bit unusual. Despite the match being rather one sided, City struggled to create decent chances but eventually ran out 1-0 winners.

Glasgow City supporters
There is still a long way to go before there is a greater level of challenge for Glasgow City FC in the women's game. So far this season they are undefeated in the cup and league and have won their matches 14-0, 1-0, 1-0, 10-0, 1-0, 8-0, 4-2 (the first two goals they have conceded this season). At present I enjoy following Glasgow's top league team, which I am happy to say is neither Rangers nor Celtic. Also my daughter quite likes wearing the Glasgow City football top she has, always a good talking point on holiday.

Cost to watch Glasgow City - £5 for adults and free for children. The bigger games can be entertaining and my children certainly enjoy coming along. But on a quieter day like this you do feel a wee bit as if you are intruding on a private affair.

Junior Football

Scottish Junior football is not football for children, but since the 1880s is the name given to non-league football in Scotland. The Scottish Junior Cup has been contested since 1886, with an earlier version dating as far back as 1880. Many of the Junior football teams have long histories and great local popularity. Local derbies like Auchinleck Talbot v Cumnock or Arthurlie v Pollok can attract crowds of well over 1000, but nowhere near the 76,000 who attended the Junior Cup Final in 1951. The biggest names in Junior football are the Ayrshire clubs, although Glasgow has many, many teams and was previously a route for players aiming for a professional career, whether it was Bertie Auld going from Maryhill Harp to Celtic, or Bill Shankley starting off in the Glenbuck Cherrypickers. Nowadays it often goes the other way. Most of the first 45 minutes watching a Juniors match tends to be about leaning over to the person nearest you and saying "Is he that annoying wee guy that used to play for St Mirren in the 1990s?" 

I don't really follow any particular Junior team and this year have pitched up at Yoker Athletic's Holm Park once to see a pre-season warm-up match for Partick Thistle and I went to one Renfrew Juniors match. However I quite fancy going down to Kilmarnock for the Junior Cup Final this year, due to my family's distant footballing links to that part of the world that I've written about previously.

Yoker Athletic v Partick Thistle, August 2015
Junior football has a reputation for being one of the few sports where fights can start on the pitch and spill over into the crowd, but it has a rich history. The history of Junior football teams is inextricably linked to the rise and fall of industries in Scotland. As new communities grew up around an industry, local teams sprung up, often several within a small area, like Ashfield and Glasgow Perthshire in Possil, with their grounds practically on the same block. This link between the health of a community and the health of its Junior football is nicely drawn in the recently published book Shankly's Village: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Glenbuck and it's Famous Sons by Adam Powly and Robert Gillan. Despite its illustrious history, neither the team, nor the village that Bill Shankly and many others started their football careers at still exist. I heartily recommend the book to you.

This year the Junior Cup Final will be played on Sunday the 29th May, 4pm at Kilmarnock's Rugby Park. After Pollok overcame Hurlford last week in front of a crowd of 1600 people in the second semi-final, it will be contested between them and Beith

Partick Thistle

I have mentioned above that my parents brainwashed me as a child by taking me to Partick Thistle matches when I was young. Whether it was an attempt to keep me away from the Old Firm, or just that old fashioned thing of supporting your local team, I don't know. I have been unable to reverse this early conditioning and been going to Firhill now for the best part of 40 years. Anyone with a bit of Thistle knowledge will see that this means that I have missed their 1971 league cup victory and had to endure the various ups, downs, downs and occasional ups since then as a result this.

Firhill Road, Maryhill. Glasgow
Younger people who follow big teams probably won't be aware of this, but football always used to be played at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. Weird, huh? On a Saturday as a family we would just make the short walk to Firhill to see what was happening. At that time the reserve team would play at Firhill when the main team were playing away, so there was usually something to watch. Huddled up on the terracing behind the goal my mum would often prepare a picnic of sorts for us to eat at half-time - no "chewing gum! macaroon!" for us. As a teenager a few of us got into the habit of regularly going to the games together, often my brother, my cousin and my pal Alan who stayed up our flats. Then as a student once I had a car, away games became possible. I know that there are parts of Scotland that I would never have visited if Partick Thistle had not spent so many years yo-yoing up and down through the divisions. Maybe some Rangers fans have just taken their punishment on the chin and got on with enjoying getting to know Scotland a bit better.

Old entrance to the south terracing at Firhill Stadium. 
Firhill Shed - image taken from
There is much that I miss about the old atmosphere at matches, when opposing fans were separated on the terracing of the Firhill Shed by a fence and hurled abuse, pies and much else at each other across it. However it is easy to forget that the pantomime abuse went too far at times and I don't want to go back to the days of being chased down Maryhill Road under a hail of bricks. For many reasons all-seater stadiums were introduced, alcohol banned and closer police scrutiny were introduced.

As the name suggests Partick Thistle have not always played in Maryhill. I have previously written about their early grounds here and here if you have a burning desire to learn more. For much, much more comprehensive information on Partick Thisle, the early years follow the link to the website that carries that very name.

The old main stand at Firhill, where away fans are usually accommodated
Firhill Stadium panorama
The teams (and Kingsley) come out for Partick Thistle v Inverness CT
As we come to the end of the 2015/16 season Partick Thistle are almost safe for another season in the top division with Kilmarnock and Dundee United favourites to go down or face the play-offs. The fun in all that is that both these teams have previously had a hand in condemning us to the lower divisions. Ever the unpredictables however, no Partick Thistle supporter is believing we are there yet until we are mathematically safe. The problem is that with near bankruptcy in the past, the club have now taken the unusual step of running a club within its available budget. This causes the great difficulty of putting us at a disadvantage against clubs who have decided against this wacky principle. It is for reasons like this that it really becomes infuriating when clubs gain from a form of financial doping, but rarely throw their hands up and say "mea culpa". Maybe it's the Latin that puts them off.

Skyline of Glasgow's Westend from the stand at Firhill
As near as Thistle got to creating a chance in the first half
With a superior goal difference and a nine point gap at the start of this match it appears too many of the players are thinking about their summer holidays or their next career move. After harrying Inverness for the first 10 minutes Thistle drifted out of it and showed little determination or cohesion. As a result they allowed Inverness Caledonian Thistle to go into half time with a 1-0 lead.

Kids' teams on the pitch at half-time
Liam Lindsay watching a ball
As part of their aim at future financial stability Partick Thistle have spent time and effort on trying to develop younger players. With the addition of financial assistance from Chris and Colin Weir this has become part of the Thistle Weir Youth Academy and some of their young players were given the chance of a kick-about at half time. With efforts like this and free entry for children under 16, Partick Thistle are making a concerted effort to (literally?) grow future fans. Other efforts to raise the club profile this year have included free art giveaways to fans (see here for more info) and the creation of the world famous mascot, Kingsley. However all of that effort is harder to maintain with the potential drop in income that the club would face if relegated. So the biggest effort has to be on the pitch. Unfortunately for any young fans we were trying to impress today the team started badly in the first half and then tailed away in the second. Inverness Caley Thistle eventually finished comfortable 4-1 winners (I think that was the score, I was watching through my fingers at the end). With Kilmarnock having a convincing win over Hamilton we are rapidly losing our points and goal advantage over them.

Remains of a pie and Bovril. See it as an artistic metaphor for something
Today's match was a disappointment, but I would rather we stop watching football the way Sky Sports market it, as a series of blockbusters. I prefer to see today's match as an episode in a box set. Okay, the bad guy was on top at the end today, but I am already eagerly anticipating the next installment, when the wee guy might get his just reward. Once the season is over, I will sit down and reflect on it a bit. Then a few weeks later, even if I said "never again" after my favourite character was written out, I will be eagerly tuning in again for the next series.

American research a few years back has shown that football is the most unpredictable sport to watch, when compared to ice hockey, basketball, American Football and baseball. When analysing 100 years of data from the top English league they found that you were more likely to see an upset by an underdog in football than in these other sports. Their argument was that this is one thing which made it an exciting sport. Sadly they also found that upsets were happening less frequently in the most recent data. This seems to be a result of some clubs now being able to financially out-muscle their opponents.

If leagues and super-leagues are set up with the aim of helping the big teams at the expense of all the others, I would say that those big teams are in danger of killing the goose that is laying their golden eggs. In Scotland the league set up seems so skewed to the interests of a minority that the danger is fans lose interest and vote with their feet. Clubs like Partick Thistle struggle to compete in the current financial environment and they are trying to get stability by rooting themselves very much more in the local community at present and I would applaud them for that. There is also clearly a need for some meaningful way to introduce a form of fan ownership to football, to give fans a voice on the daft committees running the game in Scotland.

Other actions have inadvertently thrown a wet blanket on any enthusiasm football supporters try to whip up. Football teams seems to be unfairly singled out. It is hard not to see this as a prejudice against the people they draw their support from. The all-seater stadiums and alcohol bans you see at football are not in place at crowds I saw in recent weeks at speedway, basketball, ice hockey or rugby in Glasgow. On occasions when I have gone to watch football in England you are allowed to stand about and enjoy an alcoholic drink in the ground, everywhere except at your seat. I am not trying to say that football needs alcohol, but all the other sports I went to have been able to use bars as another way to draw people to the ground earlier and to generate income, important for clubs often living very much hand to mouth. The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act brought in by the Scottish government was intended to tackle sectarianism at football matches, but has had no effect in tackling this issue at the clubs where it is a problem. Why criminalise just football fans in law, why not just an "offensive behaviour act"?

Football can still throw up the occasional surprise. Occasionally a Greece wins the European Championship, or a Partick Thistle wins the Scottish League Cup. When I sit down to watch a match in which I have no great vested interest, unerringly I am cheering on the underdog within a few minutes. The great and the good of UEFA's vested interests may try to mould the shape of football to suit their narrative, but occasionally a team like Leicester City will defy the 5000-1 odds bookies were giving their chances at the start of the season. It's one in the eye for the big bullies, and like many others I will be cheering them on tomorrow against Manchester United. Then I will be back at Firhill, waiting with renewed optimism for our turn to have a big surprise season.

"All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football." 
- Albert Camus

Cost - Partick Thistle vs Inverness Caledonian Thistle adult £22, children free

Friday 29 April 2016

Glasgow Spectator Sports Part 4. Rugby

Glasgow Spectator Sports. More Than Just Football?

I spend most of my time as a spectator of sport in Glasgow at football matches, more specifically at Firhill watching Partick Thistle. With my team being out of action for a few weekends in April, I have been looking for other sporting offerings in the city in the past few weeks. I took my children along to plenty of other sporting spectacles during the Commonwealth Games last year, but we never really stuck with any of them. Although my children go to swimming clubs, athletics and badminton clubs we rarely go to these sports as spectators. So in recent weeks we made the effort to catch some sports we don't usually bother with. We have enjoyed some sporting imports, with Braehead Clan ice hockey matches and Glasgow Rocks basketball. We took in some nostalgia soaked sports with speedway at Glasgow Tigers and greyhound racing at Shawfield Stadium. But before coming back to football in the city, we are going to give rugby a go too.

Glasgow Rugby 

Rugby and football in Scotland have never really fought over the same audience, they generally draw a different crowd. Football has always been where my interest lies and, like many people, unless the Scotland national team are beating England, my interest in rugby wanes.

I have over the years been to various birthday parties and funerals held in rugby club halls, but it is fair to say I am not a big follower of the rugby. I will freely admit that some of this is prejudice on my part. I didn't know anyone who played rugby until I went to university, and the people that I met there who played the sport were, as a general rule, complete dicks (with the odd exception from Blantyre). I am sure that a large part of my lack of interest in rugby is simple inverted snobbery. It may be fairly normal in parts of Ayrshire and the Borders for people to play rugby, but beyond that in Scotland it really is played in the private schools of the land. Nobody taught us rugby on the red blaes pitches of my secondary school. When Rory Hughes was recently capped for Scotland against Italy, it was newsworthy. A Castlemilk boy, who went to a state school in Glasgow had made his way to the national squad. The exception rather than the rule. When you look at the "notable people" from Castlemilk on its Wikipedia page there are listed 15 footballers, 3 actors, 1 musician, 1 policeman and 1 rugby player.

There have been efforts on behalf of the sport to tackle this and my children have all been given taster sessions in rugby at primary school. Although my kids weren't persuaded by these sessions, I know that one or two of their classmates went on to invest in a set of gum shields and joined local clubs, so not a completely wasted effort.

Although I watch the Scotland team play on TV at times, another thing which makes it hard for me to get right into rugby is the endless tweaking of the rules of the game. If the referees didn't have a mic attached to explain each decision we would all be at a loss. The commentators flap about, trying to spot the apparent infringement, until the voice comes through their headphones telling them what apparently happened. Even then, the old tradition in rugby of never disagreeing with the referee and respecting his decision has gone out the window. This was nowhere more obvious than when referee Craig Joubert awarded a match-winning penalty to Australia in the recent World Cup, eliminating Scotland in the process and then sprinting off the pitch to universal condemnation (except in Australia I suppose).

Whilst the world's first international rugby match was played in Edinburgh, at Raeburn Place in 1871, between Scotland and England, Glasgow hosted the world's first football international in 1872 at Hamilton Crescent, Partick in Glasgow. This is where these sports have had their base in Scotland ever since, with the capital being home to the national rugby team at Murrayfield and Hampden Park in Glasgow the spiritual home of Scotland's football. Whilst Glasgow Warriors have met increased success on the pitch and regularly sell out their home matches, you are talking about 4-5000 people watching, crowds not far off Partick Thistle's numbers on a good day, whilst Celtic and Rangers in the city can both have home crowds ten-times this number.

I have watched rugby before. I've taken my kids along to watch the Rugby Sevens at Scotstoun on occasion, and the quick fire games were quite entertaining. Rugby Sevens was a big crowd-puller at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, in part because the games were held at Ibrox Stadium and there were plenty of tickets on offer. I have been to see the Scotland rugby team play in Edinburgh, when I won tickets to a match somehow. It was all very jolly, if a bit lacking in any feeling of competitive rivalry in the stands. Rival fans mixed together in the crowd, gamely cheering on their teams. It had none of the frisson of excitement that sitting just along from the Polish fans at Hampden had, when I was recently watching Scotland in a football World Cup qualifier.

Twickenham grass being prepared
I have also visited the home of English rugby at Twickenham, although I was at a training course at the stadium rather than to watch rugby. On display in their museum there was the Calcutta Cup, which Scotland and England play for annually in their head to head match. The fact that it is named after a city in India from the time of the British Empire, sculpted with an elephant and cobras and is made of melted down silver rupees seems like a fitting metaphor for the history of rugby.

The Calcutta Cup

Glasgow Hawks and Glasgow Hills

Club rugby in Scotland has undergone a lot of change since the 1990s, with the arrival of the professional era in a sport which once prided itself on its amateur ethos. The days of the Scottish newsreader working their way through the rugby scores after they had finished with the football results on a Saturday night, with names such as Boroughmuir, Melrose, Kelso and Glasgow Academicals, are long gone. There are now two professional teams in Scotland, the Glasgow Warriors and the imaginatively named Edinburgh Rugby. They play in the Guinness Pro12 League of which Glasgow were champions in 2014-15. By ending up in the top 4 places in the league again this year (2015-16) Glasgow are guaranteed a place in the end of season play-offs. This also ensures them a berth in next year's European Rugby Champions Cup.

The extensive amateur rugby league system in Scotland has about 8 tiers with over 150 teams involved and promotion and relegation possible between divisions. This becomes regional in the lower orders. Although the top league is dominated numerically by Borders' teams, Glasgow is represented in the Scottish Premier Division by Glasgow Hawks, based at the pitches at Anniesland Cross ("Old Anniesland"). Old Anniesland was first set out as sports fields by Glasgow Academy school in 1883, and used by them until 1902. When they bought farmland next door in 1902 to create "New Anniesland", Glasgow University took over Old Anniesland for 10 years. In 1919 Glasgow High School bought Old Anniesland and built a new clubhouse here in 1924, a building which still stands. Since Glasgow High, the school, upped sticks from the city centre in 1976 their school buildings have stood here also. Glasgow High rugby team merged with Kelvinside Academy in 1982 to form Glasgow HK. Then with the re-organisation of rugby across the country in 1995 they merged with New Anniesland's Glasgow Academical team (or Accies) to form Glasgow Hawks. Initially their name was the result of Accies, HK and the West of Scotland club coming together, but the latter team decided to keep going in their own right. West of Scotland Rugby, formed in 1865, now play out at Milngavie.

Colours of West of Scotland Football Club
Originating in Partick at Hamilton Crescent, West of Scotland have played in red and yellow since 1871. Their colours were borrowed, and retained, by their footballing Partick neighbours, Partick Thistle Football Club in the 1930s.

Glasgow Hawks still are based now at Old Anniesland. Their season in the top tier of Scottish amateur rugby runs from August through to March and has just come to an end with Glasgow Hawks finishing a safe 6th. Ayr Rugby Club topped the league, being ahead by a clear 12 points at the end of the season. However as the league has adopted the play-off system to decide the champions, they lost out to Edinburgh's Heriots in the final. To me that must feel very unjust to Ayr followers and I am not really a fan of play-offs deciding championships. Cup competitions I get, but a whole season decided in one game just seems unfair.

Also nearby are Hillhead-Jordanhill Rugby Club, based at Hillhead Sports Club in Hughenden. "The Hills" play in the BT National League Division 2, two tiers below the Premiership. With Hamilton champions of the league this year, the Hills have just avoided relegation finishing 10th in a 12 team league. Hillhead Sports Club was was initially home to Hillhead High School Former Pupils' Rugby Football Club. The opening on the new, reinforced concrete stand here at Hillhead Sports Club in 1934 was marked by a match between Hillhead Former Pupils and Glasgow Academicals.

Newspaper report of the Hillhead FP vs Accies rugby match, September 1934
The old stand has been demolished now and much of the peripheral land sold off to housing developers. Some put the need for this land sale down to losses accrued by Hughenden being the first home to Glasgow's new professional club, Glasgow Warriors, from 1999. Six years later Warriors had moved on to Firhill Stadium, to churn up the football pitch there instead. Whatever the reason, Hillhead Sports Club, like many clubs before them, have had to sell off some of their most valuable asset, their land, to keep functioning.

Club building at Hillhead Sports Club, Glasgow
Rugby cliché, Hughenden
I wandered round one Sunday afternoon in April to have a look around Hillhead Sports Club, not realising that it has quite a nice bar/cafe open to the public in the club building. There was also a BT Women's Premier League play-off match on, between the top two teams in the league, Hills Women's team and the Murrayfield Wanderers. It was a hard fought game, with players limping off periodically with injuries, but the Murrayfield Wanderers clearly had the upper hand and ran out 29-15 winners. As someone who usually watches football, the players all calling the referee "sir" when speaking to him just souned fake and odd, adults acting like obedient school pupils. Even when he was heckled from the small crowd, to correct some of his misinterpretations of rugby's labyrinthine rules, he was was shouted at in this same way. "That penalty should be taken from where the ball was kicked, sir!" they cried, instead of ending it with the more natural "-ya fuckin' clown!".

Hills vs Murrayfield Wanderers. April 2016
Hills players. April 2016
Hills vs Murrayfield Wanderers. April 2016
Hills vs Murrayfield Wanderers. April 2016
Club rugby obviously has its ardent followers, but all the televised glamour of rugby is with the professional game now. I pitched up to watch Glasgow Warriors in their last home game of the league season, with the play-offs just around the corner. They were playing Italian team Zebre, second bottom of the table. With Glasgow already guaranteed a play-off place, there was still something to play for with league position determining home and away ties in the play-off semi-final.
Glasgow Warriors have been based at Scotstoun Stadium since the 2012/13 season. When I lived in Knightswood this was just "Scotstoun Showgrounds" and had been since it was laid out as such by the Glasgow Agricultural Society in 1860, when it apparently staged livestock shows. Monthly Clydesdale horse shows were held here until the 1950s but sport had arrived at the showgrounds around 1902 when it became Hillhead High School's Former Pupils Club. In 1915 an ash running track was laid and 5 years later a stand backing onto Danes Drive was built. Scotstoun Stadium has been home to Victoria Park Amateur Athletics Club since it was formed in the 1930s. Here they are, below, winning the 1954 Edinburgh to Glasgow relay race.

In 1996 the running track was replaced with a modern eight lane synthetic track. With funding of £18 million, much of it from the city council and Sport Scotland, to upgrade it as a modern facility open to the local public, the stand was re-fitted with a fitness suite and indoor 100m warm up track. A new stand was built on the opposite side of the track and the whole facility re-opened in 2010. Initially just a training base whilst their matches were at Firhill, Glasgow Warriors now play their home matches here, and as a result competitive athletics can take place less often in the stadium. It is still home to the athletics club and the hundreds of children that take part in their junior clubs (including my daughter), but rugby is certainly squeezing them out.

Facilities at Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow
This season the rugby pitch often proved to be unplayable after a wet Scottish winter and Glasgow Warriors were forced to play several of their home games on Kilmarnock Football Club's artificial pitch. Little comment was made on the irony of Kilmarnock's Rugby Park having a more successful rugby team than football team playing here for the first time in its 115 year history. To prevent this problem in future seasons Warriors have planned to have a 3G pitch put into what is ostensibly a community facility which they rent. This has caused some controversy as they are already elbowing out the athletics tenants in other ways and such a pitch would prove unsuitable to javelin and hammer-throwing events at this multi-sports site. After an initial stand-off it seems a compromise deal if being put together.

On a recent visit to Scotstoun Stadium at dusk
I have only seen Warriors play once before, when they were based at Firhill. That was really just to enjoy the novelty of sitting in the Jackie Husband stand around about my usual seat at that time, but with a pint of warm lager in my hand. That match was a close game and the people on either side of me were endlessly turning to me to ask whether I thought that was a ruck or a maul and suchlike. I seemed to make the correct contemplative, sucking in through my teeth noises to bluff them into thinking I had an opinion on the matter.

Glasgow Warriors vs Zebre. Sold out.
Tonight's match between Warriors and Zebre proved to be a sell out, with all four stands full and standing tickets released too, with people penned behind the corner flags. That brought the crowd up to about 6000. For someone used to the footballing regulations of no standing being allowed and no alcohol at the ground, it is impossible to see why these rules are still deemed necessary for one group of sports fans (football) but not for others.

Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow
Bar and catering facilities at Scotstoun
The catering facilities at the rugby tonight were far superior to anything you get at football with a choice of drinks, and different stalls giving a range of eating options. Despite bars being sited all around the ground on a Friday night, more people were interested in getting food as you can see from the respective queues above.

Glasgow had a dip in form in the middle of the season this year, but came into this match on a run of eight consecutive victories. It is a strange aspect of club rugby, that during international competitions such as the Rugby World Cup held earlier this year, club games carry on but without the best players being available. This either works as a handicap for some teams or forces them to recruit a bigger squad to give them flexibility. Most other sports suspend other competitions for internationals, maintaining the integrity of the league as a contest.

Despite a sluggish start Glasgow soon got the points ticking over and by half time it was clear that this was going to be a rout. Big Fijian Leone Nakarawa ran in the first of his three tries at the corner with defenders bouncing off of him

Leone Nakarawa scores his first try for Glasgow Warriors v Zebre
Crowd at Scotstoun Stadium
Adam Ashe scored Glasgow's second try and as he did all night Duncan Weir secured the conversion. Weir, like Nakarawa and several other players are moving on to other clubs or retiring at the end of this season. I don't know enough to say if this is just natural churn of players or cost-cutting at Glasgow Warriors. Has their recent success been at a cost they cannot sustain with Glasgow crowds? I don't know.

Tonight they ended up running out 70-10 winners against Zebre, scoring ten tries with a conversion after each one. Getting four tries in the match secures them a bonus point and their chances of winning a home semi-final in the play-offs have improved. All that will be decided next weekend against Connacht..

Glenn Bryce scores Glasgow's third try

All that choice and I settled for chips and gravy
The sun sets on Zebre as Glasgow Warriors stuff them at Scotstoun
I don't know much about rugby but I do know that this was an embarrassingly unequal contest. The two Italian teams propping up the Pro12 league are clearly there by design rather than on merit. Perhaps the one-sided nature of the match drained any drama from this contest, but the sell out crowd seemed quite happy chatting amongst themselves for most of the game and with no obvious cheers for Italian scores there was no travelling support apparent. I didn't need to be au fait with all the rules to follow it, basically 15 big guys have got to push the ball past 15 other big guys and the referee will interrupt it every 30 seconds to get them to all stand up again. It is a sport that can produce great drama, and knife-edge matches but this wasn't one of them. As a sport it doesn't really get my juices going, except when I had the chips and gravy at half time. I walked across the car park to collect my son and his pal from their badminton club at Scotstoun, forgetting that his classmate was one of the people who got the bug for rugby with the taster sessions at school and still trains regularly with Hills at Hughenden.

"What do you like about it?" I asked him.

"It's great when you smash into someone and just wipe them out".

I shall only link to an article about Prof Allyson Pollock's research into childhood injuries in rugby, including six children paralysed in Scotland in as many years playing the sport, and leave you to form your own opinions on that one.

Cost - £30 adult £10 child

Sunday 24 April 2016

Swan Lake, Scottish Ballet. Glasgow. April 2016.

Review - Scottish Ballet. Swan Lake.

Theatre Royal, Glasgow. April 2016

Scottish Ballet have not performed Swan Lake for over 20 years now, and this new production, choreographed by David Dawson, is not like any Swan Lake they have done before. Tchaikovsky's soaring music is as grand and lush as ever, played magnificently by the Scottish Ballet Orchestra, but everything else is stripped back: characters, set, costumes.

Swan Lake, since it was written 140 years ago has been interpreted in many different ways, with the swan scenes as drug induced dream sequences to versions emphasising the suppressed homosexuality of Seigfried. However the classical idea most people have of ballet is the tutu clad ballerinas dancing arm in arm across the stage in the dance of the four swans from Swan Lake. White, feathery, delicate and frequently parodied, never better than by Morecambe and Wise below.

The traditional story of Swan Lake was concocted by Tchaikovsky with elements of various folk tales referenced. Young Prince Seigfried is a dreamer and is not interested in his mother the Queen's matchmaking. When his friend Benno spots a flock of swans flying overhead they head off to hunt them, Seigfried finds himself alone and spying the swans in the moonlight by a lake he sees them as beautiful young women, and he falls in love with the swan princess, Odette. The are held under an enchantment by powerful sorcerer Von Rothbart, sometimes portrayed as an owl, only turning back to feminine form by the light of the moon. The spell can only be broken by true love, and seigfried promises his heart to Odette. Later as his mother presents potential partners to Seigfried, Von Rothbart presents Odile, his daughter, who seduces Seigfried and he betrays Odette. Once he has fallen for Odile (danced by the same performer as Odette) she vanishes, and full of remorse Seigfried rushes to Odette at the lake, who departs with her swans, trapped in their animal form by his betrayal.

By stripping away the rich costumes, the tutus, "the velvets and swags that dictate so much about how we see Swan Lake" David Dawson focuses on the dancing and the love story at the centre of the ballet. Empty grey sets designed by John Otto, simple t-shirts and wrap-around skirts in muted colours for the dancers in the opening scene take us away from the world of a royal court. Seigfried is a contemporary everyman, who doesn't join in the backslapping bonhomie of his friends. More surprises are in store in the second scene, where the lake is barely present, a luminous arc in the background and the "swans" are dressed by Yumiko Takeshima in grey and flesh-toned costumes with the mere shadow of wings on their back. The swans are no longer delicate cygnets bowing their heads in deference, but a strong, physical, animal presence. Their outstretched arms and cocked wrists creating the silhouette of the type of swan that you are warned can break your arm with their powerful wings. None is more forceful than the small muscular frame of Sophie Martin as Odette. There is no fire in the coming together of Odette and Seigfried in the second scene. Theirs is a romantic ideal, sealed with a love token given by Odette to Seigfried.

The whole ballet really comes to life in the second half. As the suitors vainly dance to attract Seigfried's attention the black clad Odile arrives and steals the show. Sophie Martin's dancing here makes it entirely clear why this real live person steals his heart from the ideal of Odette. With her four henchmen reminding me of the masked sidekicks of Burgess Meredith's Penguin from the old Batman TV series, Benno tries to warn his friend not to fall for her charms. She is obviously not their type of woman, but Benno's warnings are to no avail. When he gives his love to Odile, she vanishes and full of remorse he rushes back to Odette. Their pas de deux at the end is beautiful, physical and almost sculptural. this Odette is no swan trapped under a spell, but an independent soul he leaves him, never to return because of his betrayal.

Initially I was pining for the frills and velvet that the music evokes, but the simpler story of love and betrayal that they tell had caught me by the end. At times the costumes are a bit too minimalist for the story, making it look like a Muji fashion shoot. The swans can appear more like a team of synchronised swimmers than ballerinas in their flesh toned leotards at times.

Years ago when I visited St Petersburg we went to the park which gave Tchaikovsky the inspiration for Swan Lake. The non-descript pond he sat beside, that became the setting for the story he created, makes Bingham's Pond in Glasgow look like an exotic lagoon. From such a simple reality he created a soaring score. Here they have taken a soaring story and boiled it down to a simple story of love and betrayal. The music was glorious and the dancing was fantastic, but I am not sure that it really portrays "Swan Lake" as Morecambe and Wise (and me) would recognise it. 

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Glasgow Spectator Sports Part 3. Basketball.

It is 18 months now since the 2014 Commonwealth Games finished in Glasgow. By most accounts the games were a spectacular success, with all of the sports on display getting great crowds attending from Glaswegians. At any sporting event now it seems obligatory to talk of what "legacy" the games have left behind, there is even a Legacy 2014 website extolling all the benefits the games brought to the city. Did it encourage people to be more active, seek out new sports to watch or participate in? I'm not sure.

During the games I certainly went to see sports that I had never paid to watch before, but realise that, by and large, my spectating has largely fallen back to following Partick Thistle week in week out. My children still enjoy going to their assorted badminton, athletics and swimming clubs but we have not been spectators at any of these sports in the city since the games. The football league having a weekend break for the international matches meant that I was looking for other entertainment recently. This made me think about what other sporting excitement people of Glasgow find in their spare time, so I will try a few different sports and see if there is anywhere in town that can match Firhill for thrills.

Last week I took my children to the ice hockey. Then we tried speedway and greyhounds. This weekend with Partick Thistle out of action due to the Scottish Cup semi-finals we ended up watching basketball.

Glasgow Rocks Basketball

Basketball is one of the world's most popular and widely viewed sports. Living in Britain it is hard to really see that, as it has made no inroads into the national consciousness. The game was devised in the 1890's in the USA and it is there that it is at its peak. However it is surprisingly popular in much of Europe. Many of the top European basketball clubs are part of multi-sport clubs, with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona playing against CSKA Moscow, Panathinaikos Athens and Olympiacos in the Euroleague. Greece would not be the country that you would automatically think of as one of the world's basketball superpowers, but they are acknowledged as one of top international powers. This was brought home to me when I arrived at Thessaloniki airport one summer, in northern Greece, at the same time as a new signing for one of the local teams was arriving. Huge crowds were waiting to greet him at the airport as I got off of my flight, as my friends meeting me there excitedly told me. You would not expect to see that at Glasgow airport for a basketball player. 

When I was younger if you were outside playing playing with your friends, it was usually at football or football, but football no longer holds that monopoly on people's leisure time. A wee pitch near my house in Partick is kitted out with football goals and basketball hoops. In the morning you may see a few younger kids playing football, but most of the time the pitch is hogged by groups of older youths playing basketball, both overseas students and locals. They've got all the gear on as well, the big baggy shorts and the club vests.

Basketball in Partick
Professional basketball in the UK is organised by the British Basketball League (or BBL), formed in 1988. Twelve teams make up the current BBL Championship league, with no relegation or promotion to other tiers. There also exists the Scottish Men's National League.

The league runs from September to April, with teams playing 33 games. After this the top eight teams enter the knock-out play-offs to decide the champion. Matches consist of four 10 minute quarters, and overtime played if the teams are tied at full time. 

The only Scottish team in the UK league are the Glasgow Rocks. Originally called the Edinburgh Rocks, they were formed in 1998 and were based at Meadowbank Arena. After four years as an Edinburgh team, they moved to Braehead Arena as the Scottish Rocks. Six years later they were on the move again, playing their home matches within Kelvin Hall. The last time that I came to see them must have been about 7 years ago, as I occasionally brought the kids to see them at the Kelvin Hall, as it was easy for us to get to.

With a deal between the team and Glasgow City Council they were renamed the Glasgow Rocks for the 2009/10 season and in 2012 they moved to their current home in the newly built Emirates Arena, in the east end of the city. This arena has one of the biggest crowd capacities in the league at 6,500 if the main hall is used for matches, although usually a side hall is all that is required. 

The match that we have pitched up at is the last match of the regular season, Glasgow Rocks against Worcester Wolves. It is a bit of a dead rubber, with the play off qualifiers already decided. In fact the next two matches Glasgow will play after today's game are home and away ties against....Worcester Wolves. 

One problem I have had with basketball is that you do seem to be unusually tall to have any chance of success in it competitively. As an average sized Glaswegian, this makes me feel that it is not a sport for normal folk like me. My presumption was that the team would be made up of gargantuan journeymen from around the world. However a surprising proportion of the squad are actually Scottish, with one (Jonny Bunyan) even being under 6 foot tall. At the other end of the spectrum is 6 foot 10 inch tall, Stirling born Kieron Achara. Club captain and UK team co-captain, he is certainly the one that the fans look up to, as he was awarded the "most valuable player" of the season before the match started tonight.

Before taking our seats in the Emirates Arena I got my daughter a big foam finger and for me a beer. Unfortunately it was just a bottle of Budweiser poured into a plastic cup, but as we are deemed too uncivilised to be able to manage beer at football matches, I always find it odd when it is an option and feel obliged to partake.

After the obligatory cheerleaders waved their silver pom-poms about a bit, we are entertained with a medley of naff snippets from the film Braveheart mixed amongst the intro music. Finally the match is off and running. By its nature basketball is high scoring and end to end stuff. It is more physical than the non-contact sport we occasionally got offered in school PE.

Rocks vs Wolves
The scores ticked over and the players swapped around a fair bit. I am guessing that getting game time for everyone was as important as anything else in this game, before the teams face each other again in the play-off quarter finals next week. Worcester have had the advantage over the Rocks in the regular season so far. I'm not entirely up on all the rules of basketball, but the referee tonight did seem particularly picky in some of his decisions, making a stop/start sport just a bit more stop/start than it needed to be.
Glasgow Rocks vs Worcester Wolves at the Emirates Arena
I tend to find sports with a selection of short musical stings and sound effects trying to generate an atmosphere a bit grinding, but I guess it is part of the basketball thing. Also the co-ordination of the chanting from the PA tends to make me want to clam up and rebel. However plenty of the people around me were happy to join in the calls of "DEFENCE- DEFENCE -DEFENCE" making up for my reticence. In the breaks between the quarters of the match a variety of child-friendly entertainments took place on the court, with children and families being a big part of the audience.

Things were evenly poised at the end of the third quarter, but in the last 10 minutes the Rocks pulled away to take the match 80-69. Things will be different next Friday night when the game will have to be a bit more competitive, with the scores of the home and away legs being put together to decide who goes forward to the next stage. Tonight we were happy to have been supporting the winning team and wandered home. As we spilled out onto London Road opposite Celtic Park at the end of the match, we were instantly reminded of the sporting clash in the city that had drawn bigger crowds to Hampden earlier that day. As we walked to Bridgeton train station I decided to confiscate my daughter's big blue and white foam hand and shove it up my jumper to avoid being mistaken for celebrating Rangers fans.

Despite being completely bemused by what I was doing with her souvenir of the match, my daughter enjoyed her trip to the basketball. I was a bit underwhelmed by it as a sporting spectacle. It is definitely a sport you see more people playing than ever before in Glasgow, but that hasn't translated into a seething mass of excited youths storming down the doors to see the Rocks play. At the moment the youths playing basketball in Partick are still sporting the colours of the Chicago Bulls and the LA Lakers. 

Price - Adult £11, child £6, family ticket (two adults, two children) £30