A Wee Piece of Hampden Here in Leith
To paraphrase the famously dull but accurate Times headline, "Small Earthquake in Chile; Not Many Dead", the reports of the Scottish Cup Final last weekend could have read: "Small Riot at Hampden, Not Many Hurt."
In fact they didn't. The Sunday morning newsstands were devoted to 20 point outrage, with the Sunday Mail alone in having a positive headline "Glory, Glory": although Monday's Evening News aced it with "They Claimed It." The TV and radio took the same approach with sports coverage jettisoned in favour of bad news reporting.
A trip to the garage on Sunday morning left me scratching my head. The Sunday Times Scotland sport section had three separate articles all about the pitch invasion, all of which read as if they could have been churned out in the office without the bother of going to Hampden. There was virtually nothing about the actual game.
Like others residing within spitting distance of the port of Leith, I am increasingly sickened by the over the top, sanctimonious hand-wringing response to the pitch invasion that followed Hibs historic victory on Saturday afternoon, the call for inquiries, sackings and heads to roll. It reminds me that at its worst, Scotland can be a prissy, pettifogging little country.
To compare what happened in the few minutes immediately after the final whistle to the football violence of the 1980s strikes me as ludicrous. There has not been a pitch invasion in Scotland for 30 years but they have happened south of the border. It often seems to happen when a small club overreaches itself and creates an extraordinary and unstoppable surge of elation.
Arguably there may have been a moment on Saturday afternoon, when the pitch invasion could have been averted. I wasn't there personally but I have been conducting interviews with eyewitnesses who were at the scene.
Many of those who found themselves on the pitch were otherwise blameless citizens of unimpeachable respectability, including one acquaintance who showed me the little piece of turf he brought home. (I think he may have been given it by another fan who felt he had taken too much). Herald writer Robert McNeill's description of Hibs fans "singing rough songs while copies of Somerset Maugham novels fall from their corduroy jacket pockets" has an element of truth.
One of my informants said that the police were as surprised by the last minute goal as anyone else; and that ten minutes before the end, Rangers were in the lead so the police had moved towards their end.
But as the final whistle went, the crowd began to push towards the pitch. When a crowd surges, it is very difficult to stop safely. It can't be dammed without risk of injury to those at the front. One of my eye-witnesses said that he was very glad the gates to the pitch were opened immediately because he felt himself being pressed towards the barriers in a way that seemed dangerous and alarming. Along with thousands of fellow fans, those caught up at the front poured onto the grass. At times like these, you have to go with the flow.
"It was jubilation, not aggression," a friend said. The vast majority of fans were overwhelmed with delight. Grown men were greeting, thinking about how their fathers and grandfathers would have reacted. It was a moment when men felt touched by history and ghosts walked.
On the pitch there was definitely some men behaving badly. Things got a bit "Leithy" as someone put it. There are innumerable videos of what happened available to watch on YouTube. There was a lot of bad language, although it seems to have been remarkably free of sectarian content. There was definitely goading of Rangers fans. Some of what was described as "assault' appear to have been spitting, which while totally unacceptable is at the minor end of violence. Was anyone taken to hospital? I haven't seen any report of injuries requiring treatment. The turf was damaged and so were the goalposts but they are easily replaced. We should remember that it could all have been so much worse.
You can see from the videos that when the mounted police came into the affray the fans allowed themselves to be ushered back into their end pretty easily. In fact, the police apparently got a round of applause at that point, one eyewitness told me, to acknowledge what was in fact an impressive and skillfully-executed herding effort. One particular policeman, central to the operation and dressed all in black, was described as "a ringer for that big silverback out of Gorillas in the Mist".
Once back in the stands, thousands of Hibees joined in an affecting mass singing of "Sunshine on Leith". It was a beautiful moment and it will be remembered.