If you asked me the cause of my addiction to football – evident in my readiness to watch a game anywhere from the local school pitches to the most obscure website for Bulgarian League matches – I would have to answer, “Because I played it.” This statement requires qualification: I played it as a child, teenager and young adult only; I played it badly; I played it with a heavy leather ball on gravel pitches which meant that a fall on the ground could remove the skin from exposed bodily surfaces; and I had to rely on referees whose commitment to sturdy bodily contact permitted violent assaults on the most tender of organs. I don’t think my testicles dared to descend into the war zone until I was 19 and a half.
Above all however, I played it in the football boots of the 1950’s. These were masterpieces of heavy leather with huge reinforced toecaps, designed to control opposing players rather than the ball. It was like playing the violin gloves on. No matter how much I admired Stanley Matthews, Gordon Smith or Willie Bauld, as long as I was wearing these boots, I was doomed to imitate Willie Woodburn, suspended sine die by the SFA in 1954 for “indiscipline”. Don’t whistle at me, I told the referee, whistle at the boots.
(On one occasion Woodburn came off the pitch and said to his manager, “Boss, I think I’ve got a broken leg.”
“Dearie me,” said the manager, “And whose is it?”)
But that makes me sound tougher than I was. Because I went to a rugby- playing school, my first experience of team football, apart from the street, was with the Life Boys, the junior branch of the Boys Brigade, from which I graduated age 12 to the Brigade. At that time the BB football league in Glasgow operated on the principle that the total age of a team should not exceed 158 years, which meant that if you wanted to include a 17 year old you had also to include a 12 year old. Nothing wrong with that you may say, but it meant that my 12 year old self had to face huge and sometimes skilful young adults bearing down on me with extreme prejudice.
I owed my immediate promotion into the team not to my skill but to my perfect qualifications for the unpopular left back position:
a) I could kick with my left foot
b) I had no attributes that would make me useful in any other position.
It’s reasonable to describe my performance in my first two games as execrable, and what’s more I knew it. Spotting my difficulties and my shame, the coach asked me what my problem was. “They’re bigger than me,” I told him, “And better.” He listened, went silent and then spoke, “Never mind son,” he said, “They’re playin’ wi’ the same baw!”
This hit me with the force of a revelation. The same baw! Forget their size and skill, and focus on the ball. Forget their height and strength, just look at that ball and aim for it. I became a relentless tackler, and won it often enough to realise that when I got it I’d no idea what to do with it. Still, all those kids who could dribble and pass were playing with the same baw. I could learn how to do the same. And slowly, I did.
Perhaps that’s the reason why, although I’m built big, my favourite footballers are small, from Jimmy Johnstone to Luka Modric, because their focus on the ball has more than compensated for their size. It may also explain why I refused to support either of the Glasgow biggies and gave my heart to the late lamented Third Lanark.
Of course, the coach’s words were not only a revelation about football, but also about faith. My Christianity is based on love of Jesus and the challenge of becoming like him. Salvation, sanctification, justification, are just so much mystification as far as I’m concerned. For me what matters is the historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the gospel call to be like him. Meaning to be like him in his love of God, his championing of the poor, the sinner, the outcast, while offering affectionate honesty to the rich, the righteous and the establishment; his astonishing openness to whomsoever encountered him; his readiness to pour out his life, generously, joyfully, completely.
But, “to be like him” – isn’t that a destination too far for a grubby, selfish, greedy, lying git like me? How can I have the impertinence to demean the character of the son of God, by saying I want to be like him? It’s a bit like me at the age of nine announcing I wanted to be like Ferenc Puskas because I’d seen him play at Hampden.
But the coach’s wisdom applies here also. “Never mind son,”he would say, “Jesus was playing wi’ the same baw.” And that’s true, because in spite of the repeated mess the Christian Church has made of his nature, Jesus was a human being. Like me. Like you. Like Lionel Messi. He was playing with the same baw, namely, his human self, and on the same pitch, namely, this world. If he could do it, I can do it, my neighbour can do it, even Donald Trump can do it. And if, however hard I try, I don’t get there, I don’t need to worry about displeasing God, since Jesus taught that God is delighted with his children, regardless.
As Third Lanark supporters always knew, it isn’t winning that counts, it’s the faith that you might. As they used to ask,
”Why are Third Lanark players planting potatoes round the edge of the pitch?”
”So that they have something to lift at the end of the season!”