One of my first memories is coming down the slide at my nursery school in Edinburgh. I was maybe three or four and I was definitely wearing an orange pinafore and matching hairband, of which I was very proud. I was confronted at the bottom of the slide by a small knot of scary boys who pulled me to one side, encircled me and demanded menacingly ‘are ye Hearts or Hibs?’. It was as if they were speaking a foreign language, I had not the slightest inkling of what they were talking. I remember trying to say I didn’t know, I couldn’t choose. I was scared and nervous as instinctively I must have registered the importance of the question to the questioners. Eventually I think I half-heartedly plumped for ‘Hearts’, it being the only word I recognised, whereupon several of the small inquisitors threw up their hands in despair and walked off in a huff. It was not for another thirty years or so, when I recounted the tale to my husband, that it was explained to me that this was about football and the intensity with which (some) small boys (and girls) approach it. Perhaps the boys in my nursery school thought I had shown some slight promise as someone who could be recruited into the ranks of the Heart of Midlothian or Hibernian supporters, but my evident lack of partisanship made me a disappointing potential ally and I was thereafter left to my own devices by them.
Forty years on, I am living in Manchester, with two devoted football fans of my own in the shape of my sons and one daughter who also anchors memories by remembering not always what happened, or where, but by what she was wearing at the time. ‘Was that the time I wore my yellow summer dress?’ she asked recently, as I reminded her about a wedding we attended when she was four. ‘Ah yes, the butterfly leggings…’ she mused, when discussing a trip to London.
Being in Manchester, of course, means that many of the local children are either avowed Manchester City fans, or Manchester United fans and the rivalry appears to start young and hold fast. My younger son, now aged eight, plumped for City at a very young age to follow his older brother with the helpful coincidence of it being a bit of a purple patch for the Club, so that ‘his’ team were amongst the most successful. He identifies so strongly with the team that he is genuinely and wholeheartedly distraught when they do not perform to his exacting standards and roams around the house randomly kicking sofas and sulking at a draw, let alone a loss. It is not enough, either, that his team succeeds – his enemy must fail and United’s losses are greeted with dances of delight.
A recent school trip to visit the local Old Trafford ground was met with jutting jaw and disgusted silence. Unprecedentedly, the school trip spending money I had pressed into his warm palm in the playground in the morning was returned to me, unspent, in the afternoon. He just couldn’t bring himself to buy anything with United on it, he explained. Not even the sweets. Even a few of the parents appeared to feel the same, with ill-tempered mutterings in the playground about the kids being ‘indoctrinated’ into United, how it wasn’t fair to make City fans go to the home of their fiercest rivals.
I can’t help feeling, in this week of pondering what it means to be British, that the business of football supporting is all, well, a bit un-British. Aren’t we supposed to be famous for supporting the underdog? For coping manfully with defeat after defeat, supportively cheering on our hapless, hopeless teams in the rain and wind and snow, with nothing but a pie and a pint to look forward to? Or does that only apply to our most local teams, or our national team, or our children’s teams? What I see, as someone on the periphery of football fandom in Manchester, is a state of the art stadium, shiny, expensive, mostly foreign players and vastly overpriced shirts and accessories without which a small fan’s life simply isn’t worth living. The live City games – yes, I have been to two now – are undeniably exciting, gladiatorial affairs which I have enjoyed immensely, not least because City won and I did not have to contend with the profound disappointment of my sons on the way home. When I talk to my sons about those matches, they can recall in great detail who scored, from which end and in what minute, who assisted the goals, who was substituted for whom. I remember the chanting and cheering, the feeling of being part of something huge and exciting and watching my children’s flushed, excited cheeks. My daughter remembers that she wore her black wool coat, her fluffy white scarf and the earmuffs she got for Christmas. And that it was fun.
I have really not intentionally encouraged or facilitated my children into such stereotypical roles, but I cannot deny that they fall into them pretty neatly. On the subject of supporting a team, my daughter certainly does appear to feel a degree of disappointment if, say, someone she wants to win on a TV programme is not triumphant. There is, however, a world of difference between her temporary, mild upset expostulating some unfair bias amongst the judging panel of Strictly or Tumble and the existential despair which comes over my younger son when City lose. My older son does not appear to feel quite the depth of despair of his younger brother, so maybe it is something which can be grown out of (although when I see the obligatory Match of the Day shot of men crying in the stands when their team gets relegated at the end of a season, I somehow doubt it.)
I wonder if those small Edinburgh boys are still in their separate Hearts and Hibs camps now that they must be, like me, in their mid-forties? I feel sure that they are: a true fan stays true after all. What I don’t know, though, is whether they will be in the Yes or No camp for the Referendum. Are they going to vote to make me a foreigner in the country I was born in, where my mother was born and died, where my father and sister live, just as they once ignored me for my lack of allegiance to Hibs? I hope not. All I know is that I feel fifty per cent English, fifty per cent Scottish, one hundred per cent British and zero per cent Hearts, Hibs, City or United.