Mention the words “Tartan Army” to pretty much any football supporter, not just from the British Isles but anywhere in the world, over the age of 30 and it will instantaneously conjure up certain memories and images. Of the “well-refreshed (or “blootered” to use the appropriate colloquialism!) hordes”, that used to descend on Wembley on a bi-annual basis in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, who upon winning there for the first time in ten years invaded the pitch en masse and snapped the crossbar of one of the goals with their exuberance.
Of being the only home nation qualifiers for the World Cups of 74 and 78, of the brave, or indeed completely mad, football pilgrims who made their way to Argentina via New York via bizarre combinations of planes, trains, ferries and hitch-hiking in automobiles. Of manager Ally MacLeod and his oft misquoted assertion that he felt his squad was good enough to “win a medal of some sort”, who despite beating revered Total Football geniuses Holland still came home with their tail firmly between their legs.
Of more recent times and losing to Costa Rica at Italia 90, of McAllister’s penalty saved by Seaman and Gazza’s bitterly cruel genius. Of Paris in 98 when they so nearly matched reigning World Champions Brazil and almost stifled the genius of the original Ronaldo. Also alas of not having graced a finals tournament since France.
For a few years now Mrs Football Nerd and I have counted as one of our closest drinking partners a founder member of the Tartan Army, Sandy, who has regaled us for hours and over many pints with his tales of adventure on his travels following his beloved Scotland team all around the world. As a result when an opportunity arose to join him and his compatriots on a trip to Cyprus with the additional bonus of some autumnal sunshine how could we possibly say no?
As tends to be the way with these kinds of trips the schedule and most cost-effective means of travel demanded an overnight stay at Stansted in order to give us sufficient time to make our early flight. What surprised us the most was the sheer number of Scots that we encountered despite the fact that we were travelling from Essex and not Glasgow. While many had flown down from Scotland as a cheaper route, a significant proportion were clearly based in the South East of England or indeed, and whisper it quietly, actually English! Despite the lack of genuine success on the pitch it seems the reach of the Tartan Army is as broad as ever.
Upon arrival in Paphos we checked into our hotel, dumped our bags in the room and then set about identifying a suitable rendez-vous point to catch up with Sandy, his long-standing travelling partner of nearly forty years, Drew (or ‘Father’ as he is affectionately referred to due to his usual acceptance of responsibility for the kitty and outstanding organisational skills) and the rest of their party. We need not have concerned ourselves however as in stereotypical fashion the Scotsmen had already set up camp in Tommy’s Jungle bar immediately next door!
An evening of beer, wine, food and the odd ouzo helped us all ‘acclimatise’ and start the pre-match festivities. Given that the match was still two full days away, it soon became evident that to do it properly, at least according to Tartan Army guidance, requires more than just a couple of hours before kick-off!
After two more days of sunshine, some sightseeing and who-knows-how-many rounds of drinks, matchday came around. Bright (well as bright as one can be after two days of drinking with the Army!) and early on Saturday we boarded the buses for the two hour drive to Nicosia where the game was taking place. It has to be said that there was a lot less faffing and general loudness than anyone who has ever been on a football-focused awayday would be used to, it seemed most of us were recovering from the previous evening/ keeping our powder dry until arrival. ‘Fortunately’ for Father he was sitting next to an old acquaintance who kept the conversation going for the entire journey while the rest of us adopted the sunglasses on and dozing approach.
Upon arrival in Nicosia we did what all self-respecting football tourists do the world over and set about sightseeing and absorbing the local culture, which consisted of plonking ourselves outside the first half-decent looking bar we came across and enjoying a few rounds of the local brew.
As time whiled away in leisurely fashion we were joined by an increasingly eclectic mix of associates of Father and Sandy, many of whom sounded even less Scottish than the missus and I, all drawn to following Scotland not as a result of the expectation of any kind of success but simply for the enjoyment of doing so and of catching up with old friends. It was such a refreshing change for those of us more used to the overtly yobbish attitude of following English club sides or the national team.
One of the characters we encountered was the (in)famous Ronnie McDevitt: Tartan Army legend, author of several books on Scottish football and something of a cult-hero of Mrs Football Nerd’s and mine. Having alas left my copy of his latest work ‘Scotland in the 70’s: The Definitive Account of the Scotland Football Team 1970-79’ back in Paphos, I had to settle for a photo and a brief chat. During our time at the bar the technology-connected Father managed to place a bet on the outcome of the game, much to the amusement of the rest of us he remained utterly convinced that he was in line for a tidy £50 payout as Scotland were going to win and McGinn was going to score.
Almost before we knew it, it was time to get back on the coaches and head up towards the ground, not before we indulged in the longstanding Scottish tradition of grabbing ‘a wee carry-oot’ from the nearest purveyor of alcoholic refreshments. Amazingly to those of us of an English persuasion, after just one request from the travel club organiser not a single can or bottle was opened on the way to the stadium. The only alcohol related incident coming as a result of our driver standing on his brakes at a junction and sending the amassed supplies into disarray prompting cries from the back as to “who was drinking what?” and a bit of a scramble to make sure everyone got what they had purchased.
As we de-bused and set about establishing our own temporary fanzone in the car park those of us without tickets, which amazingly was many hundreds more than just the missus and I, set off to try and secure our entry. Our first point of call was a steward who to our astonishment advised us in broad Glaswegian that tickets were supposedly only available to home supporters in the main stand but the Cypriots seemed happy to sell them to anyone. After a slight false start in which we endeavoured to purchase tickets without having first become members of the Cyprus FA, a small obstacle easily overcome by a ten minute wait in a queue, a photo and a newly minted ID card for just €3, we were in business and everyone who needed a ticket got one for the princely sum of just €10.
Through the turnstiles we decided our endeavours merited a refreshing pint which was procured easily enough. It was only upon taking the first few sips that Mrs Football Nerd’s alarm bells rang loudly and the chilling realisation dawned that it was in fact alcohol-free! What were they trying to do, poison the Tartan Army?
Once we headed inside it soon became apparent that ‘Scottish supporters’ (read: anyone with any vague connection to Scotland, whether by heritage, association or simple curiosity) vastly outnumbered those identifying with the home side. There must have been an additional 500 to 1000 on top of the official travelling party of 3000, simply unbelievable for a trip that would have no bearing whatsoever on potential qualification for Euro 2020.
Early on Cyprus rattled the crossbar and as the ball bounced downwards it looked to even the most ardent of Scotland fans that it had crossed the line, thankfully it seems goal-line technology was not being utilised in these circumstances. Spurred on by that let-off Scotland took the lead when Christie curled home with just twelve minutes gone and went into the break a goal up, so far so good.
The hosts however equalised just two minutes into the second half somewhat taking the wind out of the sails of the majority of the crowd. However cometh the hour of Father’s betting need cometh the saviour that is McGinn who put our adopted side back in the lead just before the hour mark. To say Scotland held firm for the rest of the match and saw it out comfortably would be a vast exaggeration, but they held on despite mounting Cyprus pressure and we departed for the buses and back to Paphos in even better spirits than we had been all day. Helped of course by the missus’ stashed bottle of J&B and the hope that Father might buy us all a pint out of his winnings.
The following morning Mrs Football Nerd and I had to leave our friends from the Tartan Army, both old and new, behind but not of course before we had had a wee drink, as Father says it would have been rude not to! In the modern football world where money and commercial greed continue to erode the very essence and soul of being a football supporter, it was incredibly refreshing to spend a few days with fans who follow their team all over the world simply because that is what they always have done and will forever continue to do.