Word of foot

multi-coloured polka dot thing that looks like a ball with green grass and trees and a blue sky behind

Immigration enriches a place, refreshes it, reminds a culture of its own neglected parts.

Things people used to do but don’t anymore.

Street football, street food, hanging around street corners.

Remember that was us? Immigration brings us closer to home.

Kids from Romania, Kurdistan and Somalia playing football on the basketball court in the park, just as we did when we were young, a Mitre 5 or a plastic job from the corner shop, black sannies or a pair of your granny’s wellies.

Sacred working-class knowledge passed down through word of foot.

We always played football, especially as adults, a game with the brothers every Saturday in the park, whatever the weather and whatever the hangover, then back to the cluttered house swirling in smoke with the endless stream of visitors and friends, relatives and neighbours, the hiss of beer cans opening and voices raised in drunken discussions about politics or Celtic and dad shouting at us to keep it down.

And now a fool like me is kicking a ball around with kids at the end of my street.

The global language of keepie-uppie, noble pastime, a pastime straight from the gods.

An Iraqi boy, fourteen, good player.

Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, head, chest, both knees, even that catching it on the back of the neck thing which always annoys me because you can never do that in a game but I let it go man, he’s only fourteen.

Then he passes to me – what, with my hamstrings? – and a clown’s hooter sounds or a comedy trombone starts up as I stumble and flap in mid-air and the ball bounces from my face to a car bonnet and out to the main road and as I run to retrieve it I’m nine years old again, a bus driver beeping his horn and shaking his fist, me giving him a cheeky wee wave. Hope he doesn’t call the fuzz.

So cheers Kurdistan, Romania and Somalia, for reminders of the old city, city that’s always changing but where a good first touch always remains.

We belong to Glasgow.

Drink, smoke, football, die. That’s what we do.



Govanhill stories: Total football in Torrisdale Street

A football pitch at an angle on the side of a hill

Every kid dreams of playing for Celtic. I know you did.

That strip, that stadium, those floodlights.

We lived on football, you and I.

Chasing a ball around city open spaces, Pirrie Park, Dawsholm, Tollcross, Kelvingrove. School playgrounds, red ash, black ash, slide tackles, broken glass.

A corner of green fenced off, maybe a swing park, a grassy verge, a grassy knoll. Long kicks, heady kicks, three and in, seven-by. A five-elevener or a ten twenty-oner.

We used to hang around hoping to join in the older boys’ games and even at that age you were always the best player on the park. So relaxed it was like you had your hands in your pockets. It’s like you were born old.

The kids in my backcourt dream of playing for Celtic too, I can tell.

I look out at them from the kitchen window. Concrete grass and uneven slabs, washing line and rubbish bags, goal posts marked out on the fence.

These kids play the game the right way, the Celtic way, so the ball never goes above head height and there’s never a window broken. Total football next to the bin sheds. Every player comfortable in every position, from the boy wearing his maw’s shoes to the wee lassie pretending she’s a commentator.

You were some player, it’s true. A swivel of the hips, outside of the left foot, a forward pass into the penalty box. You made it look so easy.

Remember you were signed by the boys’ club after playing for the school team and hitting four goals in a semi-final, one direct from a corner? The ref made you retake it and you still scored.

After the age of 14 we never played with you again because the club didn’t want you to get injured. We couldn’t believe it when you got a passport at 15 and started going to cities all over Europe. Rotterdam, Dusseldorf, Valencia.

Man, these kids in the backcourt are loud. League winners, quadruple treblers, European champions of noise. Even two floors up and at the other end of the flat, with the creaking and the groaning and the coughing, it’s still all I can hear.

But you got injured, didn’t you, had to give up playing when you were 16. Broke your ankle during a game, no one even near you, just fell awkwardly running for the ball and that was it. From the only thing you knew, to nothing at all.

I didn’t see you for a while after the doctor said you’d never be able to run again. But I remember meeting you in the street one day and I knew something had changed. You had a black eye too and I asked what happened but you said you didn’t want to talk about it.

Wonder where you are now. Wonder if you’re in a flat just like mine, where things stay the same and what’s broken isn’t replaced.

Maybe the kids in your backcourt are just like mine too. A drag back here, a stepover there, nutmegs, lollipops, hand stands, head spins.

Maybe you’re watching telly, the same BBC4 documentary I’m watching right now, the one with the ponytailed asshole playing guitar in a recording studio. Maybe he has to turn it up to eleven because of the noise from the kids outside.

So cheers, backcourt kickabout weans.

Cheers you, for showing us how to play.

And cheers, total football in Torrisdale Street.

67 Lisbon Street

Govanhill has cathedrals and temples and synagogues and mosques, and McNeill’s bar on Torrisdale Street.

The original address here was 67 Lisbon Street, though I might have just made that up.

Might not look like much from outside, but worshippers across the world know Billy McNeill.

Captain of the most charismatic football team in Europe, revered across the continent for their immortal manager and the verve and skill of the players.

Cesar and his mates, our greatest heroes, old men forever young.

The European glory nights. Your Duklas of Prague, your Partizans of Tirana, your Red Stars of Belgrade.

The singing and the floodlights and the stadium so crowded your feet don’t touch the ground.

St Etienne, Grasshoppers, Benfica-ca-ca.

And Internazionale, the best night of our lives, though we weren’t even born.

The players singing in the tunnel, the captain leading out the team, the goalie’s false teeth.

The swashbuckling midfielders, the dazzling wee winger, the left back who scored in two European Cup finals.

And that green and white outfit. Historical masterpiece, timeless classic.

Bet you wish your side dressed like that.

You think back to those old TV pictures.

Every game you watch takes you back there.

Your mothers and fathers and ancestors are all there too. The collective memory, a past you can believe in, the love of the people, summoned from inside and coursing through you to those players on that pitch.

So cheers, Billy. And one for yourself, please.