A Scottish Football Safari
by Gary Sutherland
Birlinn, £7.99
Reviewed by Archie MacGregor
From WSC 262 December 2008 

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With bookshelves groaning under the weight of companion guides on every subject from Slovakian folk music to Carry On... movies these days, why not a travelogue about Scottish football grounds? It appears to have several of the essential ingredients – a hint of the exotic (how many of us have ever contemplated a day trip to Peterhead?), a touch of the reassuringly familiar (match-day catering nightmares) and a couple of dastardly panto villains to provide a common point of reference (the Old Firm).

Gary Sutherland’s rain- and wind-lashed 42-game odyssey across the game’s citadels and forlorn outposts in Scotland certainly carries the promise of a memorable tale or two, but also has to negotiate a number of pitfalls. The first of these is that it’s been done before. David Bennie, who penned the well received Not Playing for Celtic in 1995, churned out a follow up on life on the road for the ground-hungry supporter, the aptly titled A Season In Hell, a couple of years later. It was a darkly comic, stream-of-consciousness epic and set the bar at a dauntingly high level for anyone else stepping into the genre.

Sutherland opts for a lighter and more methodical approach, with each chapter broken down into a quick dip into the club’s history, travel and pub guides, stadium notes, pie reviews, some musings on the game in question and the match atmosphere. With plenty of pithy one-liners to hand it moves along at a decent pace and is certainly a good deal more digestible than most of the half-time refreshments Sutherland encounters.

Having gone for this format, however, the book finds itself in a George Burley-style tactical straitjacket. In a nutshell, is there anything remotely interesting about the aforementioned topics when applied to most clubs? There are probably only a handful of Scottish football towns that anyone in their right mind would make a conscious decision to visit apart from out of fixture-list necessity. Some of the descriptions of the pies on offer are also enough to convert most raving ­carnivores to quorn and tofu.

The most obviously avoidable cul de sac, however, is Sutherland’s commentary on the songs and chants heard at each ground. Where once there was sometimes an element of wit in terrace adaptations of popular ditties, repeatedly observing that few, if any, fans can nowadays muster anything beyond a monotonous proclamation of hatred for their local rivals really is a waste of space.

Perhaps the redeeming feature of the book is that, while a journey to a Scottish ground is more often than not a time-consuming and ultimately grim experience, there is always the faint prospect of some inspired lunacy coming along when least expected. Whether it’s the ironic greeting at Albion Rovers’ decrepit Cliftonhill stadium – “Welcome to the San Siro” – or the PA man at Stair Park, Stranraer, forgetting to turn off his mic during the second half and urging the ref to blow up for full time over the tannoy as the home side struggle to hold on to a lead, the madness is infectious. It just might even be enough to persuade you to try to go to Peterhead.

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