Anyone But England: English Football Fans in Scotland

It wasn’t so long ago when the English felt free to mock inhabitants of Her Majesty’s erstwhile and remaining possessions(start at 2m 16 secs)…

..and going further back still, most early histories of the Football Association refer to Scottish professional players in alienating terms: they were foreigners, come from outside to take the shilling and pollute the holy amateur game of England.

Those Edwardians angry at the incomers were administrators and (a few) journalists. There’s no hint that the Preston or Blackburn or Villa fan at the turnstile minded their Scottish players at all. And one hundred years on, I don’t even want to contemplate what the Football League would have lost had it not enjoyed Nevin, Dalglish, Law, Alex James and what must be thousands of others.

Some Scottish fans will know how hard many English find it, to feel how they’d like to feel about the Premier League and the England national team. “Is Wayne Rooney England’s only likeable player?” asks Football 365. “Anyone But England” has never hurt less than it does now. What might have been an insult of real force – when an England team could contain a Charlton brother, a Brooking, a Mick Mills or a Gordon Banks – now sounds, in the era of Cole, Terry, and Ferdinand, no more than a sound but slightly exaggerated opinion that many disillusioned Englanders quietly share.

“Anyone But England” isn’t, of course, anything to do with the rise and fall of the England moral barometer. Neither is it reciprocated. There are a few English fans who become exasperated enough by ABE to stop actively supporting Scotland’s teams in European or international competition, and a small number who go further and cheer on Scotland’s opponents. But we really are talking about very tiny minorities: the English tradition is to support the other British Isles nations and, where available, other Anglophone countries too (USA excepted, if not by me personally).

Not all English traditions are so evenhanded. Especially when it comes to other countries, and that’s why I’d defend Scotland’s silent but mutually-reinforced decision not to adopt this one. Nevertheless, it’s true to say that Scottish fans can go to English pubs to cheer Scotland on and, for the most part, not have to give it a second thought. What happens to England fans, going to Scottish pubs, to cheer on England? I’ve done it, and here’s what I have to say:

The number of Scots who express ABE in anger is vanishingly small, and any discussion of ABE on talkboards will attract comment from Scots who disagree with it and dislike it as a childish hangover and a block on Scottish development.

The golden rule about ABE is that it must be expressed in a humorous tone. Serious use of ABE is considered de trop. But so is energetic argument against it from an Englishman, which is why the wearing of an England shirt in a Scottish pub, whilst unlikely to inspire anything worse than brief comment, is seen as inappropriate, a misjudgement of the situation. That shirt, there, is such an energetic argument.

You are highly unlikely to meet anyone who wants to press the ABE point  even amongst those Scots for whom ABE is an important fact of life. The conversation always moves on. There are other things to talk about, and this is especially so when it comes to football.

Much ABE isn’t about England at all. It’s not about hating the elderly in their freezing deckchairs at Morecambe, for goodness’ sake,  or a playground of children in Gateshead or a Leytonstone mum struggling to stretch her pennies. And there’s always a note of regret behind the humour, a sorrow that Scotland isn’t better than she is, an indefinable if-only..

The expression of a small measure of ABE is expected of you if you are Scottish and part of a group of fans whose teams have made contact with the auld enemy. But you don’t actually have to believe it. And you are, remember, expected to use inverted commas as you say it. Fail that test and it isn’t ABE at all, but something more serious, something nastier that Scottish football is keen to leave in the past.

ABE is not a first-order expression of Scottish nationality. It isn’t the equivalent of wearing a kilt, or a Scotland shirt, or of flying the flag of St Andrew or making a Burns Night toast or climbing your last Munro. Next to these things, ABE is a ginger wig on match day, ABE is an inflatable haggis.

In this sense, then, wearing an England shirt in a Scottish pub is a betrayal of the principles of ABE – it’s missing the joke, missing the point, ignoring house rules. You’re unlikely to get any worse for it than a comment or two, if even that. But you’ll have insulted your hosts. Your England shirt – boorish and aggressive in most places even in England – is a tiresome, humourless and provocative rag up here. It is, above all, boring, dull as a wet day and just as depressing. Don’t forget, either, that there are still amends to be made, all around the world, for what louts in England shirts did in the years between the Heysel ban and the Beatles last LP. This is not just about Scotland.

Finally, a personal note, by an Englishman with Scottish ancestry living in Scotland. I have been described, by a Scot, as exaggeratedly English – the kind of Englishman you expect to show up if you’ve been watching too many Ealing comedies through the satellite dish on your yurt.

In England, that means posh. There are ramifications to that: stray out of certain delineated areas (nice places, of course, the Baths and Oxfords and Hampsteads) and you get a small taste of what the Windrush generation got all of the time. Living in Sutton, I was twice physically assaulted on trains by middle-aged men who were travelling with their families and mistook me for a slumming homosexual, visiting the town to cruise..

In my last four months there, I was spat on four times (and spat at a great deal more: my sleepy, aristocratic features bring out the worst in some people). Add countless wierd, frightening face-to-face moments with people who were entirely convinced that I was beyond the dreams of Croesus, enjoyed hunting foxes, liked boys, came from a long line of, looked down upon.. each of which began with a certain double-take, a reassessment in an instant, when I first opened my mouth to speak.

So what happens to an exaggerated Englishman in Scotland?

I know what I expected. My first months here were wracked with anxiety and self-consciousness. I was always waiting for something to happen. It was clear what I was waiting for. But what did I get?

I got nothing.

I’ve been here eighteen months, which I’ve spent variously in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Inverness, Newtonmore and Castle Douglas. No one has given me any trouble at all about being English. Not a single cause for concern. Not once. Not a hint. And far from it. Most people here, every day, are far readier to help you out, or pass the time, or share a joke with you than I ever experienced in the south of England. I’ll be a terror, when I go home, for talking to strangers on public transport…

There are things about Scottish life I haven’t liked, of course. I’m always having to jump for my life when a driver turns without indicating, and the pavement etiquette is different enough from London’s, in a bad way, to make me lose my temper constantly. But I didn’t like everything about London, either, and I adored the place,  and I miss it every day. And when I went back there for a fortnight in July, I found myself missing Scotland..

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7 responses to “Anyone But England: English Football Fans in Scotland

  1. Nice spot, Castle Douglas. If you go about half way to Dumfries, you’ll find the village of Crocketford. Its pub is (or was) The Galloway Arms. I was the barman there for the summer of ’65. A quarter of a century later in Adelaide, South Australia, a woman came up to me at a party. “1966 or 1965?” she enquired. “Eh?” “You were the summer student at the Galloway Arms. But was it 1966 or 1965?” Sma’ world, James.

    P.S. I cannot bear pig-ignorant anti-English crap. I’m delighted to hear that your experience is that much of it is little more than teasing. I wish that all of it were. Anti-Glaswegian sentiment, on the other hand,….

  2. James Hamilton

    Castle Douglas really is a wonderful spot. I didn’t want to leave. I came away with one of those huge Edwardian books on sport from a version of Black Books on the main street which I must get around to blogging from.

    We’re going back again later in the year, not soon enough, and I’ll look your pub up and get a picture.

  3. And just think, you didn’t hear tales of The Red Douglas and The Black Douglas at primary school. Oo, what you missed.

  4. James Hamilton

    I had “The Little Red Hen.” Is that what you’re referring to?

  5. I don’t know “The Little Red Hen” but it sounds as if it might be designed to appeal more to lassies. A bit gore-deficient, perhaps.

  6. Hi.

    Personally i’ve always kind of liked and respected the England national team. At least until Motson, Tyldsley or whoever opens their mouth and mentions 1966 or mentiones “the nation” as if 4 countries were automaticaly backing England, and not assuming that at least 3 of those countries would like a rather more neutral take on procedings (which after all is what we would get). Certainly my relatives from Abbingdon are embarrased by this part of the superannuated hype which surrounds England at World Cup/European Championship time, and i suspect that this is also the main reason why so many of my country-peoples adopt the ABE attitude.

    What happens at this World Cup will be interesting. We are no longer talking about football players, we are talking about players who are millionares (in a time of recession) who have been behaving like gods with Frat Boy morals. In short all the ingredients are in place for the England team to fall into the stereotypical arrogant behavior. Behavior which will turn Scottish people, Irish people and Welsh people off of supporting the England team.

  7. Have bloggged about this over at my place. Thanks for the inspiration:

    http://tinyurl.com/ydfbqud