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Looking forward through the past

May 19, 2013

Well, it’s a year ago today that Hearts defeated Hibs 5-1 in the Scottish Cup Final, and it’s still hard to write that sentence. When I wrote on my feelings in advance of that game, I said that, no matter the score, I expected to be proud of Edinburgh and shedding tears of emotion.

I guess I was half right.

It was certainly good to see a packed house at the National Stadium proving that there is football life outside of Glasgow, but the tears were rather more of shock and frustration than emotion. Hibs players, who I’d seen ashen faced on the team coach as they arrived at the stadium, just didn’t cope with the occasion.

However, as Nick Hornby wrote, the great thing about football is that there’s always next season.

Within weeks, my son Patrick and I were at Methil watching the ‘new’ Hibs v East Fife, and then we were off on a great pre-season tour to Belgium, Holland and Berlin.

Faced with a huge task to re-establish pride, confidence, and some class at the football club, Pat Fenlon has made a good fist of it, with some useful players brought in, youth developing nicely, a 7th place finish and …..another Cup Final!

Our cup run neatly mirrors our season really: guts and a bit of luck saw off the Hearts and Aberdeen, some lovely flowing football bulldozered Killie, and all of these elements combined into a sensational 45 minutes helped us overcome a plucky Falkirk in the semifinal.

So how am I feeling about this year’s trip west?

There’s always emotion, of course.

It’s not a month since we stood behind the East Stand and watch the unveiling of all those Terracing plaques, each with a unique memory or family connection, proud to see Uncle James take his place in Hibernian History.


It has to be said, though, that this Final is not of the same order as last year’s, and there are a number of reasons for that. One is the lingering disappointment of last year’s hammering, and another is the fact that this is Celtic, not Hearts. For while we are trapped in a permanent ongoing battle for supremacy in the capital with our neighbours from Gorgie, most Hibs supporters are much more sanguine when it comes to the Lesser Greens from the East End of Glasgow.

We know that without Canon Hannan’s inspiration, Brother Walfrid would not have thought up the idea of Celtic, and that, without Hibs’ initial help, and then the stealing of five of our players, Celtic would not have come into being. We can also be grateful that the hiatus caused by that incident enabled us to re-start our club, free from sectarianism, at a very early stage.

In other words, we are secure in our status as ‘first to wear the green’, and nothing Celtic do can ever change that situation. A defeat next Sunday, especially as they go into the game as favourites, changes nothing, whereas, at this stage last year, defeat by Hearts didn’t bear thinking about.

Don’t get me wrong – we are desperate to bring home that particular piece of silverware – but the tension is on a different scale.

However, there’s always emotion, of course.

At the start of May, my son and I headed for New York to watch a Gaelic Football Championship match – New York v Leitrim – our home county in Ireland; it was another great event where family, history, and sport mixed to great emotional effect.

Before we came home we spent some time with family on Long Island. Sitting at my cousin’s for lunch, she came up behind me and said: “I have a present for you which I know you will love”.

On the table before me she set down an old black and white photograph. Stuck on a cardboard mounting, it was a little creased and stained in places, but that was to be expected – it was, after all, 85 years old.

If you know your history, the background was immediately recognizable as the old West Stand at Easter Rd – except in those days it was the brand new main stand, recently built. You can make out an advert along the front of it for the Green Dispatch, Edinburgh’s old football paper, and in front are posed a group of footballers with their trainer.

They are wearing the heavy duty woollen ganseys with the roll necks which were de rigeur for training in those distant days of the late 1920s. However, they have that still familiar look which footballers carry in photographs even to this day: part shy, part cocky, part proud, part embarrassed.

As soon as I saw the picture, I burst into tears. For there, third from the left, was my Uncle James. I have a much treasured cartoon of James as a Hibs player, but had long ago given up any hope of ever finding a picture of him as a player. My cousin’s dad, my Uncle Frank, had emigrated to the States in 1929. He’d taken this picture of his beloved brother with him, and retained his pride in both James, and the Hibs, till his death some fifty years later. Now my cousin was passing it on to me.

I was seven when Uncle James died, still young in his fifties, but I remember the twinkle in his eye, his laughter, his talking to me of the Hibs, and his footballer trick with an orange – flicked from foot to thigh to the back of the neck.

And now here he was, a 23 year old, with his life in front of him, playing for the Hibs.

Old photographs, particularly of the young, draw us in. Their future is our past; we know which dreams were met and which escaped from them.

I look at Uncle James there at Easter Rd, younger than my son is now. I want to hug him and hold him close. I want to tell him that the nephew he threw a ball to never demonstrated anything like his football skills, but that he never goes to a Hibs game without thinking of his Uncle James; that for his nephew and his great nephew, living in the next century, he is still our biggest Hibs Hero. I want to say that, while his football career will be short, what he goes on to achieve will make him an even bigger hero. As a Franciscan Friar he will be loved by many for the concern he shows for the poor and the sick; he will be admired for the inspiration and wit of his sermons; he will touch many with his musical talent and entertaining ways. I would thank him for showing that, important to us all as the Hibs are, there are bigger and more crucial things in life – like caring for others and making the world a better place. And I would tell him how proud we are of all he accomplished and of all the help he gave to so many.

So, when we load the car next Sunday for the journey west, thanks to James, and that photo, added to the big green flag with the harp on it, and the supporter’s scarf of 47 seasons, there will also be a big dose of perspective: it is, after all, only a game. In the words of the old saying: “Nobody gets killed, nobody goes to hospital.”

Whatever the result, we’ll remember that – in disappointment or delight, and we’ll enjoy our day out with the Hibs Family, and James, and Frank, and my Dad all there with us, somehow.

If we lose, there’s always next year, and, if we were to win…………

Well, that’s uncharted territory, isn’t it?

They tell us that photographs capture a second in time, which is then frozen for evermore. But I like to think if the Hibs bring back that old Cup to Leith, for the first time since before he was born, then young James McPartlin in that wonderful picture will have an extra shine in his twinkling eyes, and that cheeky smile will have widened just a wee bit.

It will be difficult for me to tell of course…..

Because, me?

Well, I’ll be greetin.


One Comment leave one →
  1. May 19, 2013 12:31 pm

    A wonderful piece once more, Sean. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You demonstrate ably, what it is like to ‘belong’.

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