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As strong as gentle

August 25, 2016

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Sam Martinez arrived in Scotland in 1945 – having been born in British Honduras (which is now Belize) He hoped to contribute to the war effort by getting a job as a tree feller.

This proved more difficult than he had thought and he spent a long time jobless. He would fill in his time walking around Edinburgh, getting to know his new home city.

One evening, he walked past a long queue of people down in Leith and wondered what was happening. He was a sociable man and felt keenly the loneliness of the immigrant, so, although a black man might never be sure of his welcome in those days, he was eager to stop and ask what was happening.
He was told:
“It’s a football match – the Hibs.”
“What colours do they play in?”
“Green and white.”
“My favourite colours.”
“Why don’t you join us and watch the match?”
“I have no money…”

One of the fans gave him a ticket and he got to go in and sit in the main stand behind the dug out and watch the Famous Five. The group who had invited him in chatted to him about his own country and his plans – and agreed to meet him again at the next home game.

He became a lifelong Hibs supporter – and never forgot the welcome he got as a lonely man in a foreign country. “Hibs brought me friends and a sense of belonging, ” he said. “They have always been special to me, it’s family,”

He had attended 11 Finals but never seen them win the Scottish Cup.

Mind you, as was pointed out on social media today, he had seen Hibs win the League – and the League Cup, three times each; seen the club reach the European Cup semi final, and watched as they beat Barcelona and Real Madrid. He had also followed the team through the days of the Famous Five.

In May this year, when he was aged 106 – Hibs oldest fan – the club and his carer took him through to Hampden for the Scottish Cup Final – and we all know what happened.

A few weeks later, at Easter Rd, he got to hold the Scottish Cup.

If for no other reason than that I’m so pleased Hibs won the Cup – and rewarded Sam for 75 years of support.

We invest far too much emotion in football in Scotland and it perhaps inhabits spaces which could be better filled.

But.

At its best, football can bring us together, bring solace to the sorrowful and a sense of purpose to the feckless. It can give meaning to emptiness and roots to the wanderer.

So, as I give thanks tonight for Sam’s long and remarkable life, and as I rejoice in the fact that he saw the Hibs lift the Scottish Cup, I’m inspired to focus on the positives of Scottish football

I remark on the manner in which it runs threads through families, sparks memories between relations – whether they are supporters or not – the bunnet granddad always wore to the match, the dinners ruined after an unexpected cup win was relived in the pub, the first match for ‘the boy’, the companionship between brothers and fathers and sons, and sisters and mothers – on frosty, freezing terraces – when the cold caught your throat when you tried to cheer, and the clack of the rattles was sharp in thin and icy air.

The players loved, and the goals remembered, the favourite spot and the chosen half time drink, sweet tea, pipe and cigarette smoke, stamping your feet to keep warm, match day routines, and the thrill of the lights in the sky on a midweek night; the banter, the hope, the disappointment, and the occasional glory. The sheer joy of being there – part of it all, thousands focusing on that green oblong, willing the distant figures to be in the right place at the right time; the reflection after 90 minutes, rationalising your irrational love for the team, always talking of “we” not “they”, the hours shared and the memories created.

Sam understood that; he understood football is not a matter of life and death, that it has to have its place, and not become a raison d’etre, an excuse for emotional absence, or a vainglorious substitute for real empathy and social responsibility.

But he also recognised its humanity, its capacity for joining people together, building bonds between very different folk, and celebrating a craft and artistry which is so tangential to the important things of life that it brings us the pure inconsequential joy of the truly unimportant.

Football gives us a direct route back to the simplicity of childhood, the happiness of instant excitement, a dim recollection of Christmas Eves from long ago – when we just knew that something magical could happen.

The best way to celebrate Sam’s life would be to keep hold of that perspective, to stop pretending to “hate” the “enemy” to show how deep is our love for our own team; to rid the game of men-children posturing and offering violence as proof of their “superiority”.

To remember that we have far more in common with the guy who goes to football each week like we do – no matter who he supports – than we have with those who are not interested in the game, or who watch from their couches.

As a Hibee, I believe I show my support by being big enough to acknowledge the respect the Hearts fans have for their heroes at Contalmaison, or Rangers supporters’ pride in the Ulster Division, that many Celtic fans have an attachment to Ireland, or the campaigns mounted by fans of Motherwell, Airdrie or Livingston to ensure their club survives. Whether they’re Jambos, Teddy Bears, Bhoys or Dons – I hope I’m big enough to respect them, regardless of whether I agree with them; I hope I can understand that, like me, they get excited by 11 men in their chosen colours seeking to gain a victory.

It’s only football – but it’s glorious in its lack of real importance. So glorious, it doesn’t need to stand for something else – a tribe, an aspiration, or a symbol of superiority – we should enjoy it for what it is.

It’s an intriguing, exciting and engaging sport – which 75 years ago inspired a group of Leithers to welcome a foreigner into their spiritual home and gave him a lifetime of memories, comradeship, and belonging.

If you’re going to the game this Saturday, give a thought to Sam Martinez – one of football’s heroes, whose strength was in his gentleness.

RIP Sam – you’ll be having a great time telling Gordon Smith, Lawrie Reilly and co how you saw the Hibs bring the Cup home to Leith – and they didnae.
Legend.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Chris Kerr permalink
    August 25, 2016 10:08 am

    Lovely article encapsulating what I’ve aye felt about the unifying side of fitba. Shall certainly pause to think of Sam this Saturday.

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