Welcome to the fifth episode in my series of football book reviews. This week we step into the world of Scottish football through Heartfelt by Aidan Smith.
Could you go and watch your team’s fiercest rivals for a season? That’s what Aidan Smith does in Heartfelt. The author is a Hibs fan through and through – but his agent suggests he follow Hearts for a season (2004/05) and write about the experience. It’s a fascinating experiment (“I feel like the victim of another grim lab-test”) – and one I read about with a great deal of interest. The prospect of following Preston for a season fills me with horror – but in reality could I do it?
I could empathise with a lot that Smith writes about in Heartfelt, having recently had a hiatus from watching Blackpool, during which time I worked for Chasetown. At the beginning I automatically shouted ‘Come On Pool’ during Chase matches…and, like Smith, it wasn’t too long before my adopted team became ‘we’ and ‘us’. It was weird but it just becomes automatic after a while.
At the book’s start, Smith clearly hates what he is having to do:
“…the turnstile clicks to grant me entry into Tynecastle. It is like the sound of a rifle being cocked.”
But, around a third of the way through the book, he has an epiphany, realising that, in order to get through the season (and maybe even enjoy it), he would have to fully immerse himself in it – and be present.
“I’m really going to have to meet some of this fan’s type…I can’t just sit there, hating every minute.”
The result? He actually finds himself (dare I say) enjoying his new surroundings towards the end. His language changes, too, ‘Swinecastle’ becoming ‘Tynie’. He almost finds himself wanting Hibs to lose:
“If I can’t see Hibs, why should they be thrilling anyone else?”
As with each of the fans’ books I have reviewed to date, there is much in Heartfelt that the football-supporting reader can empathise with.
“You can’t beat night games… The seductive glow of the floodlights in the night sky…pulling you into the ground in a blizzard.”
“…when you’re older…you’re disinterested with what’s happening on the pitch. You go to be with your mates or to bond with your dad… You also have a keen sense of your team’s all-round crapness.”
Structurally I liked this book very much, each chapter being devoted to a particular month, but also broken down into dates (usually of matches).
One thing I did find interesting was the lack of focus on league tables and positions as the season progressed. Have the Old Firm ruined Scottish ‘fitba’? Cup adventures appear to be the highlight. I found it fascinating that there is such a thing as a ‘professional Eurofan’, who travels to away European matches of different clubs. That sounds wonderful! I could go for a bit of that myself (I love exploring European cities and this could give me a good excuse).
I enjoyed the cultural references in this book, as Smith reminisces about his childhood. He had a penpal (remember them?) and recalls the days when you’d be allowed into a ground with snow on the terraces. He even checks the football scores in a tv shop window. And I’d completely forgotten that the pools coupons used to cover the Australian football matches in the summer.
Not only does this book cover food at football matches (they have venison and wild boar at Murrayfield!) but there’s even a toilet review in there! This book could have been written for me!
Reading this book has made me realise how little I have engaged with a whole world of football that really isn’t so far away. I’m curious about it now. All those grounds unvisited (bar a few from Blackpool’s pre-season tours); all those bridies unmunched. I hope the toilet situation has improved in recent years, as I recall a pre-season visit to Ayr when I needed the loo and had to sprint across to a sports hall behind the opposite goal, as there were no ladies facilities in the ground! I’m now actually rather envious of my friends who, during the Blackpool boycott, went to random Scottish football matches on their free Saturdays.
The moral of Heartfelt is that football is all about the people. And really we are all similar (but different), irrespective of which team we support. I’m sure Preston must have lots of lovely fans…I just don’t happen to know any of them. Seriously, though, I am learning through the football media work that I am engaging in that we have so much in common with fans of other clubs that it seems almost nonsensical that rivalries are even a thing.
So, does Smith stick with his adopted team of Hearts or return to Hibs? Read this book and find out! It really is a fascinating experiment and a wonderful inside view of what it is like to follow football in Scotland. I want to go and explore the grounds and towns up there myself now!
NEXT UP: I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You by Greg Whitaker
Please do keep your football book recommendations coming! I will read and review one a week. You will see above I have already picked my book for next week. Why not read along too so you can comment on my review next week. We can be a virtual football book club!
The Bottom Corner by Nige Tassell
Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters by Daniel Gray
She Stood There Laughing by Stephen Foster
A Season With Verona by Tim Parks
Don’t forget you can also read about my awaydays with Blackpool from the 2019/20 season right here.
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