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Football fans who denigrate cricket should not dismiss the debt owed by our national obsession

Paul Coffey, an old friend in every sense, is a persistent sort and, during our Rugby World Cup tour of New Zealand, he missed no opportunity to evangelise about the joys of playing cricket with The Forty Club.

Keith Miller, pictured batting above, graced Titwood in 1967, captaining Lord Clydesmuir's Select XI against a Dennis Compton-led Sir Alec Douglas Home Test XI.  Picture: PA Archive
Keith Miller, pictured batting above, graced Titwood in 1967, captaining Lord Clydesmuir's Select XI against a Dennis Compton-led Sir Alec Douglas Home Test XI. Picture: PA Archive

Truth be told it had never appealed to me much because I had mentally bracketed them among the sort of 'rah-rah invitation clubs' that proliferate in a sport that sometimes forgets that the image it has of itself sits uneasily with much of what surrounds it.

However, it also seemed suitably perverse to mark the summer in which I reached an unwelcome half-century by capitulating to Coffey's pressure and joining a club for which I had been eligible a decade earlier. What an excellent decision that was.

Barring one exception, when our captain, now Cricket Scotland's chairman, thought we were winning too easily on the royal lawn at Balmoral, it has been a relief to encounter a genuine desire to compete and play to win at all times.

Better still, you do so at an array of lovely venues and in the company of some excellent characters, among whom is one Richard 'Siggy' Young.

Deeply earnest of manner, he endeared himself to me on our first meeting at Comrie when, in explaining his involvement as a cricket administrator in the west, he volunteered some less than complimentary views on the pernickety attitudes of those running competitions elsewhere in the country.

His passion for the sport is extraordinary, however, and has resulted in a fascinating piece of work: As the Willow Vanishes - Glasgow's Forgotten Legacy.

In many ways, it is three books in one: part personal memoir; part social history, but largely a dissertation outlining the massive debt owed by Scottish football to cricket.

A couple of hundred intensively researched pages include some delightful nuggets, such as a reference to the goalkeeper whose feats suggest Fraser Forster was barely trying this season given that "he enjoyed seven unbroken years of clean sheets."

There are moments of deep poignancy, too, not least towards the end of the book where he reprints a photograph of an amazing cricket occasion in 1967 when Sir Alec Douglas Home's Test XI, an all-international side captained by Dennis Compton, faced Lord Clydesmuir's Select XI led by Keith Miller, at Titwood.

By a strange twist of events, that official photograph of the two teams is unique in Siggy's family collection since it is the only one in existence picturing him, his parents and all his siblings. Tragically his sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer months later.

Yet for all the personal importance that gives it for Siggy, he also recognises its social historical significance as the last example of what he calls "Big House Cricket" which, his thesis contends, spawned Scottish football as we know it. As he acknowledges, it only adds to the significance that this cricket match took place in a year regarded as the high-point in Scottish football history, given events in Lisbon and London.

Those Scots who, either through misplaced prejudice or short attention span, heap opprobrium on cricket, would do well, then, to read this book and learn just how much it contributed to what has become our national obsession.

In essence the vast majority of early Scottish football clubs were set up by cricketers seeking ways of keeping fit through the winter, before one sport gave way to the other, largely as a result - plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose - of the disgraceful practices of corrupt Scottish bankers in the 1870s.

There are other telling passages which outline lessons we might usefully have learned more than a century ago, not least the assessment of Archie Hunter - one of football's earliest professionals - of the damage done to the character of sport by the paying of players.

The claim from the Scot who played for Aston Villa that he would have been happier had he continued to play as an amateur, would be echoed in the 1990s by many of those who played top-flight rugby either side of the sport going open.

In that same passage it is interesting, too, that Hunter reckons: "There is one enthusiasm for cricket and another for football and the enthusiasm for the latter appears to be excited by deeper and heartier feelings."

He may have a point, but his message merely serves to reinforce the main thrust of Siggy's work, namely the closeness of the relationship of the two sports.

Doubtless, too, our climate, which has also contributed to football's usurping of cricket, will ensure that Forty Clubbers have plenty time to discuss this further during the all too brief period in which football gives way hereabouts to summer sports.

And Another Thing . . .

A marketing professional who knew I was at a packed Dens Park last weekend while he was at Scotstoun sent a message offering congratulations to the Dees, but also suggesting that some should be directed towards the marketeers of the International Sevens.

Rarely, he reckoned, can a fancy dress code have been as well observed since, given that the attendance figure was announced as 11,000, the best explanation had to be that spectators had been asked to attend dressed as seats . . .

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231998