A new poetry collection could be the best thing about Scottish football right now, according to Paul English

Julie McNeill’s book of poetry about Scottish football had an advantage over actual Scottish football this summer right from the start. “We always had mediocre expectations when we set out,” says the writer, about her latest collection, which, even at 127 pages, carries more weight than Scotland did at Euro 2024 in Germany. “But people have been really excited about it, which is lovely for a poet releasing a collection.”

Unlike the hubris surrounding Scotland’s short-lived summer jaunt, and despite its author’s expectations, the book, We Are Scottish Football, still has legs in the game despite being launched earlier this summer. In the coming weeks, as thoughts turn to domestic pre-season games and club football European ties, McNeill will be touring the country promoting and delivering readings, longer after Steve Clarke’s men have finished unpacking their abject turn in Germany.

McNeill spoke to The Herald before the outcome of Scotland’s Group A calamity. But, if one thing can be taken from her rousing, heart-rending, stirring and deft musings, it’s this uncontestable surety: the game is always about so much more than the football. “Nothing evokes emotion like football does,” says the Carlisle-born Paisley-based poet. “There are all these highs and lows, disasters and elations. Football and poetry are a natural pairing to me, and poetry is a good medium to use when writing about football. It’s a bit like a camera: it can capture a moment in time. 

“I spoke to an American academic recently who was doing a piece on the football poets in Scotland, who said what we are doing here is quite unique. I think the rise of spoken word poetry and performers on YouTube has also helped fans get behind it as well.”
Her verses go in and out of stadia, skirting recent history and ploughing the annals of time. The offering is one of a poetic tribute, capturing the soul-stirring drama and devotion that makes Scottish football an enduring and enchanting spectacle.

(Image: Julie McNeill)

It’s also an education and not just in the genre. There are references to Rangers’ first game at Fleshers Haugh in the east of the city and to Celtic’s founder Brother Walfrid being inspired to establish a charitable institution in Glasgow after seeing how the formation of Hibernian in Edinburgh impacted the city’s Irish immigrant population. It roots in the shadows, too; stanzas flowing from graveyard arenas like Shawfield Stadium, where only the ghosts of the game now play, or where trees stand as fans once did to watch some of the greatest players in the world, like Cathkin Park.

“It’s been a lovely thing to do,” says McNeill, a St Mirren fan and poet in residence for the club’s charitable wing. “It has helped me dig into history and learn things I didn’t otherwise know. I loved writing the Rangers one about Fleshers Haugh. This was an area of ground that was used by butchers and there are metaphors and symbolisms around that – these young lads cutting across this butcher’s land, in a city now so divided in terms of green and blue. Bonnie Prince Charlie had his pavilion on that land, as well. And the history of Third Lanark in Mount Florida, and how they were ultimately betrayed, is fascinating. There’s been so much to dig into. Some of it was from the heart and some of it was from the head.”

A core thread of the collection is built around Football’s Square Mile, a 21-point collection of football locations, claimed to be the World’s Biggest Open Air football museum. Set up in 2021 by The Hampden Collection, an organisation formed to celebrate the global significance of the tripartite of Hampdens, the Square Mile is a historical treasure map of Glasgow studded with incredible and often long forgotten origin stories.

McNeill will be at Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival on July 26; Gladstones Land, Edinburgh Fringe, on August 22 and 23; Kirkcudbright Fringe with Rose Reilly on September 8, and Wigtown Book Festival, October 1. We Are Scottish Football is out now, published by Luath Press.