Hugh MacDonald

THE stands erupt to the strains of Sweet Caroline. It is a glorious spring Sunday in Boston. The Red Sox are at bat, God in his heaven and my son has just returned from the food franchises with enough provisions to sustain a Polar expedition or, indeed, a group of polar bears on an expedition.

It is autumn in Madrid. Three guys in front of us are slagging Ronaldo with a passion that invites accusations of insanity. My ascent to the summit of the stands at Bernabeu has involved marching past the bleached skeletons of Sherpas who could not quite make the climb to the uppermost corner of the home of Real Madrid. As I search for a defibrillator, Ally, my son, and Andy, his mate, casually remark that it might have been better to have taken the lift. Their chortles threaten to serve as my eulogy.

It is summer in Berlin. Flares burst dramatically to our right and the smoke drifts across an Olympic Stadium that momentarily resembles a modernistic bouncy castle for deranged adults. Cries of “Heja BvB” bombard the ears. Ally, at 30, is in a state of nervous tension not exhibited since his “one more sleep to Santa” era of a quarter of a century before. I, as so often in life, ponder just why I am where I am, in this case in the midst of a mass of Germans of all ages in the moments before the 2015 DFB Pokal Cup final between Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg.


The roars grow towards the climax of the first whistle and Ally briefly, strongly grabs my arm. It jerks me back to the present as Boston, Brechin, Bernabeu and Borussia flash back into the safety of wonderful, retained memory.

I am at a match with my son. I am in a spot of the world with love at my side and passion to my fore. There is also that moment that grabs the sheer improbability, the glorious wonder, the graceful blessing of it all. It comes now at the kick-off and I turn to see if it shared by Ally. The answer is not demeaned by words, it is offered irrefutably by eyes that shine with the effects of smoke and joy.

“Does it bring you closer to your son?” they inevitably ask on my return, as they dutifully look at the phone pictures or generously inquire about the BvB scarf or the Red Sox cap. It is a question of genuine bafflement to me. Any closer and separation would require surgery. And who else would I choose to go to match with? We share a history that is not just father and son but fan and fan.

IT can, I suppose, be summarised as a journey from Annfield to Anfield. Thirty years, thousands and thousands of miles, a couple of continents, a variety of hotels from the starkly practical to the interestingly eccentric, the wonderful shambles of Boghead to the grandeur of Bernabeu. All those flights, all that dosh, all the scrambling for tickets, the drawing up of itineraries, just to delete an N from Annfield.

This needs an explanation. This is the best you are going to get.

It is 1988. It is late summer in Stirling. I walk with Ally who is three, the same age as every Derby favourite. Similarly, he needs exercise to burn off the levels of energy that should have enticed an offer from the national grid. The increasingly energetic ramble takes us to Annfield, then the home of the mighty Stirling Albion. “What happens in there, Daddy?” he asks. “That is where the big men play football,” I lied. “Can I go?” he replies.

I agree immediately, if only in the tradition of a Spartan who leaves his newly-born out overnight on a stone to see if he can survive. He will have to suffer Scottish football at one point. Why not now?

He loves it. His sister, Catriona, joins for later matches. She loves it. Whisper this – and never, ever tell my sportswriting colleagues for whom this gushy passion for Scottish football is the love that dare not speak its name – but I loved it too. At Boghead. At Brechin. At Starks Park and even at Broadwood, geez, where polar bears wore long johns. At Ochilview and at Somerset.

But Annfield died, its grave covered by houses. The Albion went into lodgings and then to Forthbank and the tyranny of the bucket seat. After 10 years, Catriona’s innate good sense exerted itself and she abandoned football, curiously never to return fully to its bosom. Ally took his love elsewhere. An uncle had a spare ticket for a Celtic match and Ally agreed to accompany him. I picked him up from the supporters’ bus and saw the truth in his bleary eyes fatigued by the passion of a big match. Albion had been dumped.

Catriona, typically, found contentment and fulfilment in reading, evaluating and appreciating films, and living the life of an inquiring, intelligent young woman. Ally did most of the above but added a big dollop of spicy sauce by applying his hand to the bottom of the obsession bottle. He became as interested and devoted to sport as only the mad and the dad can be. I blame myself. It saves time.

Our paths diverged as our interests coalesced. I became a sportswriter. He became an attender at big sporting occasions. We might meet in front of Hampden, in the Ibrox car park or at the Brother Walfrid statue for a hug and the passing over of tickets. I headed for the press box and he for the stand. What happened next took the N out of Annfield and put me back alongside my son.

IT is Anfield, March 14, 2016. An astonishing version of You’ll Never Walk Alone is sung on the 27th anniversary of Hillsborough by Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool fans as their teams prepare for a Europa League quarter-final, second leg. Ally and I sit in the main stand. We are Borussia Dortmund fans. This is far from our first Dortmund match and will not be our last.

So how did that happen?

In truth, he contracted the virus first and passed it on to me, just as he did with chickenpox, mumps and the bubonic plague. OK, I lied about the last. But BvB was his choice, not mine. He watched Jurgen Klopp’s side on telly. He loved the teeming Yellow Wall of the Westfalen Stadion, he was enthused by the team’s vibrancy and impressed by the ethics of the club that stressed entertainment, financial fair play and fan involvement. He went and I followed.

This partnership, after all, was a tradition. It had started at Annfield, continued to Bernabeu for the 25th anniversary of our first match together, and taken in stops at Boston for the baseball and, less glamorously, Braehead for the boxing.

BvB had become our shared passion and Germany our playground. The recent years have witnessed us flying to Germany, mostly with Andy, and now Matt, another pal. This can involve the eternal mystery and allure of a connecting flight through Luton, the consumption on their behalf of the volume of alcohol that would float a fully-armed and crewed Type 2 frigate, and the sort of fun that was normally only experienced by John Belushi on a particularly reckless day.

The flights are cheap, the hotels reasonable and a very good seat at the match will cost about £35. A weekend will cost a couple of hundred quid. But what does it offer?

I stay on post-fitba to indulge in the cultural delights of Cologne, Stuttgart, Berlin, Frankfurt or Munich. I can make an excellent case for these trips as an addition to my aesthetic life. I have visited Goethe’s house – he wasn’t in – I have peered in wonder at Koln cathedral and been entranced by museum island in Berlin.

But it is, of course, about much more, something more important. Catriona and I have a regular date. It too goes back 30 years. We meet in a bookstore. I buy her a book. She gives me her chat. I get the better deal. It is a physical nod to an enduring, profound bond.

It is the same on Easyjet EZ1474 from Luton to Dortmund. Ally sees that his father has the capacity to embrace travel, to exult in sport, if not to remember his credit cards, phone charger and, on one occasion at passport control, his name. The craic may be about football or boxing. It may also be about Ally’s home, his job, his prospects, his dreams. It may be about how I am going to pay for a week away when my credit cards are in Beardsen.

The match day is special. No one who visit Fenway Park will forget it. No one who stares at the swaying, rolling and raucous Yellow Wall in Dortmund can remain unaffected. No one can hear a hymn to the Hillsborough victims and be clear-eyed. But if sport is merely the human race at play it also offers – and continues to do so – much more to this shambling duffer.

I have walked from the Westfalen in the satisfaction of victory and I have been swept from the environs of Anfield by Scousers exulting in dramatic triumph while Ally and I ponder just how BvB managed to not only say no to certain victory but reported it to the authorities for immediate arrest and awful incarceration.

There can be trite reflections on these occasions that masquerade as philosophy or even, heaven forbid, wisdom. But there is a moment on every trip that a solid truth strikes my napper.

As Catriona skips from Waterstones with her latest novel, as Ally and I bob like pieces of human jetsam in the mass outside a stadium, the superficiality of joy at victory or disappointment at defeat is replaced by something more wonderful, more substantial.

My life has been tossed by thoughts, bruised and sometimes threatened by experience and mired in fleeting, often daft, theories. But one belief has survived, endured and now prospers. It is this: I have never regretted one moment I have spent with my kids.

This was as true at Annfield as it is at Anfield. Now Tess, my grand-daughter, is here. With an effrontery perhaps bordering on delusion, I anticipate a later life spent taking her to the Strand bookshop in New York or the Schalke derby at Westfalen. Or hopefully both.

Heja Bvb! Go Red Sox! Bring it on, life!



Three of the best

Fenway Park, Boston

Home of the Red Sox, best and most venerable baseball stadium in the USA. Book well in advance. We paid about £40 each for great seats. Be prepared for a match to last five hours. Fun, though, with a “seventh inning stretch” and then the singing of Sweet Caroline. Tourist tip: Cheers bar for Ally, JFK Museum for me. The amphibious Ducks tour for both of us

Olympic Stadium, Berlin

There for the 2016 German cup final that ended in defeat for BvB but it was a memorable night. Tickets almost impossible to source. We got lucky. Tickets for other German matches are available if you look ahead. BvB and Bayern Munich always very difficult but other clubs can usually accommodate the tourist. Try club websites first rather than private ticket agencies. Expect to pay £35. Tourist tip in Berlin: the Deutsches Historisches Museum for me. Holocaust memorial for Ally.

The Westfalen Stadium (also known as Signal Aduna), Dortmund

The atmosphere in the stadium is one of the best I have encountered in my decades as fan and sportswriter. Tickets are difficult to acquire. BvB matches sell out. Best then to try to book ahead, choose a match that is not the derby v Schalke or the perennial top of the table meeting with Bayern Munich, and hope that briefs are available. Tourist tip: the German football museum is good. I loved the national team bus. I am sad.