A TRIP to Coatbridge in 2019 provided the last fond kiss of the Covid-less world. I’d gone there to visit Cliftonhill Park, home of Albion Rovers for 100 years. An exhibition of photographs and memorabilia at the nearby Summerlee museum chronicled the people and events which had built this club and then sustained it throughout that time.

These careworn artefacts also bore witness to the spiritual bonds that connect a football club to its local community. When all other services fail; when the politicians we entrust with our money remove themselves from the orbit of places like Coatbridge the local football club remains faithful and helps people pick up the pieces and start again when their lives are shattered by loss or reduced by poverty.

You’re tempted to reach lazily for trite words like dilapidated or ramshackle or tumbledown to describe old football parks like Cliftonhill just because there are still wooden sleepers on a disused terrace and the restorative aroma of Bovril and liniment still hangs in the air.

We should instead be using heroic, magnificent and glorious. It’s only when you see close up the fixtures and fittings of places like Cliftonhill that you come to realise that they’re only still here because generations of mainly working-class men thought it was too important to their lives and the life of their community to let it succumb to market forces.

Ronnie Boyd, a former chairman of Albion Rovers, was my tour guide on that day in 2019. He told me quietly about the lifeline services this club provides for its most vulnerable supporters. Each week a group of old men gathers at Cliftonhill to rekindle old memories. Remembrances and echoes of these old places linger long after all others disappear in the fog of dementia. This is one of several ways in which this club reaches out to the needy and the fragile in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Albion Rovers and countless other clubs across Scotland – from the grandest to the least – provide similar unsung services to those among its support and beyond who need help. Often it’s simply the knowledge that young men wearing their colours are playing football for them, just as they did for their fathers and grandfathers. You don’t need to be physically present to take solace in that, nor do they need to be winning. Just existing.

Mr Boyd felt that this perhaps explained why football memories are often the last to succumb to the onset of mental decrepitude. “These were places where men and their families were at their happiest; where they felt most alive. Perhaps that’s why these are the last memories to fade,” he said.

Those who have travelled through life untouched by the culture of football will never understand its importance to working-class families or those who sprang from them. Football players and the clubs whose colours they wore carried the pride of the communities they represented. After a week of hard, physical toil for scant wages these football clubs didn’t just offer them respite, but the chance, occasionally, to be princes or at least to feel included in princely deeds. They caused them perhaps to walk a little taller and feel a little better amidst the challenges of the week to come.

Those people who don’t have this lived experience of football swarmed over social media last month to mock a suggestion that the Scottish Government support people experiencing mental health problems when football went dark at the height of the pandemic. As might have been expected, several of them belonged to the political elites who have spent much of the devolution era reviling football supporters and hounding them for their anti-social habits. If they’re not singing the wrong sorts of songs they’re waving the wrong sorts of banners or looking at police officers the wrong way.

The suggestion was made by the Scottish Conservative MSP Sandesh Gulhane, a GP and his party’s health and social care spokesperson. “Does the First Minister understand the value, the societal role Scottish football plays in the mental health of hundreds of thousands of people in our communities,” he asked. It was an entirely reasonable question.

According to a report by Statista in 2019, football participation was worth more than £200m each year to the Scottish economy. When health and social care savings were factored in, this figure rose to more than £700m. If football clubs disappeared the effects on the economic and emotional wellbeing of their communities would be catastrophic. Football matters much more in these places than any other sport or pastime because it helped lift them up in their darkest days. Any government money to assist community football clubs returns 100-fold.

At the height of the pandemic when football was forced behind closed doors some mental health charities began reporting significant increases in people seeking information about their services, much of it sparked by supporters being locked out of football grounds.

In many of Scotland’s working-class communities the local football club is at the heart of many people’s lives. Nor is this merely about the football alone. Attending a match might be the only social contact that many supporters have all week. This is especially so for older citizens who might be experiencing loneliness and isolation. The title deeds to a large portion of a supporter’s identity is owned by their football club.

When factories and industries disappear the banks and finance houses move in to hoover up what remains of a family’s self-esteem. Governments are rarely able to protect them. The biggest failure of Scottish post-war politics has been its inability adequately to replace the old heavy industries with something offering security and proper wages in the communities which need them most. What the Proclaimers sang about in 1987 is still happening today in the same old places.

The local football club never disappears though, and always keeps faith with its supporters. It offers a sense of belonging to a community even as others are trying to dismantle it. Football supporters and their families have made lifelong emotional investments in old football clubs because they have always offered respite when life hurts them.

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