When I was a kid I rather liked the name 'Rangers', but that was because I was into cowboys and I knew about the Texas Rangers. Scots in that less cynical age were often into the perceived glamour of the Old West and the United States – conditioned as we were by Hollywood.
Then one of my mum's friends took me along to see Hearts play Aberdeen in a Scottish Cup semi-final. That was in the days of Willie Bauld, Alfie Conn and Jimmy Wardhaugh; long before the idea of substitutes or squad players. I knew my pocket money wouldn't extend to buying a match programme so I memorised the names of the players on both teams. They're still seared into my brain.
We managed to squeeze into a spot by the tunnel and we were standing there in the half-empty Tynecastle ground when a group of Aberdeen players came out in their civvies to inspect the pitch. My mum's friend had bought a programme. He handed it to me, and said 'ask that one if he'll give you his autograph'. So I did. He signed it by the name that was printed on the page – 'Harry Yorston' – and handed it back. Then he turned and asked me if I'd like him to take the programme and get the other players to sign it as well. The question hardly required an answer.
Twenty or so minutes later when the teams trotted onto the pitch to the cheers of the crowd, Harry Yorston stopped and handed me the programme. The centre page was filled with signatures of the players on both teams. I've never forgotten Harry Yorston and his kindness.
It was when I was in my teens that I first came across the rabid darkness that could affect football in Scotland. My friend Bob was waiting for a bus at a stop on Princes Street one Saturday afternoon in late afternoon spring sunshine when a group of football supporters came up to him and asked him what his religion was. When he (wisely) said he didn't go to church, one of them stabbed him in the chest. The assailants ran away. Bob was rushed to hospital seriously wounded. The knife blade had missed his heart by less than half an inch, his lung by an eighth. I can't remember precisely now, and it hardly matters what team Bob's assailants were supposedly supporting, but it was either Celtic or Rangers. Bob was 15 years old. He was never quite the same after that.
In the early 1980s I researched and wrote a feature article for the old Scotsman colour magazine about Paul Sturrock, the Dundee United and Scotland striker. That research put me in touch with Sturrock and also with Jim McLean, the Dundee United Manager at the time. McLean was billed in the press as a fearsome character who had little time for anyone associated with the media. But I found him to be a decent man, quick to grant me access to training sessions, and get me permissions and passes to attend games both home and away. McLean was tough and probably uncompromising, but he was fair, clear and forthright – and to me, most generous and helpful.
Paul Sturrock was a talented, hard-working footballer. He invited me to come with him one day when he had to drive up from Dundee to his hometown of Pitlochry. Some of his old friends were having a kick-about in a park by the river when we got there. They were delighted to see him and invited him to join in – which he did, even though he was now a front page feature and in training for the 1982 World Cup. Sturrock was as down-to-earth as his manager. What you saw was what you got.
It was when I was doing that research that I encountered the nasty side of Scottish football again. Because I had to take photographs of the game as well as notes, I had a press pass to crouch by the pitch, behind the byline beside the goal. Back then the old heavy copper penny was still in circulation. Some of the fans would sharpen them up and use them as small weapons. They flew quite well, like tiny frisbees when they were launched by a practiced arm. The Hibs supporters behind the goal were not loath to throw them, and it hurt when they hit you. If you were unlucky they could give you a bad cut. The experience left me with an idea of what some of the goalies had to deal with when they were at the wrong end of the park.
Few of Scotland's truly great players came from wealthy or even middle-class backgrounds. Hughie Gallacher, from the mining town of Bellshill, played for Newcastle and Chelsea for years, and scored more than a goal a game for Scotland. One of the sport's finest playmakers, Alex James, came from the steel town of Mossend. James played for Preston North End, and then embarked on a sterling six years with Arsenal when he was about to enter his 30s. Billy Liddell, who played his whole career for Liverpool until he retired in 1961, and 'Slim' Jim Baxter both came from the coal mining towns of Fife. Denis Law came from an Aberdeenshire family that couldn't afford to buy him shoes, never mind football boots – and football games in tough neighbourhoods like the Gorbals produced brilliant players like Pat Crerand, Tommy Docherty and Frank McLintock.
Fifty years or so ago, a lot of Scottish kids would carry a tennis ball around with them. They would pull the tennis ball from a pocket when they were waiting for a bus or a tram and tap it against a wall. They would trap it as it came off the stones at odd angles, catch it on the volley or half-volley, and flick it back against the wall. They would teach themselves to do that equally well with either foot.
Somewhere in among the economic advances of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, that kind of hunger and application began to die out in Scotland; the outdoor games of previous generations no longer 'in with the bricks' of growing up. Parents became more apprehensive about letting their kids roam the streets or play unaccompanied in the park than they had been a generation or two before. There was too much traffic for street football as well, and so the game began to lose its 'pick-up' character, and its local culture.
There seems for decades now to have been a growing disconnect in Scotland between the people who play the game and the people who watch it; a discontent fuelled by frustration and boredom, perhaps because of the distance between the fans and the players. It didn't exist to the same extent when Scotland was producing its own highly talented and skilled footballers; footballers whose services were sought by the top clubs in England and Europe – people who could have come from your own neighbourhood, who you could take pride in, even if they played for the other team.
The best talents in sports like boxing, basketball, or football are often developed out of deprivation – which can breed a kind of hunger, and drive a passion and will to succeed. It's possible to track some of the surpassing talents in these sports along a socio-economic trajectory, as it was with some of Scotland's greatest footballers; as it is on a more international scale today. But in today's Britain, and particularly in Scotland, unless your club has a vision for the future and a really good youth development programme, you're unlikely to see anyone from your neighbourhood playing on the professional team you support.
We're well into the 21st century now, and it must be decades since I've seen a kid pull out a tennis ball and kick it against a wall. We lose the ability to develop innate skills when those elements of our culture disappear. We also lose a base of knowledge and subliminal contact with the professional players we see at the stadium and on television; the belief that it could be us out there on the field. It's probably inevitable when so many people seem happy to lead virtual lives through their computers and iPhones – but it's no wonder a lot of people believe that professional football in Scotland is unlikely to climb out of its present state of doldrums, and its reliance on imported talent.