kenny hodgart

An Highland fling

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This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

It was a beautiful morning in Dingwall yesterday, the kind of morning that sends city dwellers scarpering up mountains and the like in pursuit of solitude and unspoilt vistas.

And after about 9am it will have been quiet, too – quieter probably than at any time, not counting Sabbath days, since the old king chucked it. The Scottish Cup final kicked off in Glasgow at 3pm, but an exodus of military efficacy had been put in train on Friday with a bag-piped send-off for the players of Ross County that would have done the region’s martial ancestors proud.

Their mission ultimately failed, but few from the Ross-shire town were ever likely to miss the occasion for all the Highland sunshine of a dozen summers. It is no exaggeration to suggest that almost an entire community made for Hampden Park yesterday: the population of Dingwall is about 5000, but more than 18,000 “Staggies” – young and old, very young and not-so-very old – found their way to the south side of Glasgow.

In Dundee United, First Division County were up against a team who, by dint of not being one of the Old Firm pair, would ordinarily be underdogs themselves at a cup final. As I mixed with the County fans, I was reminded of that great novel about Scottish football by Robin Jenkins, The Thistle and the Grail, in which a small-town Lanarkshire club makes it to Hampden, uniting rich and poor, friend and foe along the way. But this was the fairytale romance of the cup made real and updated for the 21st century – Ross County diehards are as likely to be women as they are men with war-wounds and bad chests from smoking roll-ups.

There was a buzz in Dingwall – a buzz eagerly stoked and taken measure of by local and national media – that built to a crescendo all last week but which began the moment County knocked Celtic out of the tournament in last month’s semi-finals.

The May 6 general election and its aftermath didn’t get a look in: the town had special pies and cakes to bake, shop windows to dress, processions to organise. There was also a record out, a version of a Proclaimers song by a local band called Torridon. It was a missed opportunity for someone to form a duo called Ross and Cromarty – along Flanders and Swann lines – and shut the Reid twins up for good.

Cakes and pies are thrust in front of television cameras whenever a provincial club achieves any degree of success in the cup, but there’s nothing stage-managed or fake about Ross County. “It’s a community club, a family club, all the way,” according to Lynn Lonnen, a supporter I met on Friday night in the Mallard, a pub on the very platform of Dingwall Railway Station. “We’re a small town, people know one another, we don’t lock our doors. You see the chairman about town, or the players, and they’ll speak to you.”

County, in other words, are a nice football club, the antithesis of, say, a Millwall. They can’t not be nice even when they try: one of the songs in the fans’ repertoire makes it clear to opponents that they will be left “crying in their mammy’s soup”.

They even have an amicable relationship with their local rivals, Inverness Caley Thistle, who yesterday hung out a banner emblazoned with the words “ICT wishes Ross County all the best”. “There’s very occasionally fisticuffs with some of the younger supporters, but usually it’s because of the drink,” Arnie, Lynn’s husband, told me.

He also told me County play “probably the best football in Scotland”, and it’s true that in 2007 they did – despite topping Division Two at the time – get rid of Dick Campbell as manager because the football his team were playing was insufficiently attractive.

Sadly, yesterday they had an off-day in a game that never really sparked to life as a contest. Maybe the supporters were too nice about their team’s failings – certainly, the accustomed choruses of disapproval at misplaced places were conspicuously absent from the West Stand.

It was for the “buzz” and the much-vaunted Highland hospitality – the drink, essentially – that I was in Dingwall. Unfortunately the drinkers seemed to have been headed in the other direction as I journeyed north.

I know this because I saw what a Friday night out in Glasgow had done to them as I made my way to the National Stadium before kick-off. Our rigid laws against drinking on supporters’ buses meant, on the other hand, that there was no-one making a proper fool of himself to be amused at on the road down.

It is reassuring to report, nevertheless, that the feeling in the aftermath of defeat was that the party simply had to go on. County’s manager, Derek Adams, and their director of football, his father George, are tee-total for religious reasons and the local Wee Frees had decreed that an open-top bus parade in the event of victory wasn’t to go ahead until Monday (this in an area of the country that elects the renowned toper Charles Kennedy as its MP), but celebrations planned for last night were not being cancelled.

One woman from Dingwall told me before the game that if County won, “the town won’t sleep for a week”. Afterwards, a man confided he was merely planning on “a wee dram.” Katie MacKenzie and Jilly Murray were unwavering in their intentions, however: “We’re staying out in Glasgow tonight, without a doubt”, said Katie, with a grin that sadly I hadn’t the chance to misinterpret as an invitation. For with that, they were off into the dusk, “family final” done and dusted and mammy’s soup not even on the menu.

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