Being the fan of football that I am, I have always tried to find opportunities to visit places that allow me to watch matches, either in person, or in bars/pubs that specifically cater to the beautiful game. My work schedule on the other hand, likes to do the opposite: take me to places that don’t have teams, television is dominated by American football, baseball, and other sports not named football (or soccer as we say in ‘murica). I can only hope that at some point, the stars align, the heavens sing, and someone, somewhere, looks down upon me and everything works out. I was in Glasgow, Scotland last week, and something amazing did happen.
When the dates of my trip were finally locked down, and all of my arrangements had been double checked, I began to look for any matches that might be possible to watch. My excitement turned to dread pretty quickly as I realized that my travel schedule was in no way conducive to watching matches, including the Rangers versus Celtic match on the Sunday I traveled (I mean, I doubt I could have gotten a ticket, but with a few phone calls I might have pulled it off). It would appear to me, and the quick research I did, that I would not be watching football this trip.
I flew into Edinburgh and had a car service drive me the 50-60 minutes to my hotel in Glasgow on the West End. The driver, Ian, was a great guy, who chatted with me the entire way about politics, religion, and football. He wasn’t a big footy fan, but he certainly understood why I was a bit upset the timing wasn’t right to take in a match, and certainly understood my disappointment in missing the Old Firm match, the name given to the meetings between Celtic and Rangers.
It was OK though, as hopefully I would be able to carve out some time to drive over to the stadiums and take a few pictures, seeing as the grounds themselves are so close to each other, maybe a 15-20 minute car ride if traffic is not horrible. Regardless, I was beginning to let it sink in that experiencing Scottish football may not be in the cards this trip.
I got to work Monday, and spent a solid three-fourths of a day with the team getting a great start to my trip. I headed out to a nice early dinner, considering I had not gotten any decent sleep due to travel and time changes, and was making plans for the rest of the week. My friend asked if there was anything else I would like to do while I was there, and I openly lamented to him on the sadness I felt at the fact there were no football matches being played. All the other things on my checklist had to do with beer, whisky, castles, and fish-n-chips. He assured me we would get as many things knocked off the list as possible before my trip was done. I went to bed fairly early and looked forward to the next day of work.
Not long after the work day began, my friend pulled me to the side and said he called his uncle, who is a huge football fan, and asked what we should do to help me get my football fix in. His uncle told him it was an easy problem to solve, as there was a Scottish Cup match replay happening just south of us the following night. Upon hearing this, and hearing that my friend was already making calls to get details and make plans, it was a bit overwhelming, considering I had a job to do, and I was going to get it done, but it was already something that tried to consume my thoughts. There was now a good chance we were going to match.
Wednesday came, and my friend finally had discussed all the needed details and set everything in motion. We would leave work a pinch early that evening to catch a train to Kilmarnock, a city a bit south of Glasgow, to watch the replay match against Aberdeen, the fifth- and third-place teams in the Scottish Premier Football League, respectively. The work day went well, and during every little break, I was given more and more advice on what to expect, what to say, what not to say, and an infinite number of recommendations on food, beer, and treats to sample while there, and all suggestions were properly noted as they were all great.
My friend and I left at a reasonable time, hit the hotel quickly to change, and grabbed a cab to Glasgow Central Station. We decided to take a little bit of an earlier train and avoid the peak of rush hour folks trying to get home. We acquired our two-way train tickets, had plenty of time before the train left, so we walked around the corner to a pub for a quick pint.
Here is where I detour for a moment on a couple things that I learned to love while there. Brewdog makes fantastic beers, and I mean absolutely fantastic beers. European pints are four more ounces than we get here, and that needs to be changed. Getting a true pint of Tennent’s, or any other local beer was just perfect, every ounce of that 20 was perfect. I digress.
So, we hopped our train for the 40-minute ride to Kilmarnock. Then a three-minute walk to a Taxi stand, and a 10-minute drive to Rugby Park, home to Kilmarnock FC, the oldest professional football club in Scotland. To put that statement in perspective, the club was founded in 1869, only 24 years after Florida became the 27th state. Rugby Park holds about 18,000 people, all seats, and is of a very similar construction to Orlando City Stadium, with roof extensions designed to help protect the fans a bit from the elements, but also to help focus sound on the pitch, and does it do a good job of focusing that sound.
We started in the Park Hotel, which sat right next the Rugby Park, ordered a few pints and Killie Pies, the best pie in football, and one of the best steak pies in Scotland, and waited to grab a seat, as the bar area was already pretty packed with players, staff, and fans enjoying some banter before the match. While I was enjoying my first pint and pie, my friend was at the bar trying to get some information and began talking to a gentleman at the bar. After they were done talking, he came over to me and relayed their discussion, as this very finely dressed gentleman had seen my Orlando City shirt, and was shocked at how small the world was because he has a friend going on holiday to Florida and has already purchased tickets to an Orlando City match.
In sheer disbelief, I went over to introduce myself to this gentleman, who I found out is on the Kilmarnock board, exchanged information with him, and took a picture with him for his mate who will be in Orlando for the next home match (hopefully I will be meeting this man and his wife for a small pint before the match). Nothing else much happened while we drank more pints and ate more Killie Pies, except meeting Craig Brown, the former manager for the Scottish Men’s National Team, and having to explain my “that’s OK, we won’t hold it against him that he played for the Timbers” comment to some field staff and players from Kilmarnock. They had heard me talking to another fan, who saw my Orlando City Sea Cows shirt, wanted to chat MLS, and let me know that Chris Boyd, Kilmarnock FC’s starting striker, had a one-year stint with the Portland Timbers. It was all in fun, everyone went their separate ways smiling, and it was time to head to the stadium.
I won’t get into the gory details of the match play, but it was a very defensive game, with a lot of balls sent over the top to lone strikers, or pairs of players trying to break. The ball seemed to be in the air more than it was rolling on the pitch.
We were seated right behind the goal, in the front row of the upper section, which gave us an amazing vantage point. Almost 10,000 people showed up for the match, including about 1,500 away supporters, who were set up, alone, on the opposite side. Could you imagine having that many fans travel for an MLS side, consistently?
What was truly amazing, other than I was freezing my ass off in 37-degree weather with a 15 mph wind blowing, watching a football match, was the crowd. I had forgotten how “polite” fans are during matches sometimes when it comes to away support. The away supporters are given opportunity to sing some of their songs, when appropriate, and are not immediately drowned out by the overwhelmingly larger home crowd, although right before their songs ended, the entire stadium would boo. When the home side sung, it was deafening, and not just because I was in the equivalent of the supporters section.
The entire stadium vibrated when the home side sung in a way that gave me goosebumps. It was an absolute spectacle. Also, fans are very honest, and it certainly does not matter what color your kit is, as the fans will tell you exactly what they think of your play, home or away. Listening to the commentary of the groups around me was some of the best play-by-play I have ever witnessed.
Of course, the match not only went to extra time after finishing 0-0, but also went through extra time with a score of 1-1 (honestly, Kilmarnock FC should have won, as Aberdeen FC was awarded a penalty on an obvious dive in the box), and finished in a penalty shootout, with Aberdeen advancing on penalties, 3-2. And this is where the last bit of fun begins because, remember ladies and gents, we took a train, and ScotRail does not run trains all night long.
As soon as the match ended, the speed walking began. There was no chance to hail a cab as the cabs are kept away from the stadium for about 20-30 minutes after the match ends. We were given very good instructions though on how to walk back to the train station by our driver earlier, and they worked perfectly. We got to the platform with about 10 minutes to spare, got in line to get on the train, and even got seats when it arrived. We were frozen, heavy from the multiple pies consumed, and ready to get back to the hotel, for one last pint and rest.
I am convinced that not being an Aberdeen fan, being a foreigner, but, more importantly, being an American that loved football, immediately endeared me to everyone around the match, from both sets of fans, players, board members, staff and everyone we met in-between. The entire experience is one that I will cherish for a long time — cherish so much that I emailed the makers of Killie Pies to see if they ship to the U.S.
Watching football abroad is certainly something I will continue to do, even though I know exactly where my home is.