All of this set up perfectly for my semester abroad in the fall of 2003. From September through December I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland in a flat with four other guys, three from Furman and one from Duke. Less than a week after arriving in Edinburgh, the Scottish national team traveled to Dortmund to face Germany in a qualifier for Euro 2004. This immediate inundation with soccer was the best possible result for my future in soccer interest in Edinburgh as thousands of Scots filled pubs to view their boys take on the mighty Germans. Ultimately Scotland fell that day, 2-1 and did not make Euro 2004, but the experience was exhilarating. Drunken Scots chanted, sang and almost killed the bartenders when Germany scored. It was simultaneously the most fun and most dangerous experience I’d ever had to that point in my life, sports-related or otherwise.
That day was just the start of a new-found interest in my life, European soccer. Prior to arriving in Edinburgh, I’d never heard of the Champions League or any of the Scottish clubs apart from Rangers and Celtic. Within days I’d watched Leeds-Leicester City in its entirety (back when they were both still top flight English sides) and seen Rangers playing Stuttgart in Champions League in a stirring victory for ‘Gers, 2-1 over the Germans. In October the Rangers-Manchester United match was on television and we watched United pull out a tough 1-0 win at Ibrox. In early November Man U crushed Rangers at Old Trafford 3-0, effectively ending Rangers’ bid at being the first Scottish side to advance out of the group stages in the Champions League. Of course Celtic were also on the tele and we managed to see the Hoops defeat Lyon in September and Anderlecht in November before they crashed out of Champions League in falling 3-2 to Lyon the day before I left the country.
Of course I saw many other matches on tv in pubs across Edinburgh and St. Andrews. I distinctly remember watching the Stuttgart match with Panathanikos in Group E in early November from the Ma Bells bar on The Scores in St. Andrews. I loved Stuttgart for some reason, though I was always pulling specifically for Rangers to make it through. I loved the Stuttgart shirts, I loved Kevin Kuranyi, Timo Hildebrand, Silvio Meissner, Philipp Lahm and Aleksandr Hleb and I just loved having a team that I was actively rooting for (when they weren’t playing ‘Gers). Maybe because they were the first side I enjoyed watching for reasons other than locality (ie, Rangers and Celtic) I have fond memories to this day. That sense that they were my team and no one else around was pulling for them was a cool feeling and it made me feel like I actually knew something about the game when I started mentioning the players’ names in conversation.
My best soccer memories from that fall in Scotland came in the form of live matches. After spending Halloween in St. Andrews, I hurried home to Edinburgh so that I could go with my flat mate Roy to see Hearts of Midlothian. Hearts are an old Edinburgh side named for the Walter Scott book of the same name. There famously is a heart made of cobblestone next to the St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh that one is to spit in the center of for good luck. Hearts play out on Gorgie Road which is out in the western part of the city, though not nearly as far out as the giant Murrayfield rugby stadium. Tynecastle Stadium is home to Hearts, an ancient stadium built in 1886 that had in recent years added three modern stands but left the old home stand as it was for an interesting mix of the future and the past of soccer pitches. I don’t know why we decided to choose Hearts instead of Hibernian, the slightly younger side that plays on Easter Road in the eastern part of town. Hibs wore better shirts, had a nicer stadium but we chose Hearts anyway.
So Roy and I went out to Tynecastle on that November 2 to try to buy tickets for the match with Livingston, one of the bottom feeders of the Scottish Premier League that season (and currently playing in the first division). With the match sold out and Hearts having a decent season, we were able to buy tickets outside the gates from someone scalping. I think we paid £30 each and were seated in Roseburn stand. Of course I’d heard all kinds of interesting stories about what happens at soccer matches in Europe from fights to fireworks, so I was curious to see what would happen in a relatively tame area in terms of soccer fanatics.
From the moment the match started, the Hearts fans were relentless. They chanted, they sang songs, they shouted at the referee. A wee lad behind us kept screaming ‘Go Hearts’ in an odd, Glaswegian-style accent. Whenever the referee made bad decisions, the stands would rock with supporters shouting threats and disagreeing in very discourteous ways. Half of what was said, shouted, chanted or sung, probably more actually, I couldn’t discern at all. These were rowdy Scots at their best, and this wasn’t even Glasgow. Thankfully for the home support, Mark de Vries, a lumbering, almost comical Dutch forward, scored in the waning moments of the match and gave Hearts a victory over lowly Livi. The referee might have been in mortal danger had the match ended otherwise.
As night fell and we walked back to our flat on Randolph Crescent, I just couldn’t get over how exciting and fun the match had been, even though it had only been between what would end up being the third and ninth place finishers in the SPL. The game was not the same kind of stage that I’d watched for the Champions League or the Euro 2004 qualifier, but it was a great time and set up my second live match in Scotland less than a month later.
On November 30, I made my way to Dundee from St. Andrews to watch Hearts take on Dundee United at Tannadice Park. This was true fanhood, traveling to watch the home side play away. Dundee United and Dundee each have stadiums (Dundee play at Dens Park) that stand less than fifty yards apart. In 2003, Dundee United were a slightly better side finishing fifth in the table while Dundee finished seventh. United wore ugly orange kits and brought only about six thousand fans into Tannadice, a fourteen thousand capacity. I don’t recall how, but we got very good seats in the visitors’ section with the loyal Hearts support that made the ninety minute train ride up to Dundee. Eight of us, including Roy’s parents visiting from the States, watched the match, despite the bitter cold. Our Hearts brethren constantly chanted, “What a shitey, what a shitey, what a shitey home support!” at the depressingly small United crowd. But alas Hearts could not defeat United as Derek McInnes scored to give the home side a 2-1 victory in a sloppily played game.
When it came time to leave Dundee and head back to St. Andrews, there was only so much room in the rental car so I took the bus back across the Firth of Tay after waiting for nearly an hour in the station. That bus station would not be a recommended spot in a tour book and it was doubly bad as I was wearing a recently purchased Hearts scarf to keep warm in the winter wind. Before even leaving the grounds, United fans cursed at us and I was ridiculed on several occasions at the bus station.
Yet these formalities of being a fan of a losing side could hardly detract from what was a growing obsession. Soccer was making an imprint on me as a fan of sports. While I was in Scotland I missed the entire college football season (though my brother and I did take in the Sugar Bowl between LSU and Oklahoma in the Super Dome that January), the baseball post-season including the Bartman game in Chicago and the Marlins-Yankees seven game World Series. I missed most of the NFL regular season and the first three months of the NBA. Amazingly, I didn’t miss any of those things at all. I was perfectly content with following loads of soccer. It did help that the Rugby World Cup was taking place that fall in Australia and with the Scots and the English involved, we saw a great deal of rugby (especially with Johnny Wilkinson and England winning the Cup). But in the course of three months, soccer had completely replaced American sports.