The unbearable Spursiness of Hibsing it

Hibernian were my first but not my last or only love. Leaving Edinburgh as a nine-year-old meant, above all, leaving Hibs, and I wept bitter schoolboy tears. I had only just started going to matches, paying fifteen new pence in freshly-minted decimal coinage for the privilege. On the first day that we were officially allowed to play football at break, I wore my Hibs strip to school, a scratchy nylony top with thin green stripes on the collar and cuffs. Others followed suit – or strip – and we turned the grey old place green.

It was not easy to transfer my football passion to another love object in early 1970s London. Arsenal seemed the obvious choice – double-winners with their cheeky Charlie, they fancied themselves the pride of the capital. They played in what was basically a red Hibs strip (or ‘kit’ as my new schoolmates called it). And they had Peter Marinello, recently transferred from Hibs for a record £110,000, which to me then represented the absolute upper limit of what it was possible to pay for a footballer.

Well ‘the Scottish George Best’ flopped at Arsenal like his sixties locks, and I didn’t go great Gunners with them either. For some reason Highbury, with its cream façade, ruddy-faced crowd and symbolic heavy artillery, just didn‘t do it for me. The double-winners became perpetual runners-up. The football they played was not particularly attractive. When their overbrimmingly proud clubman Bob Wilson turned BBC presenter, he would do pieces to camera from Highbury’s Marble Halls about ‘My old club, Arsenal…’ and for me he became the face of the Arse in that era. They rapidly became my old club, too, but in a different sense.

My affections strayed, and for a west London boy in the mid-70s, the logical direction was from the Arse to the Rs. In those days schoolboys took as much pride in the exploits of their team’s hooligans as in those of its players, and Queens Park Rangers fans were universally derided as soft – “My nan could take the Loft!” they taunted – but the football played by the Loftus Road team was laudably stylish and very nearly won them the league in 1976.

Frank McLintock provided a link with both Scotland and Arsenal, whose double-winning side he had captained. Don Masson was another classy Scot, though never perhaps ‘the greatest player in the world’ hailed by Scotland manager Ally MacLeod in the first tartan flush of the victory over Czechoslovakia that helped send the team on its way to the World Cup in Argentina. Left-footed wizard Stan Bowles was weaving his way towards club legend status and Dave Thomas was a brilliant winger who somehow added to the excitement of watching by playing with his socks down at his ankles. I saw this team many times at Loftus Road, terrified out of my wits on one occasion by the rancid following of a downwardly-mobile Manchester United. “You’re gonna get your fucking ‘ead kicked in!” they chanted, pointing en masse and in unison, it seemed, at me. The QPR team I had first watched included a late-career Terry Venables prompting intelligently from the middle and the brilliant Cockney maverick Rodney Marsh. The fact that Venables also wrote novels enhanced the aura of educated football. This was a club fit for a displaced Edinburgh schoolboy, well-versed in Hibernian style, to support.

Being a Hibby at a London comp was a bit like being the only gay in the village – in other words, a rather defiant figure of fun. I kept the faith through all the years, mocked by my contemporaries for the sparse crowds and goalkeeping howlers that seemed to define Scottish football in the snippets they saw on Football Focus or On the Ball. I cringed a bit myself at the gaping terraces and harsh Scots voices ­(wee boys piping up over the top), the rusting crush barriers a grimace of bad dentistry on the face of the beautiful game; and as the years passed my footballing ardour cooled. By common consent, the Hibs of that period were shite, and they saw out the 70s with relegation. I got into girls, and football drifted out to the margins.

But time found me married and living in north London with two young sons and a decision to make. Arsenal or Spurs? Gooners or Yids? We were equidistant from the two stadiums, but whereas the Emirates was just a short train ride away, White Hart Lane was notoriously never an easy place to go – though in terms of public access only, and not the more metaphorical sense of the football cliché. Spurs could still be a pushover at home, their ground known to Chelsea fans as Three Point Lane. Arsenal had been literal Invincibles just a couple of seasons before, and their new stadium was already something of a fortress. So it should have been a no-brainer, and for a spell my eldest wore red.

And yet I had feelings for Tottenham Hotspur. They had initially been protective feelings, in response to seeing badly-drawn swastikas, Stars of David dangling from gallows, and graffitied exhortations to Kill Tottenham Yids back in the early 1970s, long before the White Hart Lane faithful adopted the epithet as a badge of proud self-identification. My gentle, football-averse father was a Jew, and it pained me to think of him being targeted by the Chelsea hooligans I assumed had authored those murderous sentiments. I had also heard that Arsenal fans hissed to mimic the gas chambers at north London derbies. Such stories left me feeling personally threatened, and I developed an unspoken identification with the club.

No-one knows exactly when Spurs fans first took up the Y-word, or when the ‘Yid Army’ was born, and it has never been uncontroversial. Comedian and writer David Baddiel (Twitter bio: ‘Jew’) has disputed their right to ‘reclaim’ or ‘reappropriate’ the word and sought to have it banned, arguing that as only about 5% of Spurs fans are actually Jewish, it is not theirs to reclaim: “The equivalent case would be a club in Brixton made up mainly of white fans adopting the N-word as their ‘badge of honour’. This, I think, would be stopped fairly quickly.” He goes on to define Yid as unequivocally “a race-hate word. It was daubed across the East End by Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts, along with the word Out.”

But he is only partly right on both counts. In contrast to the N-word, Yid is not solely a race-hate term: to define it exclusively as such is to hand a linguistic victory to the Blackshirts. As the celebrated Yiddish language maven Leo Rosten points out, when pronounced YEED to rhyme with ‘deed’, it just means Jew; and it has been used that way, with many affectionate or ironic connotations, by generations of Ashkenazi Jews, including my father. Rosten does warn, though: “If you pronounce it YID to rhyme with ‘did’, you will be guilty of a faux pas: ‘YID’ is offensive – and the way anti-Semites pronounce it.”

Of course such linguistic nuances are lost on most football fans, and they all say it in the anti-semitic way, anyway. But context is at least as important as pronunciation, and for Spurs fans, it’s a tribal rallying-cry that arose in response to abuse. What do they mean by it? Proudly, us. And though just a small minority are actually Jewish, all were indiscriminately insulted with the same word: doesn’t everyone have the right to ‘reclaim’ an insult directed specifically at them? For Baddiel’s thought experiment to be complete, his white Brixtonites should be imagined having themselves been vilified with the N-word. It is essentially an act of defiant solidarity. As the Spurs-supporting (Jewish) journalist Matthew Norman puts it: “[…] what are gentile Spurs fans saying when they sing of themselves as ‘yids’ if not ‘I am Spartacus’? And which of us doesn’t well up at the end of the movie when we hear Kirk Douglas’s compadre rebels, one by one, say that?”

It was, however, mainly other considerations that led to my directing family footballing loyalties to the Lane, and another word connected with Spurs that troubled me more when I did.

Now that the north London football boot is pretty much on the other foot, it is hard – painful, even – to remember back to the days of the high Gooner hegemony and beefy red triumphalism. Everyone was a Gooner, from the man in the corner-shop to the parents I met at the school gate. Spurs were, as the Arsenal meme had it, forever in their shadow. What on earth was I thinking? Well my sense of Jewish identification was reinforced by an instinctive sympathy for the underdog. There was also the romance of former glory – I knew about the double and captain Blanchflower, his educated Irish profile pulling subtly on my Hibernian sensibilities, and about Dave MacKay, who seemed as hard and decent a Scotsman as ever lived, despite having come from Hearts. I remembered Big Chiv and Ralph Coates from a later era, the latter’s preposterous comb-over flapping like a bird on the wing. I had a Scottish cousin with the same name. Now under the genial, gruff Dutchman Martin Jol, Spurs were relatively on the up. We had the mercurial Bulgarian, Berbatov, and his strike partner, the Irish sharpshooter Robbie Keane. We had agreeably eccentric full backs and the speediest, most graceful winger I had ever seen in Aaron Lennon. And, in the words of the song, we had Ledley at the back. I hoped that my boys would experience the deep, almost spiritual satisfaction of supporting this team in its struggle from a modest base to some eventual success. It would be a lesson in life.

But still, what was I thinking? To be a Spurs fan in those days felt a bit like being a Marrano secretly practising Judaism in Inquisition Spain, and it took me some time to persuade my six-year-old son to wear his Spurs shirt in public. Not long after, a woman in a Muswell Hill shoe shop got to her feet chanting “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham!” when she saw him in it, interrupting her son’s Clarks fitting to make him do the same. She didn’t seem to be joking. We were aghast, but resolute in our new footballing loyalty.

The fact was that Spurs were a good match for my inner football love map. I had managed to persuade myself that they were the true London analogue of my beloved Hibs, compiling a mental inventory of parallels between the two teams with that childishness of mind we middle-aged men allow ourselves to preserve in footballing matters. A long name and a short name. Early participation in Europe. Glory before my time. Glory glory as a match-day theme tune. An unbroken style tradition despite lack of success. Irish connections. A support that included notable writers, artists and intellectuals (in Spurs’ case, a lot of comedians, too). A famous singing duo attached, with signature club song. Steve Archibald. And any other connection I could draw, however tenuous, such as the improbable discovery that the current Spurs manager’s son is a Hibby from his time studying in Edinburgh.

And then there was the uncomfortable, ominous linguistic coincidence of being spursy and hibsing it. These words represented different parts of speech (an adjective and a verb respectively) but had very similar connotations. Spursy means flaky and unreliable, likely to bottle it or fail to live up to expectations, and reflected a reality about the team I had chosen to support. It flattered to deceive. This was the Spurs that found itself 2-0 up and potentially sixteen points ahead of Arsenal in the run-in to the 2011-12 season, only to end the game 5-2 down and the season a place behind them. It was a club for which going 2-0 up was a general signal for everyone to start crapping themselves. We finished fourth that season but were denied the Champions League place this should have meant, thanks to Chelsea winning the competition and thus automatically requalifying for it despite finishing below us in the league. So being spursy also meant being cursed with bad luck, as when practically the whole team came down with food poisoning on the eve of a match with West Ham in 2006 that would have sealed fourth place ahead of Arsenal had we won it. Needless to say, struggling to field eleven fit players, we lost. Being spursy also meant being a nearly team.

Go online to the Urban Dictionary, and you’ll find hibs it there along with spursy, meaning much the same thing: “To fall at the final hurdle. To snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. To go on a bad run of results just when you are a stick-on for winning the league.” It is about shooting yourself in the foot. Edinburgh journalist and lifelong Hibby Aidan Smith expands on the theme, as a jazz soloist might improvise on heartbreak: “To do a Devon Lock, after the horse cantering to glory only to perform the splits just before the finish-line. To do a Don Fox, in the style of the Rugby League Challenge Cup hero-apparent who sliced what should have been the winning kick. To be Wile E. Coyote, having snared the Roadrunner at last, only to be flattened by a plummeting boulder. To be Tom, cooking himself a Jerry-based dinner at last, only to be pancaked by a flying anvil. To be Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar, who wins Julie Christie then lets her leave town on a train. This is Hibsing it.”

There have been serious attempts by malicious rival supporters of both clubs to have these words put in the OED, and they remain very much under active consideration. Spurs already appear there in an example sentence showing how to use lackadaisical (adj. lacking enthusiasm and determination; carelessly lazy): “a lackadaisical defence left Spurs adrift in the second half”. This is lexicographical trolling of a high order, echoed by an initial lack of defensive composure from Hibs in an example sentence for the Scottish adjective shoogly (Unsteady; wobbly): “With the pace in their ranks they could do this with some menace, but after their shoogly start the Hibs rearguard didn’t give them too many openings”.

Spursy, hibs it, lackadaisical, shoogly: I couldn’t help wondering what this lexical set said about me. We reveal ourselves most deeply in whom and what we love. Was I any of those things?

Certainly I could be said to have hibsed it academically as a young man. I got an unprecedented 91% in my history A-level mock, only to achieve a spursy B in the actual exam, badly messing up my timing in a characteristic fit of self-destruction. My headmaster, ludicrously unsuited to comprehensive life, told my father that the last time he’d seen that sort of potential, the student had won a scholarship to Balliol. Reader, I didn’t make it to second interview (and it wasn’t Balliol). In my final year at university, I was taken aside and told by my favourite tutor that I could get a first. But in the heat of final exams, of course, I hibsed a 2.1.

Then came what is known as real life. I was lucky enough to get a coveted place in journalism after graduating, but had thrown the opportunity away within a year. I picked myself up and dusted myself down as you do, and before too long was quite nicely set up in a big Georgian flat in Edinburgh’s trendy Stockbridge with my beautiful girlfriend and our two lovely dogs. I had not a bad little job in the city’s best bookshop. Within two years, it was all gone – flat, girlfriend, dogs, job – and I was left pondering my losses in a rehab centre located deep in the Scottish Borderlands, having hibsed it big time in the capital.

I suppose I told myself there was something human about failure and loss, about vulnerability when facing the big tests.

It occurs to me now that the green flaw – the slug in the cabbage – had been there from the outset. My older sister’s boyfriend Dougie Gibbs was the one who first got me into Hibs. For a brief boyhood moment, I thought the world of him and wanted to be like him. Lacking an older brother, I copied what he said and did, and became a Hibby like Gibby. My hero even took me to watch a match at Easter Road – which my father, nominally a Jambo but with no real interest in football, stubbornly refused to do. But when Gibby came to spend a week with us on holiday, he shat the bed every night, fouling the cheap blue sleeping bag my mother had laid out for him on the floor of the room we children shared. Whatever juvenile terrors had startled out his jobbies in the depths of the summer night, he had hibsed it with us beyond all imagining, the spin-cycled sack now a winding-sheet for my admiration and my sister’s love. No matter how many times my mother put it through the washing machine, it remained as tainted as a leper’s mantle and none of us ever slept in it again.

And yet, and yet. I kept the faith. I’m still a Hibby. And as a linguist I know that language changes and meaning is not immutable – otherwise December would still refer to the tenth month of the year. Hibs have broken an ancient hoodoo to finally lift the Scottish Cup after a 114-year wait, and are now back in the top flight, competing (up to a point) in Europe again under their fiery Irish manager. Spurs are now an established Champions League side, with more players than any other club involved in the semi-finals of the recent World Cup, talisman Harry Kane winning the golden boot and captain Hugo Lloris lifting the trophy for France. There is no reason why hibs it and spursy cannot become glory words, associated with enduring sporting success. I can legitimately dream of the day when to hibs it means to make a clean sweep of trophies and spursy denotes something unmatchably dazzling. Glory, glory to the Hibees. Glory, glory Tottenham Hotspur. Your words go marching on.