The Calcutta Cup is an oddly exotic name for a prize synonymous with so parochial a rivalry. It was presented to the Rugby Football Union in 1878 by members of the Calcutta Club, who had joined the RFU four years earlier but found that the Indian climate was not especially conducive to playing rugby football. How it took them four years to reach that conclusion I have no idea, but anyway, it is nice that their fleeting stab at playing the game is immortalised in the form of the trophy played for annually by England and Scotland. Or Scotland and England, if you prefer. I was recently taken to task by a reader for repeatedly writing Rangers and Celtic rather than Celtic and Rangers. There are people out there who care about these things, and at least one of them is Scottish, so I ought to be careful.
I know some Scots who get as hot under their collars as the Calcutta Club rugby team over the perceived arrogance of the English. Once, in a small whitewashed pub beside a sea loch in the west of Scotland, I fell into conversation with an unsmiling local man who told me he'd lived and worked "abroad" for six years before returning home. I asked him where he had spent his six years abroad. "Have y'ever heard o' a place called High Wycombe?" he growled.
It is this mindset, sharpened by memories of that great Scottish patriot Mel Gibson, that not a few of the home supporters will take with them to Murrayfield this afternoon. As cauldrons of anti-Englishness go, not even Hampden Park spits and bubbles quite like Murrayfield on Calcutta Cup day.
Not that it spills over into violence, thank heavens. But if there is such a thing as violence of the spirit, it becomes almost tangible during the singing of "Flower of Scotland".
I can think of only two sporting venues where, as a supporter of the away team, I have felt intimidated by the sight and sound of the home fans in full cry. One is Anfield, or at least the Anfield of 30 years ago, where, as an Evertonian on derby day, standing in the Anfield Road End, I used to look across at the Kop with their scarves unfurled and suppress a gulp. The other is Murrayfield, where as an Englishman it's best not to catch the eye of the nearest 6ft 5in kilted ginge as he belts out the words "proud Edward's army", not if you don't want your legs to start wobbling. In many ways, such partisanship is admirable. Enviable, even. But when it mutates into hatred of the opposition it becomes not merely ugly but self-destructive. The Liverpool fans who reportedly hurled missiles at Alan Smith's ambulance hurt nobody but themselves.
Speaking of football, one of the cast-iron certainties of the World Cup is that some media organisation or other will think it a bright idea to dispatch a reporter to a pub in Scotland on the day that it is decked out in the colours of Paraguay or Sweden for an England group match, or perhaps, later in the tournament, in the colours of Germany or Argentina. This pops up as a colour piece in a newspaper or on the radio every four years, or every two years if you include the European Championship, celebrating a practice that I would grudgingly applaud if they did it only to wind up us Sassenach bastards, because in that respect it usually succeeds. One leading Scottish newspaper reported England's win in the 2003 rugby union World Cup at the bottom of page nine, and part of me cheered the bloody-minded mischievousness of it. But for some Scots, anti-Englishness is truly, deeply visceral, and I'm sorry to say so, but they need to get a life.
A common Scottish response to Englishmen bleating like this is to say that we don't understand the frustration engendered by slight piled upon slight; by our references to Tim Henman as English but Andy Murray as British; by our maddening delusions of superiority as a global footballing power based on a World Cup victory four decades ago. Actually, I think I do understand all that, and I sympathise. But if we should forget Wembley 1966, then they should forget Bannockburn 1314.
Besides, did any British football team ever march as hubristically to the World Cup as Ally MacLeod's Scotland in 1978? And didn't every Englishman cheer as MacLeod's players almost redeemed themselves by beating the Netherlands, the eventual finalists? In the commentary box, Bobby Charlton hardly managed to keep his hair on - that's hair in the singular - when Archie Gemmill wriggled through the Dutch defence to score the goal that nearly kept the Scots in the tournament. And I clearly remember jumping off our living-room sofa with excitement.
So here's a message to my friends north of the border: we don't hate you, so please don't hate us as you converge on Murrayfield in the Edinburgh twilight, and do try to remember that the square-jawed fellow leading out the England team is not Will Carling, who could indeed be an arrogant so-and-so, but who retired quite a long time ago.
Who I like this week...
Barry Davies, who wasn't everybody's cup of tea as a football commentator, perhaps because he was more Earl Grey than Somerfield own-brand. But it has been nice to hear his cultured tones again during the Olympic figure-skating routines, and now that triple salchows have a place in football (see below), it's time that he returned to Match of the Day. Unfortunately, Davies was a victim of his own versatility, always playing second fiddle to John Motson on big football occasions, which is why he eventually stepped down from that quasi-mystical place, the gantry. But the truth is that nobody does the big occasion better; indeed, he emerged from the ceremonial World Cup draw with his reputation greatly enhanced, and that was without uttering a word. Dear old Motty made a right ricket of it.
And who I don't
Jose Mourinho, who has encouraged the scapegoating of yet another Scandinavian referee by laying into Terje Hauge for his decision to send off Asier Del Horno in Chelsea's match against Barcelona on Wednesday. The fact is that Del Horno was about as close to the ball as I was when he clattered Lionel Messi. Besides, for the coach of Arjen Robben to criticise Messi for play-acting is about as rich as Roman Abramovich himself. In the commentary box, Andy Gray got it right, with a rare reference to the New Testament. "You reap what you sow," he said.Reuse content