Monday, April 14, 2014

Gordon Smith

I have a tendency to make the glib statement “I don’t have heroes”. It’s obviously not true. I even qualify it by citing Oskar Matzerath, a character from The Tin Drum, who is such a hero to me he’s tattooed on my arm. Of course I have heroes. We all do. Norman Russell and Bob Fyall, my Latin and English teachers, respectively, are heroes. And Gordon Smith was my hero.

Gordon Smith has died. I can almost guarantee that none of my regular readers on this blog will have heard of Gordon Smith. Probably not many people will have, full stop. But he means a lot to me, and I’m very sorry to hear of his death.

On a very sunny April day in 1975 I was taken to Muirton Park for the first time. Muirton Park was home of St Johnstone Football Club, and it was the last day of the football season, and Saints had to beat the mighty Celtic in order to win a place in the new Premier League which was starting the following year. For a ten year old boy it was an overwhelming experience. I remember climbing the dark wooden stairway into the Centre Stand and emerging from the gloom to see a pitch that was more vividly green than anything I’d ever seen, exactly like the experience of the kid in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. There were thousands of people already in the stadium, filling the terraces surrounding the pitch, huge swathes of green and white directly opposite, the blue and white of St Johnstone all around. And the noise. The Celtic fans in full voice. I didn’t know then it was mainly sectarian bile they were singing, of course. I was just swept along by the tide of noise they created, and the Saints fans returned that noise with songs of our own. It was my first ever football match, and it hooked me for life. Everything seemed so important.

We won. We won 2-1 and gained our place in the new league. That evening I was so excited I danced around my bedroom, waving my scarf, singing “When the Saints go Marching In”. I couldn’t think about anything else. I didn’t want to talk about anything else. It was a magical day. You can never recapture your childish sense of excitement and that will always remain one of the greatest days of my life.

Gordon Smith was the matchwinner. We went 1-0 down in the first half and the dream looked over. Then Jim O’Rourke equalised and the tension ratcheted up another notch. And mid way through the second half we were awarded a penalty and the world stopped spinning and I stopped breathing. Silence in Muirton Park. Up stepped Gordon Smith, the right back. I can’t really remember the details of it, but he scored and we were 2-1 up and we held our lead until the end and won the match. And in this way Gordon Smith became a hero.

From his obituaries, I discover he was only 59 when he died. That means he was only 20 when he took that penalty, a mere ten years older than me, scarcely older than a boy himself. But to me he was – and always will be – impossibly heroic.

The point of this is that heroes are not gods or saints or impossibly exotic individuals. They are the ordinary people who do things which change the course of your life. They can do so in subtle ways and you may not even be aware they are doing it. Gordon Smith never knew me, never realised the impact he had on a young boy’s life. But what he did that day has had a profound effect on me. Ever since, St Johnstone have been a constant for me. I haven’t lived in Perthshire for twenty-seven years, and I don’t suppose I’ve seen Saints play more than twenty or thirty games in that time, but I’m still fanatical about them. I get nervous before matches, I follow the results religiously, still experience the (occasional) highs and (frequent) lows of being a true supporter. It's an irrational thing, but it is as much a part of me as my left arm or the tattoo of little Oskar.

Yesterday, St Johnstone beat Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi-final to reach the final for the first time in our 130 year history. We won 2-1. Both of our goals were scored by a 21 year old kid, a striker called Stevie May. Well done, Stevie. You don’t know this, but yesterday you will have become a hero to some young boy or girl who was at that match. You will have changed them. You will have created a moment, a memory they will never forget, will always cherish, will talk about in years to come.

Just like Gordon Smith, on 26 April 1975. Thank you, Gordon.

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