‘It wesnae a goal, Geoff’ | Worldwide, Scots lend ‘fitba’ their distinctive style

On 13 Apr 1946, Scotland defeats England 1–0 at Hampden Park, Glasgow, before 139,468. The Mount Florida ground in 1937 had, at another England friendly, set the attendance record for an international match: 149,415. The total remains a European record. (www.britishpathe.com)

Dundee, Scotland | Author and presenter Billy Kay has helped produce a series of programs for Radio Scotland on the spread of Scottish culture worldwide. He has considered the Scottish diaspora in the American South (The Scotch South), the place of Presbyterianism in world mission (The Scottish Mission in Malawi) and is at work on a series on Freemasonry’s influence in early America.


His two-part broadcast in the summer of 2006, It Wes Us, proclaimed Scottish footballers and managers as the progenitors of an artful passing game that in the late 19th century lifted association football from its dreary origin in the nonstop dribbling of English public schools. The passing form of football (“fitba,” in Scots)—spread via Scottish commercial agents, engineers and religion workers—cast its influence to Sweden, Spain and Russia and across seas and continents to the United States, South America, southern Africa, Manchuria, India and Australia. Kay found a picture of Dundee whalers kicking a ball, presumably made from seal skin, on Arctic ice in 1894. These tales appear in a chapter of Kay’s recent book, The Scottish World: A Journey into the Scottish Diaspora (Mainstream, 2006) (see May 8).

In an interview May 22—contained in our second podcast (below)—Kay suggests some reasons why the land with one-twelfth of England’s population found itself wielding influence out of proportion to its size.

We Scots like to pride ourselves in the egalitarian nature of our society. Lots of people see that as an expression of Presbyterianism, of the national church. Some people might suggest that it’s anti-individualism, because it goes for community and culture rather than the individual. Football in England developed very much as an expression of the individual in the elitist public schools … which are actually very extensive private schools. It was in those playgrounds that the game of football in England developed in places like Eton and Harrow and Rugby schools. There it was rampant individualism. There was a famous incident where one of the pioneers of the game in England [Alfred Lyttleton in 1877] is criticized for not passing the ball. He suggests that he’s doing it for his own pleasure, why would he pass the ball?

If you contrast that with the “a man’s a man for a’ that” philosophy of Robert Burns and the egalitarianism that comes from a Presbyterian instinct, where everyone can communicate directly with his God in the Presbyterian world picture, a different ethos is definitely there. So you could see the communal spirit of Scotland coming out in the … passing game, an idea that there are no superstars. Whereas in England it was very, very different. To be unkind to my southern neighbors, you could see that some of the arrogance English people are often accused of could be revealed in their way of playing football in those early days.

Queen’s Park, Glasgow, 1873. Of the Glaswegians—memorialized in his song “The Wise Old Men of Mount Florida”—the Dundonian Michael Marra sings, “When the science of football emerged from the dark / It was due in the main to the men of Queen’s Park.” (Mitchell Library, Glasgow Collection)

For better or worse, Scotland’s footballing aspirations and accomplishments have been wedded ever since to those of England. Kay emphasizes how the annual internationals between the two sides as part of the home nations championship were, for Scotland, vitally important fixtures. This tournament ended in 1983–84, replaced by the Rous Cup, which lasted until 1989.

In the early days, heady with the scientific, short-passing innovations under way at Queen’s Park, Scotland defeated England eight times in their first 12 encounters. Kay believes that early successes and fixation on beating England hampered the development of Scottish quality internationally. “That was enough” for Scotland, says Kay, “the idea that we invented the game and we constantly humiliate our neighbors playing the game. Our neighbors have got pretensions to be the originators of the game but how can they be the originators of the game if a tiny nation to the north of them keeps humiliating them? And that was enough for most Scots. As long as they beat the English, that was enough for them.”

The spirit of one-upsmanship carried on through much of the 20th century. Kay recalls making a flight connection in Houston en route to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico. On spotting Geoff Hurst—the England international credited with one of the most contested goals in World Cup history, the “did it cross the line?” effort in extra time versus West Germany in 1966—a member of the Tartan Army remarked, “It wesnae a goal by the way, Geoff.” Hurst, according to Kay, “tried to look supercilious,” but was affected.


In the interview Kay also helped introduce us to the football songs of Dundee’s Michael Marra, whose “The Wise Old Men of Mount Florida” is heard briefly in It Wes Us. Like Kay a Dundee United supporter, Marra pays homage in another selection on the 1991 album On Stolen Stationery to free-ranging United goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine. The ’keeper made 687 appearances for the Tangerines in more than 16 seasons, ending in ’85–’86. He also scored three times and, as captured in Marra’s lyrics, remains prominent in memory for exuberance in leading supporters’ songs and for the period mustache.

Up at Tannadice
Watching as the fortunes rise
Smiling when he hears “Ah it’s only a game,
Win lose or draw you get home to your bed
just the same”
But Hamish stokes young men’s dreams into a burning flame

Whether the prospects of club or country will be affected by outgoing Scottish Football Association president John McBeth‘s comments before the present 57th FIFA Congress is a question we were not able to put to Kay. CONCACAF president Jack Warner seized on McBeth’s controversial remarks about alleged FIFA corruption, especially in Africa and the Caribbean, to threaten the long-standing British vice-presidency and, some worried, perhaps to challenge the footballing independence of the four home nations (“McBeth’s Blunder Jeopardises Historic FIFA Independence of Home Nations,” The Scotsman, May 30).

In Scotland, such an outcome is unspeakable. Kay quotes from an interview with Bill Murray, a Scot, football historian at La Trobe University in Melbourne, referring to Scottish football’s gradual slide into mediocrity.

[I]t’s been our greatest glory, hasn’t it, football has been our greatest contribution to the world, and it’s a thing we’ve been best at, so we can lose the Empire, it doesn’t mean much, but to lose our status as a football nation that is the saddest thing.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] that aired on Radio Scotland last month, It Wes Us, hosted by Billy Kay (see podcast interview of 31 May 07). The title refers to the Scots’ claim to have been modernizers of association football, [...]

  2. [...] and author Billy Kay, in our May 31 podcast, notes how the Boys’ Brigade helped spread football to Presbyterian mission outposts [...]

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