It’s quarter to four on a mild February afternoon in South West London and once again I find myself in the familiar foetal position on the sofa, draped in a maroon and white scarf and nose-deep in my phone, rapidly scrolling through a less-than-thrilled comments section lurking under a grim, but not unpredictable ‘Hearts 0 Greenock Morton 0’ image on Twitter.
Sixty minutes, two or three medicinal beers, a Co-op pie and a badly made Bovril from a jar later, I find myself in the same spot leafing through the post-mortem of another uninspiring display that set me back the lion’s share of £20.
The act of parting with hard-earned cash to watch Hearts this season feels slightly masochistic and not too dissimilar to when Fifty Shades of Grey came out and Kindle sales went through the roof, as people were desperate to hide the shame and embarrassment of what they were consuming from the public eye. Still, there’s not a gun pointed at my head; like many other fans, I willingly choose to enter the last three digits of my card week in, week out and I actually look forward to the inevitable mixed bag of emotions that following my beloved football club brings.
Like clapping for carers last year, watching football on a Saturday has become one of the few reminders of what day of the week it is and one of only a handful of forms of escapism away from the doom and gloom of everything else that’s going on in our broken planet at the moment.
I enjoy the therapeutic nature of being able to call my Mum and Dad who I know have been watching the game (or at least the first half) from their house in the Scottish Borders at full-time each week. Win, lose or draw, it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, I just like talking rubbish about the football that we’ve just seen instead of being bogged down with chatting about the inescapable news headlines, which do little but extend the time between when we can see each other again.
One of the last things I did before upping sticks from a decade in Leith and relocating to London at the tail-end of 2019 was go to a Hearts v Aberdeen game, which ended 1-1 after an unfortunate but somewhat heroic Sean Clare red card. Having been a regular season ticket holder at Tynecastle, I hadn’t envisaged that it would be the last time I would see my team play live for over a year.
In February 2020, I tried dipping a toe in the waters of English football by attending a Charlton v Blackburn game as it was only £5, but I just couldn’t get into the spirit of it. Maybe it was because it was pissing it down; maybe it was because there were no bars letting people in nearby; maybe it was because as soon as I alighted the train at Charlton station, hoping to be absorbed in the atmosphere of the occasion, I overheard a slightly weathered Charlton fan saying “Oh great, tickets were only a fiver today, I hope no bloody neutrals try to speak to us again”.
Maybe it was because the card machine at The Valley broke and they wouldn’t let me go to the cash machine outside to get money for a pie and a drink; maybe it was because Charlton got beat 2-0 in a lacklustre display; maybe it was because I didn’t give a toss that Charlton lost 2-0 and I just don’t possess the same enthusiasm for the sport when I watch it as a neutral, or maybe it was because I spent the whole ninety-minutes biting my nails and barely taking in any of the game, as I had Sportsound on in my headphones listening to Hearts go two behind to Hamilton, only to scrape a 2-2 which would prove to be one of the final nails in our coffin that season.
As any dyed-in-the-wool football fan will tell you, relocating doesn’t do anything to extinguish the fire in your heart for the club you’ve grown up supporting; if anything it pours petrol on it, as you hopelessly long for the pre-match pint or half-time pie and lava-like Bovril as you’re huddled together on a cold concourse amongst fellow supporters venting about how underwhelming our January recruits have been, knowing full well that some of them have only been on the park for a grand total of forty-seven minutes.
I think it’s for this reason that I actually feel really privileged that when everything else seems to have shutdown and the world has reverted back to its factory settings, I can still watch my club infuriate me every week home and away. Yes, I pay for every away game too. I feel a sense of guilt parting with cash to the panto villains in our league when many others in the support quite rightly don’t want to give them the lint from their pockets.
Signing up to an Ayr, Alloa or Raith Rovers away game carries a similar guilt to that of buying fake DVDs in Turkey. Any enjoyment of the badly-filmed spectacle is slightly dampened when you’re safe in the knowledge that, if the warnings before legit DVDs are anything to go by, you’re probably funding pirates or terrorism.
Nearly five months in, the novelty of being able to watch every game hasn’t worn off for me. In any normal season I’d be able to fool my iPlayer into thinking I was in Scotland and catch a game or two on the BBC Scotland channel, but out with that – as I’m not overseas and the UK broadcasting rules dictate I wouldn’t be able to view games on Hearts TV – my options would be fairly limited if I wanted to carry on watching the club I’ve supported for the last 25/30 years.
I can fully appreciate why streaming matches is far from an ideal scenario for season ticket holders who would ordinarily be travelling to and from EH11 every week. If I was still in Edinburgh I’d no doubt be grumbling or rage Tweeting at the faff of trying to plug the HDMI player into my laptop every Saturday, when I would much rather be four pints of soapy Tennents deep at The Diggers and aggravating strangers.
The atmosphere is non-existent, the post-match cooldown/jubilation at the pub or the drive home aren’t on offer and there’s a sense of solitude about the whole thing when, on matchday, football often takes a backseat to the social interactions of the afternoon. However, I count myself lucky in the current climate to be able to watch my team in any capacity.
Like ourselves, Partick Thistle were dealt an incredibly unfair blow over the summer and their fans are in limbo as to when they can see even a pixelated version of their club kick a ball again. With that in mind, it’s another reason why I don’t take being able to watch Hearts every week for granted.
Though I’ll inevitably miss it, I’m sure I won’t be too despondent when the streams dry up, normality returns and fans can flood back to games, as it will mean an end to the suffering and we can all see family and friends again and, if I’m lucky, I can catch a few games at Tynecastle anytime I’m back up north. For the moment though, I’m hugely grateful I can tune in, even when we’ve played absolutely shite against Greenock Morton.