Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine
THE cat doesn’t look long for this world. It’s a panting hunch of fuzz, tail trawling through the trackside gravel, eight short of its complement of lives. This mouser needs a taxidermist, not a vet. “I don’t think I can take this, ” it croaks. “I might pass out.” Poor puss hasn’t seen shut-eye in 24 hours. Friday night has melted into a 100 watt spring Saturday. Yet somehow the tom must rouse himself for the next 90 minutes.
Twenty minutes to kick-off and a melody seeps through the PA system, an instantly recognisable jaunty lilt. “TOP CAT! Thee in-diss-pyootabull LEE-DURR OF THE GAA-AANG” The moggy raises himself up to his full six feet. Paws like dustbin lids clodhop towards the turf. He rumbles past the May Hughes School of Dancing – a teenage collective of hotpants, pom-poms and goosebumps. Still the music blares: “He’s the BOSS, he’s a PIP…” A huddle of young boys bounce and hoot in their plastic seats. Gambolling awkwardly, the blue cat claps and waves, his dance possessing the natural grace of a Pickfords worker wrestling a wardrobe downstairs. “He’s the CHAM-PIYON-SHHIP he’s the most TIP-TOP TOP CAT!” Applause. To my left, a fan thrashes his palms. “I like that song,” he bellows. “It’s better than What’s New Pussycat? That made Cappie look like a poof.”
Welcome to Cappielow, home for the last 132 years to Greenock Morton Football Club – and one Cappie the Cat. Beneath the fur, Cappie is a 19-year-old childcare student who, for the sake of the children, shall remain nameless. He began his love affair with Morton as a toddler. Stints as a ballboy and programme seller followed. Now he is the official mascot. “Best club ever, ” he beams.
Today, chasing promotion, the club is hosting Ayr United. The visitors have failed to win any of their last 13 games and victory seems a formality. By 2.40pm there is much hoopla. Scarves swish around while stewards hand out sweets to a row of disabled fans: fistfuls of Hawick balls, rhubarb rock, mint humbugs and millions (“Ideal for eating in class, ” so the slogan goes, “so small they’re undetectable!”).
Behind it all is Douglas Rae, founder of Golden Casket, Scotland’s largest independent sweet manufacturer. His sugar-coated philanthropy makes him the perfect lower-league chairmancum-benefactor. From high in the stand he watches on with Arthur Montford, the infamous commentator and lifelong fan of the club.
Just five years ago, Morton were teetering on the verge of liquidation, anchored to Scottish football’s basement league for the first time in their history. Such was the discontent with the previous owner that Cappie’s predecessor, Tonasaurus (aka Pat Gillon, a well-kent Inverclyde youth football coach), stood in the local council elections campaigning for a donor to save the club. Even the young cat remembers. “The club didn’t have a penny, ” he recalls. “The showers in the players’ dressing rooms were broken so I came and repaired them.” Money, as ever, was not an issue.
Cappie is one of a small army of volunteers that also includes Alistair Wylie, a fellow scout leader (Cappie’s lethargy today is the legacy of a “stay awake” fundraiser for his cub troop). Wylie spends match days selling lottery tickets. Tommy Norris also sells tickets while his wife volunteers in the club shop. “All of us love it, ” Norris says. “It’s not a choice for us.”
Three o’clock and the whistle blows. The game is ill-deserving of the pomp that preceded it; the opening half-hour a stramash of limbs as the bungling wage war with the blundering. Jim McInally, Morton’s coach, wears the expression of a dog trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube.
Forty minutes later, though, it’s even worse as Paul Weaver thunders the ball into the roof of the net. One-nil Ayr. “They’ve got to clear their bloody lines, ” comes a bark. I turn to find it is the voice of God: 5ft 11ins, wearing a sports jacket, with two teeth.
Mention Andy Ritchie to any middle-aged Greenockian and you’ll send them into a silent reverie. Known as the Ambling Alp for his unorthodox attacking style, he is a Morton legend, the only player to win Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year while working on the roads. Now retired to Portugal, the prodigal son returns whenever he can. “I don’t miss anything apart from the Ton, ” Ritchie confides. “If you peel back the skin of this club, it’s not about big business or huge wages. It’s about a local family-oriented side.”
It’s half-time. Cappie takes to the pitch to try to revive the crowd’s spirits to a burst of Abba. Norris and Wylie mingle among the spectators selling tickets, but Ayr go on to score another three goals in the second half. The 4-0 defeat will hurt the Morton fans hard, as will the loss to Peterhead a few weeks later that condemns them to another season in the second division. None of it, though, will deter them from coming back. The countless unspoken deeds will continue, all for the love of the club.