Football and hipsterdom have long walked hand in hand, with an “alternative” club seeming to pop up in every jurisdiction of the beautiful game. These cult entities are generally fan-centred, inclusive and politically left leaning, with their supporter culture often achieving a degree of fame disproportionate to their on pitch endeavours.
Most famous of all the hipster hangouts is Germany, home to the classic punk Buccaneers of St Pauli, as well as the less heralded, but equally cool, Union Berlin (whose fans rebuilt their stadium with their own hands). In France, Red Star FC rule the roost, their appointment of David Bellion as creative director and sponsorship deal with alternative news source Vice offering an antidote to depressingly modern neighbours Paris Saint-Germain and their oil billions. Even good old Blighty has got in on the act, their portion of hipsterdom taking the shape of craft beer soaked Isthmian league side Dulwich Hamlet.
What then of Caledonia, who can we trust to carry the hipster flag? Fans of Celtic may have delusions of grandeur in this regard, but their humble beginnings as a haven for the poor have long since been replaced by the trappings of life as a mega rich PLC, and the Celts are far too establishment to be cool. Amateur legends Queens Park have perhaps gone too far the other way, and, besides, are too old and grand a name to really fill the gap.
There is, however, an obvious choice for Scotland’s vacant hipster crown. Step forward, Partick Thistle.
Thistle have a lot of the natural ingredients for a plucky, cool underdog club: a pleasantly garish kit, a history of relatively sparse achievement. In a city so utterly dominated by the Behemoth and Leviathan of Ibrox and Parkhead, just choosing to support the Jags is an alternative choice in itself, and a rejection of the money and glory of one’s other local clubs.
Situated at the crossroads between the city’s monied West End and the economically deprived areas of Maryhill and Possil, Thistle have always drawn in an eclectic mix of fans. Traditionally, they are considered to be the team of choice of Glasgow University students, although quite how much the stats back this up is open to debate. In any event, the Jags have always held a certain romance, providing Scottish football with some truly swashbuckling teams, cult heroes such as Chic Charnley and Alan Rough, and one of the game’s finest and most evocative nicknames (“The Maryhill Magyars”).
In the last few years, Thistle have seemed to actively embrace this alternative identity in a big way. Under a progressive board, they have taken steps to improve the fan experience at Firhill and to carve out a real niche for the club. In advance of the 2012 First Division title season, the club designated the North Stand at Firhill (known as “The Shed”, an ill-fitting name for a modern, all-seater stand) as a singing section. Whilst the Shed is hardly Die Gelbe Wand, the concentrated group of hardy fans who inhabit it make up for its poor design by chanting and cheering throughout the match, creating an atmosphere that lifts the whole ground. Recent highlights in the chanting originality department have included the Kumbaya-inspired “Dumbuya, my Lord”, and the seasonal “Twelve Archibalds of Christmas”.
Next up was the announcement of a sponsorship deal that could best be described as “trippy”. The circumstances of Thistle’s link up with US investment firm Kingsford Capital were bizarre enough, with the deal appearing to have been brokered by Turner Prize nominated artist (and Thistle fan) David Shrigley. Even weirder was the introduction to Scottish football of new mascot Kingsley, a terrifying and lopsided creature who was once described as looking like Maggie from the Simpsons after a spell in the microwave. Biting his thumb at the doubters, Kingsley became a worldwide sensation, featuring in such venerable publications as the Guardian newspaper and Time magazine. Scottish football was not ready for this.
The Shrigley/Kingsford axis was to deliver even stranger results as time went on, with various art/football fusion freebies being dished out at home matches: footballs designed by graffiti artist Barry McGee; a scarf by Jon Rubin bearing the existentially challenging motto “You don’t know who you are!”; a cushion based on Hokusai’s 1830 woodblock print “Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by German/Japanese artist Kota Ezawa. To be at Firhill when one of these giveaways took place was to witness a combination of luvvie delight and salt of the earth perplexion, as Thistle fans of all types tried to come to terms with the new order.
But have Thistle done enough to capitalise on the appetite in world football for hipster clubs? One area where they really fall behind their peers is in the “left wing politics” department. Despite the fact that their fanbase includes firebrand SNP politician Mhairi Black, Thistle have yet to truly reach out and grab the young, angry left wing base which gives lifeblood to the St. Paulis of this world, and which was evident in Glasgow during the 2014 independence referendum.
Much of this comes down to ticket prices which, much like in the rest of Scotland’s top flight, are scandalously high. Adults must part with £22 to see even the most humdrum league game, whilst the club have clearly overestimated the size of SAAS loans by pricing students at £15. Anyone who doubts that prices like these are squeezing people out of the game in these financially austere times is not living in the real world. Whilst the club’s decision to let all U16s in for free is outstanding, surely a £5 student ticket, coupled with aggressive marketing, would see the nearby Murano Street student halls emptying to Firhill each fortnight, as a bored and captive audience was guided to its natural home? A trick missed.
Whilst many alternative clubs have actively promoted a “Refugees Welcome” policy, Thistle have arguably failed to roll out the red carpet to the scores of new Glaswegians who arrived during the recent refugee crisis; people for whom a free ticket could have offered a warm welcome to the city and a distraction from the horrors they had faced.
Finally, there’s the so-called Shed, full of useless seats that nobody sits on. Whilst it would cost some money to convert this part of the ground into a safe standing terrace, it would surely be a suitable reward for the fans who have made it their home over the last few years, bringing a fun and sometimes raucous atmosphere to Firhill. It would also bring back some of the old fashioned, lower league charm that this ground was once known for, a USP that the other big grounds in Glasgow would struggle to match.
There’s no denying that Partick Thistle are cool, and getting cooler by the year. But if they truly want to step out of the shadows of footballing mediocrity and take their rightful place as Scotland’s “alternative” club, there are some brave decisions to be made. Conventional wisdom has failed Scottish football’s smaller clubs time and time again. Thistle’s tentative steps towards an alternative way of doing things have proved successful so far: here’s hoping they go all in.