The Tiny Club, the Giant Stadium and the Deal Driving Them Apart

GLASGOW — As a lifelong fan, a historian, and a former president of Queen’s Park F.C., Jim Hastie has been to enough home games to notice the pattern.

The same thing, he says, happens every time: Long before kickoff, long before the Queen’s Park players have left their dressing room, long before it is necessary, the visiting team will emerge, ready to go through its warm-up routine.

For most players and for most games, the warm-up is a chore to be completed, a box to tick before the real business of the game starts. When a team travels to Queen’s Park, though, it is different. Here, the visitors dawdle a little over their stretches, passing exercises and sprinting drills. When they are summoned back inside, they stroll, rather than jog. They find myriad ways to spend as much time as possible on the field, savoring their surroundings, the moment.

It does not matter that the stadium, designed to hold 52,000 fans, will attract only a few hundred for today’s game against Annan Athletic, or that there may well be more people in the wedding fair being held in one of the executive suites than there are watching the game. This is still a day Annan’s players will remember: the time they played at Hampden Park.

Hampden has always led a dual life. As the home of the Scottish national team, stage for the country’s cup finals and one of Europe’s elite stadiums, it has long been regarded as one of the game’s great stages. It was here that 150,000 people watched Scotland play England in 1937; it was here that Zinedine Zidane scored perhaps the finest goal in Champions League history in 2002.

It has also, though, long been a regular stop for the teams in Scotland’s lower leagues who come to face Queen’s Park, in matches when its stands are all but empty, its famous roar no more than a whisper.

Queen’s Park is Scotland’s oldest club, and historically perhaps its most significant. Uniquely in the Scottish leagues, it remains resolutely amateur, run by a few hundred members, staffed largely by a few dozen volunteers — like Hastie — and represented on the field by a team paid only its expenses. It has spent much of its recent past bouncing around the lower reaches of Scotland’s four divisions. It also calls Hampden Park home — for now, at least: In 2020, Queen’s Park, the club that owns this place, the club that built it more than a century ago, is being forced out.

Last year, the Scottish Football Association announced that it was reviewing its relationship with Hampden. For more than a century, Scotland has played here, essentially as a tenant of Queen’s Park: initially on short-term staging agreements and then, more recently, under long-term leases, usually agreed to depending on certain improvements to the stadium.

The current lease is set to expire in 2020 — after that year’s European Championship, for which Hampden will be one of a dozen host sites — and the S.F.A. let it be known that it was keen to explore its options.

It was offered the chance to move games to Murrayfield, in Edinburgh, the home of the Scottish rugby team. Celtic and Rangers, Glasgow’s twin giants, proposed alternating games between their stadiums, Celtic Park and Ibrox. Some wanted the national team to play across Scotland.

Eventually, the S.F.A. determined that the best option was to buy Hampden from Queen’s Park. A deal — a £5 million cash payment (about $6.3 million), and the assumption of around £19 million in liabilities — was agreed upon, though the S.F.A. had to rely on £1 million donations from two of the country’s richest men to conjure the funds.

It seemed a surprisingly low price for a 33-acre plot of prime real estate in Glasgow’s South Side, a 10-minute drive from the city center. A survey commissioned by Queen’s Park during the talks estimated the land alone was worth around £28 million, even without the stadium.

But Queen’s Park did not have much of a choice. Its rental income from the S.F.A. accounts for £300,000 of its £750,000 revenue each season. “It doesn’t take a genius” to see that Scotland’s leaving would have had dire consequences for the club, Hastie said.

The deal was done. Starting in 2020, Queen’s Park will no longer play at Hampden Park, bringing to an end some 150 years of history. Instead, it will use the £5 million payment to refurbish Lesser Hampden — its community and administrative facility in the shadow of the main stadium — as its new home.

Outside Queen’s Park, few doubted that the right decision had been reached. Hampden is Scotland’s “spiritual home,” as the former national manager Craig Brown and Kenny Dalglish, perhaps its finest player, said. And though the thought of the team’s leaving was, to many, anathema, the fate of a minor fourth-division team was, at best, a secondary consideration.

That is not quite how they see it at Queen’s Park. Gerry Crawley, the club president, acknowledged that leaving for Lesser Hampden was “not a situation we sought,” though he said he was confident the £5 million would be enough to create a new home on the existing training complex there and allow the team to “operate in a similar manner.”

Others are more fearful. Keith McAllister, 61, has been attending Queen’s Park games for almost three decades. He grew up a few streets away. He estimates that he has missed only three away matches since 1979. He has, he said, warned his daughter that if she marries during the season, it will have to be on a Friday.

For home games, he runs a souvenir stall in Hampden Park. Most weeks, he said, he will have a handful of foreign visitors paying homage to Queen’s Park. “There are a lot who come up from England, but I’ve had people from Spain and Germany, too,” he said.

They come not just because of the litany of famous players this club has produced — like Alex Ferguson, now a life member, and Andy Robertson, Liverpool defender and current Scotland captain — but because of its contribution to the game as a whole. Indeed, perhaps more than any other club, Queen’s Park helped to craft soccer as it is played today.

Though the game was first codified in England, for much of the 19th century it remained at heart a “hacking and dribbling” game: Players would run with the ball until they were brought down, by fair means or foul. Queen’s Park is credited with the creation of what it called the “combination” game and what became known, south of the border, as the “Scottish style.” This is the club that invented passing.

“There is a degree of truth in that,” Hastie said. “Queen’s Park introduced that method of play, and they changed the system to go along with it. In terms of style, Queen’s — and Scotland — were ahead. England was behind the times.”

Twice, in the 1880s, Queen’s Park reached the English F.A. Cup final, the only Scottish club ever to do so. In several of the very earliest international matches, Queen’s stood in for Scotland.

“That’s why the great English teams of the 1880s and 1890s all signed Scottish players,” Hastie said. That group of expatriates, drawn south by Preston, Sunderland and Liverpool, among others, became known as the Scots Professors.

Many in Glasgow, then, think this is a club that should be cherished by Scotland, seen as a source of pride. Instead, as it faces ejection from its home, they believe there is a risk it may fall into decay, or even cease to exist.

“What other country would do this, with a team that has done more than any other for the game’s history?” McAllister said. “At one point, this was the best football team in the world. It is a sad thing for football, and this is a football-mad city, but the attitude is that it’s only Queen’s Park. The club will survive, but it will not be what it was.”

Hastie shares that concern. These days, he said, Queen’s Park’s selling point is as a hub for youth development: It attracts players not by offering to pay them, but by providing the “best facilities, the best coaching” outside Celtic and Rangers. The path laid down by Liverpool’s Robertson is a part of that lure — “everyone here wants to wear the No. 3 shirt” in his honor, Hastie said — but so, too, is the opportunity to call Hampden home.

Leaving, then, delivers a double blow: Queen’s Park’s eight youth teams are based at Lesser Hampden, and it is not entirely clear when or where they will play if that facility is remade to house the first team. That — together with the loss of the unique chance to play every other week at the national stadium — could undo much of Queen’s Park’s good work.

What worries them most, though, is something less tangible. To those who have spent their lives following Queen’s Park, or working for Queen’s Park, Hampden is a central part of the club’s identity. This spot has been its home for 115 years. It has been its owner, its developer, its protector. At times, as Hastie said, it has felt like an “unfortunate custodian.”

They know that the time has come to sell, to downsize. But some of the club’s members hoped, perhaps, to be allowed to remain as tenants, as guests of the S.F.A. They fear that by moving on completely, Queen’s Park is leaving behind a little of its soul, a little of itself, in the bricks and mortar and empty seats of Hampden Park.

“Queen’s and Hampden are intrinsically linked,” Hastie said. “It is our whole history, our reason for being. If we lose Hampden, we lose our status as a national institution. We lose everything.”

Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent, based in Manchester, England. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith

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