The Fitba Adventure

Another glorious Scottish failure

Like Scotland in the World Cup group stages, the Scottish football magazine Fitba only managed three appearances before vanishing from sight nearly 21 years ago. Its Publisher, Fraser Allen, reveals the inside story of Rod Stewart’s brother, a chain-smoking Scottie dog, dropping Frank McAvennie in a spot of bother and free stovies. (Originally published in Nutmeg magazine — subscribe today for more great football writing).

It’s late 1997, and a young publishing executive called Mark Ellison is approaching Celtic Park with an unusually large bag. Generally outgoing, Mark feels oddly anxious as he checks in to a press reception at which Celtic FC will unveil the signing of Paul Lambert from Borussia Dortmund. Instead of following the other journalists into the press room, he makes a beeline for the toilets.

Locking himself a cubicle, Mark takes a deep breath, unzips the bag and pulls out a man-sized Scottie dog costume. As well as the normal features you would expect from a dog outfit, it also includes a pork pie hat and a pretend cigarette poking out of the side of the mutt’s mouth. Mark puts the costume on, jettisons the bag and wanders out of the toilet and into the press reception. It has just started but comes to an abrupt halt as he makes his way to a seat at the front. Jaws drop and there is a ripple of laughter.

“Hello everyone,” says the Scottie Dog. ”My name is George McFlea and I’m from a new Scottish football magazine called Fitba.”

“You’re just dressed up like that for the publicity,” snaps Celtic chairman, Fergus McCann.

“Too bloody right I am,” laughs Mark.

More Home Counties than Hampden
In the mid-nineties, I landed a job managing the new Edinburgh office of a London-based contract publishing company called Brass Tacks. We produced magazines for clients such as Bank of Scotland, Scottish Provident and Scottish Power. However, the owner of the company, a wonderful bloke called Kim Conchie, was always interested in new ideas for expansion. I had an idea for a foodie magazine called Red Pepper, cashing in on the burgeoning celebrity chef culture and interest in home cooking — quite prescient as it turned out. However, our advertising manager Mark came up with a much more exciting suggestion: “Let’s launch a magazine about Scottish football,” he said. “And let’s call it Fitba.”

Kim didn’t take much convincing. A big sports fan, he’d already launched a magazine for rugby clubs called Running Rugby and loved the idea.

The name caused me a few problems though. Having spent my schooldays in Essex, my accent is more Home Counties than Hampden and, to the amusement of my colleagues, I found it impossible to pronounce the word ‘Fitba’ properly.

However, undaunted, we got going almost immediately. Our office at 20 York Place (now converted into luxury flats) consisted of just three of us at that point: myself, Mark and graphic designer Alan Lennon. We needed a bit more help, but had a limited budget, so I hired a young graduate called Stuart Darroch — a Greenock Morton fan with a passion for football and huge potential as a writer. I made him editor but also drafted in Archie McGregor, a well-kent figure from the world of Scottish football fanzines, as a freelance consultant. He was like a Joe Fagan to Stuart’s Kenny Dalglish.

Stuart and I also built up a network of budding young football writers and enthusiasts who were keen to contribute to the magazine as freelancers. They included an excellent young journalist called Alan Pattullo who, after many years at The Scotsman, is now one of Scotland’s best known sports writers.

(The original team, with friends and contributors. I’m in the middle in the top row, with Alan Lennon and Stuart Darroch to my left. Archie McGregor is in the middle of the front row, with Mark Ellison ‘in character’ as George McFlea.)

The Golden Age
Our first issue, published in January 1998 was largely inspired by Scotland’s forthcoming appearance at the World Cup Finals in France. Little did we know then that this would herald the end of what Archie McPherson describes as the ‘golden age of Scottish football’. More than 20 years on, and Scotland haven’t qualified for the finals of a major tournament since.

Our launch issue cover star was then Scotland captain Gary McAllister, who would sadly miss the World Cup due to a later injury. I interviewed him in the dressing room at Coventry FC’s training ground when he was full of excitement about the prospect of the opening game in Paris against Brazil — and he revealed that his longer term ambition was to one day be the manager of Scotland.

That interview was pretty serious but the overall tone of the magazine wasn’t. I wanted it to combine the irreverence of the fanzine movement with the standard of writing and design I had enjoyed being a part of during a fleeting involvement in the launch of Four Four Two magazine, when I worked in London.

So the first issue also contained a pull-out poster of Jimmy Hill wearing a super-imposed kilt and tartan bunnet, the worst 11 players in Scottish football ever (anyone remember Walter Rojas?) and the chance to win a large portion of stovies ‘cooked by our mum’ and vacuum-packed for same-day freshness. We did actually send the stovies to a confused but grateful winner.

But we pulled in plenty of big names too. I managed to get Scotland manager Craig Brown to agree to write a monthly column for us (for free) and we also featured interviews with Scottish goalie Jim Leighton and former Scotland boss Tommy Docherty. The latter, in typically outspoken and entertaining form, ridiculed the quality of the Scotland World Cup squad.

The adventures of George McFlea
It was really thrilling putting the first issue but we had no experience of launching a news-stand magazine and didn’t really know how it would go. We had no clout with the magazine distribution network and no money to market it. All we could do was create a few publicity stunts to get our name out there.

That’s where the Scottie dog came in. We commissioned a cartoon strip which documented the exploits of George McFlea, a cynical old football hack in the form of a hound, who was listed in the magazine’s ‘flannel panel’ as our staff writer. Then I got the costume made by a theatrical designer and Mark (known to us all as Jinky) volunteered to wear it wherever possible to raise our profile — a task which, despite the heat and discomfort involved, he achieved with aplomb.

The ‘Oot and about wi McFlea’ column saw him pictured with Paul McStay, Craig Brown, Jock Brown, Rob McLean, Jim Duffy and, of course, Paul Lambert. He even appeared on BBC Scotland’s coverage of Children in Need, fighting in the studio with the Rangers mascot, Broxi Bear. The cartoon strip was brilliant too. Annoyingly, I can’t remember the names of the two guys that did it. They wanted to remain anonymous but are in the earlier team pic.

As we started putting the magazine together, I called our London HQ and offered to show Kim proofs of how the first issue was shaping up. He firmly refused, saying that he knew we would make a great job of it and wanted the excitement of seeing the first issue fresh when it had been published. Having that level of trust placed in us was very motivating.

And so issue one arrived back from the printers, complete with a moody cover portrait of Gary McAllister, shot by a superb French photographer called Jean Marc Chautemes, who I’d previously worked with in London. The magazine was brilliantly designed by Alan Lennon — perfect for its time — and it was a cracking read: informative, opinionated and fun.

Who stole my Jimmy Hill?
We had a launch party at Easter Road, the home of Hibs FC. Sadly, I missed it, following an unfortunate encounter the previous day with an undercooked chicken curry in Earls Court, but something very useful did emerge from the evening of backslapping and revelry. Alan had created a life-sized cardboard effigy of Jimmy Hill based on the poster in the magazine, and taken it to the party. However, when the team were clearing up the next day, it emerged that the effigy was missing. It was a gift. We contacted the Scottish Sun and the Daily Record with the story that ‘Someone Has Nicked My Jimmy Hill’. To my amazement, the both went for it giving it (and the Jimmy pic) prominent coverage.

A couple of days later, a very sheepish store manager from RS McColl , who had been at the launch party, turned up in the office with the effigy. We got a pic and got back in touch with the papers who did a ‘Happy Fitba team reunited with lost Jimmy Hill in kilt’ story.

We quickly realised that the press could be really helpful to us. Unfortunately, I overdid it with the second issue, which featured an interview with Frank McAvennie, a hugely talented striker who appeared to relax primarily by visiting lapdancing clubs. While the interview focused mainly on birds, booze and onion bag bursters, Frank also made an unguarded comment that if Jock Stein hadn’t died, he probably wouldn’t have made it into the Scotland team — Jock not being a massive fan of the peroxide blonde West Ham striker. I sniffed a story and got in touch with the redtops again but very quickly regretted my thirst for publicity. They ran big splashes along the lines of ‘Frank McAvennie: Why I’m glad Jock Stein died.’ It wasn’t fair on Frank, the family of Jock Stein or the freelance writer who landed the story, Gordon Thomson. And although I pretended otherwise at the time, I knew I shouldn’t have done it.

The papers were very useful to us in other ways too though. Alan got in touch with The Mirror Group who had a vast archive of Scottish football photography. The guy there was astonishingly generous in the access he gave us to this archive and hardly charged us a bean. It felt like there were some friendly allies who wanted Fitba to succeed. And this archive photography, combined with our own shoots and Alan’s bold typography and touches of illustration, was a big part of the magazine’s appeal.

A visit from the Casuals
Fitba was supposed to be monthly but the second issue was a real struggle to put together just a couple of weeks after the launch, and eventually came out in March. The cover star this time was another Scot to captain Leeds, David Hopkin, who was also hoping to make the squad for France but, like McAllister, missed out through injury. Was the Fitba cover slot a jinx?

Then, as well as the McAvennie piece, we went back in time to explore Aberdeen’s 1983 European Cup Winners Cup triumph, Stuart spent a day training with St Johnstone (and returned broken), we interviewed Pat Nevin, included a brilliant Billy Bremner poster and James Beveridge wrote an interesting piece about the rise and fall of the Scottish Soccer Casual.

This last story had an unexpected consequence. One day, a scary looking bloke walked into our office in York Place, Edinburgh. We rarely had visitors. “Do yous do that magazine wi’ a photie o’ Hibs casuals in it?” he growled. “Yes,” I nervously responded, fearing violence. “How much is it?” he said, “I’ll have two copies.”

It turned out that he was in the photograph and was proud of his exploits, so proud that he tipped off several of his former partners in casual violence and, for a few weeks, there was a steady trickle of quite intimidating characters turning up at the office politely asking to buy a copy too.

Money problems
Of course, all this was brilliant fun, but anyone with any commercial sense will by now be wondering, was Fitba making any money? The answer was… no.

We were putting the magazine together on a tight budget but it involved a lot of time, for which Brass Tacks Publishing (aka Kim) was footing the bill. And while the print run was quite high, finding the magazine in any shops was extremely difficult. We were paying a company called MMC (now defunct) to supply it to shops but often it simply wasn’t stocked where it was supposed to be or, if we did find it, it was in a totally inappropriate part of the magazine shelving, shoved behind a food magazine or a crossword puzzle book.

We did quickly build up a small but very enthusiastic band of fans who had managed to find the magazine, but overall sales (and subscriptions) weren’t massive.

The other anticipated source of revenue was advertising, which Mark was working hard at. But without solid evidence of circulation figures, few brands were willing to take a punt on a new magazine from a small publishing company. Page sales were going for hundreds of pounds rather than thousands, and sometimes we had to give them away for peanuts.

These days, with a website, an online subs strategy and a good social media campaign, the magazine might have fared better but it became clear we were struggling big time.

We’re on the march wi’ Ally’s Army
On we plunged though with issue three, published in April 1998. This was my favourite issue. I wanted to interview Ally MacLeod who, as a 13-year-old, I had watched lead us into the ultimate Scottish footballing tragedy of Argentina 1978.

My Dad was a keen supporter of Scotland, disappearing off to Germany in a caravan with three friends to watch Scotland play in Germany in the 1974 World Cup. He was also at Wembley in 1977, when Scotland beat England and the massed ranks of Scottish supporters decided to help themselves to clumps of turf and fragments of goalposts as souvenirs of that happy day. But Argentina was several steps too far for him to travel, and I’ll never forget the excitement of being at home with him when the World Cup was on. When Archie Gemmill scored THAT goal against Holland, we sprinted out of the front door and ran around the garden in celebration.

So getting to meet Ally, the architect of this beautifully Scottish farce, was highly exciting to me. He had swept a nation up with his charisma and optimism, leading us to believe that anything was possible. But he hadn’t researched Peru and Iran, and had no idea how to beat them. And when things started to go wrong, the players’ self-belief evaporated. It didn’t help that the SFA had booked them into horrendous accommodation, which was besieged by British journalists (Scotland were the only UK team to qualify) desperate to sniff out a bit of scandal.

But despite all that, Ally was impossible to dislike. As he sat there on the bench with his head in his hands, he was still my hero. And I wanted him on the cover of Fitba.

I managed to get a phone number for Ally’s house in Ayr and when I spoke to him I was amazed at how amenable he was. I had expected understandable caution about journalists digging up the old Argentina stories. But we fixed a date and he said I could interview him at his home.

On the morning of the interview, I rang to say I was on my way and would be bringing a photographer. His response set the alarm bells going. He had forgotten I was coming and apparently had no memory of our earlier conversation. It was still okay to go though.

When we arrived, he and his wife Faye gave us a lovely welcome. They were both very trusting and hospitable, putting the kettle on and making us feel comfortable. And we spent a good couple of hours with him. It soon became clear to me that while Ally could remember every detail from his time as a player and a manager, his short-term memory had vanished, and he was confused. It was clear that he was suffering from some form of dementia, but nothing was mentioned. And there was no need. His interview was hilarious, charming and enthusiastic. Far from being ashamed of the Argentina calamity, he was more than happy to talk about it and be grateful for the good times he had enjoyed in Scottish football. It was easy to see why we had all wanted to believe that he could lead Scotland to winning the World Cup, and why we never stopped liking him.

He was also totally up for hamming it up for the photography, watched fondly by Faye. Jean-Marc took some great shots — I hope he still has the originals (I have this one fantastic print).

We had an idea that it would be fun to take Ally down to the beach and do some shots there. When I asked him, he looked off into the distance and shivered: “I don’t want to go there. I just want to be here.” For the only time in our short encounter, he looked sad. That image and his words have stuck with me through the years.

I’ve just re-read the interview I did with Ally 20 years ago. With the benefit of experience, I would have been a bit more sensitive now, although I didn’t dwell on his confusion. I think I would also have talked up his charisma more and avoided some cheap jibes. He was some guy.

Could Rod Stewart save us?
Elsewhere in issue three of Fitba, Alan Patullo was dispatched to interview Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan about their Off The Ball radio show. The headline we added to the feature was ‘Lanarkshire Lard, Perthshire Poof’. I don’t think we’d even begin to imagine writing that in 2019.

On a more positive note, we explored the problem of racism in Scottish football, interviewed the late Stephane Adam of Hearts fame, plus Arthur Montford and Ian Wilson, and featured posters of the two indisputable greats of Scottish football, Jimmy Johnstone and Chic Young.

The other writing, however, was on the wall. We had a breakfast meeting at a hotel in Edinburgh with a chap from McEwans Lager who we believed was interested in becoming a major brand partner with Fitba. Kim flew up for it, Mark and I attended and we offered the chap a full fry-up. But it became clear he wasn’t going to bite and, shortly after, Kim made the sensible decision to pull the plug on our little adventure.

It was over. Almost. What we needed was money and we had an idea. Who’s Scottish, loves football and has loads of cash? Why, Rod Stewart of course! I found an address for him and wrote him a ridiculous letter asking him for £100,000 to become a part-owner of Fitba (not that it was mine to give away). It was fun to write and I thought nothing of it until a couple of weeks later when the phone rang.

It was a guy with a London accent called Don Stewart. He said that he was Rod Stewart’s brother, and helped him out with bits and pieces. He explained that Rod had asked him to get in touch for some more information and copies of all three issues of the magazine.

My imagination sprang into life, and did a couple of cartwheels. I could picture Rod landing on the roof of the building in his helicopter, and jumping out with a few bottles of champagne and a couple of bottle blondes. We’d be best mates, have kickabouts — he might even let me play guitar on stage with him.

Could this be it? No. This was Archie Gemmill scoring against Holland. This was a momentary sliver of misguided hope. I rang Don back a few days later, after he’d received copies of the magazines. “Sorry mate,” he said. “Rod’s not interested.”

On reflection, the short piece we did about Rod in issue two in which we accused the “gravel-throated peroxide rocker” of “relentlessly embarrassing the good name of Scotland”, accused him of being an “old man” (he was only 53 then) and slammed his penchant for white slip-on shoes, might have been a mistake. Then again, there were probably many other better reasons why he didn’t want to get involved, the gravel-throated old heartbreaker.

And with that, Fitba was finished. Scotland have never managed more than three games in the World Cup Finals and we only managed three issues. In the great traditions of Scottish football, we created another glorious failure. Ally would have understood.