There are certain experiences that alter a person’s behaviour and make them transcend rationality. Religion, art, Bruce Springsteen concerts. Perhaps the greatest and most unexplainable is the undying support for one’s football team. What is it about 11 men in coloured jerseys chasing a polyurethane sack of air that evokes such joy, anger and insanity? This is a story about one of the most dedicated football fans, and her passion for Motherwell FC.
Leah Cross first came to national attention last year, when a clip of her celebrating an injury time winner went viral. Her bulging eyes, looking opposite ways towards the sky as her arms flailed and her jaw hung below her neck screaming, captured the internet’s heart. She was dubbed Scotland’s answer to the Australia’s Got Talent Guy and had the honour of becoming a meme celebrating menial but satisfying achievements, such as finding a top you want on discount or a doing one-wiper.
“It was a bit embarrassing at first,” Leah tells me when we first meet, “it’s no the most flattering angle and I wish you couldn’t see the spittle. But then that’s how I feel about my team and I’d never hide it from anyone, even if we were only playing Stranraer.”
She looks composed and, dare I say, human compared to the video, when we chat in the branch of Gregg’s where she has worked her way from part time student to manager. But it’s always there, the childish glee in her eyes and bouncing enthusiasm even before we start talking about Motherwell. I was hoping to learn more about her fandom, but our interview is cut short when a customer starts complaining about the temperature of the pies. Leah, though, eager to talk to anyone willing to listen about her beloved Steelmen, invites me to her house so she can show me her memorabilia.
And what a collection it is. From what seems like a regular semi-detached when stepping in the door, the living room has the decadence of an Egyptian tomb, its walls shining claret and amber, containing a treasure trove of tat within. There are framed photos and shirts, curtains patterned with the badge and couch cushions also with the Motherwell crest, which definitely look homemade. On a shelf is a line of balls signed by teams from throughout her life.
“My first memory is going to Fir Park,” she tells me. “Must have been about three or four, and I was so excited I tripped running to the stadium and skint my knee. It’s not the last time I’ve been stung supporting Motherwell, but I’ve never missed a game since.”
She takes the opportunity to show me her collection, looking out a cardboard box teeming with DVDs, books, player autographs scrawled on everything from a match ticket to a chewing gum wrapper, old Panini sticker books with only the Motherwell team pages completed. The jewel in the crown is a photo of the 1991 Scottish Cup winning side signed by all the players.
“I haven’t put it on the wall because it’s too special, don’t want it to get damaged. I wasnae even born when they won that, but I can recognise all those players from just their legs.”
“Did you not just learned the order of the players in the photo?” I ask. There is a pause as she examines the photo again. “But I cannae see their faces.”
With that famous cup win occurring before she was born, Leah has not seen her side win a single trophy. Nor has she ever seen them relegated, despite finishing bottom of the top flight twice. The incredible twin strokes of fortune of Falkirk’s stadium not being good enough and the league being expanded to twelve teams had saved them. “I absolutely shat myself both times, Motherwell belong in the Premiership.”
What, I ask her, does she get out of following a team that neithers wins or loses? She looks at me as if I’m an idiot and scoffs, “They’re my team. How can you not support a team like Motherwell? Just look at them!” she says, pointing at the 1991 team photo again.
We have a pleasant afternoon as she continues filling me in with history and stats of the club and her own memories as a fan. When I finally do leave she is sitting cross legged in front of the TV watching YouTube clips of Motherwell’s greatest goals, totally engrossed. I doubt she even realised I’d left.
It is some months later when I next hear of Leah. After coming from behind to earn a 3-3 draw against Celtic, she became pregnant.
“I was absolutely buzzin,” she says, lighting up again even at just the memory. “We made it hard, two goals down, but that just made it all the sweeter. And like most Scottish football fans, something I enjoy as much as my team winning is a team I dislike losing. Their faces were amazing,” she says, smiling to herself as she pictures the image.
“There was no way I wasnae going to Skoosh nightclub after that. So had a few shots, pulled this guy and here I am, up the duff.”
I ask her if she has informed the dad.
“Naw, I never did catch his name. Frankly, all he needed was a prick and a pulse. This actually makes it easier, I didnae find out who he supports, and am I fuck having my kid support Airdrie.”
Motherwell are doing reasonably well this season and I’m joining Leah at a home game against St Johnstone. She leads me to the red brick and corrugated steel palace of Fir Park, mingling to chat with the crowds of fans on the way. She has even brought a spare scarf for me to wear.
Her seat is in the Main Stand, near the Directors’ box with the cameras behind her. She had made the long journey to Dumfries and Galloway for the game that made her a meme. Normally she is never seen by the TV crews, about which she is very grateful. The seats are wooden foldaways, unusual for a stadium today, but it matters little as we’ll be on our feet for the full game. As we arrive she greets and introduces me to the fans around her, all of whom clearly have a great camaraderie after years of sitting together every other week.
There’s Alan, roofer in his late fifties with a wind battered face buried beneath a low pulled bunnet, his son Matthew who works in the office side of construction, who by contrast has splendid skin and attends the game in a casual suit jacket and turtleneck. In the row behind stand Bill, a distinguished looking pensioner with a baritone voice that leads the singing, and Danny, whose nickname Leah tells me is ‘The Manager’ because he’ll spend the whole game screaming instructions at the players. They are all delighted to see her and congratulate her on the baby.
“Cannae believe you’ve a bairn on the way!”
“You have to pay extra to get him in?”
Leah laughs and joins in the banter, but it isn’t long before attention turns to the game. How will the team shape up? Who’s going to cover the injury at left back? Do you reckon we can do them? They all reckon they can do them.
The teams come out and the roars go up, Leah and her gang shouting encouragement from as simple as “Come on Motherwell!” to “Snap they c***s!” As soon as the game kicks off Leah becomes very quiet. Instead of her usual chatty self, she watches the pitch while chewing on her knuckle, muttering only reaction statements like “Come on,” and “Yes. Yes! No!” Occasionally she’ll throw an arm up, as if pointing to the opening the man on the ball should pass it to. It’s a linguistic quirk they call it a “game” of football, as the idea of a game is to have fun, whereas Leah could have turned her foetus into a diamond she was so tense.
Fortunately at the half hour mark the attacking midfielder, ignoring Danny the Manager’s screams of “WIIIIDE!” slots a beautiful through ball for the striker to turn his marker and slips it under the keeper. The crowd erupts and Leah releases her tension by bouncing around and giving everyone hugs. Elements of the elastic face that made her famous, huge eyes and wide open mouth return - her goal face. However once St Johnstone restart play she becomes, if anything, even more nervous. “Now we have something to lose.”
The rest of the match continues in what critics would call “one for the purists.” The high balls and crunching tackles that epitomise Scottish football make it hard for any moves to develop as the ball is bogged down in a midfield battle. Thankfully for Leah and her blood pressure, Motherwell got the break early and after another hour the referee blows time and the threat of possible doom is dispelled. The gang let out a final cheer and applaud their team off, before shuffling contentedly for the exit, their week made.
There are plans to head to Electric Bar for analysis and refreshments, to which Leah sorrowfully points at her belly, “Cannae.” It doesn’t take much to convince her to come for some Irn Brus, but she warns, “Anyone who even lets me see a strawberry Rekorderlig is getting it thrown over them.”
“He’s got a hell of a good kick on him, definitely a free kick specialist,” Leah says as Dr Gallacher squirts a dollop of clear gel on her belly, before smearing it in for the ultrasound. “Oh, it’s cold.”
It’s February and the 18 week mark in Leah’s pregnancy. She, for some reason, has invited me for the appointment in a move that shouldn’t surprise me for someone as open and outgoing as her. Dr Gallacher had certainly been surprised, asking, “And who is this?” with a professional smile. Clearly, she was expecting the father or, more insultingly, her father, only to be told, “Naw, he’s just some guy following me around cause I like football.” I busy myself learning about female anatomy from the posters around the room while they prep the scan.
Soon they are set up, and within moments the screen pops alive with the black and white image of Leah’s womb and baby. She leans forward and squints to make it out, her eyes transfixed.
“Would you like to know the gender?” Dr Gallacher asks.
“It’s a boy.”
Leah nods, merely confirmation of what she already suspected. The most crucial part is all seems fine with the baby and Dr Gallacher has no cause for concern.
“So in terms of a due date, we’re looking at the middle of July, I’d say July 17th.” Leah sits bolt upright. “But, Motherwell might be in Europe then.”
Dr Gallacher peers over her glasses, clearly confused. Without the context of football it is an odd statement, Motherwell was and still is in North Lanarkshire, and therefore already in Europe. However, Motherwell the team’s impressive showing in the league has continued, and currently they are fourth, leading the pack for Europa League Qualifiers qualification. Of course, ever the dreamer, Leah has looked into the fixture dates if they do make it. “Is there nothing we can do to, I dunno, delay him?”
After patiently explains there’s not much they can do and the baby will come when he’s good and ready, Leah asks about exercises for holding him in or if baby plugs exist, to which Dr Gallacher politely offers her a boiled sweet from a tub.
It’s a bitter cold day as Leah leaves happy, gazing at a picture of the ultrasound, but with a slight seasoning of angst. “It’ll be fine, we probably won’t make it. But can we?”