Today’s guest blog is by Peter Burns, Sports Editor of Arena Sport. Here he describes a recent visit to Dunblane to visit the grandparents of two of Scotland’s favourite sportsmen.
I took a road trip to Dunblane on Tuesday, to a house near a now iconic tennis club, to meet the grandparents of two of Britain’s finest ever tennis players and current kings of the world.
Over coffee and shortbread – the latter now famous in its own right after Sir Chris Hoy was pictured with it at Wimbledon – Roy and Shirley Erskine talk tennis, of their immeasurable pride in the achievements of their grandsons Jamie and Andy Murray, and of an astonishing end to 2016 that has seen the two brothers claim the world number one spots in both doubles and singles men’s tennis. They talk of the seemingly boundless energy of their daughter Judy and her relentless schedule, of their equal pride in all the various branches of their family, and they are as welcoming, charming and warm a couple as you could ever hope to meet.
Midway through our conversation, Jamie makes an appearance with his uncle Keith to walk Roy and Shirley’s dog around Dunblane golf course, the second tee of which lies just yards from the bottom of their garden. It is a wonderful moment to meet the elder Murray brother, Davis Cup and multiple Grand Slam winner and now ranked as the best doubles player in the world alongside his playing partner, the Brazilian Bruno Soares.
But tennis is not the reason for the visit. Rather, it is the other great passion in the Erskine and Murray households – Hibernian FC. (Keith, though, rather inexplicably supports Partick Thistle.) With the recent publication of Aidan Smith’s fantastic Persevered: How Hibs Smashed the Biggest Curse in Football, I got in touch with Judy, who I knew had been at Hampden with her family in May 2016 to watch Hibs finally put an end to a 114-year quest for the Scottish Cup. But why such a strong Hibs connection and why this trip to Dunblane, copies of Persevered in hand?
Roy Erskine enjoyed a modest professional football career turning out for Stirling Albion, Cowdenbeath and . . . Hibs. Although tennis had been his great sporting joy, he was unable to pursue it to any serious level because his football career meant that he was considered a professional sportsman and was therefore ineligible to compete under tennis’s staunch amateur rules.
‘My playing career was nothing much at Hibs, to be honest,’ says Roy with a dry smile. ‘Almost non-existent. But they were the club with the biggest name and Jamie and Andy used to go through to Edinburgh to play for the Hibs youth team, so when you combine all of that you can see why we all became Hibees.’
‘We’ve actually just been down the to road to see Graham Stewart,’ adds Shirley. ‘He’s a silversmith and has been commissioned by William Hill to make a commemorative trophy for Hibs. It’s a beautiful thing in the shape of a thistle, with all the team’s names engraved on it along with the goal scorers and time of the goals.’
We laugh as we discuss the content of Persevered. This is no simple story recounting a victorious cup run or the story of a single season. Aidan Smith peels back the bandage on a cup-less wound that has festered for 114 years, prodding at the most agonising losses with insight and wit and yet all the while wincing at the pain. This is a story that revels in ‘Hibsing it’, a phrase coined by Hearts supporters to describe a team throwing away a promising position at a crucial stage and crumbling to defeat. It is a deeply personal story that is also universal; it’s both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. And like the best stories, the ones you want to re-live again and again, it has a happy ending.
‘We had a wonderful day out at the final, especially after so many years of agony,’ continued Roy. ‘It can be tough at times to be a Hibs supporter, especially when it comes to the Scottish Cup. So it was very special to be there at Hampden – and what a finish to a game. Fairy tale stuff.’
The Erskines know a lot of about fairy tale endings, especially in 2016. While the year may be regarded around the world as an annus horribilis by many, there were certainly enough golden elements to redeem these past twelve months for both the Erskines and the Murrays.
In doubles, Jamie won the Australian and US Opens and was awarded an OBE. Andy, meanwhile, finished runner-up at both the Australian and French Opens before hitting a purple patch that began in the summer and saw him claim a second Wimbledon title before going on to retain his Olympic tennis crown and carry the British flag at the opening ceremony in Rio. He continued this magnificent form all the way to the end of the year to claim the world number one spot from his old rival, Novak Djokovic, at the ATP World Tour Finals – in the same week that Jamie and Soares also rose to the pinnacle of the doubles rankings.
‘Andy also, rather wonderfully, made us great grandparents,’ said Shirley. ‘And she is just beautiful.’
Many pundits have regarded fatherhood as a crucial ingredient to Andy’s mid-season surge that swept all before him shortly after the arrival of Sophie.
You’d think the Murray brothers would now look to have a break to take stock of their achievements. Not a bit of it.
‘Andy’s off to Miami to do his pre-season training block and I’m heading off to Florida next week to do mine,’ explains Jamie. ‘Then I’m going down to Bogota for Christmas with my wife’s family for four days, then it’s back to playing.’
Isn’t the idea of getting back on the treadmill of the tour and all the training and travelling an exhausting prospect?
‘No, I can’t wait. I’ve had two weeks off since the world tour finals and it’s probably the longest I’ve had off . . . well, ever. I can’t wait to get a racquet back in my hand. I get restless if I’m not playing and I’m really looking forward to this training block.’
I’ve heard about these training blocks. They sound horrific. How can you look forward to something like that?
‘Jamie just loves tennis,’ explains Roy. ‘Always has done. He can’t get enough – Andy’s the same. And they know that if they’re going to enjoy it they have to put in the work.’
That, perhaps, is in itself a little window on how you get to number one. Perseverance has been the hallmark of Hibs’ 114-year quest to regain the Scottish Cup, it has adorned banners at Easter Road and around the country, there is a pub in Leith named ‘Persevered’ and Aidan Smith entitled his latest work thus. And it is a word that is as apt as any to describe the success story of the Murray family.
There is a lot ahead for the Erskines and the Murrays in 2017. But first there is Christmas – and some quiet time by the fire to sit and relive a glorious season for the men at Easter Road – one that will be remembered and cherished for many years to come for all fans of Hibernian FC, among them a certain pedigree sporting family from Dunblane.
Editor, Arena Sport