Aidan Smith: ‘Maybe the SFA were right to keep games off TV’

After Scotlands 1973 come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Czechoslovakia, its Germany here we come.  Photograph: Albert Jordan
After Scotlands 1973 come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Czechoslovakia, its Germany here we come. Photograph: Albert Jordan
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Dear STV

I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms about the disruption to the television schedule which you inflicted upon us on Wednesday night (26 September). Three of my favourite programmes were summarily removed to make way for a ‘live football match’.

I am told this was quite an important match, although to my mind that’s a contradiction in terms. I do not know the score, nor do I wish to find out. What is of far greater concern is when you propose to screen the missing instalments of The Reg Varney Show, Man About the House and Van der Valk.

The marks of a civilised society are: order, reliability, trust, everything in its right place. That extends to television schedules on which many old people and those living alone have come to depend. I do not consider myself old and can still run a virile 100 yard-dash but if we can be deprived of our regular encounter with the delightful Sally Thomsett at a mere 24 hours’ notice then I urge like-minded Scots to cancel their TV licences forthwith because the country is surely going to pot.

Yours sincerely

Peeved of Pumpherston

Now, I don’t know if letters like this were sent to STV at their old Cowcaddens HQ back in 1973. Quite possibly they were, because never mind Thomsett’s alluring blonde ditziness, you’d be foolish to underestimate the sheer elemental power of that man Varney, who managed to transform the worst sitcom of all time – On the Buses – into Britain’s most popular movie two years previously, beating Diamonds are Forever at the box-office.

But no such letter was despatched from our house. The important match was the World Cup qualifier between Scotland and Czechoslovakia and we – my father, little brother and I – were holding our breath and hoping against hope that a deal could be struck which would allow the vital action to be piped into the nation’s parlours.

Honestly, if you’re a child of the satellite telly age, you’ve no idea what this tension was like. You’re used to all games being televised, multi-screen simultaneous transmissions, goal alerts, whooshy sound-effects, red-button options, the lot. Forty-odd years ago, we waited for the SFA to show a little kindness and bring the big Scotland matches to those who couldn’t be on Hampden’s slopes, swimming in lager-lovely residue.

We waited … and we waited. Often in vain.

Four hundred-odd years before ’73, John Knox, below, was Scotland’s great killjoy, outlawing singing and dancing, and football’s hierarchy was intent on continuing his work. Or so it seemed to us. But that September there was a glimmer of hope.

Negotiation was a buzzword back then, not that the term “buzzword” existed. This was the era of ACAS – the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service – and Henry Kissinger and his shuttle diplomacy. And even though in Scotland “negotiation” as uttered by trade unionists sometimes came out funny, losing a syllable and gaining an additional sh, at least STV and the SFA were talking.

Then … breakthrough! “STV to show game live,” was the headline on the back page of The Scotsman on the day of the match. Negotiations, or negoh-shay-shuns, had only concluded late the previous afternoon, the broadcaster revealed. “We’re delighted,” he added.

So were we. So much so that when STV confirmed that Arthur Montford would commentate and Alex Cameron would helm studio operations, we were perfectly happy to accept a double-act of newsreader John Toye at his most refreshed and Tweetie Pie from Cartoon Cavalcade at its most annoying – just as long as “the geme” would burst into life on the idiot-lantern.

Football was king in ’73 and especially the national team. Not for nothing did the Scottish Home and Health Department screen a demon-drink warning showing a tartan-clad fan flogging his match ticket for the price of one more pint of heavy and one more nip.

This was life at its most desperate.

The national team were heroes because they were exciting, long-haired swashbucklers but also because football wasn’t over-exposed and at the same time under-exposed. We see too much football on TV now but not enough of the really important stuff like the key internationals. When the history of the national team is written and the story reaches the chapter when the country started to fall slightly out of love with it, there will have to be acknowledgement that the team became distant and remote: their games weren’t shown on terrestrial TV any more.

What’s the problem? Does everyone have satellite telly now? No, they don’t. Thursday’s match against Slovakia won’t be seen by any of my ten-year-old son’s friends. This sample cross-section of a generation, when it gathers on Saturday mornings for school games, is less in thrall to the progress of the men wearing dark blue than mine ever was. But the boys are talking about Thursday night and Slovakia. A pity, then, that they won’t be able to see if Gordon Strachan’s team can claim that victory.

One man’s killjoy is another man’s great reformer. John Knox also laid the groundwork for the Scottish education system. And maybe the Park Gardens beaks in ’73 weren’t altogether the bad guys they appeared. Maybe, by restricting the matches screened on TV, they were doing the right thing and trying to protect the sanctity of the game. And let the records show that for Czechoslovakia 44 years ago they did relent, reasoning that more good than harm would result from the country coming together to watch Joe Jordan and Jim Holton score with those fantastic headers.

What a double-act they were. Better than Reg Varney and his gormless inspector, that’s for sure. When the go-ahead was given for Hampden transmission it seemed like we’d won the game. Then we had to go out and win the game. Let’s hope Thursday has the same outcome and that some day soon Scotland will once again become not just a must-see but a can-see.