FUNNY age, 40. Looked at optimistically, you should be in your prime. If you’re a Bovril cup-half-empty kind of guy, though, you probably view it apprehensively, bracing yourself for the midlife crisis which seems unavoidable. This month in football there are two significant 40th birthdays. One is being much-trumpeted, the other could well slip by unnoticed. We shouldn’t let this happen.
The first is the 40th anniversary of Sportscene, BBC Scotland’s highlights show. There was a celebratory retrospective last night and if the example of Match of the Day is followed, there might be regular inserts as the new season unfolds: old goals and wild hairstyles dolloped on to the 2015-16 round-ups like sauce on your pie. Fair play, I suppose. Sportscene is entitled to commemorate the event. A lot of commentators did duty perched on shoogly scaffolding gantries, grasping microphones in one hand, notes in the other and the tarpaulin between the teeth, so their successors could enjoy the more comfortable vantage points purpose-built in modern stadiums. Well, one commentator did this – Archie Macpherson.
The play-offs are popular but they’ll eventually become frivolous, like a tattoo or a motorbike
The second anniversary is the one no one is really talking about – the switch from an 18-team top flight to just ten teams to create the Scottish Premier Division. No one is talking about the anniversary, although in truth we’ve never stopped arguing about the concept. But imagine if we were to hire a room and host a party for the drastically-reduced division. We could give the bash every chance of success by selecting from the finest venues in the land – the Andy Ritchie Suite, perhaps, or the Willie McVie Lounge or the Gregor Abel Scullery. But do you think anyone would come?
I actually assumed Sportscene was older than 40. Certainly, the sports department of Beeb Scotland was churning out highlights from the old Queen Margaret Drive studios in Glasgow for a good few years before 1975, only prior to that the programme was called Sportsreel. Poor Sportsreel. These guys – again with Archie prominent – certainly suffered in terms of rotten weather and rudimentary equipment, and yet they retained their dignity. This column never tires of recalling the quiet heroics of George Davidson. The world was changing, deference had all but disappeared, to be replaced by a new brashness – and one day Rangers’ Colin Stein ballooned a shot high over the Copland Road end of Ibrox that briefly preoccupied air-traffic control at Glasgow Airport.
We couldn’t hear the centre-forward’s reaction but we could see what he said from his contorted expression. Incontrovertibly, and registering in every parlour in the land, it was: “F**k!” Sensing much spluttering of Ovaltine followed by the jamming of Beeb Scotland switchboards, George blurted: “And Stein says, ‘Oh, how near I was… ’” What a trouper, but poor Sportsreel: I don’t remember that programme getting birthday editions or any kind of send-off when replaced by Sportscene. The Beeb obviously thought it would be groovy to jazz up the highlights format for the momentous new era of the Premier Division, consigning a dependable show to history along with the 18-team, play-each-other-just-twice set-up.
Momentous? You wouldn’t think so, dusting down the files. The match programme for the first of four Old Firm games in 1975-76 failed to acknowledge the Premier age on its cover. Over at Hibernian, Eddie Turnbull’s comment page was dominated by hooliganism. At least Motherwell’s Willie McLean noted that something fundamental had changed. “Reorganisation,” he mused, “which it is hoped by every player, manager and supporter alike will bring fast, exciting, entertaining football to Scotland.”
Then Willie got stuck into the bootboys as well and terrace-trouble was obviously the big issue because the headline in The Scotsman on 30 August, 1975 – the first day of the rest of our bloody lives – was “Time to stand up to the hooligans.” The new league needed the oomph of an Old Firm game, and derbies elsewhere, to launch it – but could it cope with the unfurling of the flag from the last of the old campaign, won by Rangers, without any aggro? This controversy, according to John Rafferty, The Scotsman’s football sage, had completely overshadowed the start of the Premier.
Well, the game took place and so did enough scrapping at Ibrox to prompt 84 arrests. Bizarrely, the half-time entertainment – a version of It’s a Knockout! hosted by Glen Daly, the former straight-man of Rangers-supporting comedian Lex McLean who went on to record The Celtic Song – seemed to chime with the dominant theme by inviting rival supporters to pillow-fight. The crowd was 69,594 so the reconstruction hadn’t tampered with fan-love for the Old Firm. A Glasgow Cup final between the teams a few months previously attracted 80,000 and it wouldn’t have mattered if reorganisation had produced the Scottish Big Jessie League – the people would come out for Celtic vs Rangers. The Old Firm were always going to be all right, or so it seemed back then, but what of the rest?
Would Aberdeen and Dundee United have broken through a few years later if the Premier hadn’t happened? Given the psychological imperative Sir Alex Ferguson attached to thumping the Old Firm in their own backyards – and with the opportunities to do that four times a season instead of two – you’d probably have to say they wouldn’t.
But, much as the New Firm shook up the fitbascape for a while, with performances which were certainly fast, exciting and entertaining, other clubs like Hearts couldn’t quite match their achievements, the latter falling back then almost off the map.
Would the national team have qualified for the finals of so many tournaments in a Premier-less world? Again the pro-ten lobby would argue not, but right now fans are bored with their clubs playing each other so often and they have been since Scotland stopped making it to World Cups. Ten, 12, ten again, 12 once more. The split, the infernal split. The play-offs are popular right now but they’ll eventually become frivolous, like a tattoo or a motorbike, and a sure sign of a midlife crisis. No, we’ve changed a few things but not the main thing because “Four Old Firm games – sacrosanct” has been scratched on the back on an envelope which has been secreted in the blazer pocket of the “Voice of Football”, whoever he may be. Meanwhile, at the moment we haven’t even got four Old Firm games.
The 40th anniversary of the Premier Division shouldn’t skip our attention because do we really want it to make the half-century with only cosmetic alteration? Meanwhile tune in to Sportscene tonight to hear Archie commentate on Dundee United v Aberdeen, a reminder of how the world used to turn.