Aidan Smith: ‘Shame that Dick Campbell won’t ride Foinavon to the SPOTY title’

The BBC, in case you hadn’t noticed, are big on diversity right now. They love a bit of inclusivity. So when it was announced that 2019’s Sports Personality of the Year would be staged in Aberdeen I wondered if a North-East worthy might be sneaked onto the shortlist without too many people thinking this was contrived and smacked of tokenism.

The contenders for 2019 in Aberdeen have been revealed and Arbroath manager Campbell is not among them. Photograph: SNS
The contenders for 2019 in Aberdeen have been revealed and Arbroath manager Campbell is not among them. Photograph: SNS

It didn’t happen. The contenders have been revealed and Dick Campbell isn’t among them. Shame. Dick would have been entertaining. Imagine him being interviewed by Clare Balding and the flummoxed presenter handing quickly back to Gary Lineker after the Arbroath manager had delivered one of his semi-legendary Campbellisms.

Maybe “There’s nae mystique about Brechin City” or “Peterheid’s Peterheid – ye ken what they’re aw aboot.” These gems date from 2016 when I spent an hour in the man’s company; the best and funniest football chat I heard that year. Dick is a Fifer, of course, but he’s an honorary loon from having bossed Brechin and Forfar Athletic (the actual Loons), and look at his good work currently with the Red Lichties, comfortably mid-table in the Championship and possibly fancying the play-offs.

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No Campbell, then, and you can’t even vote for the man since the rules have changed. Before you could nominate any sportsman or woman you liked. Now the Beeb in bossy Auntie mode strictly controls the entire process.

I think I preferred SPOTY as it used to be. Actually, before we go any further, I preferred SPOTY when it wasn’t known as SPOTY. Previously there was always the potential for a Foinavon or a Leicester City to emerge victorious. Even though this was highly unlikely – and would have required the shock winner’s entire family, home town and a vast army of tactical voters behind the candidate, possibly resorting to intimidation tactics – I liked the democracy of this annual celebration of sporting excellence.

You might think a vote for Campbell the equivalent of placing your cross in the box next to Screaming Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party. But that’s not illegal. Loonies – and loons – have a right to exist and therefore to be in the running for the prize, that handsome model of an outside-broadcast camera.

Now, though, you can only choose from the shortlist. Before the public vote there’s a secret one to whittle down the names to a nice, neat six. In this, Auntie is behaving a bit like old Mother Russia. Comrades, there will be a new guy running the Kremlin – a new First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to give the job its full title – but he must come from these half-dozen boot-faced dudes in heavy-duty overcoats. It’s like the BBC don’t want, or trust, us to have opinions of our own.

Of course, maybe if Dick Campbell’s name is going to be randomly thrown into the hat, they have a point. Campbell, when I interviewed him, referred to the Manchester City manager as “Pep Gladioli”. Mind you, if he did it again on the night he would lighten the mood of an event which has become far too self-important.

I guess if the field was wide open and we really did go with whoever we liked then the vote could be not so much split as rent asunder. That might mean the winner could walk off with the prize having only needed to muster a tiny number of nominations. There must always be a risk that this could let in David Beckham again. Unlikely? Remember how Annie Lennox used to win Best Female Artist at the Brit Awards despite not releasing any records during the year under review? There must be safeguards against the Painted Fool adding to his triumph in 2001 so maybe having a shortlist isn’t all bad.

What is bad, though, is Ed Sheeran telling us what to do. “Vote for Ben Stokes,” he says in one of the celeb-endorsing messages which were leaked across the BBC as the candidates were revealed. Don’t know about you but I’m scared of the strumming pop behemoth with the orange hair. He seems to own most of Suffolk and his estate has been nicknamed “Sheeranville”. There’s a church and a pub and the place seems ready-made for a wacky cult to take up residence.

How did SPOTY get so big and bombastic with its blaring music and between-item clunkiness? It’s got bigger as the Beeb’s sports department has shrunk. The state broadcaster hardly has the rights to anything any more and this ostentatious presentation is like a rage against the dying of the red-light-for-ON. Auntie is Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, the old movie queen who continues to get dolled up for the grand comeback which never arrives and wails: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

If Dick Campbell isn’t a contender for the Aberdeen shindig on 15 December then I sincerely hope Ian Black will be invited. He was the very first Scottish winner back in 1958, a schoolboy swimming sensation and gold-medal plunderer from that year’s Commonwealth Games and European Championships who, the morning after the ceremony, had to be back in class at Robert Gordon’s.

Now you’re probably thinking the school must have been thrilled. The cleaner who formed the welcome-party when he arrived back on the London sleeper greeted him with “Weel done, Ian” and at assembly all his chums cheered. But Black, pictured, told me that the beak was seriously dischuffed, to the extent of writing to The Scotsman about how he “deplored the fuss” caused by the pool champ’s pop-star fame as it gave fellow pupils “the wrong set of values”.

A handsome, strapping lad in his trademark tartan robe sewn together from towels, Black was a big draw on the small screen in the era before televised football but even in those days the BBC couldn’t help mollycoddling its audience. “When I won the award it was still quite new,” he recalled. “On Sportsview Kenneth Wolstenholme produced a voting form, pointed to Nat Lofthouse’s name and said: ‘I’m putting my cross here’. He was showing viewers what to do but maybe Scots thought he was also indicating who he thought should win. They didn’t like that. They had other ideas!”