The main reason for having BT Sport is the channel’s coverage of Scottish football. It’s not the Champions League which frequently underwhelms. Promises much but doesn’t deliver, last week’s Manchester United-Barcelona match being a case in point. Poor game, lousy broadcast. Steve McManaman’s turn as co-commentator almost made me want to cancel my BT contract there and then. He’s one of the ex-pros deemed absolutely essential to televised football now, so much so that we’re left to wonder how we ever survived on Arthur Monford’s mix of gentlemanliness and enthusiasm and Archie Macpherson’s mix of learnedness and “Woof!” Sensing early that Man U-Barca wasn’t going to be the football fiesta as advertised, McManaman decided the best way to keep us watching was to slag off the Catalans. We were invited to believe that a glorious era was coming to an end and this would be significant. Man U were talked up but what did they do? Fail to produce a single shot on target, that’s what. The evening’s nadir was McManaman, pictured, condemning Lionel Messi for his “poor first touch” in the lead-up to the goal. I didn’t think it was poor; indeed I’m convinced Messi deliberately went wide to create room for the cross. But I’m not the ex-pro; what do I know?
No, getting rid of BT would mean depriving myself of the channel’s live Scottish action which is tremendous. I mean, sometimes the games aren’t tremendous but the coverage is unfailingly smart, sparky, knowledgeable, caring and fun. The caring bit might seem like the least important quality but it’s actually the most important. BT has a real feeling for Scottish football and why it matters so much to the few thousand who’ll turn up on a perishing Friday night at McDiarmid Park.
The banter is always good. Chris Sutton is the alpha-pundit although the others aren’t shy. Too much football chatter is anodyne with everyone agreeing with each other but being controversial for controverial’s sake is just as tedious and the BT boys don’t do this.
Daryl Currie is an excellent host. Initially, and purely based on his-mammy-turns-him-out-awfie-nice demeanour, I thought Sutton would spit him out like a half-time pie. But Currie has been able to develop a role beyond that of fluffer/comedy-feed and is a first-rate live broadcaster with the speed of thought you need when you’re trying to cram all the goals and hectic moments into the post-match round-up before the next ad break.
BT has also rehabilitated Ally McCoist on the goggle-box which you may not regard as a service to Scottish football, but I do. McCoist used to be great on TV and then he became the Rangers manager which narrowed his appeal and by the end seemed to have aged him by a hundred years. When he first turned up on BT it looked like he’d barged his way on to the panel but, older, wiser and self-deprecating, he quickly made an insightful contribution. At last year’s World Cup for ITV Coisty was partnered with Jon Champion, a pairing which became the surprise hit team of the tournament. I reckon it was those Friday nights alfresco in Perth – BT makes its guys clamber on to old-skool scaffolding gantries – which got him to Moscow.
I mentioned ad breaks there; when BT goes to them there’s always a question or a gag which is flashed on to the screen – just part of the attention to detail of the coverage. It’s typical of a channel which hasn’t just trundled its trucks up to our colosseums and presented a blandly generic one-size-fits-all version of football, because that’s not our fitba – no way, man. So that must be it settled, then: keep BT and ditch Sky? Well, if it was a straight choice then yes. But before very long Sky will be the only choice. From 2020/21, it takes over from BT as the main station for live matches. The score will be Sky 48 games, BT 0 with the latter disappearing from our screens and our lives, at least domestically.
I have to say that, based on how Sky presents Scottish football at the moment, I’m dreading this. Hayley McQueen doesn’t look like she’s enjoying the anchorwoman role, as if she’s dreading Albion Rovers popping into the conversation, and the Krises, Boyd and Commons, plus James McFadden, lack the snap, crackle and pop of their BT counterparts. Part of the problem is they’re always in a studio – an arid space which makes the chat stilted, killing any attempts at humour. I’m assuming there are attempts and they just get lost because there’s a general problem with humour on Sky – there isn’t any, not anywhere. As far as I’m aware, no one has ever cracked a joke on the channel, not even in its comedies.
With 48 matches to cover, Sky is going to have to seriously up its game. Last time I looked, there aren’t 48 Old Firm clashes in a season. Sky loves Celtic vs Rangers and, you feel, would cheerfully broadcast a two-team league. But it’s going to have to venture to other grounds now where it could do with ditching the studio and going native, pitchside. Ditching the shirts and ties – Sky’s very old-fashioned that way – for chunky knits and scarves, which will be needed in the snell winds of Perth and other quaint footballing outposts.
I guess, though, it won’t want literally to steal BT’s clothes. It will want to trumpet itself as the original and the best, for of course Sky used to be the go-to channel for live Scottish football, persuading an armchair audience to buy in the macaroon bars for Sunday evening kick-offs at 6.05pm. But we’re more discerning now, more demanding. Before it was a novelty and a boon that the cameras were switched on for one of our games and stayed the whole 90 minutes. These days we want more than that.
We probably don’t want coconuts. Obviously it wasn’t smart or clever that one was thrown at Tynecastle last week and it might have been racist. But BT, which has never missed a trick these past few seasons, didn’t miss the coconut. Maybe Sky would have done, so there’s its challenge.