Scotland’s Game, which began on Thursday night, just a couple of hours after Celtic’s knicker-wettingly fantastical Champions League draw, featured Maurice Johnston, Graeme Souness, Jim McLean and all the usual suspects. It promised to be the story of how the game was up for grabs during “30 years of social change, self-delusion, greed, risk, political intrigue and blind ambition”. It wasn’t the Great British Bake Off, which was bloody brilliant as far as I was concerned.
Favourite moment? OK, just for starters, Paul Sturrock is walking out of Dens Park having just won something, maybe the League Cup, perhaps the Premier Division. He might be heading back to Tannadice or more likely swinging, downtown Dundee to celebrate. “Good night, the night?” he says to an old-timer in a bunnet, who looks like his idea of a good night would be back home for some Crabbie’s Ginger Wine, normally only opened at Christmas, and a macaroon bar (absolutely nothing wrong with that: Lees, Lees, more if you please). Then, out of shot, an urchin yells: “Well done, Luggy!”
When was it that footballers stopped risking being jovially jostled like this? When did they start hiding under their headphones or pretending to be on their mobiles? I think the ba’ will be up on the slates well and truly when the Tayside adversaries adopt such behaviour. We’re still a long way from that, I think – but the game’s current state meant this rummage through the recent past to re-examine the big events and decisions was worthwhile, if not essential.
First big disappointment? That McLean, inset, was only glimpsed in archive shots, not sat in a perjink parlour or even a conservatory telling us how we cocked it up. Not the programme’s fault of course: the grumpy genius behind Barca-dumping champions requiring just 14 players to win the title was too ill to participate.
The series (three more parts to come) began with Souness and one of those classic Chocolate Soldier lines that he and only he can pull off: “I am a professional footballer who plays for money.” He gets away with it because my generation of Tartan Army enlistees (no high feathers, no self-congratulation, no manly hiking boots, no mid-life crises) could scarcely believe that he turned up at the sacred dump that was 1970s Hampden on a wet Wednesday night in November, his fine Italian cologne blending weirdly with the square-sausage pong from the grub-vans. Though obviously we were very glad that he did.
For the early 1980s “a new wave of political doctrine emerged placing money above everything,” went the voiceover, which obviously wasn’t William McIlvanney this time (RIP). Scotland’s Game suffers from the absence of a lyrical narrator but who could do this gig now?
Maggie Thatcher was pictured touring Souness’ Ibrox where her deregulated, free-market philosophy was fully embraced. But while this brought the Copland Road cognoscenti Paul Gascoigne, Trevor Francis, Terry Butcher and other top English players, the fans’ realisation that Thatcher’s policies were affecting the leisure pound’s ability to buy a post-match pint, even entry to the game itself, sadly didn’t feature.
What a striking contrast there was between Ibrox and everywhere else but particularly Tannadice. At Ibrox, if the revolution didn’t yield another three points, or Hamilton Accies had dumped Rangers out of the Scottish Cup, the club simply ordered up another top talent from far shores, maybe the next Russian. At Tannadice, remembered Jim McInally, one of the most articulate of McLean’s men, the manager decreed that all players should live within eight miles of the ground. This made it easier to summon them for training on Christmas Day.
Eventually, though, every club copied the Rangers model and every team was filled with what one talking heid called “second, third and fourth-rate Europeans… we neglected the talent on our own doorstep”. It was, of course, second, third and fourth-rate thinking which allowed this to happen and nowhere was a fourth-rate set of theories more evident than in Edinburgh, where Hibernian went from being a football club to a spiv’s plaything to a plc to having a chain of loss-making English winebars battened on to its side. From there Hibs almost became part of Hearts, almost moved next to Ikea on Edinburgh’s southern outskirts, almost went to hell. There was nothing wrong with these theories if you were a sharp-eyed businessman first and foremost, which Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer was, and which another Thatcher worshipper, David Rowland, who trousered a £1.5 million profit from the Hibs share issue, certainly was. But they can’t easily be applied to something as volatile and emotional and community-rooted as football without an impassioned reaction.
Hearts striker John Robertson, the hammer of Hibs, spoke up for the rival team and against his chairman. Well done, Robbo, for the 783rd time, so he was perfectly entitled to relate the story, for the 783rd time, of how Hearts were leading three-nil in the first, angry derby following the failed takeover bid, when the polis came into their dressing-room at the interval to urge them not to score any more goals otherwise there would be a full-scale riot and the match would have to be stopped.
Mercer needed police protection. Bricks were thrown through windows. “Really it’s so parochial,” he said. But is parochial all bad? It’s not losing your identity. It’s not dreaming up egomaniacal schemes. It’s not almost ruining the club. It’s not cheating the system. It’s not signing too many Lithuanians. You could argue that a lot of Scottish football’s recent problems have stemmed from not being parochial enough.