Aidan Smith: '˜Sportscene pundits must up their game'

Life used to be so much simpler when costume dramas remembered the reason they existed and retained all their costumes and Archie Macpherson presented Sportscene on a Saturday night. What did we do on Sunday evenings in the old days '“ scrubbed ourselves raw with carbolic soap or read the good book? It must have been something like that. We didn't expect much from Sundays and, crikey, they certainly delivered '“ or rather didn't.

Sportscene presenter Jonathan Sutherland tees up the pundits' answers. Photograph: Sportscene

Now a drama like Poldark, previously part of the BBC’s glorious schedule-hogging Saturdays, is revived in a drastically sexed-up form and, what’s more, it’s moved to Sundays. The leading man regularly doffs his shirt. On a Sunday! Sportscene moves to Sundays, too, with the only saving grace that it doesn’t make its pundits strip. They have to stand in front of a big screen and point at it, though, which is almost as bad. None of them is Archie, which is tragic.

What’s all this about? Choice. Modernity. The belief that the TV audience nowadays is much more demanding. But these are all things which don’t concern the Scottish football fan one jot. The fan just wants his Saturdays back, the way they used to be: a game in the afternoon – 3pm 
kick-off, of course – then back in front of the goggle-box for The Generation Game, Poldark or something else with heaving seas and bosoms, The Two Ronnies, Starsky & Hutch, Sportscene, Parkinson. Actually, forget about the rest, he’d be happy with Sportscene restored to Saturdays. And I think he’d have Archie barechested and brandishing a Poldarkian scythe in a smouldering manner if that’s what it would take.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Never going to happen. Well, as long as BT and Sky are around. The SPFL’s main broadcasting partners won’t allow Sportscene to be screened on that night. Guys, we’re going to have to make do with the nearest alternative, which is a highlights programme on Sunday. The trick – and this is a challenging one, which has defeated BBC Scotland thus far – is to make that show the best it can be.

We, the fans, find this bamboozling: how difficult can it be to edit all the Premiership matches and the most meaningful from the Championship into something highly watchable, with good chat and analysis summing up the state of the fitba nation? After all, Archie on his own used to do it with just the one game. Come to think of it, he did everything: presented, commentated, interviewed. He was like the heroically resourceful circus I once saw in Stonehaven, where the man who collected the tickets doubled as the human cannonball and ice creams were flogged by the bearded lady.

Less was more in Archie’s day. Now, every top-flight game is covered but badly. Just two cameras in most cases, and less than five minutes of action. This should improve as a result of the new deal struck between the SPFL and the Beeb which insists on all matches having four cameras. Sportscene won’t increase in length so if the format is to stay the same the highlights from each game will still be frustratingly brief, albeit from four angles. What about a “game of the day” getting more of the airtime? In the spirit of Archie, it’s an idea.

Tripling the number of people in the studio has not, alas, produced three times the insight. The presenter, in the modern style, defers to the two pundits, all of them players or managers past or present. The presenter is not allowed to have an opinion but must seek one from these men. Archie, though, was a schoolteacher and never had any problem pronouncing on the game. Ian Archer and Gerry McNee, to be the best of my knowledge, never played football and yet they pronounced.

So, with the presenter doing little more than teeing up the pundits’ responses, a third of the Sportscene chatter is pretty much superfluous. What of the pundits’ responses? The great lie told by football people is that only if you’ve played the game do you properly understand it and are capable of making value judgements. This is arrant nonsense.

I could say to the football people: only if you’re a journalist do you know how to spot a cliche, an anodyne comment, media-trained bilge. Only if you’re a journalist do you know that developing a reasoned argument requires some care, otherwise you end up contradicting yourself, and that voicing an opinion requires some boldness. But I’m not going to say that; it would be arrogant. Plus, some journalists will resort to cliches – although to be fair, at the end of the day and taking each perfectly-constructed sentence as it comes, just like football matches, I never have.

I actually believe that no one can take us inside the mind of a footballer like an ex-footballer but, on Sportscene alas, I’m still waiting for the revelation. Where are the opinions, the provocative views? Michael Stewart will occasionally try and reach for one but, really, they should be pinging off the studio walls.

In the future, the four-camera nirvana that awaits us, all chatter should come under rigorous scrutiny. Is this analysis essential? Is it analysis at all? Should we chop it out and show more of the games? The optimist will suggest that if Sportscene’s coverage of matches improves, maybe the same will happen to the quality of the punditry. A proper pie to assess rather than just crumbs. The realist will hope the optimist is right but will wait and see.

The pessimist will worry about ex-footballers taking over the world. Not just Sportscene but every media outlet. They’re trying out the pundits’ chairs before they’ve hung up their boots, hoping to get the gig full-time when they do. “Only someone who’s played the game truly knows,” they say. To which the only adequate response is: “For Christ sake – knows what?”

And the nostalgist? Oh, he’s fantasising about Saturday night telly’s dream schedule. It would include the “fork handles” sketch from The Two Ronnies, the episode of Starksy & Hutch where the former wraps the latter in his chunky cardigan for their first buddy hug, and Billy Connolly telling Parky the epic gag which ended with a bicycle being parked in a handy cleft.

And the edition of Sportscene to complete a perfect evening’s viewing over a can of Double Diamond and a macaroon bar? Oh, any one of Archie’s – they were all magnificent.