Aidan Smith: When TV wasn’t king... that was Denis Law

Denis Law in action for Scotland in 1973
Denis Law in action for Scotland in 1973
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PICTURE the scene. You’re watching a football match on a pleasant spring afternoon in 1967 but it’s not THAT football match.

On 15 April Scotland went to Wembley and beat England, absolutely annihilated the world champs 3-2. Jim Baxter played keepy-uppy with the ball, Alan Ball got called Jimmy Clitheroe, the Scots fans danced little, self-conscious White Heather Club jigs on the pitch – and we’ve been talking about it ever since.

No one, however, talks about Hibs v Ayr United, Aberdeen v Stirling Albion or Third Lanark v Clydebank, all played on that momentous afternoon with the same 3pm kick-off.

If you were a fan of these clubs, and the eight others in action that day, then maybe you felt compelled to go to the matches on what was the third last Saturday of the domestic season (and in the case of the Hi Hi, their second last home game – ever). I’m pretty sure the international wasn’t shown live on TV, although the 4,029 attendance at Easter Road certainly hinted at something more interesting happening elsewhere.

Imagine those 4,029 seeing the half-time scoreboard showing “A 0 1”, meaning Scotland were winning and wondering if the next bloke along (actually 20 ft away) had a radio, wondering if portable transistors had been reduced from the size of an anvil or had even been invented yet – and wondering why the clubs hadn’t moved these matches to midweek so everyone could tune into the Twin Towers from the comfort of their parlours.

But such was the unbudge-able nature of football then. It truly was the immovable object. Saturdays, 3pm, always.

Look at football now. It’s flexible, all right. In fact it’s an invertebrate, spineless in every sense. When TV – the irresistible force – says “Shift!”, it shifts. Last week, Hibs complained about being on course for at least 14 different kick-off times by the end of the current season. The vast majority were switched at TV’s behest. There’s been a dreaded Sunday at noon, an esoteric Tuesday at 7.15pm (a real collector’s item, that one) some Friday at 7.45pm malarkey and still, just, the odd Saturday at 3pm for old time’s sake.

Other clubs will have similar complaints, if not this campaign then in others, because, let’s be honest, Hibs aren’t being selected this often for live coverage because they’re so scintillating right now.

So what do we want? The TV money and hang the consequences (supporter irritation, yawningly empty stands)? Or do we want to try and get back to the idea – a little bit quaint, a little bit wacky – of fans actually turning up for games because, if we really weren’t bothered about this, why did we go to the trouble of removing pillars, upgrading cludgies and generally making stadia nicer and safer?

I struggle to get my head round TV running football, bossing it about, and decreeing that domestic matches can’t be screened in opposition to transmissions from the big, fat, golden egg-laying goose that is the Champions League because I can still remember when Scotland’s beaks regularly told TV to get stuffed. On 15 April, 1967 our football received a massive boost, with another to follow in Lisbon just a few weeks later. After that, the masses craved glamour matches on the box and, in the build-up, there would be intense speculation about whether the SFA would relent and let the broadcasters in – only for them to stand firm yet again. The sanctity of the live football experience must be preserved, the beaks would thunder. No game, be it a Glenbuck Cherrypickers one, should have to take place in direct opposition to televised football (such decadence!). Thus, the crucial World Cup qualifier could not be shown – smacked bottoms all round and bed without supper. We cried into our pillows but, deep down, knew the SFA were probably right.

Once, fantastic games happened with no cameras present, which only enhanced football’s lustre. Now the sport is hardly best-served by TV capturing everything, including lots of rubbish. I don’t know if that Hibs-Ayr game was rubbish as my blooding as a fan in the raw was still four months away but let the record show that Joe Davis (two penalties), Colin Stein and Allan McGraw brought the home team a 4-1 win.

Denis Law, Bobby Lennox and Jim McCalliog scored in the other match.