Every time Scottish football reaches a pretty pass and the issue is with TV, I always go in search of Archie Macpherson, Sportscene circa 1980 and his trusty Trimphone.
When there’s some hassle or other over telly coverage of the game – and the latest of them is the Premier Sports deal for the Scottish Cup – then I ask myself: “What would Archie do?”
Nearly 40 years ago when there were pictures but no sound for the highlights of what we were promised had been a rip-snorting game between Aberdeen and Rangers at Pittodrie, the great ginger sage ad-libbed superbly, flagged up quiz results which were to be announced later in the programme and teased us about some of the wrong – and doubtless hilarious – answers. He was about to reveal exactly how wide of the mark Stephen Quinn from Kilmarnock had been when a voice buzzed in his earpiece.
“I think I’d better find out what’s happening to those highlights,” he said, picking up the slimline handset beloved of Noele Gordon and soap opera grande dames of the era. The voice on the phone, presumably different and more important than the one in the earpiece, immediately started screaming at Oor Archie. “For Christ’s sake!” was clearly heard.
At this, Macpherson pushed the receiver hard into his cheek. He was sparing small boys allowed to stay up late for the football from further possible sweary words – what a hero! “Yes, yes, I see,” he said, pretending this was an exchange with a polite man such as the local minister rather than the producer spontaneously combusting in the upstairs gantry. And then, finally, we got the match of the day.
Glorious comic interludes like this one are imprinted on the memories of fans my age and if they’ve somehow slipped the mind (come on, keep up) then there’s always YouTube for a quick refresh. They speak of a time in football broadcasting when things could go wrong. When they could be rescued by improv and grace under pressure. And when life was simple and choice was limited but no one ever complained: two channels, both free-to-air, no live games, highlights only, one match at a time, kick-offs always 3pm on a Saturday, and football sharing the show, on this occasion, with lawn bowls. It could, though, be pigeon racing. With the prize doos being interviewed in the studio. Or have I just dreamed that up? Answers on a postcard, please …
And now? Terrestrially, only BBC show top division football anymore, STV having long since given up the ghost, and two satellite channels who make us stump up for live games have just been joined by a third in Premier. The contract for the Scottish Cup, which is worth £20 million, means that if you want to watch everything, the lot, all the matches across all the competitions, then your subscription fees have just got bigger.
What would Archie say? That this isn’t right, that there’s too much football on the box, that we shouldn’t have to pay from our sofas to watch Kris Boyd ramming the ball into an empty net, in front of an empty Rugby Park stand? Maybe. But that particular genie has grunted and squeezed its way out of the bottle and we now have live games, lots of them, at random times and from increasingly random providers.
The Beeb must be spitting because they’re in on this deal, too, only most of the (bad) publicity has concerned fans having to fork out to Premier in addition to what they already pay Sky and BT Sport, and the message that the corporation will show more ties live than previously has kind of got lost.
It’s true that the BBC will focus on the first, second and third rounds while Premier are keeping their powder dry, doubtless hoping for Old Firm semi-finals all the way as they have first dibs come the last-but-one stage. Thus, the Beeb, the state broadcaster after all, dutifully play the part of Archie’s (fictitious) minister, tending all the airts, while the brash satellite newcomers breeze in at the business end of the competition.
Brash, but are they any good? Not according to received wisdom from fans who’ve paid for Premier’s coverage of Rangers games in Europe this season and, while there might not have been any loss of transmission, requiring an emergency pigeon insert or a gag at the expense of Stephen Quinn from Kilmarnock, the quality has left a lot to be desired. If they’re serious about representing the competition for the world’s oldest club trophy properly, like Macpherson would or dear old Arthur Montford, then it appears that Premier will seriously need to up their game. Right now in Scotland, that means being better than Sky and as good as BT Sport.
BT have done our football proud. They get its passion, traditions, quirkiness and determination to be seen as unique, different from the global blancmange, not a poor annexe of England. They assemble a banterish group of pundits who knot their designer scarves tightly against a usually snell wind and entertain us. Sky, the market leaders at this sort of thing, at least down south, have fallen behind woefully in their Scottish coverage, notwithstanding commentator Ian Crocker’s immortal line “Liam Henderson to deliver … ” at the climax to the Scottish Cup final of 2016.
But the bottom line here is the bottom line – what we pay for our football – and three different channels tapping us for cash will struggle for acceptance in my household and, I’m sure, many others. My wife loves Netflix and the high-end dramas on Sky Atlantic and so do I. There is only so much we’re able and willing to spend on TV when it all used to be free and Boydy vs Claire Foy in The Crown, inset, is no contest; Foy wins. Heck, if it was Brian Cox in Succession vs Liam back at Hibs … whisper it, but I might have to opt for Coxy.
Ideal world? I’ve said this before but I would cheerfully return to just a couple of highlights programmes, just a couple of games. I don’t really need to see much more football than I watch in the raw with my season ticket.
Though after all these years I’d quite like to find out what Stephen Quinn from Kilmarnock said that was so funny.