It’s been a joy,” trilled Jonathan Sutherland, wrapping up the first Sportscene of the new season. For sure there were goals, controversies and contrasting fortunes for Brendan Rodgers and Joey Barton, two of the big names new to our game which convinced the presenter at the top of the programme to describe 2016-17 as “an exciting time for Scottish football”.
An exciting time for Sportscene too, Sutherland promised, with its new family-friendly slot and what would be “enhanced coverage”. He was talking, though, about the improved camera-work which should make following the thrills and spills of the Premiership more satisfying for armchair supporters. But please note: the Premiership is getting covered and only the top-flight. Scotland’s Championship just got de-enhanced.
The second tier features Hibernian, the Scottish Cup holders. It features Dundee United, who once won the toppermost division using just 14 players, beat Barcelona and Manchester United, got cheated by Roma, and will be desperate to get back to where they feel they belong. There’s Dunfermline Athletic, once Euro regulars themselves, and moving in the right direction again after some tough times. And, also on an upwards trajectory, Ayr United who when I met their manager Ian McCall recently described them as “historically, Scotland’s 14th or 15th club”.
But you won’t be seeing their endeavours on Sunday nights. Indeed, if the first edition is typical, Sportscene won’t even provide a condescending “And finally … ” run-through of Championship results and league placings at the end, just before the closing titles.
Maybe BBC Scotland is too embarrassed to mention the Championship now it is no longer providing highlights. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Pretend Neil Lennon doesn’t exist, in other words. Lenny will love that. No more John McGinn and his Zidane-esque moves. No more Jason Cummings when, as we’re always being told, the game is crying out for characters and pure dead gallus types. How can the Beeb justify this?
Right away, BBC Scotland was accused of ignoring the second tier because Rangers are no longer involved. It seems difficult for the broadcaster to deny this is the case. Two seasons ago, as Rangers, Hearts and Hibs scrapped for the Championship, the top flight couldn’t match it for intrigue. Last season, because of the fierce rivalry between Rangers and Hibs and with Falkirk eventually splitting the pair, was hardly less gripping. Now it seems that with Rangers finally returning to the big time, the Championship must slink back out of range of the lenses, and wait for the occasional rumble of an outside-broadcast truck from BBC Alba.
This is what the Championship snub looks like: follow, follow Rangers indeed. The Beeb, in its defence, point out its only able to show footage of games covered by the main rights holders, Sky and BT, so the shunning of the second tier is more their doing. But if these two aren’t interested in the Championship anymore, fans don’t understand why BBC Scotland can’t look in on the Championship, as a state broadcaster maybe should. A corporation spokesman told me there was nothing to stop this happening – “apart from our budget”.
Lower-league clubs are used to being ignored. They’ll have sneered when the cameras turned up for what will go down as an extraordinary period in Scottish football history when so many big names were forced to slum it at Alloa and Cowdenbeath. But at the same time they would have been glad of the attention.
McCall’s Ayr are like the party latecomers who got there as quick as they could, only to find the wing-ding fizzling out. “There’s an audience who want to see the Championship games when you look at the gates that Hibs and Falkirk pull in every week,” said McCall, who is urging BBC Scotland to reinstate second-tier coverage.
He’s got a point about gates. Hibs and Dundee United’s matches at the weekend attracted crowds which were comfortably higher than any in the Premiership apart from those featuring the Old Firm. Also, the Renfrewshire derby was a bigger draw than the home games for Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle and Ross County. This weekend, only Aberdeen-Hearts and Dundee-Rangers have any chance of topping the crowd for Dunfermline’s visit to Easter Road.
“The vast majority of people want to see Rangers and Celtic but I’d like to think that throughout the season the Championship will be given coverage.” added McCall. “It’s going to be an great league.”
Sportscene has had its knockers in recent seasons. The brevity and clunkiness of the highlights have been criticised, along with the opinions of the pundits. BBC Scotland was accused of getting football on the cheap but has since coughed up more for rights. Everyone wants to see a slicker product showcasing the top flight and the Beeb promise to deliver this once all the new cameras are in place – but it’s a shame the Championship has slipped off the edge of the world.
Cowdenbeath’s Central Park is no one’s idea of a glitzy arena but when the Blue Brazil were in the second tier I enjoyed the windblown coverage of the fallen giants trying to ensure the bumpy pitch wouldn’t be a good leveller. It was good for the soul because clubs like Cowdenbeath are the soul of the game.
Four, sometimes five, cameras will cover Premiership games now instead of two. Hibs fans would argue that’s overkill when they’ve got Jason Cummings – and so would the never-shy striker himself.