BBC Scotland had live television coverage of Celtic’s UEFA Champions League qualifier against Cliftonville the other night. I watched about ten minutes of it before I felt compelled to switch it off. It was an easy enough win in the end for Neil Lennon’s side but what made me reach for the off button on the remote control was the incessant chattering from the BBC commentator. Now, I’m sure Liam McLeod – for it is he – is excellent at what he does and his pre-match research was meticulous. It’s just that his Aberdonian accent grates me more than a little – and I speak as someone who was born in the Granite City. Not only that, but McLeod does appear to enjoy the sound of his own voice. Perhaps this is understandable as the summariser sitting next to him was former Rangers and Aberdeen striker Billy Dodds, a man who puts the ‘oy’ into annoyance.
A couple of days later, I purchased a book entitled ‘A Game of Two Halves’ – the autobiography of former BBC sports commentator Archie Macpherson. The book, first published in 2009 by Black and White Publishing, was on sale at a considerably reduced rate (hence my purchase – did I mention I was born in Aberdeen?) but my initial thoughts are it seems likely to be an excellent read. And it brought back memories of what is perceived by many to be the golden age of broadcasting.
I have to confess I’m one of those people who looks back at a bygone age with rose-tinted spectacles. As a child growing up in the 1970s, a live broadcast of 90 minutes of football was a rare event four decades ago. There were just two broadcasters – the BBC and ITV, the regional arm of which was Scottish Television for viewers north of Hadrian’s Wall. In the early part of the decade the annual Scotland-England game was live on ‘the box’ as well as the occasional Scotland World Cup qualifying tie or European Cup tie – in the days when Scotland actually qualified for the finals of the World Cup or European Championships and Scots clubs i.e. Celtic reached the latter stages of the European Cup. Even the Scottish Cup Final wasn’t covered live until 1977. Other than these small morsels all we got was an half hour edited highlights programme – the BBC’s Sportsreel, later to become Sportscene on a Saturday night and Scottish Television’s Scotsport, usually on a Sunday afternoon.
Archie Macpherson was BBC Scotland’s main man in the 1970s and he was ably assisted in the commentating stakes by Alastair Alexander, a man who seemed to have secured a lifetime sponsorship deal with Brylcreem. There was an authority about Macpherson in particular, akin to a middle aged uncle who knew a bit about life and a lot about football. There’s a famous scene in the film Trainspotting where Ewan McGregor’s character Renton has sex and proclaims he hasn’t felt so good since Archie Gemmill scored Scotland’s third goal in their 3-2 defeat of the Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup Finals in Argentina. Archie Macpherson’s description of that goal is being played in the background. I wouldn’t go as far as to agree with Renton but I still feel goose bumps when I hear Macpherson’s commentary of Scotland’s 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Wales at Anfield towards the end of 1977, especially the second goal which secured Scotland’s place in the finals. ‘There’s an overlap, Martin Buchan…good running by Buchan, read it well…there’s Kenny Dalglish in there……OH, WHAT A GOAL!! OH YES! THAT DOES IT!’ Macpherson’s description was a passionate as any Scotland fan and encapsulated the feeling we all felt that night.
Perhaps Macpherson let his emotion get the better of him for Scotland’s first goal that evening when Joe Jordan appeared to punch the ball in the Welsh penalty box only for the referee to award a penalty to the Scots. ‘A handball if ever there was one’ opined Archie. Not many Welsh people agreed with Archie’s assertion although the referee’s decision, thankfully, was the final one…
Macpherson was also the commentator when Hearts headed to Dens Park on that final, fateful day of season 1985/86 requiring just a single point from their last game against Dundee to secure their first league title for over a quarter of a century. As a Hearts fan I naturally took my place on the terracing behind the goal but I don’t care to dwell on what happened that day. It took me several months to listen to snippets of Macpherson’s commentary that afternoon but only he could have described the build up to the game so vividly as the silver-shirted Hearts players took to the field – ‘who, away back in August blessed with the second sight, the seventh son of a seventh son could have foreseen Hearts on the very last day of the season playing for the championship, requiring only one point….?’ Words worthy of Keats…
Macpherson’s ‘rival’ over on Scottish Television - although in truth they were good friends - was Arthur Montford, whose commentaries, particularly on Scotland games, have become legendary. Montford commentated on Scotland’s famous 2-1 victory over Czechoslovakia in the World Cup qualifier at Hampden in 1973, a win which took the Scots to the World Cup Finals for the first time in 16 years. The bold Arthur quite rightly dispensed with neutrality when, towards the end of the game, he shouted ‘watch your back, Denis’ as Scotland’s Denis Law was about to be tackled by a Czech player. Five years later when Don Masson infamously missed a penalty against Peru in the 1978 World Cup Finals, there was a stunned silence for a few seconds before Montford was barely able to utter ‘disaster for Scotland’.
This was a different era, decades before Sky Television, when games weren’t subjected to camera angles from every square inch of the ground, every refereeing decision wasn’t dissected and analysed, managerial tactics weren’t studied in depth and every substitution wasn’t theorised. It was a much simpler age and quite often the renowned commentators of the time just let the football do the talking.
I recall Arthur Montford, resplendent in sports jacket, smiling in the Scotsport studio on a Sunday afternoon welcoming viewers with the words ‘with the top game of the day in Scotland being the Old Firm clash, we took our cameras to Cappielow for the meeting between Morton and Partick Thistle’ And we watched nonetheless.
Macpherson and Montford might have occasionally irritated some viewers, particularly those who didn’t support the Old Firm. And they were from a much less technical era where multi-media coverage was still light years away. However, people of my generation still recall them with great fondness. They were both household names and both afforded respect.
Times change but not always for the better. Kick-off times and dates are changed at Sky’s behest – just after midday on a Sunday for the Edinburgh derby next month is yet another example of the satellite broadcaster completely ignoring the views and the wishes of the fans. The subscription monster that is Sky Television now dictates, leaving the terrestrial stations to grab what they can. Even ITV’s deal to cover the UEFA Champions League is shared with Sky leaving the BBC to make do with Celtic’s pre-qualifier against a part time team from Northern Ireland. 40 years ago we were lucky to get three games a year live on television. Now, thanks to Sky, there can be three a day. Blanket coverage gives credence to the adage you can have too much of a good thing.
Something you could never say about Archie Macpherson and Arthur Montford…