The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 14

August 4, 2009

It’s Only An Absolute Game

(and this is only the review, and it’s only 6 years late)

Immediately before the 1986 World Cup the BBC broadcast five programmes called ‘It’s Only A Game?’, sub-titled ‘The Story of Scottish Football’.

Each edition had a particular topic, such as ‘The Player’, ‘The Manager’, ‘The Club’ etc. The whole series was subsequently cruelly and accurately parodied by the Naked Radio team in their ‘It’s Only An Excuse’ tapes. Many readers of TAG who saw the whole series may now only have the haziest recollection of it, while others may have been too young to pay attention to it at the time. Me, I’m a smart bastard, and I videoed the whole lot on the off-chance that half a dozen years after the event I’d be able to knock out a review for TAG.Each of the programmes was a delicious mix of William McIlvanney’s sententious and melodramatic commentary, old grainy film of men wearing long-johns doing Charlie Chaplin impersonations, interviews with “characters”, nostalgic reminiscences, and great goals, all spiced up with anecdotes,quips and jokes, ranging from the moronic (Baxter, Johnstone J.) to the cerebral (Hugh McIlvanney).Taken together, the five programmes had the common aim of searching for just what it is about football which exercises such a continuing fascination for the Scottish psyche. The essence of our football mania proved to be an elusive and slippery beast, although Willie McIlvanney tried hard by continually casting Scottish football in the rather improbable role of “working class theatre”, “an affirmation of Scottishness“, “an expression of self“, “a search for dramatic individuality” etc. Attempts were made to define the archetypal Scottish player. This ranged from Pat Crerand’s definition of a guy with great ability who would fight King Kong, but who would have a wee button which he could press to destroy himself, to Ally McLeod’s version of “a wee Glasgow bachle”. The most common adjectives used to define this mythical player were “arrogant, skilful, hard and nasty” (cut to view of Billy Bremner).


Individual players who achieved greatness are profiled. Denis Law is variously compared to a cobra, a whippet and a mongoose (this last one inspiring the famous Naked Radio quip, “reactions of a mongoose, hairstyle to match “). Meanwhile Denis himself reveals that he always wanted to be an architect. Jimmy Johnstone loquaciously recalls, “Eh, I used to go into the playground when I was, eh, whidyacallit ,eh, young like… “.

Meantime, Jim Baxter regales us with a hare-brained tale the likes of which is more usually reserved for the psychiatrist’s chair. Recalling Wembley 1963 he reveals that having netted both Scotland’s goals to give us a 2-1 lead he was keen to get a hat-trick, even if it meant smacking one into his own net. He confided this desire to Bill Brown, the Scots goalie, who was suitably aghast. exclaiming “You’re not on!” to a disappointed (and seriously deranged) Baxter.

In the episode dealing with managers, amusing tales abound. The late Bill Shankly was a fund of aphorisms. He said, “There’s only one job worse than a manager – that’s a debt-collector in Glasgow“. Shankly’s enthusiasm is infectious. When he describes his feelings (when he was a player) towards an opposing forward who’d just scored as “If I’d had a gun I would’ve shot him“, it’s all too believable. In a similar vein, he says of players who don’t dedicate themselves completely to the game, “If I could, I’d put them in jail“. Shankly’s own dedication has been well documented elsewhere, but Emlyn Hughes tells a revealing story about Shankly training with his Liverpool players and saying (adopt Shankly-esque gruff voice when you’re reading this bit), “D’ye know something boys? When I die, I want to be the fittest man ever to die“.

Other managers covered in depth are Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson. Busby in particular tells an amusing story against himself which illustrates the reason why the careers of many other managers perished on the rock that was George Best. He recalls, “Law and Charlton would be in good positions when Best got the ball. He’d meander off in the opposite direction and lose it. I’d say ‘Oh my God, where s he going now? When’s he going to learn some sense? 5 minutes later he’d beat player after player and put it in the net..I’d say ‘Matt, keep your mouth shut’”.

The episode on managers contains a truly chilling interview with a little-known Sampdoria player named Graeme Souness, in which he says. “I’d like to be player-manager of Rangers one day – Jock Wallace look out “. The rest, as they say, is history. There’s also a fascinating interview with Jim Mclean in which he appears almost human. Recognising this terrible weakness he says directly to the camera, “Watch you don’t catch me smiling now. It’ll spoil 14 years work“.

In the episode dealing with ‘the Club’ there is a half-decent attempt to confront the religious bigotry associated with our two largest clubs. Tony Higgins volunteered to be Rangers first Roman Catholic signing on the self-effacing grounds that “Rangers are better signing a bad player – like me – they could take me round the ground before the game and the fans could throw things at me “. He recalled an occasion when he played for Hibs at Ibrox and he was subjected to constant abuse of a sectarian nature from one woman in particular. As he left the field at half-time this lady was giving it laldy with “Higgins, you’re a big dirty Fenian bastard“. Tony remonstrated, “Oh, come on now”, to which she retorted “Nothing personal, Tony. I know your Auntie Annie “.

Alfie Conn, when asked who he preferred between Rangers and Celtic responded, “Spurs“.

The series, of course, appeared immediately before the convulsive changes ushered in by what, “faute de mieux”, we must call the Souness era. Thus, Andy Cameron is able to crack jokes about visiting the Ibrox trophy room and meeting Shergar running out with Lord Lucan on his back (that joke would only work now it you substituted Parkhead for Ibrox). Andy does however manage a funny story when he tells of having sunk the profits for his “We’re on the march wi’ Ally’s Army” hit single into making a cash-in LP of similar tripe which was released the day after the infamous match with Iran. With a note of regret he says. “There’s 30,000 still lying in a garage in Clarkston somewhere“.

Ally McLeod himself is, of course, prominently featured. Indeed, one phrase of his, when he’s reminiscing about the Argentinian fiasco, could well have been the real sub-title of the whole series, namely, “Ho-ho….it was terrible…..I can look back and laugh now….” Ally’s denials that he had amassed a personal fortune in the run-up to Argentina are the stuff of genuine comedy – “Ho-ho-ho…I”ve heard all these rumours… ho, that’s a good story – Och. Goad,…sssh…a load of baloney…you ask my bank manager…ach… Goad…. ho-ho-ho, ssssh”.

Ally has his own peculiar perspective on the Willie Johnston affair, “I don t think deep down that Willie Johnston honestly believes that he took drugs (pause, and world-weary shrug)…He took them, right”.


It’s left to Jimmy Sanderson to provide Ally’s epitaph, “It was a boy against wolves (Menotti, Bearzot etc), not men, but wolves“. Ally’s own assessment is more optimistic, “We had a wonderful 18 months – well, OK, maybe we didn’ t win the World Cup…”.

The ability to look back at disaster and laugh is an essential element in the character of everyone involved or interested in Scottish football. Tommy Docherty runs through his repertoire, starting with the 7-2 defeat at Wembley in 1955, when he refers to Fred Martin, the Scots goalie as “like Dracula, like, he hated crosses. Fred was like a crocus – he only came out once a year“. The Doc fondly recalls the well-prepared squad who went down 7-0 to Uruguay in the 1954 World Cup, “We took 13 players – two of them were goalkeeperswe’d borrowed the tracksuits from Barlinnie and we were wearing big thick jerseys like we were going to the Antarctic – we were knackered after the warm-up “.

The laughs just keep coming. Denis Law recalls the rest of the team trying to drown themselves in two inches of bath water after Wembley 1961 (9-3, – whatdya mean who for?), while goalkeeper Frank Haffey splashed about merrily singing the contemporary equivalent of Always look on the bright side of life. Ian Archer tells of the great Scottish side of the early sixties, engaged in a World Cup qualifying playoff against the then formidable Czechoslovakia. Scotland are leading with ten minutes to go, but the Czechs equalise. Before extra time Crerand and Baxter have a fight over who gets the bottle of water first. The wheels come off spectacularly and it all ends in a shambles. The Czechs go on to the final of the World Cup itself while our most talented ever team head for oblivion. Archer also amusingly recounts Willie Ormond’s pre-match pep talk before an encounter with Sweden, viz; “Watch out for the big blonde guy ..”. It turns out that they’ve got 7 big blonde guys – and the particular individual that Willie meant was one of the few to have dark locks.

It isn’t only on the international stage that disaster is an ever-present spectre. Some squads seem to have the four horsemen of the apocalypse on the subs bench. The producers of the series had the great good fortune to film the Stirling Albion vs Selkirk match as an example of “the magic of the cup”. Magic indeed, as Albion “went nap” four times (that’s 20-0 to you, Jimmy). Even the twin tragedies of poverty and violence become comic in the hands of the late Tom Fagan (gauleiter of Cliftonhill), who lapses straight into Monty Python mode when he fondly recalls being given a battering by a mob of Orangemen in the aftermath of a depression-era “Soup Kitchen Cup” game, summarising these experiences thus, “Nah, nah,they were good days”.

A recurring motif throughout the series is that Scottish perception of our own footballing pre-eminence is a very private matter amongst ourselves. Hugh Mcllvanney points out that while Germans, Italians, Brazilians etc are content to let the record books speak for them, Scots have to be personally present to remind others of our greatness. England, for example, demonstrate their superiority with an avalanche of goals, while we indulge in a more extravagant, and less productive, form of piss-taking. Denis Law regrets that during his time we never gave England a real good thrashing. He says that we could have done it at Wembley in 1967, “but then Baxter started messing about……”. Of course that “messing about” is the fondest memory of all Scots above the age of 30.

And so the series rattles on from one anecdote to another. My own favourites include Andy Roxburgh’s story about a Scottish youth team playing the opening game against the hosts in an international tournament in Iceland. All the local dignitaries were there to mark this auspicious occasion. After the Icelandic anthem, one of our youths broke ranks and yelled “Right, let’ s get stuck into these fucking Eskimos”, which as Roxburgh points out, was simultaneously both undiplomatic and evidence of an appalling ignorance of geography.

Another favourite is Emlyn Hughes getting off the England team bus at Hampden to be met with a large, kilted Scot running over and head-butting the bus, and then returning to his pals muttering, “Ah really stuck it oan that bus”. In that context, do you blame the Inter Milan players in Lisbon ‘67 for thinking, in Bertie Auld’s words, “that they were coming up against a bunch of Scots head-cases”. The Italians were right, Bertie, they were so right.

The whole series was amusing and informative, for which the principal credit must go to Roddy Forsyth, who wrote the script. While it may not have given us the answer to why we are addicted to this silly pastime, it gave us a few clues. It pre-dated all but the earliest fanzines, but it was obviously inspired by the same obsession with the game which subsequently led to the fanzine phenomenon. TV is usually good at showing football matches and unutterably crap at showing programmes about football. It s Only a Game? was far and away the best programme ever broadcast “about” football.

After exposure to this series it would only be a truly determined knucklehead who would continue to insist that economic considerations are more important than the social and community relevance of the game. The rest of us can have sleepless nights pondering the true significance of that ‘?’in the title. What we need now is for the whole thing to be up-dated with specific references to the Sampdorian mad-man’s impact, and then re-broadcast for those who missed it first time round. How about it, BBC?

First published in TAG 28 – May 1992

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One Response to “The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 14”

  1. Kenny Walker Says:

    This brings back so many happy memories of standing outside Vinyl Villians in Edinburgh waiting for the next copy to appear. The fanzine movement was fantastic and I wish we could have more of this

    Superb


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