Essays: Chewing the sporran |
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Chewing the sporran

CONSIDERING that ancient Athens was crammed with philosophers who had nothing to do with their time except sit around thinking up words, it’s no wonder that the Greeks had a word for it. The word is hubris.

Once England’s hopes of competing in the World Cup had vanished, it was an understandable case of transferred nationalism that the English, instantly restyling themselves as the British, should heap Scotland with the burden of national expectations. But it was hubris to be so confident that Scotland would do well. Television, during the past week, has not been as bad as the Press in pouring scorn on Ally and his army, but it was at least as bad in the way it built them up in the first place. The best you can say in mitigation is that the Scots themselves showed less judgment than anybody.

Anyway, you had a choice of channels on which to view the unfolding disaster. For the connoisseur of high drama, the BBC was, as usual, the better bet. The Saturday afternoon preludes to the Scotland-Peru match were referred to by Dickie Davis of ITV as ‘the build-up to and coverage of the big one.’ Unfortunately Dickie, after announcing the build-up to and coverage of the big one, disappeared from the screen, resurfacing only to provide links. On the Beeb Frank Bough was there all the time. ‘What a day it must be to be a Scotsman,’ he mused ecstatically. There was no getting rid of him. When Jimmy Hill and the experts showed up, Frank was right there with them.

Videotape of past triumphs was resurrected, principally in order to demonstrate a quality known as Scotland’s Power in the Air. There were awed voices-over from the assembled experts. ‘Dalglish ... I don’t think any player but Dalglish could have got in there ... I don’t think anybody in the world ... Dalglish.’ The experts, referred to by Frank as ‘some great characters,’ were unanimous.

Out in Argentina, David Coleman chimed in, telling us, with no apparent sense of impending doom, that Ally MacLeod had described his own goalkeeper as ‘one of the best in the World Cup’ and his own midfield as ‘one of the best in the world.’ The tune began changing when the Peruvians, one goal down, suddenly revealed an ability to run faster with the ball than the Scots could run without it. When Peru levelled, the Scots back home must have been regurgitating their haggis.

‘We are really watching a fascinating game of football,’ said Frank at half time. For once he was right. On ITV Kevin Keegan said: ‘I think they’ve got problems.’ Referring to the Peruvians, Paddy Crerand said: ‘They’ve frightened the life out of me.’ The charming Andy Gray looked equally distraught. A disarming trio, these, but I craved the madder music of the Beeb, switching back just in time to hear David say: ‘Dalglish, who’s so far made little impression.’

After several mentions of the hole in Asa Hartford’s heart, David referred to him as a ‘whole-hearted player,’ but managed to get in an apology before the BBC switchboard broke down completely. David, at least, was on form. So, alas, was Peru. They saved a penalty — another sporran-chewing moment for the watching Scots. The second Peruvian goal must have had them hitting each other with cabers. ‘Sad the way this match has drifted away from Scotland,’ murmured David. I suppose there was a Roman commentator saying the same kind of thing at Cannae. ‘Sad the way this battle has drifted away from the legions.’

‘You’ve got to admit the best team won,’ said Keegan on ITV. ‘They could have by a lot more.’ It was agreed that it was ‘unfortunate that there are so many short players in the Scottish team.’ The mysterious evaporation of Scotland’s Power in the Air was thus explained. Back on the Beeb, Ally MacLeod bravely spoke to David, regretting his team’s ‘pure performance.’ There was no point in asking him to be mure specific. That it was indeed a pure performance was not to be ignured.

Two days of recriminations followed, exacerbated by Willie Johnston’s little blunder with the pills. Willie flew home to be dressed down by Frank Bough. ‘You shouldn’t be here at all, should you? You should be out there playing World Cup football for Scotland. How do you feel?’ But by now it was time for the build-up to the coverage of an even bigger one, Scotland v. Iran. Once again hubris was thick on the ground. Scotland would have to win by a lot of goals if they were going to qualify. Some darker voices suggested that they might win by only a few goals. Only the known Cassandras — mad creatures with rent garments and tresses in disarray — dared to speculate that Scotland might not win at all.

Scattered thinly in the stands, Scots fans with drooping dirks and detumescent Tam o’ Shanters spent a lot of time watching Joe Jordan falling over. On ITV, voice-overs detected ‘a certain lack of spirit in the Scottish side.’ The Iranians, an amateur squad consisting largely of policemen, catering officers, hairdressers and interior decorators, should have been able to lose comfortably, but in the event could not quite manage it, even after putting a shot through their own goal.

In the chill aftermath, Andy Gray said that Scotland’s attitude was wrong. ‘We in the media,’ said Brian Moore, ‘didn’t help there.’ He could say that again. Unfortunately he didn’t, but I hope there will be others to say it again for him. Just because some Scots fans are silly enough to mortgage their houses is no reason for experienced media-men to go so far out on the same limb. In fact it was one of the Glasgow fans, interviewed in the street, who finally put the truth in a nutshell. ‘They should have had the send-off after they came back.’

Don’t miss Wheels (ITV), a soap-opera about Detroit starring Rock Hudson and Lee Remick. Not even Lee Remick is a good enough actress to deliver a line like ‘My husband is wedded to the automobile industry.’ What do you do with that kind of dialogue? Say it while standing on your head? Rock countered with, ‘All I need is a shower, a shave, and a touch of sainthood.’ He said this out of grief at discovering that his wife had taken a lover. The lover was a young racing-driver with pointed eyeballs and one of those moustaches that look like the owner is halfway through swallowing a guinea-pig.

Labour will have to get their skates on if they are to undo the effects of the Conservative Party Political Broadcast (all channels). After the catastrophic effort which featured Reg Prentice’s baldy hairstyle uncoiling in the wind, the Tories have called in the professionals. The results are dazzling, like capped teeth; slick, like a face-lift; tough, like a hair-transplant; immaculate, like a made-up corpse.

The Observer, 11th June 1978

[ A shorter version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]