It takes something special to transcend rivalries and unite fans. But as Neil Forsyth says, Scotsport SPL is doing just that

It takes a lot to unite a nation’s football fans, and when that is achieved by a television highlights programme it would usually be a cause for celebration for those responsible. Yet for the producers of Scotsport SPL, a weekly offering by Scottish Television (STV), there has been no revelling in the news. Why? Because every man, woman and child of football bent in Scotland are united not in admiration but in a deep and depressing disdain.

It’s hard to immediately convey the sorry saga of Scotsport SPL. A starting point could be the online petition with more than 6,000 names. “We entreat Scottish Television,” sternly demand the petitioners, “to stop the farce that is Scotsport SPL and replace it with a decent extended highlights programme.”

Per capita, this is the equivalent of 60,000 English fans signing up to slate Match of the Day. And the petition is just one by-product of a general feeling of despair towards the programme that has been painfully evident since the show’s debut at the start of last season.

Having won the exclusive terrestrial rights to SPL highlights (digital channel Setanta owns the live rights), STV should have been left with a task akin to shooting fish in a barrel. For much of the population, this was the only route to see their team’s goals from the weekend. The audience was there, all they had to do was show them the goals on that opening Monday night. What followed was quite terrible. Highlights were ludicrously short, with the remainder of the hour-long show being filled with a crude mixture of gimmicks as the presenters somehow managed to look out of their depth amid such banality. It kept the best till last, however – as jaws dropped across Scotland, football writer Graham Spiers played a medley of Elton John hits in a darkened (and, it transpired, empty) studio.

The outcry was immediate and universal. Fellow journalists gladly put the boot in, but it was more than professional schadenfreude over Spiers’ performance. They reflected the views of their readers, who independently launched a deluge of abuse towards STV and their shoddy product. Improvements were promised. As the show enters its second season they are yet to arrive and viewers’ initial anger has become deeper and detailed.

The charges against Scotsport SPL are varied. Technical glitches and flawed presentation have long been part of the furniture of Scottish football TV shows, from the days of Seventies presenter Arthur Montford’s wacky jackets. They have always been accepted, often warmly, because the purity of the exercise was never in doubt. Scotsport SPL, however, represents something far more sinister to many Scottish football followers.

Old Firm bias has perhaps never been worn with such pride from a nominally national production. Other than musically gifted journalists, studio guests are solid Old Firm figures, while the level and length of analysis dedicated to the Celtic and Rangers matches leave a wild rush to fit the remaining games in. The use of analysts whose sole qualifications appear to be having once worn hoops or royal blue has resulted in the elevation of wholly unsuitable figures to small-screen notoriety. Former Celtic striker Andy Walker uses the opening shots of the show to gaze directly at the cameras while pressing his fingertips in a praying motion. That oddity is without doubt his best contribution to the programme.

So where now for the good ship Scotsport SPL? As this season kicked off, Scottish football followers wearily looked for improvements on last year’s shambles. They were met with more of the same and a brand new competition. The prize was a “lucky bag”, confusingly said to contain a pair of giant foam hands.

It’s easy to be a critic, of course, so let me end with a solution – a shorter programme, longer highlights, one decent studio guest and an-offer-he-can’t-refuse to Dougie Donnelly (who still skilfully presents the BBC’s Scottish Cup coverage). Right now such a scenario seems a distant dream as Scotsport SPL continues to defiantly spout forth drivel, and a nation hangs its head in shame.

From WSC 224 October 2005. What was happening this month

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