Sunday, May 25, 2003 by

There are occasions when a sporting event transcends the mere confines of the playing surface within which it is occurring, when it takes on a life of its own and becomes something else entirely. Sport can unite and speak for a nation, a generation or one man; it can transfix all as the drama unfolds and hold its attention in a manner that no playwright, scriptwriter or comedian ever could.

Sport can speak in a language that the whole world understands. Who better denounced and humiliated Nazism than Jessie Owens? Did the Black Power salute of the 1968 Olympics not reverberate around the world and alert the world to American racism? Was there ever a greater marriage of achievement and timing than Tensing and Hilary’s conquest of Everest (pronounced Eve-rest, fact fans!) on the eve of the Coronation? And did Jimmy Glass’ ultra-dramatic 95th minute Hail Mary winner for Carlisle United Football Club thus saving their Football League status not just rock your world? Oh yes. Sport is the greatest drama, comedy or farce that there is – pity then that these moments are so few and so fleeting.

That Scottish football managed to produce one of those unforgettable afternoons so soon after another is a credit to both the Glasgow giants. After the drama in Seville a mere 96 hours earlier, the events of Sunday 25 May will be indelibly etched onto the memory of anyone who had the pleasure to witness them. Oh sorry, what’s that you’re saying, you didn’t get coverage in England? Well, let me rub your nose in it then! Oh, how you missed out – this was the most exhilarating, exhausting, adrenaline fuelled hour and a half that it has been my pleasure to watch on screen. Ever. Corralled by a reporter seconds after the final whistle, Rangers’ Dutch master, Ronald De Boer opined that “it must have been mental for the viewers”. Oh Ronnie, how right you were. That the destination of the League Championship should be decided by almost the last kick of the ball of the last game on the last day of the season was the stuff of dreams (or nightmares depending on your viewpoint).

The decision made by BBC Scotland to simultaneously transmit the Rangers Dunfermline match on BBC1 and Kilmarnock versus Celtic on BBC2 was, palpably, the correct decision. It would have been churlish to opt for one and occasionally switch to the other, not to mention leave the Beeb open to accusation of bias from the more paranoid sections of Scottish football fans. With a resultant 80% audience share, this decision was more than vindicated. Indeed, what the hell were the other 20% watching – Thoroughly-bloody-Modern Millie? Yet despite the decision, and in spite of the ensuing drama the whole thing almost failed on television due to the insipid coverage. Undoubtedly, Dougie Donnelly is past his sell-by date. With more variations of hair colouring than a battalion of blue rinsed grannies, the Sterling Meister hogs the screen to the detriment of his co-summariser and guests. His banal, excitement free intonation betrayed the occasion and you could have been forgiven that Dougie was covering an Indoor Bowls game rather the most dramatic end to a domestic season ever.

And make no mistake, our erstwhile anchor is matched in the charisma free stakes by our match commentator, the singularly awful Rob McLean. Between them, they have not the slightest sense of occasion and a complete disregard for the English language. “It’s exciting, it’s engrossing, it’s riveting!” whimpered Rob at one point during the game. “And if you can think of anything else let me know!” Three adjectives – that’s all he could stretch to. No allegories, no metaphors, no wry asides. Just the overuse of the phrase “and so the pendulum swings” as word filtered through of events at Rugby Park. This was a dreadful commentary, one that insulted the game, the players and, most importantly, of all, the viewers. This has been a long running festering sore at the very heart of BBC Scotland’s football coverage. And, to be honest, it seems unlikely to get better in the future. Which is a sad, sad shame.

Nonetheless, the events on the field of play totally overshadowed the shortcomings of Rob, Douglas and company (indeed, most people I’ve since spoken to had the sound turned down and the radio commentary on) and we were treated to an afternoon that, in all honesty, we will never experience again. Within 150 seconds we had our first goal. Given that the Celtic game kicked off two minutes late, this only added to the sense of occasion. Less than a minute later and De Boer misses a golden opportunity to double Rangers lead. Flick to BBC2 and Celtic are battering the Killie defence into submission. 10 minutes gone and Dunfermline equalise, thus stunning the Ibrox hordes. This, dear reader continues on and on for 90 minutes. During the Rangers match, such is the frenetic pace of the game that we are unable to find the time to review two solid penalty claims that Rangers have. This is riveting stuff, with the League title changing hands as the Old Firm wrestle with destiny and toy with their opponents.

Then around the 63rd minute something happens that illuminates the entire day and underlines the wafer thin line that divides success and failure. Dunfermline break up field and produce a venomous shot that seems destined for the onion bag. Soaring through the air comes Stefan Klos, the Rangers keeper, to produce a magnificent save of unsurpassed athleticism. The ball is played up field and, seconds later De Boer scores to make it 4 – 1 for the home side. From 3 – 2 up and the Championship slipping away suddenly it’s 4 – 1 and game on. But, hold on! While the Dutch Master was nodding Rangers ahead at that exact moment in time, Henrik Larsson was striking the post and watching the rebound fall softly into the arms of the Kilmarnock keeper. In such moments the fecklessness of fate mocks mere mortals and tears our emotions to shreds. The sense of agonising ecstasy that I still feel re-watching that moment is beyond words, beyond description. I hope never to face such a moment again.

30 minutes later and with fulltime seconds away and the League Title on a knife edge, such a moment reoccurs. A penalty to Rangers. Not just the fate of the Championship but the history of missed penalty after missed penalty in recent weeks belongs in the now. This is it. A season decided in a heartbeat; a million dreams to be dashed or fulfilled in the blink of an eye. The commentary is supernumerary. We’re beyond time and place, football fans – the distillation of an entire season into one single kick of a football. Boca il lupo, indeed.

As Arteta struck home the spot kick and thus put one hand on the Championship for Rangers, the explosion of joy was a beauteous and voluminous sight to behold. When sport truly works, moments such as these are beyond measure. The heady mixture of joy, relief, ecstasy and primal scream is therapy enough for a hundred thousand foot soldiers of the jilted generation. All the pain and agony that has past is cleansed and all tomorrow’s parties begin. Was I lost in the moment? Of course I was. But it was no more than that. The shrill intrusion of the final whistle meant that one reality was punctured and another took centre stage. This was television of the highest order. The split screen delivered us the reality of the moment. Whilst the Rangers players and fans waited, the Celtic players chased for all their worth the two goals they oh so desperately needed. But Father Time, that old devil, has stacked his cards. And then there was one.

Never have I spent an afternoon like this. That television brought it to me made me appreciate the old goggle-box just that little bit more. I know that BBC Scotland will never be in the position to give this, should the incredible situation re-occur, to the viewer again. It is singularly unbelievable that Sky failed to nip in and take advantage of the massive advertising revenues they could have plundered. Their eye will not be taken off the ball again. BBC Scotland will, naturally, continue to inflict their team onto the viewing public.

What the hell though. I’ll leave all tomorrow’s parties until then and luxuriate in the intense glory of the moment. As Mr De Boer so appositely put it, it was mental. Mental as anything. And I lived the madness for 94 minutes, 94 minutes which I will never forget and re-live as often as possible. Morte il lupo!


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