Remember Sunday afternoons in the late 1990s and early 2000s? Before YouTube, club websites and BBC Alba, if you were a fan of a club in Scotland’s second tier at that time you probably spent part of your Sunday afternoons watching Football First, seeing the previous day’s tussles between the likes of Tom Hendrie’s St Mirren, Neale Cooper’s Ross County and Steve Paterson’s Caley Thistle. The voice, and later the face, of the show was David McKinney.
In fact, gander across to YouTube and watch some of your club’s highlights from the turn of the millennium and chances are it’ll be McKinney’s commentary you’ll be hearing.
Now the head of media at the City of Glasgow College and himself a Dumbarton supporter, he explained how he got involved with the programme. “It had started about a year before I joined STV and David Tanner was doing a lot of the voiceovers for it and I knew he didn’t really like that because he wanted to do more Premier League stuff so I put a pitch in. I don’t think I was ever a great commentator but they asked me to do it.
“We were there and commentating as the game was going on with two or three cameras. We then went back and edited the games down and did a voiceover on them. That involved a lot of work. If you imagine you’re in an edit suite, you allocate an hour for each minute of finished product. I then had to write a script for it and then dub it in a dubbing suite, so it was quite a long process. It was hard work but when we looked back we think actually that it was not a bad programme.
“I ended up presenting it – possibly cost-cutting took it out of the studio, presented it from the grounds and then edited it up afterwards. They gave me, as there was no make-up department, a wee women’s compact and a wee thing where you’d dab make-up on yourself. They showed me how to do it and the first game we covered was at Firhill. We arrived about two o’clock and I thought I better put some make-up on so I went into the gents and I was there powdering my face just as someone came in, took one look, turned on his heels and walked out! I thought ‘I better put my make up on before I leave the studio’. Sometimes I drove home in it and I thought ‘I hope I’m not pulled over by the police!’”
Despite McKinney’s positive view of the programme, it wasn’t held in quite so high regard by some fans. It was sometimes accused of being of poor quality and showing unfairly small amounts of some games.
McKinney though passionately disputes this: “The perception was that it wasn’t very good with comic cuts and one camera. The games all had one camera, sometimes two or three for the main commentary game and that’s the resources we had. So working within what we had, I thought we did alright. Now there were great myths about the programme – that people got 20 seconds. I can tell you now, the minimum we had was three minutes for any game, it was never less than that. It was eight minutes for your commentary game and three to five minutes for the others. Maximum of five – minimum of three. People always say ‘The last game was 20 seconds’, it was never 20 seconds. It was always three minutes’ worth. If it wasn’t a great game, maybe it seemed to be a lot shorter but we employed tricks to make things look better than they were. So if there was an awful lot of incidents in a game, you’d start your edit at the half way line and have it quite quick, so a lot of incidents made it look like a busy game. If it was quieter, you’d maybe start your edit at the penalty area, moving up to the other penalty area and adding an extra five or six seconds to each edit and that meant you had maybe six incidents, while in another game you had maybe ten or 12, so that other game looked a lot more busy. If a game was really bad you’d maybe have a longer interview with the manager, so there were tricks to make these things happen. It’s a myth to say that people only got 20 seconds or 30 seconds, it was never that.”
The First Division at that time was often a close division and certainly not short of quality. “It was a good standard,” says McKinney. “Falkirk and Inverness were at a good level.” Following the latter’s famous Scottish Cup victory over Celtic in 2000, the show made an attempt to coin a new nickname for the Highland club, taking inspiration from the ‘Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious’ headline. They hoped fans would take up the newly-coined nickname ‘The Ballistics’, but alas they never did.
Another major team in the league at that time was Livingston, fresh from their quick ascension up the leagues following their departure from Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh and their Meadowbank Thistle identity and subsequent move and re-branding as the West Lothian club. They were a big-spending side at that time, thanks to the investment of lottery winner John McGuiness and former Celtic director Dominic Kean, and later won promotion to the SPL and competed in Europe after winning the League Cup with a side made up of many of the stars of the First Division that they only recently competed against themselves. Falkirk at that time boasted the likes of Owen Coyle, John Hughes and Russell Latapy (the former duo were, at one stage, co-managers of the Bairns).
“One of the nicest voiceovers I did was when Falkirk sold Brockville to be a supermarket before they moved to the new stadium,” reminisces McKinney about Coyle. “I remember him picking up the ball, beating a couple of players and scoring and my voiceover was ‘He picked the ball up in fruit and veg, dribbled it round to the meat counter before slotting it round to the back of the bakery.’ I quite liked that, I thought that was quite clever.”
It wasn’t just good players that were around the Scottish second tier at that time, but also some great characters. McKinney came in contact with a number of memorable names from that era.
“I did the Christmas edition as the producer wasn’t well. In those days we were back until midnight editing the programme and I came in at eight o’clock the next morning to do the voiceovers – that’s how hard work it was. So I said ‘What we’ll do is we’ll get a wee montage at the end and we’ll ask each manager what they want for Christmas,’ so I phoned up all the reporters and said ‘At the end of the interview, just say “What would you like for Christmas?” and we’ll put it all together, I’ll dig out Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas, we’ll have that in the background.’ So we had Allan Maitland who was at Clyde and he said “Oh I’d like three points for Christmas”, someone else said “I’d like to be top of the league for Christmas”, another said “I’d like to be further up the table”. I was at the Ayr United game where Gordon Dalziel was manager and I said at the end of the interview ‘Gordon, finally…what would you like for Christmas?’ He said ‘Ehhh… my turkey dinner!’ He turned on his heel, turned back and said ‘I can’t believe you asked me that by the way!’ So we kept that for the end and it was quite funny. He didn’t quite get what we were trying to do but it was funny.”
McKinney has many other great memories of the show.
“We did a thing one week where the producer said – the Paisley Panda was becoming popular – ‘Why don’t we do this? Not have him on the programme but after the last game, just as we’re saying cheerio, just have the Paisley Panda in the background waving!’ And that’s what we did – no reference to it – just the last shot had the Paisley Panda waving. We said ‘People will wonder what’s going on there!’
“I remember doing a game at Arbroath once. We went to Airdrie and Hugh Dallas was doing his inspection and I said ‘Give me a heads up. There’s only two games on and if this game’s off we’re needing to get to Arbroath for three o’clock and he said ‘This game won’t go ahead’ so I stood at the side of the ground, the cameraman was sitting in the car with the engine running, I got a thumbs down from Hugh Dallas, ran into the car and off we went! It started to snow and the windscreen wipers packed in so I had to put my hand out the window to make it work. We got to Arbroath at about twenty to three, I’d no research, got a teamsheet, walked across the way, got ourselves set up and as the teams were walking out the tunnel, the sound man handed me the microphone. Any later and we’d have missed the start of the game. That’s how close it was.
“Another funny story was, we were filming a St Mirren game and Hugh Murray was sent off for head butting an opponent – and this is not a word of a lie – he came up to me at the end of the game and said ‘Have you seen it back?’ I said ‘I haven’t seen it back’, he said ‘Did I touch him?! Did I touch him?! Did I hit him?!’ I said ‘Hugh, you’re the one who was there, I don’t know!’ That’s the question he put to me – ‘Did I hit him?’ – and he obviously wasn’t sure himself. Strange but true!”
In some ways, Football First could be looked upon as a companion programme to the then flagship Scottish football highlights show Scotsport. McKinney worked on both programmes and explained how they differed. “It differed in terms of the production values because there wasn’t as much of a budget for it. So there was sometimes one camera at the games, while at Scotsport there was three, four or maybe five cameras at most games. Football First had a producer and myself who put it together with the help of an editor and a sound dubber and basically that was it to put the programme together. It was much less of a budget but we knew that and we worked within that budget.
“What I found when I was commentating on the games was when I did a SPL game, something can happen out of nothing – a twist or a turn or a wee trick – and something appears that’s unexpected. In the First Division, you rarely got the unexpected. People would do what you expect and anticipated them to do and that I think was the difference between them at that level and the top players.”
To this day, one of the most memorable aspects of Football First, involved not a great goal or a great side, but strangely, a brown envelope. Still occasionally brought up in news articles and football forums to this day, McKinney set the record straight. “This is the real story; I had probably some of the best contacts in the First Division. Just before the transfer window opened I knew of three moves that were going to take place. One of them was Owen Coyle moving to St Johnstone. He said to me ‘It’s going to happen but do me a favour – I haven’t told my current manager yet so would you hold it just now?’
“We were going to break that on the Sunday. I said to Jim Delahunt, ‘He’s asked me a favour. Owen’s a nice guy and I don’t want us to break this and he gets in trouble with his manager and he and his manager don’t speak to us again – we’ve got to keep relations to some degree. Jim said ‘Why don’t we not break it but tell people we know about it?’ There were three moves involved here and I knew them three weeks before they were going to happen. So I did the old envelope trick – I wrote the names down, put them in the envelope and said during the show ‘Jim there’s three moves involved here but I can’t reveal them this week but I’ve got this envelope and we’ll reveal them’. A couple of weeks went by and as happens, they leaked out. One had leaked and the others were about to so it wasn’t so much of a story. I regret it to this day. We should’ve just revealed it the first week. The day we opened it, Bill Leckie was in the studio, he opened it and read ‘bread, milk, butter, beans!’ He read it like a shopping list!”
So what of the future? McKinney reckons the show will never return to Scottish TV screens. A decade ago negotiations took place for the show to return online via the then First Division’s website, but no agreement could be made with the SFL. Finances also made continuing the show challenging. It was £30,000 a day for a broadcast truck at the commentary game at that time and that’s before bringing in the cost of personnel and buying the highlights to show the games in the first place. One idea he has is for someone to put all the clubs’ highlights packages together on one website, but concedes that there’ll be no money in it.
Today, many clubs produce their own highlights meaning that demand for a televised football highlights show is growing weaker. BBC Alba have filled some of the void, though this season they have decreased their Championship coverage to only five live games a season.
“Here’s the value of television; Falkirk shared Stenhousemuir’s ground for a season and we were there and there was a gantry that the camera was on and I was underneath it with two monitors – one the wide shot and one with the close-up. The game was taking place six feet in front of me. Two of the ball boys came up and sat beside me, the game was right in front of them, and they were glued to the two monitors and watched the game through them for a good ten minutes. That’s the power of television.”
McKinney says of the Alba coverage: “I think it’s great, I think it’s lovely. What I found really interesting when I first watched it was I thought ‘Oh I’ll maybe put the sound off because of the Gaelic’ but interestingly, the ebb and flow and the lilt of the sound of the voice is the same as in English. The cadence and rhythm is exactly the same so it isn’t intrusive. It’s not a burden, it doesn’t bother me.
“It’s a big-players playground now. It’s the BBC, it’s BT, it’s Sky who’ve got all the money in the world and for that reason I don’t see you getting a Football First again but you’ll get iterations of it – a live game on Alba, possibly something on the red button. I think Football First was of its time. I think it worked very well, it was great fun and we loved it.”