Programme of the week: BBC Radio Scotland’s Off The Ball

Date published: Friday 5th October 2018 11:55 - Sarah Winterburn

Johnny returns to his favourite medium for today’s Programme of the Week. It’s a long-running show broadcast by BBC Radio Scotland and styles itself as “the most petty and ill-informed show on the radio”.

That’ll be Off The Ball, then…

Co-Presenter: Stuart Cosgrove
Co-Presenter: Tam Cowan
Guests: Robbie Nielsen, Mike Smith, Hugh MacDonald, Mickey Weir

What’s the History?
Off The Ball is something of a Scottish football broadcasting institution having been on the radio since the dark and distant days of 1995 which is, my calendar assures me, 23 bloody years ago! It’s broadcast for two hours from noon on Saturday on BBC Radio Scotland and then you get 90 minutes more from 5.30pm to 7.00pm.

Stuart Cosgrove, I am sure, but can’t prove, was once known in some circles as Dr Rock, but as far as I know, he’s not a real doctor, nor an actual rock. In the 80s he worked on the NME and The Face which I imagine involved wearing Ben Sherman shirts, 501s with turn-ups and Doc Martens whilst being disparaging about music that featured guitar solos. He went on to be Controller of Arts and Entertainment and Head of Programmes at Channel 4. Hailing from Perth, he supports St Johnstone.

Tam Cowan is a writer and broadcaster who has done football shows on the TV and written restaurant reviews for years now. If you’re not sure which is which, for the non-Scot, Tam is probably the less comprehensible one of the two, at least until you’ve educated yourself in the fantastic Motherwell tongue, which at times does sound as though the speaker is attempting ventriloquism with a mouth full of marbles, whilst drinking a glass of water. I love it. The tone throughout is very natural and at times has a feel of people sitting around a table in a pub shouting the odds.

Off The Ball can veer off in all manner of directions, often not related to football. One week, inspired by a huge turnout in Oban for the opening of a Marks and Spencer food hall (there’s not a lot else to do in Oban, except get a ferry to somewhere even more remote), they requested people contact the show with their ‘I can’t believe they’ve opened one of these here’ memories. This led to all sorts hilarious contributions, including one about watching people fighting outside of a new Greggs, which somehow seemed a very Scottish thing to do.

But it can also address current issues in Scottish football too, as was the case this week. And when they do, there is rarely any polite obfuscation, it’s more typically calling a spade a spade, interspersed with a lot of jokes and general pish-taking.

So this is the territory we’re entering here. Football, life, culture and anything else that drops into our host’s synapses is all grist to their not-insubstantial mill.


This Week’s Programme
And off we go with the usual opening blast of ‘Let Me Clear My Throat’ by DJ Kool (I had to look that up, obviously) followed by a bit of The Odd Couple theme. And these two are indeed an odd couple. In some ways they are a Scottish echo of the glory days of 606 with Dannys Baker and Kelly, only without phone calls, in that they have the capability to go off at tangents and make reference to all manner of obscure things from popular culture as well as chew the football fat.

We start off with half an hour of relatively serious football talk about the hilariously idiotic (since withdrawn at huge cost and even bigger embarrassment) SPFL proposal to hold both League Cup semi-finals on the same Sunday at Hampden Park, seemingly without any consideration as to how this will be policed nor how impossible it would be for the fans, not least because Aberdeen’s game was scheduled to start at noon, 17 minutes before the first Aberdeen train gets into Glasgow on a Sunday!

This ends up being a topic that threads through both shows, so astonishingly stupid was it, and it wouldn’t surprise me that in making it such a focus for laughing and pointing, they aided in the change of heart on the decision.

The boys are very acerbic towards those who supported this, including the likes of Stephen Craigan and Chris Sutton and both get a bit of a kicking from Stuart and Tam. There’s no holding back here. There’s much criticism of BT Sport, who are broadcasting the games, for not having the fans’ interests in mind at all. It’s the sort of blunt speaking you want on this sort of issue where those who actually pay to go to the game are regarded as little more than an inconvenience to those in charge.

However, as ever, there are other issues on which to contribute. The first of these is ‘habits you’d like to kick’. Tam says he bites his nails and only managed to stop biting them when he had piles, which was slightly too much information. This is inspired by the fact one of their guests is Mike Smith, who is a hypnotherapist but has also written a book about being a Hearts fan for 50 years.

The next topic for discussion is words and phrases that people in the football media use which really annoy you. There’s a brief discussion about how teams are sometimes referred to in the press by titles no fan would use, such as the ‘Maryhill Magyars’ or ‘the ‘tic’.

Stuart comments that Tam is always using the expression about things that “absolutely rip yer mitten”. I have yet to find out what “rip yer mitten” actually means but I don’t care. It’s a great expression and anyone who says it’s not really rips my mitten.

Last topic for contributions is ‘you can’t bring that in here’ inspired by the news that the Tartan Army can’t take kilt pins or pretty much anything else into into the upcoming game in Israel.

My favourite addition to this debate is a fella who texts in to say he wasn’t allowed into Greenock Morton’s ground because he had a camera, but wasn’t an authorised photographer, which seemed a profoundly petty and over-officious act which achieved nothing except to deprive Morton of a few quid gate money which they could ill-afford to lose.

For me, one the eternal delights of the show are the colloquialisms. It’s wonderful to hear the likes of Tam using phrases such as the aforementioned “rip your mitten” and trying to work out exactly what it might mean. I often look up some of the expressions used. The west of Scotland especially has a lexicon of expressions which are pure poetry, often totally incomprehensible and yet fantastic. I actively enjoy having to do the translation work.

Ex-Hearts man Robbie Neilson is also present to comment on all of these things and Mike Smith talks a little about what hypnotherapy can achieve.

There are loads of obscure off-hand references to players past and present such as Drew Busby that again send me into research mode.

The 5.30pm show is basically an extension of the first two hours, based around the same themes but with added discussion about the day’s results. They are joined this time by Herald journalist Hugh MacDonald and ex-Hibs winger Mickey Weir. MacDonald has a wonderfully oak-stained Scottish voice that was birthed in an entirely different era and is the very embodiment of a late night whisky sipped by a roaring fire, sat in an old leather chair as the rain lashes the windows. His is the voice of journalism before it had to sell its black heart in return for clicks by creating non-stories about fictional or wilfully distorted threadbare gossip.

Teaming up an articulate educated journalist with an ex-player as guests is an excellent idea and one I’ve pushed for on discussion shows for years. You get the best of both worlds – the educated participant and the educated observer and overseer.

The 90 minutes passes quickly and much ground is covered. It could be an hour longer and it still wouldn’t drag. There is something restlessly interesting and amusing about both shows. Better yet, it is reliably this way. This isn’t merely a one-off good week, no matter what is going on in the Scottish game, it is this good every week. And consistency is the mark of quality when it comes to broadcasting.


What The People Say
I don’t know the listening numbers for the show, nor how I would find them out. I wish the BBC would create a well-publicised page that documented and explained this information. The fact they don’t suggests they’re somehow ashamed of them and don’t want to share them with the very people who are mandated by law to pay them to create the shows. That isn’t fair.

Clearly, Off The Ball’s listener numbers will not be massive, but that simply doesn’t matter. This is the BBC and the BBC is surely meant to create shows that are not enslaved to popularity. Anyway, this was all bound to limit the input I got from listeners, but Off The Ball is the sort of programme which has big fans who really love it and really get where its head is at, so it was no surprise the few comments I did get were effusive in their praise.

A must listen on car journeys to and back from Saturday’s games. Will always leave you creasing with laughter at some point in the journey. Excellent show.

Love it. Not afraid to slag off the “old firm” whilst others suck up to them. Big fan of S.Cosgrove. Funny and intellectual.

As it describes itself, petty and ill informed. It’s funny and quirky and is very easy to listen to. For a Scottish football broadcast it’s refreshing as it reaches far beyond the ugly sisters.

A national institution. Proudly ‘ill-informed’ and for the fans, it’s essentially a radio fanzine. They had an ex-player on a few weeks ago who started to talk tactics and Stuart and Tam *apologised* to the listeners. I don’t know *anyone* who doesn’t like this programme.


Does it have a Future?
After 23 years, there’s no sign of it going anywhere, and why should it?

One of the things many of us who live in Scotland enjoy is the fact that it isn’t subject to the whims of fashion or modern affectations quite so much as elsewhere. The pace of life is slower and change is looked upon with a raised eyebrow of suspicion. It’s also very much in BBC Scotland’s remit to provide programmes that have a very distinctive Scottish flavour and deal with Scottish culture. Off The Ball very much does that. It is very Scottish in its voice, in its subject matter and in its attitude.

It might seem unlikely to you, if you live elsewhere, that Scottish football culture is very distinctive or different, but it really is. Because there are so many clubs in a relatively modestly sized country, small outfits get a higher profile than would often be the case. There is a strong egalitarian flavour to it and an understanding (outside of the FA and SPFL officials) that football, no matter the size of club, is part of the local community. It is part of everyday working-class life. It is not hooked into the financial hegemony of global capital the way the Premier League especially is, and all of these factors are reflected in Off The Ball.

Whether they’re talking about Celtic, St Mirren or Brechin City, all are treated the same. There is an implicit understanding that it is one and the same game and there is absolutely no bending of the knee to whoever has the money or the power. Stuart and Tam will rip the pish out of anyone and everyone, not because it is a position they’ve adopted deliberately, but rather just because that’s how it is in Scotland. Better still, it’s a settled position for the vast majority of people who look at the money-obsessed English top flight with cynicism and often with disgust.

Like I say, it’s different up here. It really is. And that’s why I love Off The Ball and by extension, why I love living in Scotland.


John Nicholson

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