Mar­got McCuaig

On sur­viv­ing in a male dom­i­nated world

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Contents - By Kevin McKenna

MAR­GOT McCuaig, one of the world’s top sports doc­u­men­tary-mak­ers, is cur­rently work­ing on the story of Mother­well FC’s Scot­tish Cup tri­umph of 1991. Last month her study of the life of the Celtic and Scot­land foot­baller, Tommy Burns was pre­miered on BBC Alba, the Gaelic medium chan­nel which in­creas­ingly each year seems to be fill­ing a space left by the main­stream tele­vi­sion out­fits’ cov­er­age of Scot­land’s cul­tural life.

The in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pany she heads, pur­ple TV, is mak­ing ground-break­ing and award-win­ning doc­u­men­taries on an as­sort­ment of sub­jects prin­ci­pally set in the grimy world of Scot­tish foot­ball. This, though, is only the top layer of what of­ten be­comes a well-crafted and sen­si­tive por­trayal of a world of­ten dis­par­aged by the coun­try’s cul­tural elites.

De­ploy­ing the term “world-class” here is done af­ter due con­sid­er­a­tion. It does not spring from that Glaswe­gian trait of over-pro­mot­ing the work of oth­ers who spring from this city that spe­cialises in mega­phone hy­per­bole about its suc­cesses and achieve­ments. On the BT Sports chan­nel you will find a col­lec­tion of doc­u­men­taries col­lected un­der the ban­ner 30 for 30. Th­ese of­ten fea­ture the work of top US in­de­pen­dent pro­gramme-mak­ers with huge bud­gets whose doc­u­men­taries are mainly about the his­tor­i­cal quirks and con­tro­ver­sies of elite US sports. Few of them, though, pos­sess any of the emo­tional depth and in­ten­sity of those cre­ated by McCuaig and pur­ple

TV. Her sto­ries cer­tainly cel­e­brate the lives and ca­reers of some of

Scot­land’s most vivid sport­ing icons but they also seek to un­der­stand the val­ues of

the work­ing class com­mu­ni­ties that pro­duced them and the chal­lenges that many of them never quite over­came.

McCuaig, an elo­quent and po­lit­i­cally-savvy fem­i­nist, has pre­vailed in worlds which you wouldn’t im­me­di­ately as­so­ciate with pro­gres­sive­ness: pro­fes­sional foot­ball and the me­dia in­dus­try that feeds on it. Scot­land’s women’s in­ter­na­tional team may have reached the World Cup fi­nals in 2019 but no spon­sor or se­nior foot­ball club in this coun­try has yet seen fit to di­vert any of the com­mer­cial cash into a sin­gle, soli­tary pro­fes­sional play­ing con­tract for a fe­male player. They are realms where “toxic mas­culin­ity” have tra­di­tion­ally flour­ished. McCuaig ac­knowl­edges this. “There is an ele­ment of Scot­tish male cul­ture that is in­deed toxic and there’s a dam­ag­ing ele­ment to mas­culin­ity.

“In foot­ball, men have typ­i­cally been in dom­i­nant po­si­tions of power. In my film-mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence though, I’ve found that the in­ter­vie­wees are very will­ing to open up and ex­press their emo­tions and show a dif­fer­ent side, one that is at odds with this con­cept. This sug­gests to me that a

I’ve been in meet­ings where male ex­ec­u­tives have at­tempted to talk over me be­fore the penny drops that I know what I’m talk­ing about

whole range of male iden­ti­ties is at play in a foot­ball con­text and not all of them are toxic. It’s been in­cred­i­bly in­ter­est­ing to wit­ness and some­thing I wasn’t ex­pect­ing to see.”

She re­calls in­ter­view­ing Graeme Souness, a gifted foot­baller who cap­tained Liver­pool, Rangers and Scot­land but one who of­ten spe­cialised in the prac­tice of “get­ting your re­tal­i­a­tion in early” if he felt that a tousy on-field sit­u­a­tion re­quired to be ti­died up with ex­treme prej­u­dice.

“We were mak­ing our doc­u­men­tary about Jock Stein,” says McCuaig, “and Graeme, who had grown close to Jock, be­came very emo­tional while dis­cussing him.

“This hap­pened a lot in the mak­ing of th­ese films. It’s as if foot­ball and foot­ball he­roes give men an op­por­tu­nity to in­vest some of the emo­tions that they feel un­com­fort­able show­ing in other as­pects of their lives. Thus, it has the po­ten­tial to be a great bond­ing tool be­tween men and among fam­i­lies.”

McCuaig was brought up in Glas­gow sup­port­ing her beloved Celtic FC. “I was one of three girls in a fam­ily of five but my dad knew I shared his pas­sion for Celtic and never thought this was un­usual. One of my ear­li­est and warm­est mem­o­ries of this time was him guid­ing me through big crowds and mak­ing sure I al­ways felt safe.”

McCuaig would go on to work with Celtic in their bur­geon­ing me­dia depart­ment be­fore mov­ing to Se­tanta Sports, the Ir­ish tele­vi­sion com­pany that won the con­tract for live cov­er­age of Scot­tish foot­ball in the early 2000s.

She is also now ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for Neme­ton TV, the in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pany which has the BBC Alba sport pro­duc­tion con­tract. “Es­sen­tially I look af­ter all the sport that goes out on BBC Alba.” It might seem un­usual for a woman to flour­ish in an in­dus­try which now preens it­self for just re­cently per­mit­ting women to present pro­grammes and com­ment on male pro­fes­sional foot­ball one-and-a-half cen­turies af­ter it was es­tab­lished.

You quickly gain the im­pres­sion, though, that she was never go­ing to let her gen­der stand in the way of a ca­reer in this game.

“I’ve been in meet­ings where male ex­ec­u­tives have at­tempted to talk over me be­fore the penny drops that I know what I’m talk­ing about. Then they re­alise that I have just as much pas­sion for foot­ball and knowl­edge about it as any­one else in the room.”

Graeme Souness was not alone in shed­ding tears while dis­cussing foot­ball greats like Jock Stein. All over so­cial me­dia, male foot­ball sup­port­ers have read­ily ad­mit­ted to be­ing moved to tears af­ter watch­ing some of the other films that pur­ple TV have made.

The Tommy Burns film re­counted the story of a tal­ented foot­baller who grew up play­ing foot­ball in the back­yards of the ten­e­ment closes of Glas­gow’s east end, but it also bore wit­ness to the role that Burns’s fam­ily and faith played in his life be­fore his trag­i­cally un­timely death in 2008 at the age of 51.

The pur­ple TV film about Jim Bax­ter, the out­ra­geously gifted Rangers player and one of the finest foot­ballers of his gen­er­a­tion, won the Royal Tele­vi­sion So­ci­ety Scot­land Award for Best Sport Film in 2016 while “Jock Stein” won the same award the pre­vi­ous year.

The doc­u­men­tary on Jimmy John­stone, Celtic’s great­est-ever player, was pre­miered in the IMAX cin­ema in Glas­gow in Septem­ber 2016.

There have been films about the Hibs “Fa­mous Five” for­ward line of the 1950s; of Aberdeen’s mighty team which won the Eu­ro­pean Cup Win­ners’ Cup in 1983 and the Dundee United side who beat Barcelona home and away in their run to the 1987 UEFA Cup fi­nal.

Third La­nark told the story of how a great foot­ball club on Glas­gow’s south side was al­lowed to die in the mid1960s by fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment and chi­canery and the sense of loss felt by many of its sup­port­ers to this day.

Mother­well’s 1991 Scot­tish Cup suc­cess hap­pened as the town, built on steel, fell vic­tim to the Tories’ clin­i­cal de­struc­tion of work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties with the forced clo­sure of Raven­scraig.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to tell the foot­ball story ad­e­quately with­out ref­er­ence to this so­cial and cul­tural catas­tro­phe.

“Very of­ten you find that the for­tunes of foot­ball clubs be­come very im­por­tant in com­mu­ni­ties that have seen their

heavy in­dus­tries dis­ap­pear,” says McCuaig.

This theme of foot­ball and its he­roes spring­ing from their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and rep­re­sent­ing their sense of pride is a thread run­ning through much of her work. To re­gard them as mere tributes to old foot­ballers is to ig­nore the sub­tle mes­sages about com­mu­nity and so­cial co­he­sion they carry; of how pas­sion and emo­tion can be ex­pressed in com­mu­ni­ties un­ac­cus­tomed to bar­ing their souls.

As such, McCuaig is also a chron­i­cler of a way of life that is fast dis­ap­pear­ing but which is still man­i­fest in the hal­lowed names of foot­ball clubs and their lo­cal he­roes who made the chal­lenges of a hard life a lit­tle eas­ier to bear. She is par­tic­u­larly proud of Honey­ballers, her 2013 doc­u­men­tary about the pi­o­neers of women’s foot­ball in Scot­land.

Dur­ing the First World War th­ese women foot­ballers pro­vided highly com­pet­i­tive and skil­ful foot­ball matches to crowds of more than 50,000.

When the men re­turned from the trenches though, the Scot­tish Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion ef­fec­tively shut down the women’s game. As late as 1971 the SFA was the only na­tional foot­ball as­so­ci­a­tion in the world to vote against women be­ing granted full mem­ber­ship of FIFA, world foot­ball’s gov­ern­ing body.

“The Honey­ballers were pi­o­neers and the first to show that foot­ball could be played at a high level by women too,” says McCuaig. “I am very proud of that film and the way that it changed some at­ti­tudes to women’s foot­ball and chal­lenged a great deal of ig­no­rance about its his­tory.

‘‘And I was so proud that BBC Alba de­cided to pro­vide live cov­er­age of fix­tures in the Scot­tish Women’s Premier League this season.”

BBC Alba’s cov­er­age of the SWPL in­creases the pos­si­bil­ity of at­tract­ing the spon­sor­ship re­quired to fund a clutch of full-time pro­fes­sional women foot­ballers. Al­most a cen­tury af­ter their pre­de­ces­sors cap­ti­vated wartime crowds, it is long overdue.

Mar­got McCuaig, film-maker and pioneer, will have played her part too.

Pic­ture: Jamie Simp­son

Above: Steve Kirk and Mother­well man­ager Tommy McLean lift the Scot­tish Cup Above right (from top): Mother­well play­ers pa­rade the Scot­tish Cup; Davie Cooper and Steve Ni­col lis­ten to man­ager Jock Stein; Graeme Souness

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