He is not a theatrical knight but for services rendered to entertainment in Scotland Archie Macpherson can surely be granted the tinselled status of national treasure. So embedded is he in the culture that mention of his name almost invariably prompts colloquial references, like cries of ‘Woof!’, in comic tribute to his distinctive football commentary style, or ‘Weetabix Heid’ – a reference to the bouffant style of his ginger hair during his epochal stint as commentator and presenter on BBC Scotland’s Sportscene.
For many Scots of a certain age, Macpherson’s utterances are as redolent of time and place as Kenneth Wolstenholme’s legendary pronouncement – ‘Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over… it is now!’ – prompted by a fan invasion as Geoff Hurst scored England’s fourth goal at the end of their World Cup triumph over West Germany in 1966. A rather more sinister encroachment, at Hampden Park in 1980, when Old Firm fans battled on the pitch after Celtic beat Rangers in the Scottish Cup final, prompted Macpherson to declare: ‘It’s like a scene from Apocalypse Now!’ His most resonant commentary moment was, of course, devoted to Archie Gemmill’s unforgettable slalom through a clump of Dutch jerseys in Mendoza in 1978, to put Scotland within sight of a place in the knockout stages of the World Cup that had looked beyond hope after a farcical opening to the campaign. Touching distance proved to be as far as the Scots would get, but in 1996 Danny Boyle requested Macpherson to recreate his description for inclusion in a literally climactic scene in the first Trainspotting movie, as Renton has sex with his girlfriend while the goal replays on TV.
Macpherson began as a teacher and the pedagogic instinct surfaced frequently in broadcasts with the admonition, ‘Well, what did I tell you?’ The wheel turned full cycle when he was elected Rector of Edinburgh University in 1985. Adventures in the Golden Age is a memoir of his part in covering Scotland’s participation in six World Cup finals between 1974 and 1998. Its appearance is timely, inasmuch as this summer featured yet another World Cup unadorned by the presence of the Tartan Army, whose most recent muster for the later stages of the tournament occurred all of twenty years ago. A generation of supporters has reached adulthood since then and, although they yearn for the opportunity to travel as hopefully as their kilted predecessors, Macpherson’s account is a reminder that Scotland’s arrival usually featured a crash landing.
He sets the scene for his own era with a reminder that, had there been a trophy for the most obdurate and amateurish administrators, the Scottish Football Association would have been in contention from the start. In 1950, the SFA withdrew Scotland from the finals in Brazil because, in the last game prior to their scheduled departure, the Scots had lost 1-0 to England at Hampden and thus failed to retain their status as British champions. The Daily Record described the decision as ‘wicked narrow-mindedness’. Macpherson was present as a 16-year-old on the Hampden terracings when Roy Bentley scored England’s goal and he saw a late shot from Willie Bauld of Hearts strike the crossbar from six yards out. Had that effort fallen on the right side of the goal line, Scotland would have gone to South America. Macpherson recollects his reaction to Bauld’s miss – in a fashion reminiscent of his classic commentary style – as being ‘like a stake driven through the heart of a boy who from that very moment began to doubt the existence of God’.
By the time Scotland qualified for the 1974 finals, he was a member of the media entourage and testifies to the drink culture of the time. Embarking upon their warm-up matches with a friendly against Belgium, the travelling party of officials, players and reporters was treated by the BA cabin crew to a bottle of bubbly apiece on the flight and another of the same as they left the aircraft. For a fixture with Norway, the accommodation in Oslo was a university dorm on campus. Incredibly, the SFA had not noticed that the facilities included a subsidized bar replete with ‘languid leggy blondes’. A curfew was slapped on the squad and duly ignored by Billy Bremner and Jimmy Johnstone, both of whom got drunk in front of an open-mouthed John Motson. At breakfast, the squad left the dining room armed with butter knives, with which they would rip the Adidas stripes from their boots because the SFA had rejected a more lucrative sponsorship offer from Tennent Caledonian Breweries.
By this stage, the recurrent fault lines were well established, one being habitually inadequate accommodation, which descended to near-slum standard in Argentina in 1978 and Mexico in 1986. Tacky financial opportunism was another, as when in 1974 a BBC Sports executive met Willie Ormond in a Glasgow restaurant and slipped the traditional brown envelope of cash beneath the table – via Macpherson – to the Scotland manager, in order to secure privileged access to the squad. Ormond’s successor, Ally MacLeod, spent more energy touting carpets than he did researching disdained opponents such as Peru and Iran, who duly torpedoed Scotland’s hopes in Argentina.
Adventures in the Golden Age evinces little sympathy for MacLeod, although Macpherson’s opinion is that the manager suffered from lack of a player with the leadership qualities of Bremner, who might have transformed fortunes on the pitch. He also denounces the savage backlash directed at MacLeod from sections of the media which had previously fuelled his bombast, as ‘disgusting denigration… more applicable to the Moors murderer, Ian Brady’. Much of this ground has been ploughed repeatedly. What Macpherson offers is the testimony of personal witness, as when, at a dinner hosted by the SFA after the draw for the qualifying groups of Mexico ’86, the association’s president, Tommy Younger, became inebriated and turned on Jock Stein with the words: ‘You know, Jock, you have a worse record than Willie Ormond and Ally MacLeod – and they got the sack.’ Macpherson writes: ‘It wasn’t so much the inaccuracy of what Younger said, it was the very temerity. I thought Stein would snap.’ The situation was soothed by the intervention of the SFA secretary, Ernie Walker, ‘before the table was upturned’.
Diplomacy was not as evident on other occasions, such as an encounter with Sean Connery at a hotel near his home on the Costa del Sol, for a TV interview during Spain ’82. ‘The topless German girl who lay sprawling at the poolside did not seem to mind that 007 was occasionally sneaking a glance at her. We all were,’ Macpherson admits. ‘Except that Sean Connery’s wife was sitting beside him as well, constantly feeding her poodle and muttering incessantly in French. It was as well the poodle was a distraction because we noted she was pointedly unaware of Sean eyeing the scenery. However, Sean became thoroughly browned off by the interruptions, put down his cutlery with a clatter and snapped, “Would you shut your effing mouth!” We carried on eating as if nothing had happened.’
Broadcasting can be as competitive an activity as any professional sport and Macpherson logs his struggles to maintain Scottish independence within the BBC when London big shots like David Coleman wanted to muscle in on Scotland’s turf. West Germany in 1974 was one such occasion. ‘I saw this figure marching through the lobby barking orders to some flunkey or two around him, as Coleman was wont to do,’ Macpherson recalls. ‘He was top dog. Nay, a demi god, if you listened to what was said about him in broadcasting circles. He was fully aware of that and acted accordingly, regarding all around him as Lilliputians set to bugger him up and, as a consequence, treated them like serfs.’ On one occasion the editor of Grandstand asked the Beeb’s favoured son to be available for a broadcast recording the following morning. ‘There are big pricks, there are small pricks, but you are the biggest small prick of all,’ Coleman informed his supposed boss.
Macpherson is good on the complexity of Jock Stein’s personality, in which compassion and callousness were mingled and he is supportive of Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown, in charge of Scotland respectively in Italy in 1990 and France in 1998. Both, like him, were originally teachers.
The strange decline of the Scottish game is perplexing. The causes are multiple – the teachers’ strike of the 1980s, when football evaporated as an extra-curricular activity, the formation of the SPL in 1998 (when Scotland last appeared in a World Cup finals), the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia, which doubled the number of countries in Uefa, plus the influx of vast television revenues to England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. But the same conditions and population constraints apply to Iceland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Croatia, Denmark, Costa Rica, Panama and Uruguay, to name a clutch of Euro 2016 or Russia 2018 finalists (the Croatians, Danes and Icelanders qualified for both).
Stands Scotland where it did? Nope. The national parliament (established in 1999) has never been required to congratulate the national team. Murray and Hoy are the world beaters of our era. It is poignant to realize that, were we able to return to Archie Macpherson’s Golden Age and mention their names, the reply would be: ‘Which team do they play for?’