Club football came up against international football in Edinburgh the other night and club football lost. Archie Macpherson was poised at the lectern and about to deliver his address on the Scotland team’s purple patch (1974-98) when the reverential silence was broken by radio crackle. Someone was listening to the Celtic game over in Athens and judging by the groans it wasn’t going well.
I can’t have been the only aficionado of the purple patch of Archie whose mind wooshed back to the edition of Sportscene when the great man’s lyrical flow was broken by highlight-scuppering gremlins and he had to rev up the trimphone on his desk which we all thought didn’t work and was just a prop to track down the missing match action.
Macpherson dealt with that interruption like a pro but we didn’t think it right that, at approaching 84, he should have to intervene here. In the end, he didn’t. A member of the audience leapt to his aid, quietening down the Hoops-obsessed berk.
This was the Edinburgh Book Festival where earlier in the day I’d been part of a half-full tent for a Booker Prize-nominated novelist discussing her unflinching portrait of life in a women’s prison. Archie, though, sold out the same venue in double-quick time. The place was jam-packed, like Firhill or Cappielow for a cup quarter-final, back in the day. Or indeed a Scotland qualifier when getting to World Cups was routine.
Macpherson was unruffled in any case. Leaving behind the comfort of the Beeb Scotland studio and its trimphone and finding yourself in the same room as your public had always involved an element of risk. There was the time in Newarthill, North Lanarkshire, a place where – and he wants me to stress this is just his little joke – “games of tig were played with hatchets”. The evening’s MC introduced him thus: “We invite him into our homes every weekend … we’re treated to charm, elegance and wit every time as I’m sure we will be tonight … ladies and gentlemen, I give you Arthur Montford!” Then there was the time on a demented Argentina 1978 medicine show, as the straight man to Ally MacLeod touring the land, when the wise owl of the temporary scaffolding commentary-box eyrie suggested to the ebullient manager that some members of his squad might have been a bit long in the tooth for elite international competition. This was blasphemy as far as the punters in the hall were concerned who shouted Archie down – presumably just before confirming bookings for the World Cup submarine.
Surely, though, the ’78 squad was the best we ever assembled? No, said Archie, the one in ’74 was superior. He praised Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown, who worked with much less in the 1990s but still steered us to the finals. At Italia ’90 there had been not insignificant noises-off from club football including the proposed “merger” between Hearts and Hibs. Wallace Mercer came out to the tournament, admitting over a couple of bottles of Valpolicella that while the new club might have paraded under the banner of ‘Edinburgh United’, it was his intention to obliterate the Leith toerags. Hands off Hibs were on the next plane, taking the battle to the streets of Genoa and Turin.
Then there was ’82 and the campaign led by Jock Stein. Macpherson, chronicler of all these World Cups in his fine book Adventures in a Golden Age, had previously written a biography of Big Jock and told a funny story about the boss who was a master at media manipulation. While at Leeds United Stein called up Macpherson and intimated that he rather fancied the Scotland job. “You know the words to use,” he said, flatteringly. Macpherson’s exclusive was big enough for Harry Carpenter and Sportsnight, only the following morning when Stein was asked on radio about its veracity, he said: “Ach, you know what these journalists are like … ”
There was more hilarity when Macpherson recalled chaotic coverage of Scottish football which not even the trimphone could salvage. “There was a League Cup semi-final  which finished Rangers 6, Kilmarnock 4 although if you watched our programme you’d have assumed it finished one-all. We managed to miss eight goals. The young cameraman on duty that day had just come down from Orkney where he’d been shooting pottery documentaries. His name? Bill Forsyth.
“Years later on a plane to the United States I was invited up to first-class to have a drink with the same Bill, by then an acclaimed movie director and on his way to Hollywood. ‘I’m doing no’ bad now, Archie,’ he said. ‘I know, Bill’ I said, ‘and I loved Gregory’s Girl. At least in that we got to see the bloody ball!’”
Very soon new qualification will begin, this time for the Nations League. It’s highly unfortunate Scotland will be embarking on the campaign without Joe Jordan and Kenny Dalglish, but also without Macpherson and Montford, our all-time-favourite fans-with-microphones. Arthur had been contemplating his memoirs before he died. What a pity – what a “disaster for Scotland” indeed – that they were never published, and that he didn’t get the chance to be introduced at the Bookfest as “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Archie Macpherson!”
Of course even in Archie’s golden age the nation could still splinter into club factions between internationals and revive the old, old disputes. He had us in stitches recalling the bampot claims of bias when a commentator’s use of Christian names or even just his intonation were interpreted as favouring one mob over the other.
Late at night after an Old Firm clash – Celtic had lost – he was back in his office at the Beeb when the phone rang. At 11.30pm the call was never going to be praiseful. “There’s something wrong with my new colour TV.” Archie tried to be sympathetic to the unhappy viewer, suggesting he try fiddling with the contrast button. “The telly was fine for How Green Was My Valley and that other great movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” the disgruntled caller continued, “but it didn’t show up your blue nose.”