But the Yankee Clipper didn’t belong to me, it was Arthur Montford’s, and the day when I can quiz him about the precious plaything has finally arrived.
It was the most poignant of tales, which began with an anonymous “Wanted” notice in a newspaper, followed up by a keen-eyed journo, whose article told how the Voice of Fitba was trying to track down a substitute for the sledge he had as a boy. Montford’s marriage had just broken up, he wanted to be able to pass the sled onto any future grandchildren, and – never mind Charles Foster Kane, never mind JR Hartley and his elusive book on fly fishing – here was a proper quest, involving a man we all cared deeply about. The search at that point wasn’t going well, conjuring up a sad image of the commentator, then still at the mic, traipsing round junk shops to no avail.
“Imagine you remembering that!” he says when we meet at his golf club. “The sledge was given me by my father who was against bicycles which he thought too dangerous. It was a rare thing, American-made, with proper steering - the front third moved - and underneath I’d painted the name of my father’s ship during the war, ‘Eglinton’. Unfortunately in the melee that followed the divorce, two items disappeared which I’d dearly wanted to keep. One was my stamp album and the other was the Yankee Clipper.”
Arthur may be surprised by my recall but such was the power he wielded at that time, albeit benignly. The checks on his sports jacket were hypnotic. If you didn’t quickly adjust the contrast button on your TV – ask you dad what one of them was – you could end up falling under his spell, following him anywhere (don’t worry: it would only ever be to Cappielow to watch Morton’s reserves). When he declared that such-and-such a passage of play – hectic, over-populated, inconclusive – was a stramash then verily it was a stramash. And when the despairing cry was “And it’s disaster for Scotland!” we didn’t think he was exaggerating – a) because like him we were passionate fans and b) we didn’t forsee the bigger disasters and World Cup wildernesses which lay ahead.
Montford served 32 years with Scotsport – 2000 editions, 350 commentaries, 38 Old Firm matches – and retired in 1989. He is 84 now, quite frail, and asks me to help him off with his jacket as we repair to the Gun Room at Glasgow Golf Club. By the way, the jacket is a smart beige number. And let the records show that I don’t mention the iconic checks until the 39th minute of our chat. “No one’s ever lasted that long before,” he laughs. That said I’m still keen, even after all these years, to know where he bought it. “Hector Powe in Gordon Street, Glasgow.”
He usually manages two rounds of golf a week, or half-rounds, in a buggy. Once a week he swims at the Western Baths where he catches up with more pals: John, an Airdrie fan, and Jimmy who supports Partick Thistle. All three still get along to games which at their age is a fine effort, not least for Arthur who’s had to try harder to keep himself active since the death of his second wife at Easter. “Jacqueline had been married before, too, so for us to get to 25 years second time around was pretty good. But the house is a bit quieter now and the evenings are the hardest, even with a daft Boxer for company.” He notes that he’s the same age as Lawrie Reilly, who died last week. “I do worry about the old mind going,” he says. “Now, how’s your tea?”
But the old mind today is on splendid form. For instance, we discuss his greatest-ever match, Real Madrid 7 Eintracht Frankfurt 3, how STV were told by rivals BBC there was no room for their cameras in the gantry in Hampden’s South Stand; how, undeterred, they set up in the North Stand and ended up winning the local battle for viewers; how referee Jack Mowat had to be persuaded by Uefa to submit expenses and requested 1s 6d for the bus from Burnside, Lanarkshire. Just like that, Arthur produces a small brown card with the line-ups written in pencil – “I pinned it to my monitor. You can see the hole.” I tell him I was sad not to get the chance to watch a game from the North before it was pulled down and he reels off some of players he first studied from that vertiginous vantage-point back in the 1940s, including Jimmy Delaney, Willie Waddell, Jackie Husband and the England goalkeeper Frank Swift.
One memory stirs another. “Swift was one of three greatest goalkeepers I ever saw. There was Jimmy Cowan, obviously. One of my biggest regrets is being on National Service in 1949 and so missing ‘Jimmy’s Wembley’ [twice in a row Cowan helped Scotland become British champs with wins there]. Do you know he used to wear a Morton strip under his yellow jumper and in some old photographs you can see the hoops? The other one, oddly, was Eddie Connaghan who was Jock Stein’s keeper when Dunfermline won the Scottish Cup in 1961. Eddie’s dazzling display in the first game got him a cap. Jock invited me and the camera crew onto the bus after the Pars had won the replay. I remember Jock hanging out the door and waving the cup as we crossed the Kincardine Bridge. If he’d dropped it we’d have had to fish it out of the Forth!”
Later Montford will add a fourth goalie to the list: Jim Cruickshank. He revels in Hearts greats, being careful to add the names of wingers Tommy Sloan and John Urquhart to those of the Terrible Trio, and nominates Tynecastle one of his favourite grounds for commentating. “We used to film from under the brewery wall. The noise was incredible. And we had our own loo.” All of which makes him so sad to be witnessing the club’s desperate plight now.
“The situation at Hearts is a result of them being owned by someone who doesn’t live here, who doesn’t really understand the club and in the case of Vladimir Romanov who isn’t really all that worried. This is tragic for Hearts and I fear there’s more to come. At Dunfermline, creditors have just written off millions of pounds they’re owed. It’s been terrifying but they’ve survived. I’m pleased because there are good people at East End and it’s a place you get a nice cup of tea. Football really does seem to be at the crossroads. My old school pal Douglas Rae, the chairman of Morton, has put in something like £2 million over the last five years. There are other benefactors up and down the country. Players are offering to play for nothing and managers are on very modest salaries. But how much longer all of this can continue, I don’t know.”
The chat drifts, but in a good way, and suddenly we’re discussing films. To while away the evenings Arthur hopes for “a good nine o’clock movie”. The previous night’s wasn’t: “Patrick Swayze and Ben Gazzara hopelessly miscast in an action thriller.” All-time favourite film? “Maybe On Golden Pond, though I also love an old black-and-white film called The Bishop’s Wife. David Niven, Monty Woolley, Loretta Young and Cary Grant as an angel.”
Since we’re having an interlude, some Montford quickies. Although small boys (like me) divided up the world straightforwardly – “Do you prefer Arthur or Archie MacPherson?” – the rival commentators got on well. The cruellest game he had to describe was England 9, Scotland 3. His best-ever goal was Joe Jordan’s World Cup qualifier against Czechoslovakia (“Did you know big Joe used to play for Morton?”). His most difficult interviewee was Scott Symon (“A nice man who hated the cameras”). The finest Scottish player was Gordon Smith. The interview which got away was the same Smith (“I called round at his post office many times: ‘Please Gordon, just a sentence on each of three clubs where you won championship badges ...’”). The only piece of televisual advice he was given came from the Canadian-born host of The Carroll Levis Discovery Show, the Britain’s Got Talent of the 1950s: “He told me: ‘Be nice to the camera.’” His biggest blooper was calling Billy Ritchie in the Rangers goal George Niven for 45 mist-shrouded minutes. The most difficult camera position, down near a corner flag, was Third Lanark’s Cathkin Park. The coldest eyrie was at Tannadice. For a random Old Firm memory he selects a game won with an improbable Alex Miller belter. I remember that one, Miller reeling round and exclaiming his flippin’ joy – did Arthur ever have to deflect sweary words? “Yes, Scotland were losing and a ballboy was being tardy. It was pretty obvious what Denis Law said: ‘Give us the effing ball ya wee basket!’ I told the viewers: ‘And Law implores the ballboy – quite correctly in my view – to return the ball a little quicker.’”
Montford mentions his beloved Morton almost as often as he does his fondess for a cup of tea. Although he thinks most of the recent league restructuring has been “cosmetic” and is worried by the lack of a main sponsor, the play-offs could be good for his team and this, he says, has persuaded Douglas Rae to keep them full-time. So, as one of the cathode-ray pioneers, how much of season 2013-14 will he watch on the box? “Not much, I’m afraid, as I don’t have Sky and don’t even watch the highlights on Sportscene. I like the terrestrial coverage of the English game - Football Focus at Saturday lunchtime and Match of the Day at night. But by Sunday night, when Sportscene comes round, it’s been too long a wait when you already know all the scores and the clips are too brief, although that’s nothing against guys like Rob MacLean who I think do a grand job.” (Even so, he’s no Cary Grant).
Arthur’s preference for immediacy is understandable given it was expected of him and he generally delivered. “For night games in Dundee I’d have to fly back to Glasgow with the film which would have to be cut in time for Scotsport going on air at 10.30pm.” Of course, being a live programme in those hairy days, there were times when the fates conspired against it, like the fire in the studio which required our man to ad lib like mad (“Greyhound racing, and it’s the Scottish Derby next month. I hear there’s a good dog in Bothwell ... ”).
Another night footage from Tynecastle was being rushed across the country in relays. “But the driver with the last can containing the only goal, who was new to the job, didn’t turn up. ‘Apologies to Hearts fans but we’re unable to show your team’s winner against Celtic.’ Eventually the driver phoned in. ‘I think I’m lost,’ he said. ‘Read out the number on the dial,’ I said. ‘Er, North Berwick 2645?’”
Would Montford like to be commentating now? “From a technical point of view, yes. All those cameras – you’d never miss anything. But I’m glad I was around when I was. I’m not sure today’s commentators love football as much as Archie and I did. I got quite excited, didn’t I? ‘And here comes Eric Caldow to score with the penalty – I hope.’ That was a Scottish League game against the English. Of course, football back then was something to get excited about. Teams played with five forwards - five! Now we’re supposed to be encouraged when a manager says: ‘I’m going to play two up on Satuday.’”
Still, Arthur supports his team. “There’s nothing quite like the thrill of them running out in the blue-and-white.” He never did find another Yankee Clipper, by the way, and now his grandchildren are grown up.
“My grand-daughter works for Oxfam in the Gaza Strip where she needs an armed bodyguard and my grandson supports Chesterfield, where he lives. And I have a daughter in Spain and a son who has no interest in football, or golf.” Sen-sation! Is the Montford connection with Morton in peril? “It might look that way,” he says, summoning my help with his jacket again. “My father followed them as did my grandfather, and my great-grandfather was club secretary a century ago. But I shall keep going as long as I can. I’m honorary vice-president, which is a bit of a laugh, but it does entitle me to a pie at half-time and of course a rare cup of tea ... ”