Archie Macpherson on why Celtic and Rangers will still hate each other after Covid-19

Commentator doesn’t regret likening the 1980 Scottish Cup final riot to Passchendaele

Rangers fans on the pitch at Hampden after the 1980 Scottish Cup final

In his long lifetime, Archie Macpherson has uttered hundreds of thousands of words on the Old Firm. From precarious scaffolding-and-tarpaulin eyries during commentary. From the comfort of the TV studio, sometimes while suffering the very obvious discomfort of a producer bellowing into his ear via a Trimphone. And latterly as a kind of emeritus 
professor of our great, glorious and girny game, adding heft and insight to those big debates whenever Celtic or Rangers or both are discussable, which is most of the time.

He’s now written tens of thousands more words for a book and as we’re chatting about it one in particular is exercising him, having just told me he “enjoyed” the riot at the 1980 
Scottish Cup final.

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You’ll remember the game – no, that was a shocker, but you’ll have burned in your memory the immediate aftermath, the rival tribes kung-fu fighting on the pitch and Macpherson trying to make sense of it all. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said, “these people hate each other.” He likened the bottle-flinging mayhem to Passchendaele and to Francis Ford Coppola’s odyssey of war madness, Apocalypse Now.

A Celtic fan charges on to the pitch as police officers try to restore order at Hampden

“Do I mean ‘enjoyed’?” he wonders today. “Maybe that’s too strong. But I got great satisfaction from it because of the challenge it presented for a broadcaster. You’re there to describe one kind of event and suddenly something entirely different happens.” In the book, in his lyrical way, he compares this to “a bassoonist turning up for an orchestral performance and suddenly being expected to play lead violin”.

He continues: “What do you say? How much do you say? I didn’t want to state the bloody obvious, which like nearly all commentators I’d done before, or just garble on and on.” Passchendaele doesn’t make the book, does he think in retrospect that was the wrong remark? “It’s not there? I wasn’t aware of that. No, I didn’t edit it out and I don’t regret saying it.”

It is good to be speaking to Archie. When the Saturday Interview began 14 years ago there was a desire that every week there should be someone new. Not a rule as such, this was perhaps too idealistic when the profile has been going this long. The pool of worthy subjects is not bottomless and some have had new stories to tell, meriting a second appearance. Thus a few notables have appeared on these pages twice but Macpherson is the first to achieve a hat-trick, which seems entirely fitting.

It is good to be speaking to him because, well, he’ll be 86 later this year and we must look after our fitba oracles, checking in with them every once in a while, and this is an opportune moment. “Yes, we’re surviving,” he says of he and his wife Jess, locked down in Bothwell, Lanarkshire. “I can get out for a good walk and if I go beyond the village I can’t help thinking about folk not far from here in places like Drumchapel and Easterhouse where for some poor souls the situation must be horrific.

Archie Macpherson's new book, More Than a Game: Living With the Old Firm, is published by Luath Press. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

“The trick for us is to try not to dwell too much on the things we’re missing. I play golf – badly – and am not sure when I’m next going to be able to get over to our wee place in Fife for another game. God knows when this will end for old yins like us. Maybe not until there’s a vaccine.”

Is he missing football? “Not particularly,” he says. After his last radio gig ended, he continued going to games but this stopped about a year ago. “I was able to walk into a stadium and sit in the pressbox but I started to sense these eyes on me: ‘What’s he doing here? A supernumerary. His days are up.’” Isn’t this sad? We can be pretty mean sometimes. And there’s further evidence of this towards the end of the book when Macpherson ponders the political dimension. During the build-up to Indyref in 2014, after being persuaded to speak for the “No” campaign, he made a trip back to his old Shettleston stamping-ground for newspaper photographs and, as he stood outside the house where he 
was born, a local grump shouted down from his window: “F*** off ya English c***.”

Not that he’s lacked a team to cheer in the past few weeks. Grandson Stuart was among the brainboxes from Darwin College, Cambridge who 
battled through to the semi-finals of University
Challenge. “Stuart is studying physics and I must tell you that’s not hereditary. When I was at school I found arithmetic challenging enough.”

We’ll return to the Old Firm and 1980 shortly but of course there should have been another Celtic-Rangers insurgency happening round about now, almost certainly just as passionate and to some degree as poisonous as countless clashes before it. How does Macpherson think this Premiership season should be resolved and, speaking before the revelation last night that talks had collapsed, where does he stand on reconstruction?

“If at all possible, for the sake of sporting integrity, the season should be played to an end. Celtic would win the title, probably with a good deal to spare, but this needs to be seen to happen. Regarding the make-up of the top flight, nothing is perfect that’s for sure, but I’ve been punting the notion of a 16-team division for as long as I can remember. The argument against that has been there would be too many easy games. Well, maybe there wouldn’t be. Celtic have been steamrolling everyone but the clubs immediately below them have all struggled against teams in the bottom half.

“A 16-team Premiership would enable clubs to risk fielding younger players, spreading that gospel wider through Scottish football. Another argument against is that the broadcasters wouldn’t want any less than four Old Firm games but maybe 
end-of-season play-offs could still provide that.

“Whatever happens, reconstruction has to be considered very carefully. You’ll remember the first Premier League, an elitist division of only ten teams. Jim McLean told me that it wouldn’t be a competition of ten but eight as Celtic and Rangers were never going to be relegated. He warned that football would become negative – it did. That it would become defensive – it did. And he said that a wee guy like Graeme Payne would just be kicked off the park.”

Whither Hearts? Macpherson has perspective on the Jambos’ plight, too. “There are times when I think we have to apply commercial considerations. I consider myself an old-fashioned Socialist but I look at America, that citadel of capitalism where they try and equalise the power of teams in different sports, and I wonder if it’s sensible to be putting a club like Hearts with such a big support and a great stadium into a lower league – and especially when they’re not being given the chance to save themselves. Would that be doing us any good in the long run?”

Macpherson may no longer be bearing witness to Scottish football from the stands but all he’s seen over nearly 60 years is going into books. There’s been one about Jock Stein and remembering the Celtic godhead, who of course features in the new tome, More Than a Game: Living With the Old Firm, he today comes up with what he thinks might be the first time he heard the great man speak: “Not heard as such, but I could read his lips. He was in the dugout at Easter Road, just below where I was doing radio commentary. Our BBC driver who ferried us to and from games was a wee guy, dark hair, Italianate features, quite eccentric. With the match in progress I suddenly noticed him chatting to the Hibs goalie. He was actually leaning on a post. Jock spotted him too and I could clearly see him mouth the urgent inquiry: ‘Who the f*** is that?’”

Macpherson’s previous book gathered together all his World Cup assignments but this one was, in a way, unavoidable. For him, Celtic and Rangers were the elephants in the study. He had too many tales to tell of Glasgow’s eternal struggle, not least about the shocking events of 10 May, 1980. “Each anniversary of that final, ten, 20 and 30 years on, I would be rung up by journalists and asked about what happened. I eventually thought that maybe I should write about the game and its consequences.” Archie, then, would be Apocalypse Now’s Capt. Willard who ventured up river and into the heart of darkness in search of a madman.

His odyssey takes in the seismic moments before 1980 and since, including the day Rangers shocked the world – but some of their own supporters the most – by signing a Catholic. Macpherson had been tipped off about Mo Johnston first thing that day in ’89 by his son Douglas but scoffed: “There’s more chance of the Pope wearing the No 9 shirt at Ibrox.” A few hours later he was climbing the marble staircase, still not really believing it, when he was met by a photographer in a state of high anxiety who gasped: “Aye, he’s up there.”

As the voice of Sportscene during
Old Firm explosions Macpherson would sometimes have to dodge shrapnel, of the metaphorical sort at least. Stein accused BBC Scotland of Rangers bias and Willie Waddell accused Queen Margaret Drive of Celtic bias and once – the 1973 Scottish Cup final – gestured angrily from the Hampden track for manager Jock Wallace to unclip his microphone and end his post-match interview.

After more tremors in ’87 when four Old Firm players – Frank McAvennie, Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and Graham Roberts – ended up in court Macpherson was named as a character witness though ultimately not called. He faced a “charge” of his own – that during commentary he referred to Rangers men by their Christian names more often than he did Celtic men. “This accusation didn’t come from a pub doormouth, though there were plenty of them, but Jimmy Farrell, a Celtic director, who was chairman of the Race Relations Board in Glasgow. You’d think he should have been concerning him with more vital matters.”

Then there was the Ibrox Disaster. George Davidson had been the man at the microphone that bitter afternoon in ’71, Macpherson being summoned to an urgent meeting in the early evening over how the tragedy would be covered when a BBC colleague would utter a remark of epic crassness. “Present were the Lord Provost of Glasgow, the Chief Constable and others. My sports editor, Peter Thomson, was engulfed in emotion so I pressed the case, no question about it, for the highlights of the game to be cancelled. This middle-class apparatchik thought that was excessive. ‘How many were at the match?’ he asked. Eighty thousand. “And how many died?’ Sixty-six. Then he said: ‘Sixty-six out of 80,000 – not all that many, is it?’ My response wasn’t exactly career-enhancing.”

Gross under-reaction and just-as-ludicrous over-reaction. “The world’s greatest derby” and “Scotland’s shame”. It’s just football. No, it’s all about sectarianism. Macpherson is our guide through what you might call this Pure Mad Moral Maze and as usual with him there are walk-on parts for a bewildering array of improbables including Joan of Arc, Jacques Cousteau, Henry V, Dick Emery, Lon Chaney Jr, Mary Beard, Perry Mason, Wyatt Earp, Bette Davis, Andy Warhol and Abba.

It’s interesting, I say, that three women are so prominent in More Than a Game and emerge as virtual heroines. There’s the clippie on the bus to Carntyne when young Archie, visiting his granny, witnesses his first fight involving grown men as they squabbled over an Old Firm match, calling each other Fenian and orange bastards until being chucked off.

There’s Elaine Mudie, the mounted policewoman who enraptured the tabloids by riding to the rescue with baton flailing, although she insists this was simply because she was “a blonde on a white horse”. And what’s more the most vivid image of order being restored when her horse suddenly bucked had been the result of the animal being struck on the backside with a toilet roll – “Hampden’s least lethal weapon,” says Macpherson.

And finally there’s Cara Henderson, the girlfriend of a murdered Celtic fan who founded the anti-sectarian campaign Nil by Mouth. After Henderson attended her first Old Firm match, Macpherson in a newspaper column called her naive, but as he writes in the book, he was soon upbraided 
for being a “purveyor of plodding orthodoxy”.

“I underwent a transition with Cara,” he says today. “Before, I thought you couldn’t really understand Scottish football culture unless you were steeped in it. Consequently, a little lassie from a college in Oxford coming on to the scene just seemed preposterous. But then I began to realise that being steeped in it can make you far too insular and myopic. All the observers of my generation thought we knew the answer to the problem of sectarianism in the game, which seemed to be: ‘Ah well, this will carry on in perpetuity.’ We’d become lazy. A person like Cara Henderson was representative of the necessity for a light to be shone on the issue, exposing it in a way that was quite novel.”

Macpherson has in the past quit Scotland – to be Paris-based for Eurosport – thinking he would be glad of a change of scene, only to quickly start to miss our football and one fixture in particular. “The game in France was of good quality but clinical and for me it lacked identity. There’s a compulsion about Celtic vs Rangers, a universality, and it’s gripping. If you support another Scottish club you may not like that but it’s a fact.”

The day of the 1980 final was also when the Rubik’s Cube was launched and Macpherson likens legislators’ efforts to solve the various problems arising from the internecine rivalry as trying to crack the puzzle while wearing boxing gloves.

Can they ever be solved? Could they, amid such idealistic talk of nothing being the same after Covid-19, be remedied soon? “It’s difficult to provide an answer. That millions might very well be dead by next year might suggest that a degree of humanity will affect us all to the extent that even football fans will lower their levels of hatred and become more peaceable but I’m not at all sure I can see that happening.

“Regarding the Old Firm, some things are better. Stadia are better and society in general isn’t so bothered anymore about what religion you are, which foot you kick with. But the current issue between the two clubs is all about getting to ten-in-a-row. Whatever happens, it will remain an issue, and an excuse to accentuate the hatred.”

Let’s face it, said Archie, one day in May 40 years ago, that’s how they regard each other.

More Than a Game: Living With the Old Firm is published by Luath Press.

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