Interview: 25 years on, Tam Cowan on why fans needed Off the Ball

There is a one-man hunger strike ongoing in Glasgow’s Merchant City when I arrive for my rendezvous with Tam Cowan, or at least that’s what the banner?proclaims. But where’s the protestor? ?Maybe he’s gone for lunch, I’m thinking. If so, perhaps he should have attached a notice reading “Back in 5 mins”.

Tam Cowan, pictured at Pacific Quay in Glasgow, has been presenting football show Off The Ball on Radio Scotland for 25 years. Picture: John Devlin

I’m pretty pleased with this gag and relate it to Cowan but he doesn’t laugh, just like he’s never laughed at any of my attempts at humour when I’ve been a guest on Off the Ball, the rollicking Radio Scotland fitba stramash he hosts with Stuart Cosgrove. I don’t really mind this, it’s his gig, now 25 years old. But this time I may have some control over proceedings. Since he stopped reviewing restaurants for a tartan tabloid he hasn’t been sure where his next free lunch was coming from and today in this nosherie I’m buying.

Should we abstain out of sympathy with the striker? Well, Cowan says the fish soup is excellent. We’ll get round to Off the Ball, but let’s stick with food for a moment. For the past 21 years he got paid to eat (mostly) quality grub, first courtesy of the Daily Record then The Sun. The switch was, he thinks, “the last big-money transfer in Scottish journalism – my Mo Johnston moment”. But a few weeks ago, just before he went on holiday to Florida with wife Liz and daughter Sophie, the gravy train hit the buffers. “Cutbacks,” he says. “I was told all the Scottish columnists were being let go. But when I next looked at the paper the other guys were still there!”

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He’s not bitter, knows he’s had a good run and hopes his departure will have kept colleagues in jobs who don’t have other hats or bunnets to wear, namely the “most petty and ill-informed football show on radio”. He’s not entirely finished with the written word, aims to re-emerge at another paper soon, and is also in discussion with TV producers about how his culinary philosophy – “Good, honest food for good, honest people” – could transfer to the box.

The antithesis of Nigella Lawson’s “food porn”? More than likely, although here’s a story from those 21 years of slap-up-feasts-on-expenses: “I made a wee mistake in one review, calling the parent company which owned this Glasgow restaurant Black Horse instead of Black House. That directed
the readers to a website which, bloody hell, was a parade of gentlemen who were indeed black, all with ginormous appendages. The restaurant took this in good humour and, although there are some folk out there who’re just desperate to be offended all the time, so did most of the punters. One emailed me ‘Now I know what they mean by steak being well-hung’ and another said: ‘We read your review, Tam, and fancied trying the restaurant but after looking at the photos on the website me and the girlfriend decided to have a wee night in to ourselves!’”

There’s a seamless link back to Off the Ball and it involves Jim McIntyre. Stories of the ex-Ross County and Dundee manager’s legendary manhood have enraptured Tam and Stuart for years. “We got sent a photo from an old Kilmarnock Christmas party, Jim dressed as Superman, tights round his ankles, and there it was. Because one of his team-mates was holding a pint glass directly
underneath you thought you were looking at a young giraffe having a drink. When Billy Dodds was on the show he said Jim on the team bus would be stood behind guys battering it off their heads.”

Before we concentrate on Off the Ball – so “ill-informed” indeed that it even missed the official date of its anniversary – there’s one more yarn from Tam’s fearless reporting from the food frontline when our man was required to slap his integrity on the table. At this restaurant, in Edinburgh, the owner cancelled a night off to rush to the premises after being alerted about Cowan’s presence. “He was a bit flustered and asked if I’d enjoyed my meal. ‘Fine,’ I said, which was my standard response. He asked what wine I’d been drinking. ‘House red,’ I said, whereupon he rushed to the cellars and came back with this stouried bottle of some incredibly rare vintage. He quaffed two quick glasses and gave me a playful slap on the back, saying: ‘We’re all businessmen, eh Tam?’ I wondered what was coming: in fact it was a scene from an old spy movie. The guy went over to this painting above the gantry which he slid to one side to reveal a wall-mounted safe. Click-click-click, the door wheeched open, and there were all these bundles of notes. He extended his arms like Carol Smillie on Wheel of Fortune showing off the big prize. I guessed I was to help myself in return for a glowing write-up. So I skedaddled… with 15 thousand quid. Naw, I didn’t!”

How did Cowan get here? Achieve this rarefied position in the Scottish kultural panoply? Well, it all began, highly unpromisingly, at Edinburgh’s Napier College where he quit journalism studies after just two months. “In football parlance I left by mutual consent. I was spending too much time writing jokes for Little & Large, Bobby Davro and Hale & Pace.”

It is at this juncture that the nation should, if it so wishes, thank Braidburn High School, Motherwell, and in particular English department head Tom King for stimulating young Tam’s funny bone. And maybe Maggie Thatcher, too. “In sixth year Tom ran a writers’ workshop which was open to old biddies who he got crafting wee poems while me and my pal – and future best man – Graeme Davis tried to make up jokes because we loved Not the Nine O’Clock News. And unbeknownst to us Tom sent some away to Radio 4.

“I can still remember the first of mine being read out on air, inspired by a story about a kangaroo getting loose in the hold of a plane flying over Australia. Roy Hudd no less said: ‘It must have been a Boing 747.’ For that I earned £7.50. I’d like to tell you I framed the cheque and it’s still on the wall at home but I headed straight down to the Motherwell Town Snooker Centre to get the manager, Tommy Turner, to cash it. I spent the money on a few frames and bacon fries, my favourite snack until they made me sick.”

Thatcher comes into this because of the Tory Government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme which enabled Cowan to pay his mum Isa digs money so he could indulge himself at the local library, dreaming up more funnies. His mum and dad, also Tam, are in their eighties and although no longer together, are keen listeners to Off the Ball. “Dad’s aye picking me up on stuff, like when I mention him taking me as a boy to a game at Stenhousemuir. He’ll remind me I was far more interested in trying to peek through the social club window to see Jackie Pallo wrestling on the TV.”

The programme is bawdy – in fact, I think I’m going to show off here and call it Rabelaisian. Does his mother ever get shocked? “Are you kidding? She taught me how to swear, the full lexicon. I can still hear her shouting profanities at the big ugly dog three doors down from our house which liked to try and roger the kids coming home from school. One time peeling tatties she chucked a spud at it – a direct hit on the nose.

“But, you know, in 25 years on Off the Ball I’m proud of the fact I’ve never once swore. The Beeb know what the show’s about, know that we rip the pish out of everything, and good on them for giving us such a long leash, unlike that mutt which never had one.

“There was that time one of our guests let slip the c-word – poor old Jose Quitongo. Stuart dealt with that magnificently: ‘Apologies there, folks, but Jose comes from the war-ravaged Angola and English is only his third language.’ That put the easily-offended’s gas at a peep. But I have to say I turned pure white that day. I was thinking: am I too late to get back into Napier College?”

He reckons his big studio microphone bearing the BBC logo ensures he bites his tongue at moments of over-excitement although my recorder sat on our table as he tucks into his lemon sole doesn’t quite limit all the expletives. This is Cowan discussing the new kids on the block at A View from the Terrace: “They’re great, although if I was them I’d be asking the Beeb for a recording slot later in the week. Wednesday night has meant they’ve missed a couple of big Thursday stories: the national team getting humped in Kazakhstan and Brendan Rodgers quitting Celtic. Of course I’m not them. I wouldn’t look cool with a beard, skinny jeans and nae socks. Mind you, I sometimes go sock-less, though, but that’s because I can’t bend down to get the c***s on.”

Cowan is 50 so he’s been sending up Scottish football – with affection and copious references to his beloved Motherwell FC – for half of his life. His folks reckon his pawky humour is inherited from his paternal grandfather, an inveterate contributor to newspaper letters pages. Nevertheless, he’s astonished to be earning a living poking fun at Pat Nevin, Hugh Dallas, Craig Brown, Alan McInally and all the rest, though he believes Off the Ball when it began was urgently needed.

“I think the coverage of football in Scotland before us was quite regimented and folk still expected the late, great Bob Crampsey to turn up regularly in a tuxedo and wax lyrical about Third Lanark. There was a reverence around, also a sooky-sookiness. Pundits were deemed to be either right up Rangers’ arse or right up Celtic’s arse. Then these two pests came along who weren’t going to talk about the Old Firm all the time and give the diddy clubs a shout although of course still to this day, if Stuart and I mention Celtic slightly more often and more favourably than Rangers or vice versa, we’re assumed to be secret supporters of one or the other.”

Before Tam and Stuart, however, there was Tam and Greg (Hemphill) and Sanjeev (Kohli). “Where are these two now?” he wonders. “Well, actually they’ll soon be on a 20-night run with Still Game at the Hydro while at the same time I’ll be speaking at the Blantyre Masonic. By their own admission, though, they weren’t hardcore football guys. I was the only one with a 
season ticket. Greg hosted Off the Ball for the first year and I still wind him up about the time he interviewed Maurice Malpas clearly knowing absolutely eff all about him. The last time I did this we shared a taxi home to the West End after a few pints, Greg telling the driver: ‘Just after that Porsche is fine… no, the other Porsche.’ He lives in the leafiest part of the West End whereas I live in the Motherwell part.”

Enter, then, Cosgrove. “I knew about Stuart.
He’d had a hit with his great book Hampden Babylon and I’d seen him on TV on The Late Show – sunglasses indoors, the hooded tops he still wears now, all that shite. I’d also seen him at the football, cutting about with a bunch of elderly casuals, but the first time we met was half an hour before we went on air together for the first time.”

Off the Ball always features a burst of the theme to The Odd Couple and initially these two seemed like strange bedfellows. After all, Cosgrove was ex-New Musical Express and Cowan liked Sydney Devine. But they both had housing-scheme upbringings and diddiness in common, Cosgrove supporting St Johnstone. “We got on right away and Stuart summed us up like this: I was the coarse lump of Lanarkshire lard and he was the posh Perthshire poof. You couldn’t get away with that now.”

Similarly, Cowan couldn’t get away with slagging off women’s football in one of his newspaper columns in 2013 – he called it a “turgid spectacle” – and was temporarily removed from the radio. “Like most things I write, that wasn’t meant to be 
taken seriously. I was having a laugh and a joke and a carry-on and it all rebounded. Did anyone really think I wanted Fir Park ripped up because women had just played there?

“I could tell you that Off the Ball embraced Julie Fleeting et al before women’s football became trendy. I could tell you that [former women’s chief exec] Maureen McGonigle phoned me during the ban to say: ‘I know what you’re like, Tam, but I remember when we launched a magazine for the women’s game you were the only guy to turn up.’ My wife pointed out that I’d been saying far, far worse about men’s football for years. But there’s nothing to be gained if you’ve genuinely upset people so when women’s teams told me how their players who were taking two buses to training and two back were hurt by that column I did fund-raisers for them. I also sponsored the girls at Motherwell, got them new kit, and they put a notice in the club programme: ‘Come and see Tam Cowan’s balls being kicked up and down the park.’ That was brilliant.”

Top of the wish list for a guest spot on Off the Ball is Billy Connolly – “The funniest man on the planet” – but Pat Kane maybe shouldn’t hold his breath for another invite after the Independence-supporting popster’s appearance alongside just-departed Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson, causing Cowan to shudder at its memory. “Every time Ruth said something Pat would tut or sigh or roll his eyes. It was effing horrible and so not in the spirit of the show. After each edition we always get a photo of the guests for the records but he flounced off saying: ‘I can’t do this.’ That bothered me the rest of the day. I phoned Ruth to apologise. She said – and I believe these were her exact words – ‘Don’t worry, I’ve met bigger arseholes.’ So there was me, a laddie from Motherwell, growing up in the shadow of Ravenscraig before it was pulled down by Thatcher, saying sorry to a Tory. How the world turns.”

And how Off the Ball endures. Not a proper comedy double-act but way funnier than many, Cowan and Cosgrove are seeing off their silver wedding anniversary with the minimum of fuss. “We don’t start Saturdays with a slap-up breakfast together because unless there’s an English programme being made at Beeb Scotland HQ you can’t get any decent grub there at weekends. We’re on air before and after games now so if we can’t get to see our teams Stuart will be watching St Johnstone on one monitor and I’ll be through the glass cheering on Motherwell. When we’re all done at 7pm we’ll natter at the door for a few minutes then go our separate ways. I guess we’re like one of these married couples who don’t see much of each other because they’re doing their own things but end up staying together for ever. Maybe we should go for a curry soon but right now I’m looking forward to Saturday and being paid for having a laugh with my pal about the fitba. What could be better than that?”