Interview: Tam Cowan, broadcaster and Motherwell fan

Celebrity Steelman Tam Cowan reflects on life since 1991 cup win

OH WHAT a season, for all the wrong reasons. Death threats, parcel bombs, bullets through the post, referee strikes, punch-ups in the dugout, paranoia, conspiracy, fear, loathing - not much scope for gags there. (OK, the prospect of bussed-in, pensionable refs from obscure lands lacking the go-faster whistler-wear and a working knowledge of the SPL's biggest bams had definite comedic potential). So it's little wonder that Tam Cowan says: "The humour, sadly, has been sucked right out of oor fitba.

"Here's a wee example. Last Friday I was compering a heroes' night for Scots from all walks of life. Me and Jackie Bird do it every year, always a brilliant occasion. We'd just welcomed up to the stage this amazing bloke who, over a few days in Afghanistan, had defused 12 Taliban bombs - and a minute later I found out that Paul McBride QC (Celtic's lawyer] is in the audience. Now this is the way my heid works: there's this guy who dismantles bombs and there's this other guy who gets one in his mail - an open goal. But I didn't do the joke. It would have been misconstrued and someone - quite a few folk, perhaps - would have taken the most almighty offence.

"This mess has got to be sorted out. That'll have to happen this summer, and I really hope it can. And I fervently hope, to make us forget, at least for an afternoon, all the stupid and horrible things that have happened this season, that we see a brilliant Scottish Cup final."

Ah, the final, the showpiece. Who's playing again? Celtic and… Motherwell. Surely that must thrill Cowan, one half of Radio Scotland's laughter-guaranteed Off the Ball with Stuart Cosgrove? Yes, except everyone wants a piece of his cuddly frame, including Five Live, who've just been on the phone requesting a choice Motherwell soundbite. "They've got that metropolitan snootiness I cannae stand in the BBC, assuming you'll drop everything for them," he says, sipping cola in his own Beeb studio by the banks of the Clyde. "This reminded me of France 98: me and Stuart horsing round Paris, finally locating the media centre, then being told our accreditation wummin wouldn't be back for five hours because she was 'collecting Des…'" (Lynam, presumably).

Couldn't someone else share his load - is there another celebrity Steelman who could come over all emotional at the mere mention, in this order, of claret and amber? "None that folk would know. I've just been doing a wee film for the build-up to kick-off, retracing my journey to Hampden when we last won in 1991. Our car turned down Avon Street and I pointed out the house where Neil Reid grew up. You know: Opportunity Knocks, 1971, Mother of Mine, our very own child star. Of course, the camera-crew had never heard of him."There's Christian/Chris McLure, too. You'd better stop that sniggering right now because Cowan, 42, won't hear a bad word said about the never-above-fourth-on-the-bill but redoubtable panto hoofer. Tam loves his showbiz troupers, the more veteran-class the better. He and I last bumped into each other at a Sydney Devine concert but only your correspondent had the excuse of being there for work purposes. He was with Liz who'd just become Mrs Tam, no less redoubtable for taking on a man with the twin obsessions of Motherwell and the Tiny Bubbles warbler.

And now he's a dad, daughter Sophie having arrived 14 weeks ago. He loves fatherhood and, maybe surprisingly, loves that she's a girl. "In many ways, women are so practical. That doesn't sound like much of a compliment but it is. Liz is magnificent as a mother; I'm just the tidier-upper and the funny-face guy. All my life until I met Liz I don't know where I would have been without my sister. In later life Sophie will be able to cope with things better than if she was a stupid boy. I'm sure she'll enjoy not being at the fitba and all that entails. She can go shopping for shoes with Liz.

"But she could be a lucky mascot for Saturday. At the semi-final against St Johnstone Liz texted me wanting the number of a mate with a camera-phone because she was going to send over a photo. I gave her the numbers of all the guys with camera-phones and was thinking maybe she'd been to Ann Summers to buy something nice and was about to give us a wee treat at the fitba, a double-thrill. It was a shot of Sophie with a Motherwell teddy and as I was drooling over it, bang, Stephen Craigan scored our first goal. Now I'm convinced she's Damien, like in The Omen, only a force of good. I've just bought her her first Motherwell strip and I'm hoping another wee snap sent during the final might work wonders."

So much has happened to Cowan since that 4-3 triumph over Dundee Utd in 1991. Back then he was 22 and just one of the lads - 20 guys from Motherwell when Ravenscraig was still thrumming who were so dubious about their chances that they had a cup-winning-sized bevvy in the snooker club in the town hall on the Friday night.

Now, as a new dad, he says he's liable to cry at anything - did he greet 20 years ago? "I'm sure when Tommy Boyd lifted the cup I had a wee tear in my eye. I never thought I'd see Motherwell win anything. But, while we had 33,000 fans at Hampden that day, some of them could be spotted on their Rangers and Celtic buses, first game of the next season, while our home crowd against Falkirk that day was 5,200."Cowan already had his own column in Glasgow's Evening Times, but the modest Fanscene with its byline shot of Tam munching a pie gave little clue that he'd one day become part of a football institution - a lunchtime palliative to the thud and blunder which, when it goes head-to-head with commentary from early kick-offs, retains its audience.

Off the Ball is terrific in many ways, and one of them is this: it's the only programme - and somewhere on the state broadcaster's networks there should always be one - where you get to hear not just Neil Reid being championed (again) but St Johnstone legend Buck McCarry as well. That was the edition before the 'Well-Saints semi which also featured the shout-out for bakery-associated footballers (Joe Baker, obviously, plus John Greggs, Peter Ovenkrands, Brian Eclair) plus the definitive list of favourite guest George Galloway's favourite words (traduce, pejorative, lickspittle, popinjay).

Do Old Firm fans "get" Off the Ball? Those of us who support the diddy teams hope so. Oh, and by the way: Tam is a real 'Well fan and Stuart a bona fide Saints aficionado - these allegiances are not fronts.

Cowan and Cosgrove met on the first day of the show after it had been revamped into a "zoo" affair, but it was obvious to the pair that the other guys weren't true nutters and one by one they disappeared, leaving the double-act. "Taxi drivers aye ask 'Where's Stuart the day?' as if we should be joined at the hip, but we don't see much of each other outwith the show because straight after we're off to our respective games and he spends the rest of the week up to his knickers in Channel 4 as a top executive. That's a regret but it's probably been good for the show because come Saturday we're genuinely pleased to see each other.

"We're not like Mike and Bernie Winters, secretly hating each other, but we've never sent each other a Christmas card. I did get a card from Stuart when Sophie was born with the message that it'd been sent under pressure from his good lady otherwise he'd have got a kicking. He came to my wedding, of course. If he'd been the DJ he'd have played only Northern Soul and that would have been a nightmare, so I made him an usher. I toyed with having him as my best man because my big mate Graham s*** a brick when he got up to make his speech - but, hey, your pals are your pals."

Off the Ball begat seven years of Offside on the telly for Cowan. It also begat dream-interviews with some of his musical heroes, among them Neil Sedaka and Engelbert Humperdinck, and he seriously unnerved the latter by revealing he'd cracked the secret in-concert sign-language The Hump has with his sound engineer.Has he ever at least pretended to like more cool music? "Yes, when I got to high school, to try and impress girls. I'd drop that Pigbag song into the conversation and aye get it wrong. What was it again? (Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag]. The most recent CD in my collection is probably The Very Best of Duran Duran. I'm with Alan Partridge who, asked by a young person who Wings were, replied: 'Only the band the Beatles could have been.'"

But much as he enjoys his other media gigs - his columns for the Daily Record and a new chat show, Tam Cowan's Magnificent 7, starting on Radio Scotland next Saturday - it's Off the Ball which still gives him the most joy. "Straight after the semi-final our producer said 'We'd better get a stand-in for the final', thinking I wouldn't want to work it. But if you'd told me in 91 when I was stood next to a 'Well fan dressed as Dennis the Menace complete with cardboard Gnasher that in 20 years' time I'd have the opportunity to talk s**** to the nation before another final for my team I'd have thought: 'Fantastic!'"

Few BBC presenters in the wake of the Sachsgate furore that did for Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand would have survived what Cowan terms "the Jose Quitongo/c*** incident", when the former Hamilton Accies and Hearts winger got too vivid in his description of some of the racial abuse he'd suffered in Scotland. "Stuart had posed the question in his usual, searing geo-political way and Jose's lovely wee smiley face melted when he realised what he'd said. Stuart apologised, of course, while I sipped my tea. We braced ourselves for the deluge but didn't get a single complaint. I think even those people who aren't happy unless they're unhappy, and who turn on the radio or the telly hoping to be offended, reckoned they might come off worse in that situation."

Nevertheless hoping for an incident-free show today, Cowan will sign off and join his mates on the Hampden slopes, having declined John Boyle's invitation to join the Motherwell chairman's party in hopitality (unofficial Off The Ball motto: "The show that pays into the game"). Win or lose, a table for 18 has been booked at the Indian Villa restaurant back on home turf, although remembering the delirious celebrations in 1991 he's allowed for time to see the team parade the cup should history repeat.

He ponders the historical omen aspect - are Motherwell, like Spurs, a club where notable things happen when there's a one in the year? In 1961 Ian St John left Fir Park. In 1971, er, Neil Reid won Opportunity Knocks (that's three mentions in one article, and in the 21st century, too - surely a record). In 1981 they won the Lanarkshire Cup, but then they've done that a few times. In 2001 amid financial turmoil a whole team left and a young man called James McFadden got his big chance.And 2011? You never know…

Cowan was dismayed with the manner of Craig Brown's departure - "It was a bit grotty and I think Craig would agree" - but he's been hugely impressed with Stuart McCall thus far, not least in his ability to win the big games. "If we score first we've got a wee chance," he says.

In 1991, the funster's merry band numbered 20. "On the tenth anniversary we all had a wee party and I remember my mate Jim saying: 'Next time we win the cup I wonder how many of us will still be getting a kick at the ba'? Well, we've lost Robert and Jack since then, both tragically. They'll be sorely missed and we'll be thinking of them."

Tam Cowan has said goodbye to friends and welcomed a daughter. He counts himself as one of the lucky guys. Lucky, too, to have seen his club achieve glory when some never do. "That's very true," he says, "but I was talking to Willie Pettigrew the other night and I had to admit to being a bit worried for the '91 team. I love that they're abolutely special, but if we were to do it again, might they become prehistoric which I'm afraid is how I've aye seen the '52 guys who were the last to win the cup? If we lose then selfishly that'll be my wee consolation."

He's been pondering an earlier question - how to define his club's personality, their USP - all afternoon and I think he's just hit upon the answer. How very Motherwell.