Interview: Archie Macpherson on his World Cup adventures

Commentary legend Archie Macpherson at his home in Bothwell in Lanarkshire. Picture: John Devlin
Commentary legend Archie Macpherson at his home in Bothwell in Lanarkshire. Picture: John Devlin
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The Saturday Interview is about to embarrass itself once more and again this concerns pleasures of the flesh. The last time was when I asked John Lambie, RIP, about his late-flowering passion for creating works of erotic art. “My whit?” he said, confirming you shouldn’t believe all you read on Wikipedia. Now I’m quizzing Archie Macpherson about the Bad Sex Awards and he’s probably thinking the same as Lambie: who is this berk and whatever happened to good, old-fashioned, proper research?

No, he splutters, he’s never been nominated for the notorious prizes for overheated bedroom scenes in fiction. What is true is that the man we associate with one of the cold, hard facts of Scottish life – and they don’t come much colder than the national football team’s failure to qualify for World Cups anymore – has dabbled in the creative stuff. Macpherson’s novel Silent Thunder was published in 2014, which was shortly after a cancer scare, and now I feel a proper heel for taking the tome’s name in vain, albeit mistakenly. But maybe Macpherson now regrets not putting in any coitus interruptus because he seems to regret the book. “I kind of disowned it,” he sighs. “That’s a terrible thing for a writer to say but there you go.”

I’ve called on Macpherson at the trim home in Bothwell, Lanarkshire which he shares with his wife Jess to talk about his new book – a return to facts, football and World Cups – and this one speaks for itself. Our man was there for all six tournaments going back to 1974 and we should know it’ll be good. The fictional tale, though, and his ambition to write it, surely tells us something else about him. Then again, maybe we’re not surprised by this foray. In his commentaries he would strive for the lyrical. “It’s like Passchendaele out there,” he exclaimed of the 1980 Old Firm riot at Hampden. Don’t forget, too, that in his 2009 autobiography, he namechecked this little lot: Iago, Torquemada, Tommy Cooper, Genghis Khan, the Witches of Salem, Ben Turpin, Henry IV, Salvador Dali, Harry Lime, Tolstoy, Euripides, Lady Bracknell and the Count of Monte Cristo. What a team they’d make.

Okay, who’s the bold Archie’s favourite author? “I’ve read everything Ernest Hemingway ever wrote and, straight after finishing A Farewell to Arms, remember at school asking my French teacher what ‘cojones’ meant. He wouldn’t tell me!

“I admire Carl Hiaasen and that’s what bugged me about Silent Thunder: it was a bit of a crime caper and I think I was too conscious of Hiaasen’s style when I was writing, maybe Chris Brookmyre’s too. It was very disappointing the book didn’t work because I desperately wanted to write fiction. When you’re writing about football – a biography of Jock Stein, say – there are rigid parameters but with novels you’re shorn of them. At first you don’t know how to cope. Am I allowed to make this man jump off a tenement? Can I make him fly? Fiction is terrifying and then it’s exciting.

“And it was fiction-writing that got me into BBC Scotland and into commentating. When I was an impoverished teacher I was always scribbling short stories and sending them here, there and everywhere. As James Thurber once put it: the rejections slips came back like a ping-pong ball from the other side of the net. Then one day in Jess’s parents house when we were courting, sometime in the late 1950s, I picked up an early edition of the Evening Times and there was my yarn about a pair of Glasgow conmen, under the pseudonym ‘Alan Marshall’ because I didn’t want the school to know. I tell you: six World Cups, four Olympics, great sporting events, but for me nothing has ever beaten the sensation of my first published work.

“Then, teaching on a blazing hot day in Glenboig, the clay mining village in North Lanarkshire, I watched from the classroom window as a Sheikh brush salesman went door-to-door with a wee boy tagging behind and that gave me the idea for a short story which was picked up by the Beeb. They put another on the radio: a Nativity going haywire when the third shepherd uppercutted the Virgin Mary. Then, knowing my interest in football, they said: ‘Do you fancy reporting on a game for us?’ That was Hamilton Accies vs Stenhousemuir the weekend of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some backdrop!”

Here’s an extract from Macpherson’s new book: “Emotions clashed in a pulse that went through me like an arousal.” Phew. He’s actually talking about that goal of goals scored by the other Archie – Gemmill – which took us to the gates of Dreamland in Argentina’s World Cup, but he isn’t kidding about the feelings the strike engendered. Seventeen years later during shooting for the Trainspotting movie director Danny Boyle asked Macpherson to re-voice his commentary. “He sent me a script bit I didn’t read it. He asked for a bit more oomph and I think I delivered on the 14th take. I was working for Eurosport in Paris when the film came out and took some French friends to see it on the Champs-Elysees. I got quite a surprise when I saw how the goal had been used, but my reputation soared.”

You’ll remember Renton’s famous line, a post-coital yelp: “Christ, I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!” In his book, Macpherson writes: “Renton has just reached his orgasm. His was fictional – mine was real.” Too much information from Archibald Macpherson who’ll be 84 later this year? Well, Scotland’s World Cups moved men in strange ways, like the Hamilton restaurateur who chartered a submarine to cross the Atlantic when we thought we would win the tournament. And, when we very definitely didn’t win it, the Dundee record-shop owner who was desperately trying to flog copies of Rod Stewart’s fitba-themed single for a penny each – with an offer to immediately smash them with a hammer if desired.

Despite the fictional flop, Macpherson continues to tap away at the keyboard. “A circadian rhythm affects me when I’m writing and it’s compulsive.” Is the urge to write and the splurge of words a consequence of his cancer which five years ago caused him to lose a kidney? “Maybe subconsciously. I don’t think it’s sinister, like I’m worried about how much time I have left, but when you suffer cancer you want to instil faith in yourself and you want to defy.”

His thumping 421-pager, Adventures in the Golden Age, is factual but at times, because it involves Scotland, fantastical. There are incidents which you think Boyle and other movie-makers would red-pen out of any script for being too daft, too improbable, too insane.

Such as: everyone in the 1974 World Cup party – players, officials, media – being handed a complimentary bottle of champagne en route to Belgium for a warm-up friendly. “Well, it was a long flight,” says Macpherson. “One and a half hours. Very few were left unopened. Mine was almost drained before the soggy chicken dish arrived. Then on arrival we were all given another bottle, as if to celebrate touchdown.”

These were the 1970s – footballers bevvied. And because we hadn’t qualified for so long, it was new and everyone was naive. There was an innocence about that adventure, we both agree. I tell Macpherson the story of a friend who decided on a whim to go to the World Cup so he popped along to Thornton’s in Edinburgh – suppliers of jolly hockey sticks to the well-brought-up “gels” of The Mary Erskine School – and bought tickets. Then he called on the chum with the car least likely to blow up and they were on their way.

“No one knew how to behave,” continues Macpherson, “so a few in that team looked hungover in that friendly, not least Billy Bremner, our captain. There was a moment when career-wise I thought he’d end up in the gutter but he redeemed himself in the tournament where he was superb. Four years later in Argentina, we missed his leadership. Whatever the man’s social frailties, he never lost sight of why he was a player in the first place.

“The choice of hotel wouldn’t have helped him sleep off the drink – it was on one of the busiest motorway junctions in Europe – and lousy accommodation would be a recurring theme.” Commercial deals were a new concept, at least for our brave boys, and unfortunately the man they chose to act as their agent previously worked for the Bunny Club and was quickly out of his depth. One night after dinner the players smuggled knives up to their rooms. Macpherson wondered if a kidnapping was afoot – “SFA nemesis Willie Allan, perhaps?”. There had been a fall-out with Adidas so stripes were hacked off boots.

All of this was certainly new to manager Willie Ormond, ex-St Johnstone. Macpherson liked him – “A lovely wee man” – but as with the fellow who used to preside over furry-bottomed waitresses, was he up to the job? The ’74 tournament was also new to the BBC hierarchy in London with no England present. They thought they’d better ingratiate themselves with Ormond. “A splendid restaurant was booked and in an act that seemed right out of John Le Carre a bulky envelope was passed from the sports editor via me to Willie who pocketed it with aplomb. It travelled under the table, which meant thighs were inevitably fondled. That was embarrassing. What was in the envelope? Not tickets for the Chelsea Flower Show. A few bucks, no doubt, to keep Willie sweet in the battle for views with ITV but it was also the English being patronising.”

We know what happened to Scotland in ’74 and in all Macpherson’s World Cups – no need to re-run those defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. But our guide can reveal things beyond our ken, such as how Jock Stein loomed in the shadows of that campaign, extending long arms for cuddles when players required them, and boots up the backside, too. Willie Morgan was a beneficiary, as was Bremner. “I remember Billy getting a pep talk. Actually, Jock lifted him clean off the sofa. Jock’s influence is played down but it was huge.”

Stein was Macpherson’s summariser – at least until David Coleman nicked him for transmissions for English viewers. “He made a big entrance at that World Cup and told the Beeb executive who was supposed to be in charge of the whole operation: “There are big p***ks, there are small p***ks, but you’re the biggest small p***k of the lot.’ Coleman was a horrible human being but a supreme broadcaster, no question about that. How a commentator makes that initial connection with the audience isn’t through language but the voice and he had a great voice.”

For the epic clash with Brazil in ’74 it seemed like Macpherson’s voice would be silenced. “London said there wasn’t room on the gantry for me so Coleman would commentate. A likely story – they didn’t want Beeb Scotland there. The Scots Nats wouldn’t have accepted that – dupes of a colonial power, they’d probably have called us – but never mind them, we weren’t accepting it.” Macpherson lobbied his friend, Labour MP Norman Buchan, and was eventually allowed to narrate the story of the game where we annihilated the world champs 0-0.

So: Argentina. It’s the 40th anniversary of the Psycho or Nightmare on Elm Street of our World Cups, the Carry on Up the River Plate. Was Macpherson swept along by the Ally Macleod-inspired fervour and the bonkers belief we could win the tournament? “To some extent. I liked Ally, too, and I did raise the odd quibble. I was his driver for a tour of hotels sponsored by a brewery. This was like the king accompanied by his consort, offering himself to an adoring public. I’d compere these evenings but the time I suggested that maybe guys in the squad like Don Masson and Bruce Rioch were getting on a bit, Ally went spare and so did the crowd. I thought to myself: ‘Oh dear, Ally, what if you fall? … ’ But I’m not pretending I was a soothsayer.”

Macpherson did something that MacLeod didn’t – he travelled to South America to watch Peru. “After the Beeb approved the trip I invited Ally but he didn’t come. He was too busy promoting carpets and cash-and-carrys but I don’t blame him for trying to make a few bucks. When I arrived in Lima a newspaper put me on the front page under the headline ‘El Espion’ – The Spy. I used a local film crew who had such antiquated equipment their cameras needed a cable strung across a busy square with traffic running over the top which was plugged into an ice cream shop. I covered Peru’s warm-up match against Argentina. There was no one else from Britain at the game so I knew the footage would be in great demand. Unfortunately it turned out to be completely untransmittable, which was embarrassing.”

Gremlins continued to dog Macpherson. When Scotland lined up against Teofilo Cubillas and his pals in Cordoba he couldn’t be heard. “Someone had forgotten to book the line so the voice heard back in Scotland had to be Coleman’s. That alarmed Jess who might have thought the [Argentine guerrilla group] Montoneros had abducted me.”

This was hugely frustrating for Macpherson; he’s a man who has words he wants to impart. Of that incendiary Scottish Cup final 38 years ago, when he also likened the pitch battle between Celtic and Rangers fans to Apocalypse Now, he says: “The actual game was terrible so I was glad to be able to get my teeth into something.”

For the Peru debacle he delivered a “ghost commentary” and in his version we won 3-1. But the truth hurt. “I wanted out of the place. The feeling was exacerbated by the last game against Holland being more characteristic of what Scottish football could be. I felt wounded by that, pretty disgusted.”

The World Cup experience for Macpherson would get slightly better. Or at least less “Endsville”, which was Rod Stewart’s summation of Argentina. Similar disappointments and failures to get out of the groups but fewer wayward wingers requiring to be hidden in the boots of fast cars in the wake of drugs scandals; less managers having to seek out the scabbiest mutts in the favelas for their only friends.

And in between tournaments Archie always had Arthur. That’s Montford, of course, his rival at STV. Are you a Child of Archie or a Son of Arthur? This was never a Beatles vs Stones wrangle; the discerning fan refused to choose. And Macpherson insists he didn’t carry an effigy of Montford to jab with pins every time he described a stramash and this got woven into the fabric of Scottish football, what you might call the Bayview Tapestry. “I actually thought he was a better presenter than commentator. But we got on well and confided in each other. Maybe to get the best gossip about STV I’d seek out Alex Cameron – and I could drink him under the table – but while Arthur wasn’t a great boozer he was a very fine fellow.

“And I’ve never mentioned this before, but standing together in the centre-circle at Hampden, he once asked: ‘Is there any chance of me getting a job at the Beeb?’ I’m not sure if he was serious but I used to wonder what it might have been like working with him.”

The Waifs of Archie and the Weans of Arthur are doing exactly that right now. Who knows, one of those World Cups might have turned out differently.