Another World Cup has come and gone with Scotland on the outside looking in. Scots tried to enjoy it as best they could while watching England make worrying progress. Then along comes a book reminding us just how wonderful things used to be.
Scotland qualified for five World Cups in a row between 1974 and 1990 and then came back for one more in 1998. Archie Macpherson was present at every one of these finals as a reporter and invariably also had the ear of the incumbent Scotland manager. It was, as the title has it, a golden age for the Scottish national team. Now in his early 80s, that last French adventure is likely to prove Archie’s swansong.
Younger Scots who cannot remember even this most recent escapade might resent Macpherson’s good fortune. However, he is forgiven on account of the quality of his storytelling. Scotland bid farewell to regular World Cup odysseys with a 3-0 defeat to Morocco, 20 years ago. Macpherson recalls leaving the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard at 11pm, another commentary completed (he was in the gantry for 18 Scotland World Cup matches, every one since 1974).
Saint-Étienne was added to a list of places around the world, headed by Córdoba in Argentina, which has alarming alternative associations for Scots. Even had Scotland won, Norway’s simultaneous surprise victory over Brazil would have put them out.
Maybe we’re better off staying out of it. Even when Scotland qualified, things rarely ran smoothly. Macpherson can vouch for many of the turbulent tales to emerge from various Scotland camps. He saw drunken escapades, once while sitting have a beer with John Motson.
“Down the short flight of stairs leading into the well of the bar came the Scottish captain Billy Bremner, his arms round the shoulders of his great mate Jimmy Johnstone,” he writes. Rarely can an anecdote have started so promisingly.
Freed from the constraints of TV commentary, the medium with which Macpherson is most strongly associated, he can’t resist scholarly, slightly verbose flourishes. “In a country that gave us a literary figure who tilted at windmills, the organisers appropriately delivered a fantasy draw,” he writes (a Don Quixote reference apparently) of the botched World Cup draw for Spain 82, when Scotland were originally drawn in Argentina’s group rather than with Brazil.
Macpherson then sets off with Jock Stein on a fact-finding mission to New Zealand, another of Scotland’s opponents. Their trip is overshadowed by war breaking out over the Falklands. Stein is hesitant about continuing. Macpherson reminds him of the opprobrium heaped on Ally MacLeod when he nixed a planned trip to watch Peru before the ill-fated 1978 finals – Macpherson was due to join him on that occasion too.
Unashamedly, he says, he exerted pressure on Stein chiefly because he wanted to enhance his standing with BBC London, where David Coleman, who Macpherson clearly respected but found hard to like, ruled the roost. As for this World Cup memoir, the author has no need to fret: his credentials are impeccable.