Book review: Bring Me the Sports Jacket of Arthur Montford, by Aidan Smith

This survey of the strange, the sublime and the arcane in Scottish football history is funny, irreverent and vibrantly written, writs Malcolm Jack

An absurd sense of humour is essential for the Scottish football fan. How could it not be when the prize for climbing the slippery and oversized league pyramid is a walk-on part in the ancient, closed-shop bunfight between Rangers and Celtic (champions between them a ridiculous 107 times out of a possible 125). Unless you’re a fan of either half of the Old Firm, of course – clubs wholly defined by the burning desire to get it right up one another at all times, a farcical tragi-comedy all in itself.

It was with relish, then, that this long-suffering Dunfermline Athletic supporter opened seasoned Scotsman journalist Aidan Smith’s “hilarious romp through the best and worst of Scottish footballing history”. A funny, irreverent and vibrantly written potted review of the strange, the sublime and the arcane in the Scottish game, from the Midlothian origins of Bovril to that time Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone briefly got lost at sea; from the eyebrow raising (the impossibly glamorous sexual exploits of Davie Robb, anyone?) to the occasionally revelatory (Bob Marley was a Celtic fan? Who knew?). Smith’s prose jingles and jangles with a love for the Scottish vernacular, tugging throughout on a thread of personal memory, emotion and professional experience (several chapters are based around old interviews with greats of the game) meriting further development into a proper my-life-in-football memoir.

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The trouble I had with the book is how narrow Smith’s view of history proves to be. As he acknowledges himself in the introduction: “I hang around the 1970s quite a lot”. He spends plenty of time in the 1950s and 60s too, to be fair (the unlikely golden age of East Fife; Morton’s Scandi invasion), but such is his heavy focus on the heyday of perms, prog rock and the Tennents lager lovelies – at least half of the book must be 70s-centric, with just a handful of chapters referencing anything beyond – you could be forgiven for thinking that Scottish football more or less ended with Ally’s Tartan Army.

Aidan SmithAidan Smith
Aidan Smith

Undoubtedly our game was better back in the day, when players were fearsomely hirsute, huge crowds roared, national team ambitions soared, and TV sports broadcasters – including the titular Arthur Montford – wore extravagant jackets. But at no point since has it ceased to be as daft, to borrow a phrase from Smith, “as a bottle of crisps”, and there’s plenty of bizarre bric-a-brac from the more recent annals worthy of his warmth and wit. Be it that time Scotland briefly kicked-off against non-attendant opposition in Estonia in 1996, or – from my own club’s occasionally eccentric past – when Diego Maradona’s disowned son came to East End Park as a triallist in 2004, or when a plastered Rod Stewart slurred the cup draw live on telly in 2017. If Smith’s saving that kind of thing for his next book, then I’ll attack it with equal relish.

Bring Me the Sports Jacket of Arthur Montford: An Adventure Through Scottish Football, by Aidan Smith, Birlinn, £12