Fitba Week: Voices of Football – What a Stramash! The Life & Times of Arthur Montford

by | Sep 4, 2019

The world of Scottish football can be a divisive place at times, but news of the death of Arthur Montford at the age of 85 in November 2014 was met with sadness and tributes from all parts of the game there. Montford may have been an ITV man rather than a BBC man, but for many he was the voice of Scottish football for more than three decades, both as a commentator and as the presenter of Scottish Television’s weekly highlights show Scotsport. South of the border, he was only an occasional presence (other ITV regions would occasionally show brief highlights of Scotland’s main match on their shows, but this was far from regular), but in Scotland he was a mainstay of the game, an avuncular presence untarnished by accusations of bias either towards or against either of the big two clubs, or beyond.

When ITV began its service in Scotland in 1957, the owner of its franchise-holders, Lord Thomson of Fleet, famously described the contract as “a permit to print money.” Scottish Television, however, found itself in a slightly unusual – though not unique – position amongst the ITV contractors. On the one hand, it was part of a network of companies that would come to stretch across the whole of Britain (as well as Northern Ireland and even the Channel Islands), and there was a requirement on its part to show the programmes as everybody else. On the other, though, Scotland is more than “just another region.” It’s a country in its own right, with its own culture, traditions and history, especially in terms of sport, and especially in terms of football, which had formed an entirely different league system to England and Wales since the codification of the game. Scottish Television – commonly (and later formally) shortened to STV – shared the country with Grampian Television to the north and Border Television to the south, but remained at heart a national broadcaster.

The need for a local sports programme was recognised by the new company before they even went on air and, following auditions at a hall in the Maryhill area of Glasgow during the summer of 1957, Arthur Montford was chosen to be the face and voice of the new station, and to say that this was an obvious choice would be something of an understatement. Montford’s father had enjoyed a lengthy career with the Glasgow Evening News and the Daily Record, and Montford himself had begun his career as an office junior with the Evening News, before going on to work at the Daily Record and the Evening Times, where he began to specialise in football, being invited by sports producer Peter Thomson to provide match reports for BBC radio. By all accounts, Montford’s first audition was a bit of a disaster, but another former BBC radio producer John Wilson, who had decamped to the nascent commercial TV channel, had seen something in Montford ans offered him a second audition at which he performed much better. A pay increase from £14 a week to £20 a week was enough to secure the services of this up and coming young journalist.

As was commonplace at smaller ITV companies at the time, Montford was required to be something of a jack of all trades, and his work in the commentary gantry was matched with hosting duties and, occasionally, working as an in-vision continuity announcer, linking programmes together for viewers. Sport, however, had been the reason for his move to STV and his one of his earliest successes came in 1960, when Hampden Park staged the European Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3. When Montford and his crew arrived at the stadium, they found the BBC had taken all the space on the South Stand gantry. They set up in the North Stand opposite and he later claimed, won more viewers in Scotland. Just prior to the match, England had blamed a bumpy Hampden Park pitch for a drab one-all draw in the Home Internationals. Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt showed that defensiveness up for the nonsense that it was, with Real winning by seven goals to three in front of 120,000 people in a match still fondly remembered as one of the great European Cup finals.

Montford had started out his own football fandom as a Rangers supporter before being swayed by his grandfather to support his local team, Greenock Morton, by the gift of a full Morton kit. He came to detest religious sectarianism in football, considering that his own Christianity should manifest itself through not taking sides in that particular perpetual battle. Indeed, it is this genuine understanding of his impartiality that likely underscored the sincerity of the tributes to him upon his passing, five years ago. A lot of people spend a lot of time making accusations of bias on the basis of religious or political persuasion – some with more justification than others – towards people working in the Scottish media, but that was never an accusation that could be levelled at Arthur Montford.

If it was ever to be seen anywhere, his biases only shone through when commentating on the national team. When goalkeeper Ally Hunter made a fumble that put Czechoslovakia ahead against Scotland in a must-win World Cup qualifier in 1973, Montford described it as “a disaster for Scotland.” Fortunately, they came back to win that match, with Montford throwing any pretence at objectivity out of the window as the comeback mounted. At the final whistle, with the team having secured their first World Cup finals place in sixteen long years, he channelled what the rest of the population of the country were feeling at that time – “The referee is looking at his watch. And that’s it! Well done Scotland. Well done boys!” Four years later, the goal that sent Scotland to the 1978 finals was greeted by a cry of “Argentina here we come!”

It was commonplace at the time for STV to use a different commentary feed to the rest of the UK for Scotland matches, meaning that his voice remained unfamiliar across the rest of the UK, but at the finals, when ITV’s national commentary feed failed before their match against the Netherlands, his commentary was used nationally. On this occasion, however, Scotland came up just short. Who knows what excitement levels might have reached had they managed to get the three goal win that they needed to get through to the second round of the competition?

In cultural terms, Arthur Montford remains fondly remembered for two things, primarily. The first is his idiosyncratic taste in houndstooth jackets, which, when coupled with the 405-line black and white television sets of the era, were likely the first psychedelic experience felt by a generation of Scottish adolescents growing up during the 1960s and 1970s. The other, of course, was his diction itself. “Up for the heads!” became a familiar cry for aerial challenges, but it is for his use of the word “stramash” – an eighteenth century Scots dialect word meaning “brawl” or “commotion” – for any form of entanglement between players that he is best remembered. It has even been suggested that this word might have died out altogether had it not been for Montford’s use of it during commentaries. This may be slightly overstated – the word is certainly not uncommon in its use nowadays – but the fact that this can be suggested and not raise too much of an eyebrow is a testament to the cultural power of football, and Montford’s lasting cultural significance within the Scottish game.

Arthur Montford retired from television after thirty-two years in 1989, and his retirement was spent tending to his passion for golf (he became more familiar to southern viewers from commentary on networked golf coverage provided for ITV by STV), although he also continued to write until not long before his death. He even outlived Scotsport, which ended in 2008 after BBC Scotland won a five-year deal to show SPL highlights, not long after its fiftieth anniversary. The warmth of the tributes upon his passing, however, told their own story of a life well-lived and a legacy more than worth preserving. In the bear pit that Scottish football culture is plenty capable of being, the universality of those tributes is proof of his qualities as a journalist, anchor, and commentator.