WHICHEVER Ancient Greek dreamed up the exhortation “Speak truth to power” can never have imagined that 3000 years later one of its purest manifestations would be two middle-aged men in a radio studio using the label “petty and ill-informed” as a badge of honour.

But then it’s fair to say the Ancient Greeks probably never foresaw the frantic, tribal, preposterous, mud-bound Scottish ritual that is a Saturday afternoon at the fitba’ either. In terms of head-melting imponderables, they left off at Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox.

The middle-aged men in question are Tam Cowan and Stuart Cosgrove, the self-styled “Odd Couple of Scottish football”, and right now they’re not in a radio studio but sharing a booth in the bar of a hip Glasgow hotel.

It’s mid-morning, there are two unopened bottles of whisky on the table (a long story), flat whites have been ordered and I’m already facing a blizzard of words.

First comes a health update (Cowan has a cold). Second, a weather update (it’s cold, there’s a full fixture list tonight and both men be will at games, Cowan watching his beloved Motherwell play St Mirren and Cosgrove following St Johnstone in Kilmarnock).

Third comes a surreal story about the occasional habit Sportscene pundit Steven Thompson has of making animal noises and slithering along the ground like a snake. And yes, you did read that correctly.

“It’s a form of Tourette’s that he’s got, where he does animal impersonations,” Cosgrove informs me.

“Sometimes he’ll be walking down the street and he’ll do a hyena”.

These kinds of asides and non sequiturs will pepper the conversation over the next hour and a half. There will much banter and even the odd barb thrown my way.

“You must be the only bearded Hearts fan that doesn’t have a presenting job on A View From The Terrace,” Cowan will quip at one point, referring to BBC Scotland’s popular late-night football show. (Not true, by the way. I know at least two others).

Notionally, however, we’re here to talk about the ritual of the fitba’, its place in Scottish life and about the act of speaking truth to power (typically the Scottish Football Association, in their case, and the “gruesome twosome” that make up the Old Firm).

And, of course, about the show to which that “petty and ill-informed” label is so proudly attached – BBC Radio Scotland’s Off The Ball, which this year celebrates its 25th birthday. Hard to believe, but it’s the same age as Scotland captain Andy Robertson.

First broadcast on August 13 1994, the original Off The Ball line-up featured Cowan alongside Greg Hemphill and Sanjeev Kohli (where are they now?).

But even as the whistle blew for kick-off the show was finding its way into the ref’s book. A sketch in the season opener about back-handers to Scottish Football Association (SFA) officials was bad enough but it was made infinitely worse when a caller then described SFA head Jim Farry as “the mutant son of Adolf Hitler”.

“Football boss Farry sues BBC over Hitler jibe,” screamed the tabloids. It was a difficult (and potentially expensive) beginning.

“What became apparent very quickly was that I was actually the only proper football fan on the show,” says Cowan, looking back on those early days.

“Whereas Greg, God bless him, didn’t even know who Maurice Malpas was. Any time I text Greg to this day I always sign off: ‘Yours etc. Maurice Malpas’. Sanjeev was a wee bit more into the football, but not in the way that he went to the game. I think he was a soft Celtic fan.”

Cosgrove, then living in London where he was an executive at Channel 4, arrived about a year later. Initially he was asked to troubleshoot, to give his professional opinion about how the show could be improved. “Instinctively I knew there were too many people. You couldn’t differentiate who was talking. It was just these various voices coming in”.

At this point Cosgrove had never actually met Cowan, though he knew of him from his columns in the Evening Times. But his advice to the BBC was to strip the show back and concentrate on him. “I said he’s witty and he’s Motherwell, so he’s coming at it from a different perspective.”

Cowan jumps in. “The thing is, if Stuart had picked either Sanjeev or Greg to work with and let the rest of us go our own way I’d now be doing 14 night sell-out runs at the Hydro with Still Game. You rotten bastard.”

Boom boom.

What Cosgrove didn’t expect was to then be offered the job as co-host with Cowan. He accepted, a killer partnership was minted and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today there’s nothing else quite like Off The Ball on radio, either in Scotland or in the UK, and the show and its familiar call-sign – “Greeeeeeeeeeeeetings! I’m Stuart Cosgrove, he’s Tam Cowan and you’re tuned to the Odd Couple of Scottish football” – has become a vital part of the match-day experience for a generation of Scots.

You know the drill. You listen to OTB, you laugh, you go to the game, you watch your team get gubbed, you go home, you cry. And maybe you find time in all that for a pint or a curry or a fish supper.

In the sense of its uniqueness, the show is an only child. But it has parents. The first is zoo radio, which has nothing to do with animal noises and everything to do with the character and personality of a show’s hosts and the general air of creative mayhem in which they thrive. An American innovation, zoo radio surfaced here in the early 1990s, just in time for Off The Ball. The second parent is the football fanzine, a DIY cultural phenomenon which also blossomed in the early 1990s and which allowed fans to bring humour, levity and a healthy dose of disrespect to their players, clubs and directors, and to the game in general.

Motherwell FC’s Waiting For The Great Leap Forward was titled more out of a sense of derision than expectation, and quite what was going on with St Mirren’s There’s A Store Where The Creatures Meet is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile Partick Thistle had Sick In The Basin, Dundee had It’s Half Past Four And We’re Two Nil Down, Aberdeen had The Northern Light, Queen Of The South had the hand-drawn A Nightmare On Terregles Street, St Johnstone had the oddly-named Wendy Who? and so on.

There was also The Absolute Game (or TAG for short), which covered all of Scottish football, and south of the border you could have found Hull City fans reading Hull, Hell And Happiness, Newcastle Fans laughing at The Mag’s depiction of Sunderland manager Peter Reid as a monkey watching the game from atop the floodlights and, though fewer in number, Gillingham fans enjoying their wonderfully-named fanzine Brian Moore’s Head Looks Uncannily Like The London Planetarium.

“We got in at the right time because it was definitely the print fanzine era, and perhaps even the height of that, so we had to reflect it on air,” says Cosgrove. “I think the fanzine movement was to do with subcultures of people that felt they wanted to write differently, or about different things and they often had a crossover with music.”

That, then, was the template. Off The Ball’s ongoing success can be put down to something else: the wit of the presenters, the chemistry between them and the often surreal and silly turn the show takes.

But equally important is the lack of Old Firm bias and both presenters are convinced it’s their respective footballing allegiances – two misfiring teams unlikely to ever trouble the Champions League – which have given them such longevity as an on-air double act.

“Fans were just starting to get fed up with the mainstream coverage and their clubs not getting a look in,” says Cowan.

“Your pals are loath to give you any sort of praise but what my pals liked was that suddenly they had a wee Motherwell voice on national radio, and if there was something that we’d been sitting talking about in the pub or whatever then suddenly I was raising it on national radio.

“When it came to that, I think there was something that was almost joyous in our eyes – the fact that we were able to talk about Motherwell, to talk about

St Johnstone.

“And crucially, the fact that neither of us is a Rangers or Celtic fan is probably why we’re still sat here 25 years later. It’s intriguing to know what the dynamic would have been if, let’s say, I was a Motherwell fan and Stuart was a Rangers fan. Would we still be here?”

Cosgrove thinks not and picks up the theme. “I think it would have changed the chemistry,” he says.

“There are too many things about those two clubs [Rangers and Celtic]. And I don’t mean sectarianism – I mean things like entitlement, presumption, the history of success, the lack of ability to laugh at their own demise.”

Talking of demise, so far this century at least half a dozen clubs have gone into administration, among them Dundee, Livingston, Hearts and of course Rangers. When it was Motherwell’s turn in 2002 Cowan says the first thing he did was try to come up with jokes about it, and he certainly didn’t sit in the stands discussing the ins-and-outs of the club’s balance sheet.

“Folk say ‘Ah, you widnae be laughing if it was your club’ and I say ‘No, I did laugh when it was my club’. It’s fitba’ we’re talking about, ultimately. You’ve got to have a laugh at your own club.”

Cosgrove again. “That’s probably one of the differences, though. Tam would immediately look for the joke but there’s a self-righteous streak in me that looks at the damage that over-spending has done to Scottish football.

“And I’m not just meaning Rangers there – Livingston, Dundee, Gretna, Hearts. There’s a long, long history of clubs that have simply lived way beyond their means and not only way beyond their means but way beyond what the population and the market that they’re playing in can sustain. Sorry, you’re paying him how much?”

Is that part of your motivation, I ask, that desire to prick the pomposity of Scottish football and its vested interests? It’s a simple enough question but here’s what happens next.

Cosgrove: “I deliberately play up pomposity in the show. I’m often quoting Latin or using words I know will rile

Tam …”

Cowan: “Who was that guy’s theory you were talking about the other night?”

Cosgrove: “Hegel. The Hegelian Theory.”

Me: “I’m more of a Kierkegaard guy myself …”

Cowan, not missing a beat: “She was good with Elton John – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”.

Pomposity pricked, Cosgrove collapses into the laughter.

I can’t say I’m not enjoying myself but is there something a little bit too blokey about the banter and does that sometimes find its way into the show? Cowan bristles slightly when I mention it.

“You cannae have it both ways,” he says. “If there are women coming up and congratulating us on the show and saying, ‘Listen, I don’t watch any other football output but I tune in to Off The Ball then that disnae sit easily with me if it’s being described as being blokey. It is what it is. It cannae be so blokey that it turns women off the programme.

“I’m sure there can be blokey things that women wouldnae touch with a barge pole. Maybe it’s only blokey because it’s two blokes presenting the show. You could say The Two Ronnies was blokey. Morecambe and Wise, where was the women on that?”

And he points to shows which have been decidedly un-blokey. One recent example involved Jean Johansson and Lisa Hague, the partners of ex-players Jonatan Johansson and Kris Commons, and dealt with the subject of miscarriage and stillbirth.

Meanwhile Scotland’s talented female footballers have long been welcomed as guests and among the interviewees talking fondly and knowingly about the show in a documentary to be screened on BBC Scotland this week are Lorraine Kelly (Dundee United season ticket holder), Amy Macdonald (Rangers fan) and Kirsty Wark (loyalty unknown).

Cosgrove gives a more considered response. He admits that some guests can bring a dynamic which “leads you down a certain path … that just tips it towards blokeyness”.

One example he gives is ex-Celtic star Frank McAvennie, whose reputation as a playboy has seen him much-parodied on Hogmanay favourite Only An Excuse. “There is a tendency to go to his sexual proclivities, the same types of jokes, and I think if we were tougher on that we would say, ‘How do we bring some of those clichés to an end?’”.

One thing that isn’t likely to come to an end any time soon is Off The Ball itself. As popular and as funny as ever, the show is in rude (and I use that word advisedly) health, so much so that its influence has moved beyond radio (see the rash of fanzine-style football podcasts) to television.

A View From The Terrace, probably the most popular show on the new BBC Scotland channel, is a direct descendant and owes it a great debt.

“I’m not even sure now, after so many years, exactly what the show is,” says Cosgrove finally. Initially berthed in the BBC’s comedy unit it went through at least two other departments before winding up in sport, where it was made palpably unwelcome at first.

“Now it sets the mood and the tone for much of the corporation’s sports output, to the point where you’ll even find flavours of it in programmes such as Sportsound and Open All Mics.”

But if he doesn’t know exactly what the show is, both Cosgrove and Cowan are certain about what makes a good one.

“A level of energy where all the things that we’re talking about kind of connect and have a little extra, and where the guest or guests, whoever they are, get the show and participate in its madness,” says Cosgrove. Cowan puts it more simply. For him the perfect show is “just a bit bonkers”.

No fools they – but a right pair of jesters.

Off The Ball: Petty And Ill-Informed is on BBC Scotland on Wednesday (10pm)