THERE is a persuasive case for stating that Scotland gave football to the world. There is a viable theory that Sir Walter Scott invented the modern novel. So why is Scott’s Heart of Midlothian not a fitba’ book instead of a florid account of riots and executions?

The simple answer – and I bet you guessed it – is that HoM, the novel, preceded HoM, the football team by some 80-odd years. But my point, though contrived, still stands: why has The Great Scottish Fitba’ Novel not yet been written when the sport holds such a hold over a nation that has an unbroken line of first-class novelists? There will be those who make a case for The Thistle and the Grail, a fine novel by Robin Jenkins, but it is not quite great. It sort of hits the crossbar and is not Jenkins’ best novel.

It has been more than 130 years since Scotland sent down a regiment of footballers to bring the passing game to England and beyond. In the intervening years, Scotland has produced novelists of extraordinary gifts. Yet the TGSFN remains unwritten. In contrast, in the USA, great novelists have taken their national sports and used them to make great art. Baseball has been the most conspicuous device. American football and basketball have overtaken baseball in terms of television rights and hype but the ballpark remains the soul of American sport and writers have used it to articulate significant aspects of themselves and their country.

Philip Roth employed it in his ironically titled The Great American Novel which is superficially about a touring team; Bernard Malamud’s The Natural is about a baseball player; Ring Lardner has a baseball player expose the imbecilities and peculiarities of sporting fame in You Know Me Al; Underworld, Don DeLillo’s greatest novel, begins with a baseball scene; and, almost incidentally, Richard Ford’s breakthrough novel was The Sportswriter. This facility to use a game for profound insight continues into the millennium with Chard Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.

To stick exclusively to baseball – though American novelists have used a variety of sports, including John Updike’s Rabbit series being about a former local basketball hero – there is a strong tradition of biography and memoir, the most brilliant examples being Richard Ben Cramer’s life of Joe Di Maggio and the love letter to the Brooklyn Dodgers that was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Until Next Year. The latter is significant. Goodwin has achieved both critical and financial success (her extraordinary Team of Rivals was used by as the basis for the Steven Spielberg film of the same name) yet placed her early life in the context of a baseball fan.

It is obvious that American novelists are comfortable using sports to carry a narrative, to illustrate a theme. It is obvious that our neighbours have made at least a tilt at The Great English Football Novel: The Damned United by David Peace (and his Red or Dead) being a more viable candidate than Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch – at least in this fan’s opinion.

So why don’t Scottish novelists do the same? There have been excellent attempts in modern times with Martin Greig and Charles McGarry combining to tell a powerful rite of passage story in The Road to Lisbon and Alan Bissett’s Pack Men is a powerful, raw yet assured look at men and machismo seen through the prism of Rangers supporters’ calamitous visit to Manchester in 2008 .

But the big hitters, to use a baseball term, have largely left football alone. Irvine Welsh references the Hibees on occasion but Scotland’s 20th-century greats left the game untouched and indications in the 21st century are that this is not going to change any time soon.

But why have novelists remained largely on the sidelines? There are obvious answers. The most stark is the class issue. It would be hard – if mischievously amusing – to consider John Buchan, Compton Mackenzie or James Kennaway indulging in a spot of footie writing. Similarly, the astonishingly under-rated Allan Massie is a rugger man.

There is also the matter of sex. Scotland has always been blessed with great women writers but football was once exclusively seen as a man’s game. There thus was little chance of Muriel Spark chronicling the rise and subsequent demise of Auchenshuggle Rovers’ pivot in the The Prime of Big Tam Brodie.

There was also the tradition of football not quite being the stuff of intellectual conversation. I remember as an attender of editorial conferences at the Glasgow Herald in the 1970s that football supporting was the love that dare not speak its name. The sports editor was given as much time in conference as afforded a ball player in a Scottish Junior Cup tie. Those of us who loved the game, were obsessed by it and knew it had a strong significance, were not indulged until the arrival of Arnold Kemp and his deputy, Harry Reid, an Aberdeen supporter.

There has also been the strong feeling that Scottish writers had things to say that did not involve football. Even The Thistle and the Grail, nominated as the fitba book, can be seen rather as a discussion of religion. In poetry, too, the game was ignored. Hugh MacDiarmid’s

A Drunk Man Looks at Partick Thistle remains unpublished though, curiously, his impressive Boswell, the critic Alan Bold, did pen some marvellous fitba verses. The best fitba poetry is that of Tom Leonard, but it still is not the TGSFN. But if the sins of omission of the past can be explained, how to divine why football has remained largely ignored, given its significance as not only the national sport but as an emblem of striving, glory, humiliation, enduring bigotry and caring community?

William McIlvanney, for example, was a football man, indeed was a more than decent player. But he chose boxing for his sporting vehicle in novelistic terms rather than the game he loved. Alan Spence, whose brilliant, poignant and moving short stories reference football supporting, moved away rather than towards the subject. Gordon Williams, another woefully underrated Scottish writer, confined his writing on football to a collaboration with Terry Venables entitled They Used to Play on Grass.

Many novelists, of course, have used Tartan Noir as their voice to say things about Scotland and beyond. Yet in this area alone, one could pick a smashing line-up of football supporters from Val McDermid of Raith Rovers (her dad spotted Jim Baxter) to Christopher Brookmyre whose chosen masochism is St Mirren.

Could there not be an opportunity for a Tartan Noir writer to chronicle the terracing, to investigate the murder of what was once traditional in the game? Is there an opportunity for a Scottish writer to use football as a coda for what has happened and is happening in Scottish society much in the way James Robertson used politics and personality to inform And The Land Lay Still?

It is the greatest story never told. It has bold, stark themes such as the expression of an immigrant society, the triumph and hubris of the establishment, the glory and excellence of the pioneers of the late 19th century who formed the game, the extraordinary successes of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when Celtic, Rangers, Dundee United and Aberdeen contested European finals. There is character, corruption, decency, fecklessness and historic achievement.

There is, too, the theme of a sport that is hugely important to the Scottish psyche being sidelined in football’s unseemly but understandable rush for the huge television revenues. It is this that provides the most poignant footnote.

If The Great Scottish Football Novel is to be about unalloyed success, then it will have to be a historical one.