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Scot No Dreams Since 1978

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It wasn’t meant to be this way, it really wasn’t.

While the rest of the planet battle for World Cup qualification, Scotland at least have something in common with next year’s hosts, Brazil.  Their fixtures at the moment are also meaningless, having been the first nation across the globe to be knocked out of the qualifiers.

It’s a nadir 35 years in the making.  The start of Scotland’s descent into perennial also-rans can be traced back to the cold Agrentine winter of 1978.  It’s when the self confidence and belief in a country’s football team dissipated and died.

We should have heeded the warning signs.  Just a couple of months before that year’s World Cup, Andy Cameron, a West of Scotland pub and club comedian, appeared, larger than life, on British tv screens, with his World Cup anthem, ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’.

In a Manchester tv studio for the ‘Top Of The Pops’ recording, Andy, bedecked in shirt and tartan scarf, must have thought he was rubbing it in when singing the lyric “And England cannae dae it, cuz they didnae qualify.”

The problem was twofold.  The audience, mostly teenagers, weren’t paying the blindest bit of attention, looking and waiting for the Stranglers, or Generation X, or Squeeze.  Secondly, if they bothered to listen, they, like everyone else watching in England, couldn’t understand a word of the gravelly, fast paced, Glaswegian singing voice.  He went off stage to taped applause and an embarrassed studio silence.  As a metaphor, it perfectly foretold the shape of things to come that apparently heady British summer.

By that time, however, all logic and reasoning had gone out of the window north of Hadrian’s Wall.  Ally McLeod, a kind, affable, showman of a manager, had charmed the media, captivated the nation, and more importantly inspired the Scottish national side, to another World Cup qualification, knocking out the then European champions Czechoslovakia in the process.

After Scotland’s Home International championship win in 1977, winning famously at a goalpost-smashed Wembley against a poor England side 2-1, and a fine South American tour, where in particular winger, Willie Johnston, had terrified an Argentinian side of which a Cup triumph was not so much expected as demanded by the ruling military junta, hopes were justifiably high.

Scotland’s squad, as well as McLeod, added further substance to the hype.  In Kenny Dalglish, fresh from a European Cup triumph with Liverpool, Scotland possessed one of the most admired and cultured forwards in the world.  In that same Liverpool side was Graeme Souness, a tough, bustling midfielder, who also showed he was one of the best readers of a game.

Supplemented to that was Archie Gemmill, a box to box midfielder who had enjoyed English title success with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.  In undoubtedly a tactical masterstroke, Clough had turned forward Kenny Burns into a brick wall of a centre half.  John Robertson, a well built and highly skilled winger, was also part of the Forest / Scotland connection.

With the likes of the aforementioned Johnston, Lou Macari, Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan already established in the Scotland squad and admired elsewhere, Ally McLeod had fashioned a team that could claim quite rightly they could give anyone on the planet a game.

A look at the opposition gave Scotland further confidence.  The South American tour the previous summer had shown they were more than capable of taking on the hosts.  Brazil seemed to be adopting an unnatural European style of play which they looked thoroughly uncomfortable with.

Across Europe, reigning champions West Germany were in decline, with very little replacements coming through for the aging heroes of ’74.  Holland were capable of brilliance but were equally capable of tearing themselves apart, and had, with Johan Cruyff refusing to travel. 

Italy had struggled to overcome a very modest England side in qualification, only squeezing through on goal difference.  The likes of France and Spain were still some way from mounting any serious threat.

Scotland could also look to the previous World Cup.  In a group they were expected to capitulate in fairly easily, they became the only side to be undefeated in West Germany ’74.  Brazil and the hugely talented Yugoslavia were expected to be far too strong for Scotland. 

In the end Scotland were eliminated by just one goal.  If Billy Bremner hadn’t told his side to ease up when 2-0 ahead against Zaire in their first game, resting them for the anticipated far harder tasks that lay ahead, they would almost certainly have knocked out the then World Cup holders.

All of this pointed to one thing.  Scotland were serious contenders.  Bookmakers certainly thought so, making Ally’s Army joint fourth favourites.  The problem with McLeod, however, being the showman that he was, was that, unwittingly and accidentally with misquote at first, but then deliberately thereafter, was that Scotland would definitely win the World Cup, no questions asked, gaps filled in later.

The nation was agog.  Never had a football manager in Scotland, either at international or club level, shown such exuberance or self confidence.  McLeod seemed to have the ammunition, with results and personnel, to back it up.  Scotland was swept away, months before Argentina ’78 even started, on the hysteria of an apparently inevitable World Cup triumph.

First team to be crushed by the irresistible force of Scotland would be Peru.  The only problem was that Peru were actually the reigning South American champions and still had a few survivors from a relatively successful 1970 campaign, among them the impressive Hector Chumpitaz and Teofilo Cubillas.

No matter.  Within 10 minutes, Scotland were a goal ahead through Joe Jordan and were knocking the ball about confidently.  The nation’s spirits, via the blaring colour of their new tv sets, soared.  This really was happening.

Peru, though, had other ideas.  Having weathered the early Scottish onslaught and still in the game, they took control and just before half time equalised through Cesar Queto, much to the delight of the vast majority of a capacity Cordoba crowd.  Scotland were in trouble.

Half time, though, came at just the right time, and Ally McLeod had galvanised his troops for the second half.  Within a quarter of an hour of the restart, Chumpitaz had hauled Bruce Rioch, a veteran of Derby County title wins, to the floor inside the penalty area.  The World Cup dream was back on track.

For only a few seconds though.  Don Masson’s penalty was weak and easily saved by Quiroga.  From then on, the confidence simply seeped away from Scotland.  Peru’s tails were up, and two brilliant strikes from Cubillas brought the house down as well as a shock 3-1 defeat for the much fancied Celts.

This was new territory for the loyal McLeod.  His side had let him down in an important match for the first time – and at the worst possible time.  What was he to do?

Unfortunately, what he had to do was deal with a media storm.  Willie Johnston, having taken medication that was perfectly acceptable and used in Britain, hadn’t told the team physio what he was using to cure a flu virus.  Had he done so, he would have been told Reactivan contained a banned substance.  As it was, Johnston was expelled from the World Cup.  Scotland were in disarray.

Luckily, though, Iran, no-hopers Iran were next up.  A chance to regain some of the lost confidence and shattered pride, bang in a few goals, and heap pressure on Holland, their last opponents, should they too slip up against the Peruvians.

McLeod stuck with the same starting 11, figuring a good and sometimes great team doesn’t suddenly become a bad one overnight.  If his reasoning was born of common sense, the reality was somewhat different.

Ally, having rarely if ever checked out upcoming opponents, was caught out by the fitness and organisation of the World Cup newcomers.  After 44 dreadful minutes, though, Scotland had what at last looked like a welcome change of fortune. 

From a position of no danger, Iranian defender Eskandarian collided with keeper Hejazi and then proceeded to whack the loose ball into his own net.  An act of sheer idiocy had perhaps turned Scotland’s World Cup disaster around.  

Except that no, it really hadn’t. With nothing to lose, Iran pressed forward.  Then just on the hour the unthinkable happened.  An intercepted ball, then a pass to Dannaifar outside the penalty.  He ran unchecked, cutting outside a weak Archie Gemmill challenge, then shooting home at Alan Rough’s unguarded near post from the edge of the six yard box.

At a home in Essex, a family sat.  One parent born in England, the other born in Scotland.  Two siblings coming from north of the border, the other pair south.  It made for raucous battles on Scotland / England matchdays, but at times like this, everyone got behind the Scots.

And in that home, I can still hear, even feel, the deafening silence as that equalising Iranian goal went in.  Rioch said it felt like “a dagger through the heart.”  It felt more than that in Essex.  Almost as if someone had died.  And a dream had.  The air was filled with silence, with disbelief, with sadness.  It was a terrible, terrible moment.

Adding to the air of unreality was the Cordoban crowd.  Full to the brim for the weekend opener, less than 8,000 bothered to show up for this debacle.  Almost all of them had congregated in the cheap seats behind either goal.  The embarrassment of being held and outplayed by Iran, in front of the planet’s tv screens, had the additional humiliation of being shown in front of an almost empty stadium.

As the game wound its way to a weary draw, the tv camera focused on Ally McLeod.  It’s when hearts, up to then holding up to the dagger thrust through them, finally broke.  The amiable, affable manager, unable to fathom how his potential world beaters had become bumbling buffoons, his face creased in agony, finally put his head in his hands, unable to take any more.  The dream had well and truly died.

The few Scots supporters who had made the long journey into a South Atlantic winter took umbrage.  This was before the era of a cuddly, lovable, good natured Tartan Army.  In 1978, they drank, shouted, and often threw fists, boots and bottles first and asked questions later.  They surrounded the Scotland coach, seeing him off with a barrage of abuse and missiles.

The ultimate irony is that, in a pyrrhic victory, Archie Gemmill scored a wonder goal as Scotland outplayed and defeated Holland 3-2 in their final game.  When Gemmill made it 3-1 halfway into the second half, with Scotland now just one goal from sensationally reviving their challenge, legendary English commentator David Coleman screamed “A brilliant individual goal … has put Scotland in Dreamland.”

It lasted just 3 minutes.  Johnny Rep conjured a 30 yard shot from nowhere.  Having courted fantasy again, Scotland reverted to failure.  With Holland contesting a losing final against a delirious Argentina, Ally McLeod eventually mused on the curious fact that usually defeating the World Cup runners up gives the victors something much better than national humiliation.

And, frankly, since that fateful June winter afternoon in Cordoba, Scotland have never recovered.  They qualified for the next three World Cups, and again in 1998, but at no stage were expectations or national pride anywhere near the fever pitch of 1978. 

Avoiding humiliation was the name of the game from now on.  Something rarely achieved. Defeats to Costa Rica and Morocco, and failing to beat a Uruguayan side reduced to 10 men after 30 seconds, ensured Scotland again were remembered in World Cups for all the wrong reasons.

Since France ’98 it’s become even worse.  No qualifications, not even remotely looking like it at times too, including the current disastrous qualifying campaign, has lowered spirits still further.  Scotland are now as far away from competing at football’s top table now as were the grip on reality back in ’78.

But still, for a few, short lived, glorious months, we believed, we had pride, we had expectation, we lived and loved everything about Scotland, the Tartan Army and Ally McLeod.  Our pride, our dignity, has been ripped apart in the intervening 35 years.  But still, the night before Peru in Argentia ’78, it felt pretty damned good.

And for that, Ally McLeod will forever have a place in this daggered, broken, non World Cup participating heart.  Thank you.