The back page of a Glasgow newspaper encapsulates how Scotland’s old, raging certainties in its national football team have been extinguished.
It was precisely 40 years ago this week that the Scots inflicted the ultimate indignity on England, beating them 2-1 at Wembley before a jubilant Tartan Army marauded over the pitch and broke the goalposts, yet Tuesday’s headline proclaimed: No Chance — Richard Gough’s assessment of the country’s chances against their most bitter foe at Hampden on Saturday.
Other titles projected the view of Ipswich’s Christophe Berra that England will be a laughing stock if they lose. It is a stunning fall from grace for a side which exuded such swagger on that Wembley day in 1977, having already put themselves well on their way to a second successive World Cup, with manager Ally MacLeod telling all who would listen that they would win it.
David Hay (left) and Kenny Dalglish join scorer Joe Jordan in the 1974 2-0 win over England
The Scots look glum as England’s Adam Lallana scores during England’s victory in November
Graeme Souness captained Scotland the last time they beat England on home soil in 1985
For the best sense of how Scotland looked England square in the face in those days, consider how utterly dispensable Alan Hansen was. He retired with a mere 26 caps. In the hours before the iconic 1977 home international, players like Manchester United’s Lou Macari fretted that their place in the 1978 World Cup squad was at stake.
The original squad MacLeod named for Argentina comprised 80 players, with Macari directly up against Bruce Rioch, Don Masson, Archie Gemmill, Asa Hartford and Graeme Souness. ‘I wondered how I was going to make the cut, Manchester United player or not,’ Macari says.
With Kenny Dalglish, Joe Jordan, Masson and Rioch all starting against Don Revie’s England, Macari had to make the best of things as a substitute. The 2-1 win was even more precious than the same scoreline at Hampden the previous summer, when Liverpool-bound Dalglish put the ball between Ray Clemence’s legs.
The man who filled the Scotland manager’s seat nine years later reveals that even by 1986, the only thing the Scottish FA interview panel cared about was reaching the World Cup finals.
Dalglish spearheaded the Scotland side which enjoyed success in the 1970s and 1980s
Andy Roxburgh was appointed Scotland manager in 1986, qualifying for the 1990 World Cup
‘They gave me that one target,’ says Andy Roxburgh. ‘They said, “European Championships, do your best. England, we’d like you to beat them.” But everything was about the World Cup.’
Scotland reached six successive finals, though it was in the mid-1980s that Roxburgh pinpoints some of the problems which have seen no Scottish qualification since 1998. Some are technical.
A long teachers’ strike had an unexpected negative effect on the administration of the Scottish schoolboy football system which helped capture the best talent.
Numbers of registered schoolboy footballers fell from 45,000 to 15,000 in a few years, but Scotland also lost a more fundamental lifeblood.
‘Coaches like Jock Stein, Alex Ferguson and Craig Brown left the club system and had no equals,’ says Roxburgh. ‘Clubs started buying cheap foreign players, too. I remember one chairman saying, “We’ve stopped investing in our players.” The streets had produced so many, too.
‘Lifestyles changed. People found other interests.’
Such has been Scotland’s fall, the national side struggle to fill out the national stadium
Scotland beat England in their final encounter at the old Wembley but it was a consolation
Roxburgh recalls talking with a German technical director who told him: ‘Our resources and your resources can’t compare, so you’d better be as good as we are at player development. If you are not, we’ll beat you.’ England is perhaps more immune to international football’s diminishing appeal.
‘These trends happened in England too, but they had the numbers and the academy systems to deal with it,’ Roxburgh says.
Souness observed this week that another social phenomenon in Scotland has played its part. ‘We’ve never had that influx of immigrants, the kind of addition that has an effect in other countries,’ he says.
‘Think what it has done for the Dutch, the French, the English and with the Turkish influence for the Germans. Nothing like that has happened in Scotland.’
David Weir, a member of the team beaten by England in 1999 in a Euro 2000 qualifier, views that bitter defeat as pivotal in Scotland’s fortunes. He says: ‘We had always been second seeds on qualifiers because we kept qualifying for tournaments but suddenly we found ourselves fourth seeds in desperate groups. The England play-off contributed.’
None of the above provided the remotest consolation when Scotland (population 5.3 million) were the only UK nation left at home last summer for a European Championship in which Iceland (population: 333,000) flourished.
Former Scotland midfielder Souness enjoyed a physical battle with England
David Weir looks to get to grips with a young Michael Owen during the 1999 clash at Hampden
‘Yes, seeing how they succeeded was hard,’ admits Weir, now assistant boss at Nottingham Forest. ‘We’d say our squad is as good as Iceland’s.’
SFA chief executive Stewart Regan visited Iceland to learn their secret before Euro 2016 and Heimir Hallgrimsson, the Icelanders’ joint manager, also agreed to deliver a briefing in Glasgow.
The Scots found an answer of sorts. Iceland have more than twice as many full-size indoor pitches, 150 indoor part-sized pitches and approximately one UEFA A or B qualified coach for every 51 players (amateur and professional) compared with one per 218 in Scotland.
But manager Gordon Strachan pointed to a more psychological problem in his pre-match media duties this week. It did not exactly build national fervour to hear him declare that ‘international football is rubbish’ and ‘not as big as it was 40 years ago because in the Champions League and Premier League we are saturated with these wonderful, wonderful players every week.’
SFA chief executive Stewart Regan has tried to learn lessons from Iceland’s success last year
Manager Strachan was not willing to speak about the first victory over Brazil at any level
It has actually been a week to cherish Scottish football’s home-grown virtues. Scotland beat Brazil for the first time at any level in the Toulon Under 20 tournament with a super goal by Kilmarnock’s Greg Taylor. Strachan did not want to talk about that.
There are grounds for pessimism. It is 32 years since Scotland last beat England on home soil and —excruciatingly — only seven men have even scored against England at Hampden in 50 years. One was Colin Todd, netting an own goal.
But Scotland always carried a belief and a swagger as steep as the Highlands. ‘Our record against the English? Honestly, it was poor, even in the 1970s,’ admits Macari.
‘There was always apprehension underneath the bravado but we didn’t let them see it. We were the same little nation in 1977, out there in their town, giving them something to worry about.’