On the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum we look back at the Home Internationals between Scotland and England, of which Ian Plenderleith demanded a return
11 September ~ The end of May brings a sense of loss and melancholy to every football fan. The trophies have all been raised aloft, rinsed with cheap champagne and transported by open-top bus to meet the mayor, and the chances are that your team didn’t win one. The only thing that might sustain you through the summer months is your mindless annual optimism, manifested through the belief that somehow next season will be different.
It wasn’t always this way. Up until 1987 it didn’t matter to me that Liverpool seemed to win most of the available trophies season after season. It was only club football after all. Soon the truly top talents in the British game would be facing each other in the fixture that put hairs on players’ chests – the annual encounter between England and Scotland.
I grew up in England raised by Scottish parents. It has always been difficult to explain to people, both Scots and English, that just because I don’t say the words “och” and “aye”, this does not mean that I cannot consider myself Scottish. My father was always keen to impress upon me my national difference, and looking at the English, who can blame him?
His forum for my lesson on Celtic Roots and Kiltedged identity centred upon the yearly joust at Hampden or Wembley, a day which began with him parading proudly round the garden in the family tartan serenading the neighbours with Scotland the Brave on the bagpipes, while I was sent up the chimney for no extra pocket money to fly the flag of St Andrew from the rooftop. Okay, that last bit was a lie, but it’s at least true to say that the atmosphere in the house from breakfast onwards was one of defiant confidence. We, the nation of dogged fighters, could not possibly lose because we were so proud, or so I had told my jeering classmates all the previous week with my pigeon chest thrust feebly forward.
And even if we did lose, the population of England was 55 million against Scotland’s five million, so a losing margin of anything less than 11 goals was still a victory (needless to say I no longer apply this logic when Scotland play San Marino).
As the day developed we soaked up the bullish Scots’ patter on Football Focus and marvelled at the hordes of Scottish fans descending upon Wembley. Where are the stayaway Sassenachs, we hollered? Can’t bear to see their own boys take a hiding, eh?
The day was so important to us embattled Caledonians in the hostile environs of Albion that we would never have dared admit that the English, still living off the alleged glory of 1966, actually didn’t really care much who won.
None of this prepared me for the shock of seeing my father’s reaction when Scotland scored a goal. This event took some years, since my early memories of this game are of Scotland always losing 1-0 thanks to an inept fumble by Bobby Clark.
Then, in 1974, Scotland got one. That was it. My father sprang from his armchair, yanked me from the sofa and jigged me around the room, cheering hysterically.
This kind of behaviour was not routine on our visits to Sincil Bank or The Old Showground. But what the hell, it was fun, and I was just happy that when England played Scotland, clearly anything went.
The happiest goal we ever celebrated was Kenny Dalglish’s limp prod through the legs of Raymond Clemence in 1976. The man, who has rarely looked half as happy since, was not just smiling, he was positively gloating. After years of jibes at the expense of Scottish goalkeepers, especially after poor Stewart Kennedy’s attempt to shag the Wembley goalpost the previous year, Kenneth’s features summed up the feelings of every Scot alive, because as well as rejoicing we were laughing, too, vengefully, relentlessly. And though I don’t condone the desecration of the Twin Towers’ turf the following year, I can certainly understand why it happened...
I finally got to go to Wembley for the 1981 fixture, which Scotland won with a John Robertson penalty, but it wasn't the same being surrounded by real Scotland fans, and I lost that special sense of being the underdog instilled in me by my father. England were so poor at that time it didn’t feel like much of a victory anyway.
Furthermore, it was a fellow countryman who spoiled my big day out by “borrowing” my match programme at half-time. When I turned round at the final whistle to claim it back he had already disappeared, a mean-spirited gesture I have never been able to forgive but which at least served to mock my youthful idolatry of a nation I’d never even lived in.
Nevertheless, I still yearn for the re-instatement of this fixture, having spent a decade pining for the chance to raise an arm above the head of a humiliated Englishman, my victory bellow reverberating around the room. (Do you remember Richard Gough’s goal that brought Scotland the Rous Shield in 1985? What do you mean, no?)
Maybe the FA killed the fixture not because they were afraid of losing, but because the Scots were such unbearable winners on the occasions of their ever rarer victories. But at least the fixture had meaning, even if it was only to those with Scottish loyalties. That’s surely more than can be said for the clutch of pointless encounters England have staged against the likes of Norway and Uruguay in recent times.
What was the reason for scrapping the England v Scotland match anyway? Who decided? And who but some sad southern jessie could conceivably argue against its return? Ian Plenderleith
Ian Plenderleith's book The Quiet Fan is accepting pledges at the crowd-funding publisher Unbound. If you would like to see it published, please consider ordering an e-book or a limited edition hardback copy here