Ken Gall argues that the demise of the home internationals left Scotland chasing irrelevant targets such as the World Cup
With Björn Borg-style skinny-fit tracksuits and Gola trainers in the shops, and Planet of the Apes set to be the summer’s hit movie, surely all we need to complete a nostalgia-fest for jaded thirty-somethings is the return of the home internationals. For Scots fans of that age, the memories linger: Brian Moore in the commentary box with Sir Alf; male relatives drinking cans of beer in the afternoon around the television; the Hampden roar; the offensive chants about Jimmy Hill.
Even without the retro-chic appeal, a resurrected home internationals could inject a bit of passion back into a somewhat jaded Scottish national set-up. Some years ago, it was decided (on our behalf, naturally) that what we did not want was the insularity of trips to Cardiff and Belfast and the mind-bending importance of the England tie; what we really wanted was to qualify for the final stages of World Cups and European championships. Throw in the increasingly dreadful behaviour of those attending the matches, and it became all too easy to pull the plug on the competition.
But for all that we have gained from our modern outlook and our worldwide series of morale-sapping defeats, Scotland and its fans seem to have lost something fundamental. In the Fifties and Sixties, Scotland had some of the greatest players in the world, backed by the most passionate fans. However, we qualified for nowt. Now, we qualify all the time, but the nagging question remains: what is it all for?
For Scots, the home internationals meant, in essence, the England match. The games against Wales and Northern Ireland were largely treated as preliminaries to the main event, something that men such as John Toshack were often only too glad to exploit. But a win over the Auld Enemy and, really, who needed the World Cup anyway? Scotland’s attitude to the World Cup until the mid-1970s was similar to Bill Clinton’s public attitude to marijuana; tried it once, didn’t like it, ain’t gonna try it again.
The reputations of many of the Scottish game’s greatest heroes were made by their achievements in the home competition – the Wembley Wizards, Jim Baxter, Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish, Ray Clemence. Other, less-familiar heroes are also held dear, including Mike Pejic, perpetrator of a humdinger of an air shot that allowed Peter Lorimer to score Scotland’s second goal at Hampden in 1974. Of course there are also the Scottish footballing equivalent of the untouchables: Frank Haffey (9-3 in 1961), Fred Martin (7-2 in 1955), Stewart Kennedy (5-1 in 1975). Let us never speak of them again.
Jock Stein, a man who had taken on and defeated the footballing world, started the process of looking beyond the home internationals, feeling that Scotland’s inordinate focus on the end-of-season tournament was a hindrance in terms of what he regarded as the real business, namely the World Cup. Craig Brown’s exemplary record in terms of championship qualification shows that Stein may have had a point. This may also go some way towards explaining why Jim Baxter did not play in the final stages of a World Cup, but Gordon Durie did.
Hungary, Holland, Denmark and now France have all benefited from golden generations of players that took previously less-heralded footballing nations to glory on the world stage. Scotland’s finest seemed content with a point against the Irish and a narrow defeat at Ninian Park, just so long as they beat you-know-who. (For example, it has been conveniently forgotten that the 1967 Wembley heroes – the true “world champions”, if you will – lost 1-0 to Northern Ireland in Belfast just a few months later.)
However, it is the bloodless attitude to the Scottish national side that makes one long for the return of the British championship. Rather than a Welsh booze-up as a precursor to the life-or-death Wembley or Hampden bash, Riga and Tallinn are now the Tartan Army’s favoured destinations. The matches themselves seem almost to be a sideshow or afterthought, while the fans go about cementing their reputation as the “nation’s kilted ambassadors”. But the fire was put back in the national belly by the Euro 96 Wembley match against England and the play-offs for last year’s competition. Fans who had grown weary of the interminable wait for a goal in any number of matches against San Marino and Latvia were enthused once again. Only, of course, to be disappointed once again.
Frankly, given the propensity of broadcasters and the game’s authorities to squeeze blood out of the proverbial stone, it is staggering that the game’s oldest international competition has not yet been resurrected for the Sky generation. And in a World Cup and European championship-free year such as this, the prospect of Wales v England at the Millennium Stadium (Giggs v Beckham!), or even – to avoid the dreaded Unionist tinge that the championship might otherwise have – the inclusion of the Republic of Ireland, should be enough to have your average TV executive foaming at the mouth.
Of course, the English FA, media and Sven ’n’ Tord probably feel they are all a bit beyond this parochial nonsense now. But one wonders whether three highly competitive internationals with the home nations would not serve them better than their recent spate of extremely friendly friendlies. For instance, the game against Mexico in June was probably about as useful to England in terms of international football as a tie versus the current cast of Big Brother. (Here we see another idea that the television companies may wish to explore.)
Those who are worried about the “security considerations” which, in part, led to the ending of the tournament, should recall that the rigid application of such considerations would have prevented England from competing in any international competition over the past 25 years. But in these days of named tickets, CCTV and travel restrictions, any of the home internationals should be no more or less difficult to police than any other major match. It is merely a question of the will of the nations concerned.
Northern Ireland and Wales could certainly do with the money from a rejuvenated home international series, while England could probably do with the competitive edge. And Scotland? Well, we’ve seen Zaire, Iran, Costa Rica and Morocco; perhaps now would be a good time to return home.
From WSC 175 September 2001. What was happening this month