Scots missed

Graham McColl looks back at Euro '96, yet another tournament in which a Scotland team tantalized supporters with qualification only to miss out at the death

Scotland’s performances at the finals of international football tournaments in the 1990s have become so predictable that they could almost be written into FIFA’s and UEFA’s rules.

The Scottish national side will play three games. There will be a demoralising defeat: Costa Rica in 1990, Germany in 1992 and England in 1996. There will be a close match with one of the big names in the game: Brazil in 1990, Holland in both 1992 and in 1996. And there will be a stunning victory when the Scottish side just dump most of their tactical baggage and caution and go for it: Sweden in 1990, the CIS in 1992 and Switzerland in 1996. After Scotland’s matches everyone will say how well the Scots played, how unlucky they were and how well the fans behaved. Scotland will not qualify from their group.

There was a 16-minute spell in the third match with Switzerland during which Scotland were in a qualifying position thanks to England’s four goals against Holland. It didn’t feel right. When Holland scored the 78th-minute goal that put Scotland out it seemed as though international law had been restored. Scotland don’t get through the group stage at international tournaments. You wouldn’t go to see Romeo and Juliet at the theatre and expect them to live happily after. Or go to Trainspotting and expect the drug addicts to Just Say No at the start of the film. And a week’s partying with the Tartan Army is as much as even its most battle-hardened members could cope with.

There was one new dimension that Scottish finals veterans had not come up against before: the threat of violence at a Scotland game. The game in question was, of course, the one at Wembley. Ever since the draw had been made, it had looked a potentially nasty occasion.

Still, with the proliferation of newspaper and magazine competitions giving away tickets for England v Scotland in the weeks leading up to the competition the hope that trouble could be avoided grew daily. Perhaps the tubes and ground would be full of middle-managers from Winchmore Hill who’d entered a competition in a glossy magazine and found themselves at Wembley for an afternoon.

The atmosphere on the day was not pleasant, Wembley teeming with barrow boys made bad, making the propaganda about the great English supporters in the succeeding games laughable. The Scots were barely tolerated by the soulless Essex types who turn up to support England at Wembley. After the game there were numerous incidences of English fans taunting and attacking Scottish fans on the underground and in the streets of London – and that was after they had won! Presumably, the Germans, Dutch, Swiss and Spanish endured similar experiences.

The Scots did well, on the whole, not to respond to their goading. The people who now follow Scotland outside the country do seem different to those in the past: Scotland rugby jerseys proliferated. With Scotland’s support having enjoyed a good, peaceful reputation in recent years, it now seems socially acceptable to follow the team abroad.

In Birmingham, the English were excellent, matching the Genoese in 1990 and the people of Norrköping in 1992 for geniality and friendliness. Those of us who were foolish enough in the past to associate the miserable few who caused trouble for England abroad with the majority of English football fans felt suitably sheepish.

While the Scottish fans had another good tournament, the Scottish disease surfaced on the pitch: like children learning to eat out with their parents, the team knows how to behave in major tournaments up to a point, then it just loses it.

During the game against England, referee Pierluigi Pairetto had looked very much a ‘homer’, swayed and bayed here and there by the hosts and their crowd. For 77 minutes this observer had carefully been gathering evidence against him. That case was dismissed as soon as the Italian pointed to the penalty spot after Adams’ lunge at Durie.

The 77 on the scoreboard could be construed as a lucky omen: the year of Scotland’s last glorious result at Wembley. But once the two or three seconds of euphoria over getting the penalty had subsided the realization set in that this was Scotland, at Wembley, in the most important Scotland-England match ever and it wouldn’t matter which player decided to take the kick. The weight on Gary McAllister could not have been greater if Jimmy Hill and St George had been clinging to his right boot as he stepped up to take the kick.

The Germans would relish such a situation: Scots everywhere panicked. This was where all the careful preparation and planning would get the elbow, Seaman’s in this case. It was 1996’s major manifestation of the lack of self-belief that is always bubbling under the national team. Until that is fully eliminated, Scotland will always be a self-limited side.

Craig Brown, a man who always sounds on the verge of tears, had, on announcing his squad, provided the country with a typically cheery message: “Scotland has been to seven World Cup finals and once to the European Championships, in Sweden four years ago. There is a great deal of pride in our national team but often it is burdened by unrealistic expectations. We have yet to get beyond the first phase so perhaps this time the expectations are touched by realism.”

The first of those experiences was in 1954; it’s difficult to see the connection between that series and a modern team. And after doing 18 years’ penance for the sins of Argentina it’s unlikely that any Scots fans retain any expectations, other than having a good time away from the park.

On the way to the first match, with Holland at Villa Park, one Scotland fan voiced a commonly-held opinion that showed how the propaganda seeps downwards to players and fans: “Aye, Craig Brown’s done well with the limited resources he’s got.”

Limited resources? With the exceptions of the two Aberdeen players, every man in Scotland’s side for that match is a hugely-paid professional with one of Europe’s richest clubs. John Collins had, just a couple of weeks previously, signed a £2.5million contract with Monaco that will see him become the richest Scottish footballer in history.

Next time they qualify for a finals, there should be no more wee speeches about the past. Scotland sides in the last decade appear to have gone into matches determined to prove that they can hold their own – on the day – against sides like Holland instead of actually believing that they are the better side.

How far would the Dutch themselves have got in 1974 if they’d looked to the past? Or the Danes in 1992? Or the Bulgarians in 1994? Until real belief in themselves emerges, Scotland may play good football here and there but they will always be like gatecrashers at a party, nervous from the moment of entry that they’re going to be found out for who they are, then partying madly once it’s obvious that they are about to be thrown out. But what a party it always is.

From WSC 114 August 1996. What was happening this month