July 6, 2010


A Scottish World Cup Success Story
by Graham McColl
309 pages, Hachette, Scotland

We’re the kings of the world – whoo hoo! By Pat Black

This World Cup year, my English colleagues got their responses in first before I started my ritual abuse of them. Perhaps they knew what was coming?

“So, Pat – when do Scotland play in this year’s World Cup, then?”

The answer is, of course, that Scotland didn’t play in this year’s football World Cup in South Africa. In fact, we haven’t played in any major tournaments since France ’98, a disturbingly long time ago now. There are little football crazy Scottish kids running around right now with their strips on and pretending to be Messi and Kaka who were not even born then. A chilling thought.

It wasn’t always the case – we used to bloody qualify for just about every World Cup and European Championship going. We didn’t ever get out of the group phases, of course, and we usually ended up being embarrassed by such leading lights of the game as Iran (“a team of holy pictures” was one newspaper’s summary of their talents at the time) and Costa Rica.

But we qualified nonetheless – a run of five World Cups from 1974-1990, a record that’s up there with the big guns of world football - guaranteeing an allegedly friendly invasion of foreign shores by strange, doughy, tartan-clad creatures wearing skirts. This latter garment was presumably for easier al fresco pissing access, or to help educate passing women in the delights of celtic male genitalia, with in-built “see you Jimmy” wigs of their own in the case of the gingers.

Anyway. We came, we saw, and we were usually conquered but at least we had a good time wherever we went. Sadly, as the football world evolves and the quality of players coming out of Scotland looks to have dropped sharply, our chances of taking a place at Fifa’s top table in future seems to be very low indeed. In qualifying, even if you miss out, it’s important to finish second in the group table or to get to a play-off. If you don’t – as Scotland didn’t in their failure to qualify for the South African tournament – then you start to suffer the same fate as Northern Ireland and Wales, getting seeded lower down and placed in groups against more difficult opposition. Though we so nearly bloody did it for Euro 2008, too – put in the same group as Italy and France, and we were just one win away from automatic qualification! Such has been our lot. We’ve been a luckless bunch for a long time now. There’s a chance we might never qualify again in this lifetime, a very sobering thought.

Graham McColl’s “faction” book looks at a possible alternative footballing history for this proud and occasionally calamitous nation. Scotland’s soccer history is steeped in infamy, the odd scandal, downright incompetence, humiliation and underachievement. Fed up with all this, McColl seeks to put matters right.

He starts from the first of many cruel and unusual punishments that Scotland inflicted on their supporters, a hand-wringingly presbyterian decision by the national footballing body in 1950 to decline an invitation to the World Cup that year in Brazil. The reasoning among the blazered horde at the SFA was that Scotland should only qualify by rights if they won the British Championship, which was duly secured by England. When the Brazilians very graciously offered a spot to the runners-up, Scotland, in order to boost the presence of the European nations in the first post-war tournament, the SFA grimly stuck to their guns, and Scotland stayed home.

Such incredible stubbornness and profligacy. It seems scarcely believable these days, and you have to wonder if a stereotypically Scottish preoccupation with the possible expense of the endeavour was involved, somewhere. Wha’s like us, indeed?

So, McColl turns things around and imagines that the then SFA chief, George Graham, is shamed into reversing the decision, and off Scotland jolly well trot to South America. And so begins Scotland’s alternative history – building on the experience of Brazil in 1950, in which they acquit themselves well, and going on to qualify for each subsequent tournament.

Once you’ve recovered from the laughably far-fetched notion of Scotland getting out of the group phases of tournaments, never mind being thought of as serious contenders for international footballing honours, this book pulls off a very difficult manoeuvre – making the familiar seem fresh, new and exciting. There is no fate in this book. It’s like taking control of a video game featuring your favourite football players of the past, and making new experiences in your own right.

In some cases, this is fascinating – you simply have no idea how Scotland are going to get on in these tournaments, and in a very childish way you find yourself rooting for the boys as they take on the classic teams of yesterday – the Germans in 1954, the Brazilians and the first soccer god, Pele, in 1958 – and manage to get themselves to semi-finals and finals. You can bet that I find this silly, so I can well imagine how people from other footballing countries would see this, too. We should look forward to the sequel, featuring the Faroe Islands’ past glories, and perhaps a movie version of San Marino’s run to the ultimate honour in Italia ‘90.

I’m not spoiling things by letting you know that not only do Scotland qualify for the World Cup in England in 1966, but they do rather well in it. The mock-up front cover of Billy Bremner (looking disconcertingly like a young Alex McLeish) being carried on the shoulders of his blue-shirted team-mates, holding the Jules Rimet trophy with the stands of Wembley Stadium behind him, will give you a wee clue as to how this particular chapter pans out. And they play England – the real-life winners – in the final. It would be a shame to spoil the events of this fantasy football match in any way, but suffice it to say that it’s stirring and silly in equal measure. A bit like supporting Scotland, in fact. And McColl must deserve a bit of credit for dialling down any ideas of ill feeling, ugly nationalism or bad sportsmanship between those two ancient rivals, England and Scotland.

The chapter does have some basis in truth. As any Scotland fan will readily tell you, Scotland claimed the title of “unofficial World Champions” (very much self-styled) by beating England at Wembley a year after the Three Lions’ greatest triumph. We were the first team to do so since that coronation, and although the final score was 3-2 it disguises what is widely accepted as Scotland’s finest ever performance. McColl takes these faint twitches of reality and gives them a nudge throughout the remaining chapters – what you’re reading is total nonsense but there are enough bits and pieces of the real people, the real situations and the real scenarios to give it that vital verisimilitude.

Most pleasingly, McColl redeems Ally MacLeod, Scotland’s hapless manager in 1978. It is fitting for a book in which fantasy is allowed to completely escape its man-marker, reality, that this campaign should be the book’s most interesting section. MacLeod was a man who provided the very definition of that beautiful Scottish word, “gallus” – a confident, swaggering individual in spite of any number of personal deficits or lack of ability. This natural bullshitter had the whole nation convinced that we were going to come back from the tournament in Argentina “with at least a medal”. And didn’t we buy into it? The team were cheered off at a special event at Hampden Park. The place looks bloody full. There are pipe bands and lions rampant fluttering in the breeze. It’s like The Lucky White Heather club essayed by blood-crazed zombies dressed as the Bay City Rollers. Even thinking of the comedian Andy Cameron’s official Scotland ’78 World Cup hit single “We’re On The March With Ally’s Army” simply dials up the horror. Do not YouTube this, seriously. Go and look at decapitation videos instead. Jesus! What were they thinking? By “they”, I mean, everyone involved in the entire enterprise?

As it happened, instead of coming back with a medal, Scotland were lucky to come back with the hair on their arses. Despite boasting phenomenal players in their absolute prime such as Kenny Dalglish and Joe Jordan, we lost heavily to Peru despite going a goal ahead, squeezed a draw with the aforementioned Iran and then, improbably but perfectly Scottishly, defeated one of the greatest football powers the world has ever known in Holland before crashing out of the group on goal difference. Not only that, but the Rangers player Willie Johnston was sent home in disgrace after failing a drugs test.

It was then seen as a national disaster and had great ramifications for the Scottish game. We did, indeed, see ourselves as others saw us, and we weren’t too impressed. First of all, the egos had been deflated. No longer could we take ourselves seriously, and neither could anyone else. Never again would we approach an international tournament with our ambitions set any higher than “don’t embarrass ourselves” (and there were times when we couldn’t even manage that, it seemed). The swaggering peacocks had been plucked in front of the whole world. The emperor had no clothes. Inquiries were carried out. People snarled that certain supposedly big-time players should never pull on the strip of their country again. The tabloid press showed their usual level of grace, sympathy and restraint.

Ringing any bells, England fans?

This international dressing-down – so the thinking of today goes – fundamentally changed Scotland’s opinion of itself. There were interesting political outcomes, too. Scotland – then buoyant on top of a roiling wave of oil from the North Sea – began to take the question of secession from the rest of the UK under English rule very seriously. With Scotland qualifying for the World Cup and apparently set to do very well, it appeared that a referendum on the question of Scottish independence was about to be put to the people. As is often the case during the feel-good rush of success that a country’s sporting excellence can bring, nationalistic feeling was high and there was every chance that the Scots would vote to go it alone. The debacle of Argentina ’78 changed all this. In a referendum held one year later, the split results meant that the idea of a Scottish Parliament was put in cotton wool for 20 years.

I personally don’t believe that Scotland embarrassing itself on a football pitch would have changed things in Westminster or the constitution of the United Kingdom for one single moment. But it’s a theory, and one that endures north of the border.

Ally MacLeod’s folly and over-confidence had come back to bite him, hard. There is a classic moment, caught live on television, as the Scots are struggling on the field, when MacLeod suddenly allows his head to drop into his hands, and he ruffles his rusty-coloured barnet a couple of times. It is a picture of perfect misery. It was splattered across the newspapers on the day after the match. You’ll be able to see this moment on Google and YouTube.

Ally MacLeod was soon relieved of his position after the 1978 World Cup. He never took a top job in football ever again, mostly drifting around the lower divisions in Scotland until retirement in 1992. For the rest of his life, which ended in 2004 after Alzheimer’s had taken him, he was synonymous with failure, and worse still, shame. The public would forever see him as an embarrassment and a joke, a pied piper of football.

I think this is dreadful and uncalled-for. Much like England’s failure 32 years later, it simply showed that fundamental changes had to be made to the way the game was played and coached in Scotland, from the grassroots up, in order for us to be able to compete. I’m sorry to say that this is a lesson we are still learning even today. Blaming MacLeod, a man who, however briefly, brought happiness and pride back to Scotland, is desperately unfair on him. It seems that some of his players simply didn’t turn up, a feeling that Fabio Capello will be familiar with in 2010. And whatever MacLeod’s failings, he seemed to be far from the most malicious person you’d encounter in professional football.

Plus, there was an upside, though it may have been difficult to see at the time. Post-1978, with the weight of expectation and the corrosive effects of hype nullified, Scotland’s fans would go to later tournaments with more of a sense of fun than they had before – they were there for the beer and a carry-on, first and foremost, not in any expectation of Scotland winning the tournament. Though further disappointments and embarrassments would strike, well... it wasn’t the end of the world. We’d had a laugh. Allegedly, we had made friends. Not being quite part of that scene, I’ve always had one or two nagging doubts about the Tartan Army’s famed “friendliness” at home and abroad, and when I was younger, angrier and more competitive, their attitude of happy defeatism used to irk me.

But the older I get, and the more I weary with football’s dark side, the more it strikes me as a very sensible attitude for a fan to have when it comes to what is, after all, only a bloody game. England, their fans and their media could learn from this, as could the French and the Nigerians given the near-hysterical reaction in those countries to what is in effect 22 guys chasing a ball around a big grassy rectangle. For Christ’s sake, you can’t all win it every time!

But back to MacLeod. Happily, with the passage of time, there is a growing sense of affection for this footballing Baron Munchhausen, a man who dared to dream, to think big. For a little while, this glottal-stopping Glaswegian chancer had us thinking that we were the very best of the best. And who knows... As always with football, had he just got one or two of those little breaks... for example, had Don Masson scored that penalty against Peru in the opening game to put us 2-1 up... or had Johnny Rep not burst Alan Rough’s net immediately after Archie Gemmill’s legendary goal against the Dutch...

But, ach, that’s football, and that’s life. I’ve always felt that football is the perfect metaphor for life. Or is it the other way around?

Anyway, returning to the made-up stuff, McColl gallantly turns things around for Ally’s Army. Not only does Scotland’s magnificent, promise-fulfilling turn at that tournament provide the nation with a springboard towards full independence, but it also manages to help bring down the military junta which had a stranglehold on Argentina at the time. MacLeod is vindicated and near-deified; the man who dared to dream and made it a reality. No more the used car salesman-esque flyman, in these pages MacLeod is transformed into a somewhat mad genius, inspirational and off-kilter and funny and, ultimately, successful. It’s a lovely touch.

One question for the author, though. There is a terrible omission in this book. It must be addressed. Even going by the “is it live or is it Memorex?” feel of the novel... surely you should have put in Archie Gemmill’s goal against Holland?

Even people with no inkling of the football world or Scotland’s place in it will be familiar with this strike, thanks to its “commemoration” in the movie Trainspotting. Honestly, the one moment where pure fantasy coalesced with reality in our national sporting history... where a squat, bone-white man who was about five foot five inches tall with both hands in the air – who had more hair on his legs than was flapping loosely about his head - achieved equal states of grace, beauty, athleticism, guile and precision, leaving a trail of bamboozled Dutch soccer masters scattered in his wake... and you don’t think to include it?

The rest of the book is rather an anti-climax after this chapter’s stunning triumph, but you always want to know how the “alternative universe” games went, who scored and so forth. And there are nice snapshots of heroes of yesteryear such as the late Davie Cooper, arguably one of the last true footballing geniuses Scotland ever produced. McColl even reverses his own trick by allowing one of Scotland’s later tournament performances to appear as it actually happened, focusing more on the fanatical following of the Tartan Army and their blind devotion to the team than the results themselves. Dreamland is a charming book, perhaps aiming at a niche market but certainly worth your time as a sporting literature curiosity. Even if you’re English.

Incidentally, if you’re a Scot living in England, and having to deal with many references to your national side’s apparent crapness... well, you’ve probably gathered enough material over the last few weeks based on events in South Africa to keep your detractors quiet for at least two years. However, there’s another little tactic you can use.

Someone has taken the step of compiling a list of “unofficial world champions”, stemming from the first ever international football match – England versus Scotland, naturally – and treating the world title as not something that can be taken at a single tournament every four years, but as an honour that would be passed from winner to winner (or retained by the holder in the event of a draw) in single games, in the same manner as a boxing title belt, taking into account tournaments, qualifiers and friendly matches.

If you look at the website dealing with “unofficial world football champions”... well. Look at who’s at the very top of the list in terms of titles won?

Wha’s like us, indeed?

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