Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Scotland in 1978: What just happened?

What the hell happened?

I've read a lot, watched a lot and listened to a lot about the 1978 World Cup.

And I still don't fully understand what happened?

How a squad cheered to the rafters on their departure could return shamed. How a football manager could be blamed for a nation turning down the opportunity of self government. How a Scottish World Cup campaign could include a cameo from Sir Trevor McDonald. How Andy Roxburgh could end up hugging Rod Stewart on an Argentinian runway.

The whole experience seems so incredibly un-Scottish. Perhaps, subconsciously, the nation was already bracing itself for the Thatcher years so decided to have a massive party. We did that spectacularly. We couldn't have embarrassed ourselves more if we'd photocopied our backsides and snogged Tracey from Accounts in the stationery office.

Argentina 1978 was to be Scotland's first World Cup outside Europe. Football was creating a global village. Scotland would provide the idiot.

Actually that's unfair. Ally MacLeod was a decent man and a sound club manager. The wisecracks and outlandish motivational speeches worked at clubs where his success depended on building an atmosphere that players and fans could rally round.

Transferred to the national stage it turned him into a sort of bizarre Pied Piper leading the entire population into collective madness.

As Andy Cameron so memorably reminded us England "didnae qualify" so McLeod also suffered from the glare of the London media, adding yet more layers to the hype that he, often unwittingly, built up.

It's also difficult to see how we went from sneaking qualification via a Joe Jordan handball to considering ourselves contenders.

Yet strangely that's exactly what happened. The send off at Hampden, the fans lining the road to Prestwick. It all seemed to overlook our woeful World Cup heritage and gave rise to a rare bout of Scottish football's most dangerous phenomenon: optimism.

From the moment the team arrived in Argentina it was clear that things were not going to go to plan. The military junta made the country a forbidding place - full marks to FIFA for endorsing a tyrant - and the hotel was as welcoming to the team as a Wee Free run guest house would be to Elton John and David Furnish.

Scotland were drawn against a Cruyff-less Netherlands, Peru and Iran.

In a campaign beset by miscalculations the most obvious one was to underestimate the opposition. Peru would be pushovers, Iran were inconsequential. That was the prevailing wisdom and it was a view McLeod seemed to subscribe to.

In which light it seems reasonable to assume that he was as bemused as anyone when Scotland emerged from those two games with one point.

Everything was going to plan when Joe Jordan put us ahead against Peru in the 19th minute. 71 minutes later a stunned Scotland would be coming to terms with a 3-1 defeat. Even in a country so well versed in sporting disappointment this was a monumental disaster.

How much more could go wrong? Plenty it seemed. Next up on the litany of humiliation was Willie Johnston's failed drugs test - and McLeod's encounter with the inquisitive Trevor McDonald. Any thoughts of regrouping after the shame of Peru had been firmly nipped in the Bud.

Iran offered the perfect opportunity to bounce back. An opportunity that we turned down, taking a point thanks to an own goal. Such was the magnitude of this trial by football that we couldn't even score a goal for ourselves against the group minnows.

Just days earlier the nation had been dancing to McLeod's tune. Now they mainly wanted to dance on his grave.

One last shot at redemption lay in the final game against Holland. Scotland needed a win and they needed goals. Nothing in the tournament suggested they were capable of either. Just to be contrary we got both.

And, for that brief moment when Archie Gemmill seemed to have stardust in his boots, it almost seemed like a nation could dream again. A dream that would last the three minutes it took for Johnny Rep to blast the ball past Alan Rough.

A 3-2 win was not enough. Scotland were again sent home thanks to goal difference - the joke Peruvians having won the group. How different the 1978 campaign was to the 1974 campaign. Yet how awfully similar were the results.

And the World Cup failings remained. We didn't win games on the big stage. The Netherlands now joined Zaire as the only teams to have lost to Scotland in the finals. I trust that particular nugget of trivia was little discussed in the bars of Amsterdam.

What went wrong? Everything. McLeod, the innocent abroad, the trusting, decent guy, was blamed and had to endure what must have been a living hell for a patriot who made mistakes but only wanted to give his best.

But eleven Scots - including some of the biggest names ever to grace our game - couldn't beat Iran. Yes, Ally McLeod made mistakes but he was not the only one who deserved to be holding his head in his hands. Maybe all Ally really wanted was to be loved. Perhaps that's why pictures of him during the event have such an air of sadness: he looked like the loneliest man in the world.

Was he completely mad to suggest we could win the damn thing? Well, he was certainly misguided. But he knew he had the nucleus of a side and he probably hoped it would give his players the boost they needed. And, you know, we beat the eventual finalists.

Did 1978 change us? We lost our bravado and maybe our relationship with the national team changed. We no longer reached for greatness, now we were happy just to be at the party. Maybe, when we were demobbed from Ally's Army, we retreated to far into the solace of hard luck tales and stories of glorious failure. Being elated at just turning up is admirable but maybe our insistence on partying even when we lose makes us too slow to learn from our defeats.

We're a complex bunch, right enough.

Having failed with the quiet man, Ormond, and failed with the loud man, McLeod, Scotland needed something new for a new decade. Time to call up the greatest.

I was thinking that I'd rubbish the idea that 1978 helped kill the devolution referendum in 1979. Except rereading my less than seminal 2001 essay Who Or What Killed The Scotland Act? I note that I argued with some conviction that it actually was a contributing factor. And Andrew Marr agrees: "the 'we were rubbish' hangover certainly contributed to the outcome." So there. Football and politics, always a bad mix.

The sheer lunacy, the mammoth mistakes, the comedic failures. There's too much about 1978 to cram into one blog post. So I'll point you in the direction of Graham McColl's '78: How a Nation Lost the World Cup. An excellent read. At least it is with the comforting distance of 22 years to soften the blows. And you can read all about Andy and Rod. It's available here.

Scotland squad at the 1978 World Cup


Not a bad a bunch of lads. Shocking bunch of results though.

Alan Rough (Partick Thistle)
Sandy Jardine (Rangers)
William Donachie (Manchester City)
Martin Buchan (Manchester United)
Gordon McQueen (Manchester United)
Bruce Rioch (Derby County)
Don Masson (Notts County)
Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool)
Joe Jordan (Manchester United)
Asa Hartford (Manchester City)
Willie Johnston (West Bromwich Albion)
Jim Blyth (Coventry City)
Stuart Kennedy (Aberdeen)
Thomas Forsyth (Rangers)
Archie Gemmill (Nottingham Forest)
Lou Macari (Manchester United)
Derek Johnstone (Rangers)
Graeme Souness (Liverpool)
John Robertson (Nottingham Forest)
Bobby Clark (Aberdeen)
Joe Harper (Aberdeen)
Kenny Burns (Nottingham Forest)