Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Scotland In 1986: Another Hard Luck Tale

Scotland's trip to Mexico in 1986 would be their fourth World Cup in a row. We might have been hopeless when we got to the finals but we were proving astonishingly consistent at qualifying.

Our route to the 1986 World Cup was, as we all know, steeped in tragedy. Jock Stein's death on a tense night in Wales as Scotland clinched a play off place cast a long shadow over the whole 1986 campaign.

It fell to Alex Ferguson, still at Aberdeen and Stein's part time assistant, to take the reins and negotiate the double header against Australia. A 2-0 win at Hampden put Scotland firmly in control of the fixture as they prepared to travel to Melbourne. A 0-0 draw got the job done but, as if to prove that Scotland players could still mix it with the best of them went it came to extra-curricular antics, a couple of incidents involving booze, birds, Maurice Johnston and - inevitably - Frank McAvennie left Ferguson mulling over the possibility of leaving Johnston out of his final squad.

As part of his preparation Ferguson travelled to Ipswich and sought Alf Ramsey's advice. Sir Alf was only too happy to oblige, although Ferguson was incredulous that no England manager had ever approached Ramsey as part of their big tournament build up.

Ferguson's most controversial decision was to leave Alan Hansen out of his squad. A number of late withdrawals had left both Stein and Ferguson concerned about the centre half's commitment. He also lost Kenny Dalglish, a massive blow, blamed at the time on Hansen's omission although Dalglish has always insisted that his knee was just not up to another summer of football.

Squad selected, preparations made. Scotland were off to Mexico. Lying in wait were Denmark, West Germany and Uruguay. Displaying our usual knack of finding ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time we had somehow pitched up in the tournament's group of death. Lucky us.

We would emerge without a win to our name, cursing our luck and somewhat battered. Yet again we were going home on the first plane.

Before the tournament we might well have considered Denmark to be rivals for second place behind West Germany. The Danes didn't exactly follow that script.

In an even first match Denmark beat us 1-0, although a Roy Aitken goal that looked legitimate was disallowed.

In the next match Gordon Strachan put us ahead against West Germany in the first half. Unable to hold out, Scotland went in all square at half time before a Rudi Voller goal early in the second half put the Germans ahead. There was much huff and no little puff as Scotland chased the game. As so often in the past those efforts came to nothing.

At times it seems that Scotland team was created to tantalise the support with the the promise that greatness is always just one step away. Amazingly we went into the Uruguay game with qualification still a realistic possibility.

We had to win to progress, Uruguay needed only a draw. It might have been realistic to assume that an astonishing 6-1 defeat to Denmark might have knocked their confidence. Needing only a draw, however, they were always going to be happy suck Scotland into a war of attrition. Even accepting that as a legitmate tactic does not mean there is any need to condone the brutality with which they set about the task.

In the first minute of the game Jose Batista was ordered off for an X-rated version of one of Ron Atkinson's early doors reducers, a cynical and blatant attempt to nobble Gordon Strachan. The tone was set.

Against a team displaying football's uglier side, Scotland were without answers. Yes, Uruguay were brutal and hard but Scotland were ineffectual in the face of it. They had come to defend deep but Scotland were unable to exert the pressure that would have made them doubt the wisdom of their tactics.

In the face of a cynical Uruguayan roar, Scotland meekly surrendered with a whimper. A win would have sent Scotland through in third place behind West Germany and surprise group winners Denmark. Instead we finished bottom with two defeats and a draw.

Again there were plenty of excuses. Stein's death left Ferguson with a job he didn't want and, by his own admission, wasn't ready for. We missed the aura of Dalglish. Graeme Souness, perhaps not fully fit, struggled in the altitude and heat. Roy Aitken's goal against Denmark should have counted. Uruguay were little more than cheats.

But. In six trips to the World Cup we'd won only three games. In Mexico we could only score one goal. Again players who should have done better failed to perform. Maybe by raging against the unfairness of it all we missed the point: our players lacked something - skill, nerve, fight? - on the biggest stage.

For Scotland just qualifying had become more than half the battle. At least, for now, we looked not too shabby at that.

> More on Alex Ferguson's experience as Scotland manager in Managing My Life: The Autobiography.

Scotland 1986

A curiosity to make Hibs fans weep: look at the three goalkeepers who made the trip. Makalamitys they were not.

Souness, listed as a Sampdoria player, had already agreed to take over as Rangers manager. The Ibrox revolution was drawing near and was much needed. Only Davie Cooper made the squad from Rangers.

When will another Scotland manager be able to call on players from Barcelona or Sampdoria?

Note that Mo Jo didn't make the trip. As far as Fergie was concerned that bridge was well and truly burnt.

Jim Leighton (Aberdeen)
Richard Gough (Dundee United)
Maurice Malpas (Dundee United)
Graeme Souness (Sampdoria)
Alex McLeish (Aberdeen)
Willie Miller (Aberdeen)
Gordon Strachan (Manchester United)
Roy Aitken (Celtic)
Eamon Bannon (Dundee United)
Jim Bett (Aberdeen)
Paul McStay (Celtic)
Andy Goram (Oldham Athletic)
Steve Nicol (Liverpool)
David Narey (Dundee United)
Arthur Albiston (Manchester United)
Frank McAvennie (West Ham United)
Steve Archibald (Barcelona)
Graeme Sharp (Everton)
Charlie Nicholas (Arsenal)
Paul Sturrock (Dundee United)
David Cooper (Rangers)
Alan Rough (Hibernian)