Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Scotland in 1990: A bad start, a painful finish

With the 1986 World Cup out of the way the SFA turned their attention to finding a long term successor for Jock Stein.

Thankfully SFA supremo Ernie Walker had met an insurance salesman at a Rotary dinner who fitted the bill perfectly.

With the Ally's Army nightmare still causing the great and the good of the Scottish game sleepless nights it was time to seek solace in the anonymity of Andy Roxburgh.

It was an appointment unlikely to have the Tartan Army dancing in the streets. But maybe there had been enough of that when we sent the team off to Argentina.

Greatly respected within the game and an experienced coach he may have been but Roxburgh wasn't an ebullient media performer and wasn't one of the Scottish football's highest profile figures. On the other hand he knew the players, had experience of the international game and, crucial this, was an SFA man.

Having missed out on the 1988 European Championships, Roxburgh negotiated qualifying for the 1990 World Cup by leading his team to second place behind Yugoslavia. In doing so we condemned France to third place, a blow so grievous that the French could only recover by winning the whole thing in 1998.

We were on our way to Italy. One or two fans would be making the trip as well. (I must digress here: Maude MacFarlane, legendary Hibs fan and then in her seventies, made the trip with a number of the Easter Road faithful. Maude packed her suitcase with home comforts including mince and stewing steak. Those Hibs fans must have been the only ones in Italy to attack the bars each night with a plate of homemade mince and tatties inside them.)

Costa Rica, Sweden and Brazil awaited the Scots in Group C. It was to be a typically Scottish campaign, bookended by humiliation and heartbreak.

The largely unknown Costa Ricans were up first. Against a side making their World Cup debut Scotland were expected to get off to a decent start. I do wonder what on earth in our World Cup history ever persuaded us to make any such assumptions.

It was teatime kick off and I found myself home alone. As I watched the game I raided the biscuit barrel for chocolate Hob Nobs. I had more than one nibble but I can't honestly say if it was overdosing on rolled oats and cheap milk chocolate or events on the pitch that left me nobbled.

It's important to remember that Costa Rica weren't bad and they scored a very tidy goal. But we should have beaten them. If the game was still being played now we might still be waiting on a Scottish goal. One of those days. Shame those days for us always seem to come along at the worst possible time.

Did Roxburgh get his team wrong? We played five at the back which might have been too cagey in a game that was definitely winnable. Alan McInally started up front for the only time in the tournament. Maybe risking Ally McCoist at the expense of McInally's more imposing presence might have made a difference. But then again, maybe not. We should still have got something. Instead we once again gave ourselves a mountain to climb.

(After Roxburgh had announced the team McInally said to McCoist "Ally, you're lower than Captain Nemo, pal." Who says Scotland strikers who once played for Bayern Munich can't do literary jokes?)

The Swedes offered a chance at redemption. Amazingly we took it.

Stuart McCall was drafted in to a 4-4-2 line up (Robert Fleck replacing Rambo up front) and delivered the opening goal inside ten minutes. If we didn't exactly push on from there Maurice Johnston's 80th minute strike at least allowed us the luxury of conceding a goal to Stromberg's penalty with five minutes to go.

A defeat and a win. With four of the six third place teams set to advance to the second round we had given ourselves a chance. We only had to stop Brazil to get there. And this was not vintage Brazil. They'd won both their games but a 2-1 victory over Sweden and a 1-0 win over Costa Rica was hardly the stuff of legends.

A draw and we'd done it. That was all we needed.

Roxburgh again shuffled his pack, captain Roy Aitken dropped back to play sweeper in a five man defence. This time the move was justified. If getting a draw meant a rearguard action so be it.

The game itself was far from a classic. Murdo MacLeod getting that free kick full on the napper was the most memorable moment. Murdo bravely tried to play on but was replaced by Gary Gillespie when it became clear that he didn't even know who we were playing. (Was it Tommy Docherty who, when told a player with a head knock didn't know who he was, replied: "Tell him he's Pele and get him back on?")

If you've been following this series on Scotland's World Cup adventures closely you will know that if there's time there is not only hope but also the increasing likelihood of a right old kick in the teeth.

So it proved. When Leighton couldn't hold a low shot it was the Brazilians who reached the loose ball. Muller knocked it home and Scotland, just eight minutes from the draw they needed, were done.

Having added to that overflowing corner of our collective memories marked "National Embarrassment" the 1990 squad had now also contributed to growing litany of "National Heartbreak and Hard Luck Stories."

Let's not overplay the victim card though. This was no repeat of 1986's group of death. We could and should have done better.

This was our fifth qualification on the bounce. We'd never had it so good. And the chances are we never will again.

Scotland squad at the 1990 World Cup

Now that we were so used to qualifying we were fielding teams with experience of previous World Cups. It still wasn't enough.

Looking at the names here you can certainly see that the Roxburgh and Brown years were marked by a consistency of selection.

Jim Leighton (Manchester United)
Alex McLeish (Aberdeen)
Roy Aitken (Newcastle United)
Richard Gough (Rangers)
Paul McStay (Celtic)
Maurice Malpas (Dundee United)
Maurice Johnston (Rangers)
Jim Bett (Aberdeen)
Ally McCoist (Rangers)
Murdo McLeod (Borussia Dortmund)
Gary Gillespie (Liverpool)
Andy Goram (Hibernian)
Gordon Durie (Chelsea)
Alan McInally (Bayern Munich)
Craig Levein (Hearts)
Stuart McCall (Everton)
Stewart McKimmie (Aberdeen)
John Collins (Hibernian)
David McPherson (Hearts)
Gary McAllister (Leicester City)
Robert Fleck (Norwich City)
Bryan Gunn (Norwich City)

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