Thursday, June 07, 2012

Scotland in 1992: Living in the group of death

By the early 1990s Scotland had qualified for five consecutive World Cups.

No matter how meagre the feast when we got there, we were remarkably adept at scavenging invitations to dine at football's top table.

Yet this success was not replicated in the European Championships.

As with the World Cup we didn't actually bother with the tournament at first, sitting out qualification in 1960 and 1964, possibly in protest at 'UEFA European Nations Cup' lacking a certain oomph as a name.

By 1968 we'd crawled into the fold and were ready to take our place among the Euro elite.

We'd have to wait.

Six more tournaments came and went with Scotland's players left pottering about at Butlins.

This might speak of the internationalism of the Scottish psyche. With World Cups to compete for, European competition could only constrain us.

Or it might speak of a country so adept at World Cup qualification that we found the cycle hard to break, the European Championship (as it was known from 1968) becoming a victim of Scotland's global success.

But it probably speaks of neither of those things. 14 European teams played at the 1986 World Cup and 13 at the 1990 World Cup.

Before 1980 only four teams made it to the European Championships. From 1980 that number was doubled to eight.

UEFA's own event celebrated the European elite in a way that the more generous World Cup did not.

A competent Scottish team had more chance of making it on to the global stage than the European one.

And so it proved.

Not until 1992 were finally ready to take the leap and qualify for the European Championships.

Typically getting to Sweden that year was a close run thing, Scotland eventually topping the group by one point with four wins, three draws and a defeat.

With San Marino propping up the table our competitors were Switzerland (last major championship appearance in 1966), Bulgaria (last major championship appearance in 1986) and Romania (top seeds on the back of a last 16 appearance in the 1990 World Cup).

Exactly the sort of group that made qualification look possible.

It was a nervy one though. In the closest of all the qualifying groups Scotland lost 1-0 away to Romania in our penultimate game.

In our final match Paul McStay, Richard Gough, Gordon Durie and Ally McCoist combined to smash four past San Marino. On the same night Romania beat Switzerland 1-0.

Having played all their games Scotland had 11 points. That was one more than Switzerland whose defeat in Romania finished their hopes of qualifying.

Bulgaria, on eight points, were also out of the running with only two points awarded for a win. But the Bulgarians could yet dictate qualification with Romania to play in their final match.

20 November 1991: Nasko Sirakov became the toast of all Scotland as his 55th minute goal cancelled out a first half effort from Adrian Popescu to deny the Romanians the win they needed.

That draw saw Romania finish level with Switzerland with only two points separating four of the five teams.

But Scotland were top of the pile.

Time for the Swedish to lock up their policewomen.

A major tournament featuring only eight teams is always going to throw up tough groups.

Yet we can probably still argue that Scotland were particularly unlucky to find themselves in less the 'group of death' and more the 'group of is there any point actually getting on the plane' in 1992.

Germany were the reigning world champions and the Dutch were the reigning European champions.

Scotland would have to play them both. For good measure we would also meet a team that would exist only for this tournament.

A side formed from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) took the place of a Soviet Union team that had qualified for Sweden amid the turmoil of the collapse of the Communist bloc.

If uncertainty and the impact of political change meant the CIS teams were an unknown quantity the heritage of the Soviet Union in this tournament was clear: winners in 1960 and three times runners-up, most recently to the great Dutch side of 1988.

Scoland were going to have to do it the hard way.

Our tournament started in Gothenburg on 12th June 1992 against the Dutch.

It's worth taking a look at the starting line ups that day:

Netherlands: Hans van Breukelen, Berry van Aerle, Adri van Tiggelen, Ronald Koeman, Jan Wouters, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Rob Witschge, Bryan Roy

Scotland: Andy Goram, Richard Gough, Paul McStay, Maurice Malpas, Ally McCoist, Dennis Bergkamp, Brian McClair, Gordon Durie, Dave McPherson, Stewart McKimmie, Stuart McCall, Gary McAllister

There were some great players in that Scotland team and some long time servants, honest and true.

But the Dutch? Gullit, van Basten, Bergkamp, Rijkaard, Koeman.

Players who will echo down the ages.

Little surprise then that Scotland were forced to mount a display of defiance, of defensive bravery in the wave of a cultured onslaught.

And we so nearly held out. 75 minutes had passed before Bergkamp broke the deadlock.

Manager Andy Roxburgh withdrew Brian McLair and threw on Duncan Ferguson - his only appearance at a major tournament in a short Scotland career defined by "what might have been" - to hunt for an equaliser.

It didn't happen.

A defeat in the opening game was far from ideal. But this was not a repeat of the disaster against Costa Rica in 1990, this was a Scotland team competing against one of the world's best and running them very close.

With Germany just snatching a draw against the CIS in their opener there were reasons for optimism for the clash with the world champions in Norrköping.

That optimism looked well placed as the game got underway.

Roxburgh stuck with the same starting line up as the but the match did not follow the same pattern.

Here Scotland were on the front foot, looking the more likely team in the opening exchanges and forcing German goalkeeper Illgner Bodo Illgner into a number of saves in the opening half hour.

Then...disaster.

Jurgen Klinsmann got the better of Richard Gough and combined with Karl-Heinz Riedle who beat Andy Goram in the 29th minute.

Still Scotland didn't cower, refusing to be outclassed and enjoying their share of scoring opportunities.

1-0 at half time. The game still very much alive - and with it hopes of qualification from the group.

And then it was over. Two minutes after the restart Stefan Effenberg enjoyed a deflection off Maurice Malpas that left Andy Goram with no chance.

2-0.

Scotland didn't wilt, the Germans knew they were still in a game. But the damage was done and the chance was gone.

Those two goals were enough. Different tournament but same old story for Scotland: elimination in the group stage.

Going into the final matches Germany and the Netherlands were tied on three points with CIS on two after a couple of draws.

All three could still qualify, all three were desperate not to join Scotland on the plane home.

With nothing left to lose Scotland produced the performance of their tournament, a 3-0 win that proved the plaudits they'd won in losing the first two games were not undeserved.

CIS had gambled that defensiveness would see them through against Germany and the Netherlands and that the Scotland game would take care of itself.

And they did indeed dominate possession against Scotland. Unfortunately they didn't really know what to do with that possession when the object of the game was suddenly to win not just avoid defeat.

Scotland, who'd soaked up so much pressure against the Dutch and shown such attacking intent against Germany, found themselves in a perfect place to make the most of their opponent's inefficiency.

Paul McStay opened the scoring inside 10 minutes and Brian McClair - scoring his first ever international goal - doubled the lead on 16 minutes before Gary McAllister rounded things off with a second half penalty after Pat Nevin had been tripped.

For Scotland the European Championships had followed the pattern of so many World Cups: qualify, a brave performance here and there, then hame tae think again.

That's perhaps slightly harsh.

The Dutch and the Germans were formidable opponents and Scotland refused to be outclassed.

The 3-0 win over CIS might represent the most clinical a Scottish team have been at a major tournament - albeit in a game that came too late.

And, even if the group wasn't as daunting as others, getting over the qualification line for an eight team tournament was a unique achievement for Andy Roxburgh.

This was also the tournament where Tartan Army legends were born, the image of Scottish fan kissing a policewoman encapsulating the spirit Sweden tried to give their tournament and helping the Scottish fans win a special UEFA award.

Past masters at getting to World Cups, Scotland could now look ahead to a future where an international tournament punctuated every second summer...

1992 European Championship Scotland squad


Manager: Andy Roxburgh

Andy Goram, age 28, 20 caps (Rangers)
Richard Gough (captain), age 30, 56 caps (Rangers)
Paul McStay, age 27, 57 caps (Celtic)
Maurice Malpas, age 29, 50 caps (Dundee United)
Ally McCoist, age 29, 38 caps (Rangers)
Brian McClair, age 28, 23 caps (Manchester United)
Gordon Durie, age 26, 19 caps (Tottenham Hotspur)
Davie McPherson, age 28, 20 caps (Hearts)
Stewart McKimmie, age 29, 17 caps (Aberdeen)
Stuart McCall, age 28, 17 caps (Rangers)
Gary McAllister, age 27, 15 caps (Leeds United)
Henry Smith, age 36, 3 caps (Hearts)
Pat Nevin, aged 28, 12 caps (Everton)
Kevin Gallacher, age 25, 9 caps (Coventry City)
Tom Boyd, age 26, 9 caps (Celtic)
Jim McInally, age 28, 7 caps (Dundee United)
Derek Whyte, age 23, 4 caps (Celtic)
Dave Bowman, age 28, 2 caps (Dundee United)
Alan McLaren, age 21, 3 caps (Hearts)
Duncan Ferguson, age 20. 2 caps (Dundee United)

  • Average age was 27 years, average age of the preferred starting XI was 28 years - the ideal Roxburgh profile
  • With four players each Rangers and Dundee United were most represented in the squad
  • This was more players than Rangers sent to any previous Scotland tournament squad and as many as Dundee United had managed in the 1986 World Cup squad
  • 12 of the 1974 World Cup squad were playing in England, by this squad in 1992 only five of the 20 were "Anglos."
  • Captain Richard Gough and manager Andy Roxburgh were not best friends but managed to lay their difference aside for the good of the squad. Could anyone learn lessons from that?