In 23 years, I don’t think I haven’t had a lump in my throat when I hear Del Amitri’s “Don’t Come Home Too Soon”. Actually I think it has probably got worse over the years when we haven’t even left home!
Yes, I am an apologist when it comes to this song. I completely agree that it wasn’t the best message to be sending to our players ahead of a tournament, and yes it’s not a song that is likely to inspire you to belt it out in the stands. But its a sentiment I can get behind nonetheless, and it stirs up emotions for sure – that’s good enough for me.
It’s that one line in particular. “If I have a dream at all it’s that for once you won’t be on that stupid plane”. Even typing it here has me feeling it!
The line of the song refers to the millstone that every Scotland team has had around their neck since our very first appearance at a World Cup in 1954. Scotland’s inability to get out of the group stages of the major finals.
We are, of course, somewhat unique in world football in that we don’t actually compete as our official country – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland doesn’t have a team for hugely historical reasons if world football that I’m not getting into here. But it does mean that we can look at our close neighbours within the union and know that every single one of them had managed to get out of a group stage. It’s a stick to hit us with in no uncertain terms.
In fact, all three of them did it five years ago at the last Euros! But even before that, all three of them had already done it before. England do it a lot of course, but Northern Ireland famously did it in Spain in 1982 too.
Indeed, back in 1958 you’ll find the only tournament where all four home nations qualified at the same time. Surprisingly though, it was Northern Ireland and Wales who managed to get out of their groups. England, like us, didn’t make it that year. But then they had already qualified through their group at the World Cup four years earlier so already by this point we are the odd one out.
It’s not for the want of trying either! Scotland have failed to get out of the groups at major tournaments in an amazing variety of ways, and it’s irritating how it is almost always something needlessly self-inflicted that does it.
The story actually starts in 1950. The home nations had returned to FIFA after seventeen years, having left in protests somewhat related to the creation of the World Cup. The top two in the Home Nations Championship qualified for the World Cup. In this particular instance, that should have been England as winners and Scotland as runners up. However, Scotland decided they would only take part if they actually won the Home Nations Championship and since they didn’t they refused and the World Cup went on without us. Incidentally, England didn’t have the same understanding so if Scotland had won the championship ahead of them, both nations would have competed at the World Cup!
See what I mean about needlessly self inflicted? Well, it isn’t always like that.
In 1954, we finally took our place and found ourselves in a group with reigning champions Uruguay, Austria and Czechoslovakia. These groups were odd though as they were made up of two seeds and two non-seeds, and you never played a team from the same category. Net result, we lost to Uruguay and Austria and never played Czechoslovakia. At least the seeding was spot on I guess?
The aforementioned 1958 World Cup was more traditional for a group stage. Scotland drew their opening game with Yugoslavia, but lost narrowly to Paraguay and France and finished bottom of the group. The feeling though was we could have and should have done better. That feeling would only get worse in the years to come.
Scotland didn’t qualify again until 1974, but here is where we really start to self-inflict our own downfall. Leading Zaire 2-0 after little more than half an hour, Scotland took their foot off the gas. No more goals were scored in the game, but we were top of the group as Yugoslavia and Brazil drew 0-0. Yugoslavia then gubbed Zaire 9-0, showing what can happen when you don’t take your foot off the gas, as we drew 0-0 with Brazil. In the final game, Scotland drew 1-1 with Yugoslavia and since Brazil beat Zaire 3-0 it was Yugoslavia and Brazil who went through on goal difference.
Many like to point to captain Billy Bremner’s chance to score against Brazil that bounced off his shin and went wide, but it was also Bremner’s captaincy of the team that saw Scotland take it easy on Zaire when we could have gone for more goals. Would that have led to Brazil scoring more in that final game? Maybe not, they got the three they needed but only just! In the end though, Scotland went home without losing a game, the only team in the tournament to do that. That is about as glorious as failure can come, right?
Hold my beer.
Four years later, Scotland went to Argentina amid claims that we could actually win the tournament. I’m fairly certain we all scoff at that claim now because Scotland don’t seem like a team who were ever capable of it, but the quality of Scotland in the 1970s was actually remarkably good. That squad had some top class players in it. Indeed the players were almost as good as our ability to underestimate our opponents. After taking the lead against Peru, whom we knew little about, we eventually lost 3-1. We again took the lead against the Asian champions Iran, whom we knew little about, but were pegged back and could only manage a draw. Ally McLeod, with his head in his hands, said it all. Despite this, the Netherlands drawing with Peru still gave us a chance, as long as we beat the Dutch by three goals.
That’s the Dutch who were beaten finalists four years earlier. The Dutch who finished third in the Euros two years earlier. That Dutch.
And yet, despite this seeming impossible task, Scotland actually came within one goal of doing it! The Dutch took the lead but Scotland levelled through Kenny Dalglish just before half time. We then had two goals from Archie Gemmill, the second of which is rightly legendary, and were just a goal away from achieving what we needed. Of course, this lasted just three minutes before the Dutch scored again and we had to settle for a 3-2 win. The Dutch would go on to lose narrowly in the final to hosts Argentina, which to me only serves to show that maybe if Scotland had actually done their homework for the first two games then perhaps all the talk of winning the tournament wasn’t too far fetched after all! We could take on the best and win, but only if we actually knew what we were up against.
In 1982, Jock Stein didn’t make the same mistake and was flying half way round the world to make sure he watched New Zealand. They were then gubbed 5-2 in the first game so that was worthwhile. But, there was that annoying ten minute spell in the second half that saw the game go from 3-0 to 3-2, and that would come back to haunt us later. Our plus three goal difference was wiped out in the next game as we took on a great Brazil side and even took the lead through the infamous David Narey “not a toe poke” only for that to annoy them and lose 4-1. A very credible, if utterly frustrating, 2-2 draw against the Soviet Union was our final result of the group but as the Soviets had only lost 2-1 to Brazil and had gubbed New Zealand 3-0 their goal difference was better than ours and so finished second to our third.
Ahh if only we hadn’t shipped those two goals to New Zealand we would have gone through. Or perhaps if only Alan Hansen and Willie Miller hadn’t literally run into each other and gifted the Soviets their second goal, then the later equaliser from Graeme Souness would have been a late winner to take us through to the latter stages.
Oh and here’s the kicker. Although 1982 was the first World Cup to feature 24 teams rather than 16, finishing third still meant you were out as the second round was four groups of three teams and not a round of 16 like it would be in later World Cups and Euros. If it was set up in the way we know now, Scotland were the third best third placed team and would have gone through. Typical.
The new last sixteen setup was in place for 1986, meaning that we now had an even better chance of qualifying for the latter stages. But the death of Stein during the World Cup qualifying playoffs left a massive hole which Alex Ferguson tried to fill. A narrow defeat to a very good Denmark side was followed up by another narrow defeat to eventual finalists West Germany despite taking the lead against them through Gordon Strachan. But the real kicker in this group was the final game against Uruguay. A red card for Jose Batista in the very first minute of the game should have been a huge advantage for Scotland, but Ferguson stuck to the original game plan rather than throwing caution to the wind. The result was a 0-0 draw against ten men and meant that we finished bottom of the group. Uruguay, with just two points from two draws, still progressed to the latter stages as the fourth best third placed team. Had we beaten them even 1-0, we would have finished with two points and a negative one goal difference and been the third best third placed team. Frustrating.
The same setup was in place for 1990, but Scotland made the same mistake in Italy as they did in Argentina in 1978 and completely underestimated their opponent. The “unknown” Costa Rica won our opening match 1-0 and we were already chasing our tails. A brilliant 2-1 win over Sweden followed in arguably one of Scotland’s finest World Cup results, and to date our last win at a World Cup finals, but the late goal from Brazil in the final game coupled with Mo Johnston’s great chance to equalise late on being squandered meant we finished with one win and two defeats. With Costa Rica also beating Sweden, we finished third and had to wait another day to see what our fate would be. As it happened, ourselves and Austria with identical records were the two third placed teams to miss out on progression. All the other third placed teams took three points where we only took two in the days of two points for a win.
Its interesting to note though that our record from 1990 wasn’t enough, but had we had the same record in 1986 it would have been enough. That’s the gamble of finishing third.
Our debut at the Euros in 1992 was probably the most difficult group of all. Reigning world champions West Germany, newly reunited with the East and now just Germany, reigning European champions the Netherlands, and the team the Dutch beat to win that tournament the Soviet Union. Of course, the Soviet Union no longer existed by 1992 but the Commonwealth of Independent States took their place albeit without Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania as part of it. A narrow defeat to a late Dutch goal and then a 2-0 defeat to the Germans meant that we were already out with a game to go, but that wasn’t true for our opponents. With two draws, the CIS knew they needed to beat Scotland by two goals to match the Germans if they wanted to progress regardless of the result in the other game. What actually happened was Scotland thumped them 3-0. We were the only team to win a game in the group stage and not reach the knockout stages of the four teams who went out of the groups. We were effectively the fifth best team in Europe. In arguably our hardest group, we had done ourselves proud. We had actually done German manager Berti Vogts a favour, and he wouldn’t forget that. And of course we had the best fans who caught the imagination by winching the local polis.
Sadly Euro 96 was more in keeping with our World Cup habits. The 0-0 draw with the Dutch was something of a battering, with a little bit of luck that the referee didn’t spot the great save from John Collins on the line, but a decent start nonetheless. We held our own against England for a while and even when we went a goal down we had chances to equalise – never more so than the Gary McAllister penalty that David Seaman saved with his elbow. The blow of then quickly losing a second goal to a bit of Paul Gascoigne brilliance was a sore one to take. But we still had a chance of progression, and it would mostly end up in our own hands.
We had to beat Switzerland by three clear goals and hope England could beat the Dutch. The English even made our task easier for us by taking four off the Dutch! But we relied on them too much and the single goal we did get against the Swiss proved to be one goal short of our target in the end. Although England scored four, it was the consolation one from the Dutch that meant they went through instead of us. If we had just managed a second goal against the Swiss then that Dutch consolation wouldn’t have mattered. Four points and we were still heading up the road on goal difference. More glorious failure.
That win against the Swiss, as disappointingly narrow as it was, remains our last win at a major men’s tournament 25 years later. We of course opened the World Cup against Brazil in 1998, and the 2-1 defeat to the reigning champions was annoying due to the manner of the Tom Boyd own goal for the winner, but respectable nonetheless. The 1-1 draw which followed against Norway wasn’t good enough when we really should have won the game and yet had to rely on Craig Burley equalising on the day. But the real nightmare came in the 3-0 defeat to Morocco in the final game. It is a ghost I am more than delighted we can finally have a chance to exorcise after all this time. I still feel sorry for the Moroccans who couldn’t have expected to be on the plane home as well after that result, but Norway unexpectedly beating Brazil did just that. With 32 teams in this World Cup and every subsequent World Cup that had taken place without us since, third place is back to not being good enough.
The Scottish women have, annoyingly, picked up this same habit of finding new and exciting ways to fail to qualify from a group stage in recent years! Euro 2017 saw them qualify for a major finals for the first time, but a 6-0 defeat to England in the opening game hurt badly. A 2-1 defeat to Portugal followed but a 1-0 win over Spain saw England top the group and the three other teams finish on three points. The mini group of three to break the tie saw Spain top as they beat Portugal 2-0 in their first game and Scotland had to settle for third spot behind the one team they had beaten in the group. No third place progression in this tournament sadly.
In 2019, Scotland’s women made it to the World Cup for the first time. The 2-1 defeat to England was a massive improvement on two years previous, but there was a feeling that we hadn’t played to our best until too late on in the game. That same feeling was there in the 2-1 defeat to Japan, although there was also a feeling of some questionable lack of use of VAR during the game. But the final game against Argentina arguably outdid anything the men had managed in terms of shooting ourselves in the foot. Leading 3-0 after 69 minutes, and seemingly heading through easily as one of the four best third placed teams, Shelley Kerr’s team inexplicably collapsed and were pegged back to 3-2 just ten minutes later. A VAR penalty then went against us late on, which was then saved only for VAR to step in again and order a retake! With the retake scored, the game ended 3-3 and Argentina finished third instead of us as a result. Argentina were then one of the two third placed teams to miss out on progression to the knockout stages. Frustratingly for Scotland, even a 3-2 win would have seen Scotland through as third best third place. Grrr. Or should I say, VARRRRRR.
And so we come to 2021. The women haven’t qualified for the Euros that have been pushed back to 2022 sadly, but the men are back on the centre stage. It has arguably never been as lined up to finally end this run as it is now. There are 24 teams in these Euros, so we have the four best third placed teams rule in place for our men for their first time since 1990. Of the three group games, two of them are taking place at Hampden Park, our home. In the first of those games we take on a Czech Republic team we have beaten home and away as recently as last year – albeit they were hit badly by Covid in each of those. In the second of the Hampden games we take on an ageing Croatia team who are not the team they were that reached the World Cup final three years ago, and Scotland go into that with an unbeaten record against the Croats just for good measure. Six points is difficult but not unachievable from these games. Even if we don’t get six, four would be great and likely plenty to see us through, while even two points could be enough with a bit of luck on our side in the other tournament games. Remember Uruguay in 86? And that doesn’t even consider the England game at Wembley in between which might offer up a nice boost if we can get anything there too.
Should Scotland finally remove this millstone from around our necks, the knockout stages would throw up some interesting possibilities. It’s possible that a third place finish would have us play our first ever major finals knockout game at Hampden, but we could also be on our way to places like Seville and the stadium where Celtic played the UEFA Cup final in 2003, Bucharest in Romania, or Budapest in Hungary. Finish second in the group, and we’d be heading to Copenhagen in Denmark to take on the runners up from the group containing Spain, Sweden, Slovakia and Poland. It would be just like the thing that Scotland finally do this and they have to play Poland of all teams. I might cry then, the Euro 2016 qualifying was hard enough for me! Dare to dream big and actually win the group, and we’re at Wembley again – so you can tell how the draw is fixed to keep England there as much as possible! Indeed, other than a quarter final in Rome, that would be Wembley all the way to the final.
It’s been 23 years since I watched Scotland’s dismal defeat to Morocco with a few friends at an age that my own children are closer to now than I am. I wasn’t old enough to even drink back then. 23 years since we were last on that stupid plane. So after 23 years, it’s great to be back. Just being at a major tournament after so long has massively lifted all our spirits and removed one millstone from around our necks. But with the games mostly at home, we have an amazing chance to remove another, one that has been there far longer than 23 years.
It’s just a little ironic that I find myself now hoping that the Scotland team do have to get on a plane after the group stages!
The tournament might be starting this evening, but there’s still a few days to go until it really starts in our hearts.