Our national debt to Nasko Sirakov

Euro 92 is remembered as the first European Championship finals in which Scotland participated. Perhaps less well remembered is the agonising nature of our qualification.

By Andrew Galloway

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016

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There was a full card of Scottish Premier Division fixtures that night, but every fan would have had one eye on events in Sofia.
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To qualify for the semi-finals, Scotland were required to see off either the holders of football’s greatest prize, or the great Dutch side still containing the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. Or both. It was easy if you said it fast enough.

Nasko Sirakov is now 54 years old. He enjoyed an 18-year playing career flitting between clubs in Spain, France and his native Bulgaria. He won 78 full international caps, scoring 24 goals. The name may not register straight away. None of Sirakov’s international goals were scored against Scotland. But 25 years ago one of them did our national team one of the biggest favours it has ever received from a player in an opposition team.

On the evening of Wednesday, November 20, 1991, Scotland’s players, coaches and national officials, along with thousands of fans, were on tenterhooks, awaiting the result of the final fixture in Group 2 of qualifying for Euro 92. Heavyweights such as Italy, Spain and Portugal had already been eliminated. Scotland were still in a position to make it to the finals in Sweden the following summer. Having completed their eight fixtures, they could only wait and watch as Bulgaria and Romania met in the Vasili Levski Stadium in Sofia. Anything other than a two-goal win for the visitors and Scotland, for the first time ever, would be in a European Championship finals, one of only eight teams involved.

At the interval, Romania led 1-0. One more goal for the men in yellow would end the dreams of a nation’s football fans. This is the story of how it came to that evening of destiny – and what happened next.

Five games into the group stages it was so far, so good. But as season 1991/92 dawned, Scotland were under no illusions about the task ahead.

In September 1990, three months after the World Cup in Italy, Andy Roxburgh’s men started their Euro 92 qualifying campaign with home games against Romania and Switzerland, the two favourites for qualification. Both games had to be won. They were, each by a 2-1 scoreline, and the best possible start had been made. The halfway stage of the campaign was reached with back-to-back 1-1 draws against Bulgaria, home and away, before a 2-0 victory away to San Marino, who were making their debut in the qualifying rounds for a major tournament.

The hard bit was about to arrive early in the new domestic season: a trip to Switzerland followed a month later by a visit to Romania. The Swiss side’s Hampden defeat was the only reverse they had suffered in a group they topped after beating San Marino 7-0, albeit they had played a game more than Scotland. Defeat in the Wankdorf Stadium in Berne would leave Scotland three points adrift and, even with a game in hand, qualification would be difficult – although Switzerland’s final match was away to Romania.

By half time, the task for Scotland was as steep as the Swiss Alps. After 30 minutes Stephane Chapuisat, who had recently signed for Borussia Dortmund, scored the opener for the hosts. Eight minutes later Servette midfielder Heinz Hermann increased the deficit to 2-0.

One hundred and twenty seconds after the restart the fightback began when Gordon Durie headed home from Stewart McKimmie’s cross. Thirty five minutes of angst ensued until the equalising goal arrived seven minutes from full time. Swiss keeper Marco Pascolo was unable to smother Durie’s low drive from 15-yards out; following up was Ally McCoist, whose customary lethal touch in front of goal earned a vital point.

Five weeks later came the trip to Bucharest. Romania were five points behind Switzerland and, with three games to play, could ill afford even to draw any of them if they were to qualify. In contrast, Scotland travelled knowing that another draw away from home would in all probability be enough to get them just about over the line. That would put them level them on points with Switzerland, who had a better goal difference but had still to visit Romania. In contrast, Scotland’s final match was at home to San Marino, who were without a point and had lost 29 goals in their seven games.

But Durie, having sparked the comeback in Berne, suffered a reversal of fortune in the cruellest way in the Steaua Stadium. The game was goalless with 15 minutes remaining when Romania sent a free kick to Scotland’s back post from the right wing. Durie’s attempt to clear was made with his hand and spotted by the German referee, who immediately awarded a penalty. The visitors’ hopes now rested with goalkeeper Andy Goram, newly-signed by champions Rangers from Hibernian. Facing him: legendary Romanian striker Gheorghe Hagi. Goram guessed the right way, but Hagi’s kick was too powerful. It was the only goal of the match.

In a roundabout way, the defeat was a blessing in disguise for Scotland. With their chances of qualification still alive, it meant Romania had to be positive when they hosted Switzerland while Roxburgh’s team faced San Marino at Hampden. Victory in Glasgow was surely a formality, and hopes would be pinned on Romania doing to the Swiss what they had done to Scotland. On the other hand, a Romanian victory would mean that they could still beat Scotland to top spot in the group when they visited Bulgaria for their final game.

Goals by Paul McStay and Richard Gough within the first half hour removed any doubt about the outcome against San Marino, and with Durie and McCoist adding further goals, attention switched to Bucharest, where the action was still goalless. Unless Scotland could run in an avalanche of further goals, a draw between Romania and Switzerland would not suffice, as the Swiss had a better goal difference. A goal for the home side had to come.

After 69 minutes came the news that the Tartan Army were desperate for. Dorin Mateut scored for Romania and, if Switzerland were unable to find an answer, they were out of the race. Only Romania would stand between Scotland and a place at Euro 92. The best part of 25 nervous minutes later, with Scotland having coasted to a 4-0 victory at Hampden, the scenario was a reality. Switzerland, who started the evening at the top of the group, were gone. However another threat remained.

Romania were two points and one goal’s difference worse off than Scotland when they travelled to Sofia to face a Bulgaria side who had only their pride at stake. A 1-0 win would not be enough for Romania to take over at the summit as Scotland would still qualify on goals scored. If Romania won 2-1, the sides would have identical records; any other victory by one goal would give Romania the advantage on goals scored. They would also qualify with a win by more than one goal, but a draw or defeat would see them fall. And all Scotland could do was watch. What did offer optimism was that Bulgaria, on matchday two in the group, had won 3-0 in Romania. The consequences of that result may not yet have been complete.

Eighteen minutes into the match, Romania were awarded a penalty, but Hagi could not repeat the spot-kick accuracy he showed in the Scotland game and missed. Just after the half hour mark, an Adrian Popescu goal meant that while Scotland still topped the group, their position hung by a thread. If the visitors scored again, Bulgaria would need to score twice to be able to help Scotland. As the second half began, Roxburgh and his colleagues were rooting for the only team they had been unable to defeat, home or away, in the group. There was a full card of Scottish Premier Division fixtures that night, but every fan would have had one eye on events in Sofia. And 10 minutes later their support in spirit was rewarded as Nasko Sirakov drew Bulgaria level.

Despite incessant pressure from Romania, it remained 1-1. Scotland’s Group 2 campaign had been a rollercoaster, starting off in the best possible fashion, hitting a hitch by failing to win against Bulgaria, taking a priceless point in Switzerland before defeat in Romania which left things up in the air.

But we were there.

Rangers clinched their fourth consecutive league title with two games to spare, and then won the Scottish Cup. Dundee were First Division champions while Dumbarton won the Second Division.

None of that was quite by the by, but for the months which followed that nerve-shredding evening where Bulgaria did it for Scotland, ‘Euro’ and ‘92’ were the buzzwords of the country. Having not qualified for the tournament in its 32-year history, the wait was over, and while some giants of international football would sit at home watching, we were part of the festival in Sweden.

Among the teams Scotland could face were reigning world champions Germany (albeit they won Italia 90 as West Germany) and the Netherlands, who were defending their European title. One of those in our group would have been a tough task. Both would have meant a serious battle to reach the knock-out stages. When the draw took place, it was the latter scenario which was handed down, with the CIS (the Russia-dominated rump of the disintegrated Soviet Union) completing the group line-up. To qualify for the semi-finals, Scotland were required to see off either the holders of football’s greatest prize, or the great Dutch side still containing the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. Or both. It was easy if you said it fast enough.

Four members of the double-winning Rangers side were in the Scotland squad: Andy Goram, Stuart McCall, Ally McCoist and Richard Gough. By the time the finals kicked off, Dave McPherson would be added to the Ibrox legion after completing a transfer from Hearts. After the Gers, the best-represented club in the pool was not Celtic, but Dundee United, who also had four representatives in Maurice Malpas, Jim McInally, Dave Bowman and Duncan Ferguson. Three Celtic players did make the cut: Paul McStay, Tom Boyd and Derek Whyte. Indeed, of the 20 players taken to Sweden by Andy Roxburgh, only five played their club football outside Scotland, all of them in England. Interestingly, the players were numbered in descending order based on the number of full international caps won, with the exception of the goalkeepers, who retained numbers one and 12.

In preparing for the tournament, the team was unbeaten. The two home fixtures were won 1-0 against Northern Ireland (scorer McCoist) and drawn 1-1 with Finland (McStay getting the goal). With the championship weeks away, Roxburgh took his players across the Atlantic to test them in sunnier climes. This was a successful exercise, with the USA beaten 1-0 in Denver courtesy of  a Pat Nevin goal, and then Canada defeated 3-1 in Toronto with a McCoist goal and a Gary McAllister double. The final friendly was drawn 0-0 in Norway, nine days before Scotland’s opening match in Gothenburg, against the Netherlands.

Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard, members of the AC Milan team who won the 1991/92 Serie A title with an eight-point cushion, all played for the Netherlands. Joining them in the starting XI were the likes of defender Ronald Koeman, deadly from set-pieces, and up-and-coming Ajax striker Dennis Bergkamp. To counter the Dutch threat, Gough and McPherson were handed the joint duty of patrolling Van Basten’s beat. They were joined in guarding keeper Goram by full backs Stewart McKimmie and Maurice Malpas, while Gordon Durie teamed up McStay, McCall and McAllister in midfield. McCoist, along with Brian McClair, was tasked with finding a goal to stun Europe.

As it transpired, Scotland could, very easily, have done just that. Not only were they containing the side who still possessed the European Championship trophy they won four years ago – they were outplaying them. Of all the players who could have gone closest to opening the scoring, it was McPherson, whose left foot shot from a McStay assist narrowly missed the target. Meanwhile, Goram’s only first half save was a relatively straightforward one from a Rijkaard effort.

The second half saw more of the same. A flurry of Scottish chances were created, falling most notably to McStay, Gough and substitute Kevin Gallacher, who had replaced McCoist upfront. None of them were able to hit the target.

When that happens, the outcome is predictable, and it duly arrived in the 77th  minute. Gullit’s cross from the right was headed back across goal by Van Basten and flicked on by Rijkaard. The loose ball could have fallen for either Malpas or Gough, but it instead it came to Bergkamp. He guided the ball past Goram having got between the two defenders and the Netherlands had the lead.

Ferguson was thrown on for McClair, but it was to no avail. One moment of slackness had cost Scotland in a match in which they had looked the better side for long spells. Gough’s defensive efforts came in for particular salutation, as did the performances of McCall and McStay in midfield. As Roxburgh put it, it felt like being involved in a smash and grab. To make matters worse, Germany and the CIS drew the other match in the group later in the evening. That had looked like providing a shock until Thomas Hassler rescued a point for the Germans in the last minute. Scotland were bottom of the section on their own, but if they could bring the world champions back down to earth after their great escape, they would be back in it. By contrast, and by consequence of Germany and the CIS’ draw, a second defeat would eliminate them.

Both they and Germany had only three days to recover from the exertions of their first matchday, with Scotland also having to travel the best part of 200 miles to Norrkoping from Gothenburg, where they had faced the Netherlands. So confident was Roxburgh that he sent out exactly the same starting XI. With the threat of an exit hanging over them, Scotland had to remain positive, and just as they did against the Dutch, they impressed. The problem was that they could not find the net.

Within minutes of the start, McPherson headed over from McAllister’s cross while a Gough header looked destined for the net only for German keeper Bodo Illgner to get a fist to it and turn it over. McAllister had two further chances, but saw the first blocked by the keeper while the second was narrowly wide. Having already seen how missed opportunities could be punished against the Netherlands, there was an inevitable feeling of déjà vu.

It duly happened on 29 minutes. Matthias Sammer and Jurgen Klinsmann, both introduced to the starting line-up by Germany after the CIS draw, combined for the latter to hold off Gough’s challenge inside the area. His touch back was driven into the net by Karl-Heinz Riedle with Goram not even moving. For all Scotland’s early pressure, a bitter blow had been struck.

And two minutes into the second half any hopes of progressing in the tournament ended in a moment that summed up Scotland’s luck: Stefan Effenberg’s cross from the right took a huge deflection off Malpas and, with Goram losing his footing, bent into the net.

Scotland did not lose heart, and in fact came close to scoring through defenders Gough and McKimmie. But it was all over bar 90 minutes against the CIS with only pride at stake for Scotland. It was an emotional end to the afternoon, with Roxburgh ordering some of his players back out from the dressing room to applaud the supporters.

After three days to reflect, it was on to the final match, which may have been meaningless to Scotland, but not to the CIS. As a result of their goalless draw with the Netherlands following Scotland’s loss to Germany, they needed a result to progress to knock-out stage. With all the pressure on the opposition, Roxburgh took the chance to experiment, resting Malpas and Durie in favour of giving Boyd and Gallacher a chance from the start.

The new-look side took all of six minutes to make the impression they may have felt they should have done against the Netherlands and Germany. McAllister’s corner was headed down by McPherson and fell to McStay 20 yards from goal. After the Celtic midfielder drove in a low shot, it hit the post, then the back of keeper Dmitri Kharine, and into the net. It may have carried an element of luck, but nobody could argue that we were due some of that.

Within 10 minutes the disappointment of the previous two matchdays was quickly being forgotten. Despite scoring many goals for Celtic and Manchester United, McClair had waited 26 caps for his first Scotland goal. That drought was ended by a deflected finish from the edge of the area after McCoist set him up.

The CIS put in a power of effort to try to rescue their hopes, but with six minutes remaining came the icing on Scotland’s cake. Nevin, not long on the field in place of Gallacher, ran Rangers defender Oleg Kuznetsov ragged on the left wing before being fouled in the area. McAllister stepped up to do what needed doing and, as TV commentator Gerry McNee observed, three Macs had got on the scoresheet to send Scotland home with some pride. It was also a result appreciated by Germany, who were beaten 3-1 by the Netherlands in Gothenburg in the other game. As a result of the CIS’ sound defeat, the world champions were through to the semi-finals by the skin of their teeth.

There were more emotional celebrations at the end of a tournament which ultimately came up short in terms of progress, but not in terms of how Scotland had acquitted themselves. If luck had come their way in the first two group games, things could have worked out differently and either the reigning European or world champions would have been eliminated in our favour. The finale was back home at Glasgow Airport, with over 1,000 fans waiting to greet the team home. After all, they had fared better at the finals than the likes of Italy, Spain or Portugal had.

Of course, there is really only one team deserving of the last word in any remembrance of Euro 92. Denmark were due to sit at home watching the finals after finishing second in their qualifying group behind the former Yugoslavia. When the Yugoslavs were forced to withdraw because of the conflict in their home nation, the Danes took their place. Having finished top of Group 1, they defeated the Netherlands on penalties in the semi-final, leading them to the final against Germany in Stockholm. John Jensen and Kim Vilfort got the goals to ensure an historic 2-0 win for the team that wasn’t supposed to be there.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016

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