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The time Scotland won the European Championship

Nevin, Rice, McStay et al became kings of Europe under Andy Roxburgh but then ran out of steam in Mexico when they took on the world.


This article first appeared in Issue 13 which was published in September 2019.

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We were only babies, so we weren’t able to drink...officially. We found a bar in the small town we were in, had something to eat, then some of us had a couple of drinks and had a carry-on and a singsong.
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Here were these wee guys from Scotland playing in the ground where Brazil had won the World Cup 13 years earlier. I remember making a point of putting the ball in the net where Pele scored and it was surreal.

May 1982. The Falklands War is descending into a froth of piss and vinegar. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder are desecrating the UK singles charts with Ebony And Ivory. And a group of plooky Scottish teenagers have just breenged their way to the title of European Under-18 champions.

Theirs is a tale of blood and snotters. Of footballing wit. Of leaving Marco van Basten raging. Of being described as a Brazilian in an Indian’s body. And of not telling your girlfriend that you’re going to Finland for a fortnight. It’s a parable of a team without a spine, but not lacking backbone. One laden with talent, both unfulfilled and otherwise, and led by two future national team managers. A side that would go on to take on the world before returning tired, wounded and wondering where it all went wrong.

But by then, this group of weans had become men. And they remain the only Scottish team ever to have won a major international tournament at any age group. This is their story…

Conquering the continent

“I said I was going away studying…but then she saw the back page of the papers.” Pat Nevin was never particularly enamoured with the idea of being a footballer. A “very serious-minded young chap”, he recoiled at the notion of telling people that he was one, lest they be seduced by the glamour of him playing part-time for Clyde. His girlfriend knew about his Saturday secret, but Nevin kept his international activities quiet. And why not? As one of the few players in Andy Roxburgh’s squad not with a professional club, he wasn’t even sure he’d get a game.

“I was a part-time footballer and a full-time business studies student, that was my mindset,” he says. “There were probably team-talks where I wasn’t concentrating because I was thinking about economic theory…”

Others, though, were more focused on football. Centre-back Neale Cooper and forward Eric Black had both established themselves as part of Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side – so much so that they, along with goalkeeper Bryan Gunn, were unavailable for the finals because it clashed with the Scottish Cup final against Rangers. All three had been part of the team that beat England 3-2 on aggregate to qualify; a 1-0 win at Ibrox followed by a 2-2 draw in Coventry. “That was the moment people started to think ‘oh aye, this lot are no bad’,” recalls Roxburgh, now 75. “But the Aberdeen boys being out put a dampener on things because they were the spine of the team.”

Their absence called for a little ingenuity on the part of the coach and his assistant, Walter Smith. “We had no clear-cut striker, so we ended up being ahead of our time by playing what they’d now call a ‘false nine’,” Roxburgh recalls, proudly. Nevin and Tottenham prodigy Ally Dick were the two furthest forward players, but were detailed to occupy wide areas, with Hearts midfielder Gary Mackay breaking into the space between them.

The plan worked. Albania were scudded 3-0, and Turkey eased aside 2-0 to set up a group decider with the Netherlands. Scotland’s superior goal difference meant a draw would be enough, but the Dutch would be a daunting test. “I sent Walter to watch them and he came back and said: ‘No chance. The boy Marco van Basten is magnificent, Gerald Vanderburg in midfield is terrific, and the goalkeeper is outstanding’. And I remember saying we’d just have to fight them, in that case.”

The fêted Van Basten gave the Dutch the lead, but a late leveller by Dundee United defender Gary McGinnis put the Scots through to a semi-final with Poland, beaten finalists 12 months earlier. “The Poles were physically strong but I felt we were in no danger technically,” says Nevin. “You can tell five or ten minutes in ‘we can do them’. The Celtic boys are brought up in a certain way to be a winner that was almost Jesuitical. You didn’t even consider losing.” The Scots wouldn’t, earning a comfortable 2-0 victory to set up a final with Czechoslovakia. But Nevin had a problem. He was scheduled to have a university exam the afternoon after the final. “At first, I didn’t think it would be an issue,” he says. “Then when we reached the semis, I was buggered because I had to knuckle down to my studying. I worked out I could manage both if we reached the final, but my one worry was that the plane would be delayed.”

Nevin wasn’t the only one harbouring concerns. Hibernian’s Brian Rice, who had played in two of the group games, was restored for the final because Jim McInally of Celtic was suspended, but deployed in an unfamiliar left-back role. “I was a wee bit tentative – it’s okay for your youth team but this was a European final,” says the Hamilton head coach. “I didn’t want to be the one who made a mistake and cost the team a goal, but everything turned out alright.”

And how. Goals from Mackay, Nevin and John Philliben secured a straightforward 3-1 victory and ensured Scotland would be crowned European champions. “It was brilliant,” says Rice. “We were only babies, so we weren’t able to drink…officially. We found a bar in the small town we were in, had something to eat, then some of us had a couple of drinks and had a carry-on and a singsong.”

Nevin dodged the celebrations and “went straight to my room and my books” before catching his flight the next morning and ambling straight from the airport to the exam hall, where he was met by his gawping peers. This, after all, was a young man who had scored a stunning goal for Scotland in a major final the night before.

“It was decent, but it was weird,” he recalls. “Roxy was good on unusual set-pieces but we made an arse of it and the ball dropped to me. I had four Czechs running at me and I just dribbled right through them, did the keeper, and tapped it in. I wonder if they thought it was deliberate, but it wasn’t. If there is one goal I’d love to have on video, it’s that one. Just to see if it is as good as I think it was.”

The Finnish press certainly thought so. On the plane, Nevin spotted a picture of him on the back page of a fellow passenger’s newspaper and asked him to translate the caption. “Apparently, it said ‘Nevin played really well, very skilful, he’s a Brazilian in an Indian body’ because I was darker skinned than them. But after that slight notoriety, I was back to Clyde the next year.”

Not that Nevin was without offers. The forward turned down Chelsea that summer “because I still didn’t want to be a footballer”, while Roxburgh tells the tale of a Turkish FA official at that summer’s World Cup final in Spain asking him how much it would take to tempt him from Clyde. A deal would eventually be struck with Chelsea, but first Nevin and his Scotland team-mates had a World Cup to play.

Taking on the world

As European champions, the Scots would go to Mexico in 1983 with their eyes on the title. And with good reason. An already talented group were burnished by the return of the Aberdeen trio who were absent in Finland, as well as the addition of St Mirren’s Steve Clarke, Dave McPherson of Rangers, and Motherwell’s Brian McClair. “The European title raised expectations and that was backed up by the quality of their players, their professional backgrounds and their successes with club teams,” reads FIFA’S technical report of the tournament. “In a short but well-planned preparatory programme, it was hoped to make the team even more effective and thus justify their role as favourites.”

That preparatory programme involved a three-week stint at the United States Airforce Academy in Colorado Springs. For this group of Scottish teenagers, it was an eye-opening experience. “I remember training at the old Love Street before we flew out and having our blood taken,” recalls Rice, who later realised the squad were being used as guinea pigs for the senior team ahead of World Cup finals in Mexico three years later. “Then we went to America and we were there for three weeks going up and down from altitude. Mexico was something else, though.”

The Scots started with a laboured win over Korea – Celtic midfielder Jim Dobbin scoring twice in the second half – before travelling north to Toluca for their second match against Australia. The temperature was recorded as 30 degrees in a city sitting more than 2500 metres above sea level and the Scots toiled. Despite a goal from another Parkhead midfielder – Paul McStay – Roxburgh’s side would fall to a listless 2-1 defeat.

“The ball was flying all over the place because the air was so thin and I’d never experienced humidity like it,” says Rice. “I was a sub and I remember boys getting oxygen masks at half-time because they were done.”

And so qualification came down to a daunting final group game against hosts Mexico – a game that those who were there will never forget. Current Scotland manager Clarke calls it “the night I realised I could be a professional player”, Rice says it was “bedlam, mayhem, mental” and Roxburgh says “boys literally became men” in the seething bowl of the Azteca Stadium. Official records state that 86,582 people – almost exclusively ferocious Mexicans – were inside the ground, but it seemed like much, much more to the callow Scots. “Just driving up to the stadium, there were people everywhere making a racket,” says Rice. “Then to even be on the pitch during the warm-up… here were these wee guys from Scotland playing in the ground where Brazil had won the World Cup 13 years earlier. I remember making a point of putting the ball in the net where Pele scored and it was surreal.”

That would be Rice’s only involvement on the pitch, but even those on the bench had to keep their wits about them as a bombardment of projectiles were hurled from the stands – a barrage that only intensified when Clarke scored the only goal to edge Scotland into the quarter-finals. “I took the corner, and it was dreadful,” Nevin recalls. “But that game has stuck with me, despite playing another 850-odd times in my career. I learned that night if you’re not spooked when a crowd of that size are physically trying to attack you, then nothing will ever bother you.”

The Scots couldn’t get out of the stadium for some time after the match but they cared not a jot, given that the result had won the group and set up a reunion with Poland. But by then, Roxburgh’s group of teenagers were physically and emotionally spent and could not summon the resolve to recover from an early concession against the Poles in a last-eight tie that kicked off in the midday sun with 40% humidity. The FIFA report says the Scots “literally ran out of steam” and had “clearly struggled throughout with the conditions” after a season of club football more intense than that experienced by many of their peers.

Rice talks of the squad “maybe getting a wee bit carried away”, while Nevin suggests some weren’t that bothered about losing as they “had kinda had enough by that point” and just wanted home. Regardless of the reason, Scotland’s World Cup was over, with only memories and places for Cooper and McStay in the World All-Star XI to show for their efforts. The Poles would go on to lose to Argentina, who in turn lost the final to a Brazil team containing future stars such as Bebeto, Jorginho and Dunga.

What happened next?

Rice was one of several who struggled the following season, the hangover from weeks of gruelling football lasting several months, but Nevin thrived, finally moving to Chelsea and being named player of the year. The Stamford Bridge forward was one of ten members of the World Cup squad to go on and win full Scotland caps, while others such as Cooper and Ally Dick thrived at club level, with the latter playing for Tottenham in a UEFA Cup final and being signed for Ajax by Johan Cruyff.

Walter Smith believes Roxburgh did not get the credit he deserved for his work with that squad and that the achievement has been forgotten. The manager was also the Scottish FA director of coaching at the time and showed his assistant a report he had produced warning that changes in society would cause the number of players to dwindle.

“I disagreed with him at the time,” Smith said. “I was working with young players and seeing them come through and thought it would always be like that. But he was right and that report sticks in my head more than anything. He put the report in front of people at the SFA and it was sitting there while we were enjoying the success of winning a championship. That’s negligence.”

Roxburgh, now technical director of the Asian Football Confederation, is minded not to dwell on that suggestion, but he does reflect with great fondness on that astonishing 12 months for his squad. “You don’t spend on youth football; you invest and hope you get a good return,” he says. “And with that group we did, and then some. It’s a big part of the reason I got the national team job and it’s the best job I ever had, going on this adventure with these young players.”

This article first appeared in Issue 13 which was published in September 2019.

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