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Where it all started: Remembering our Swedish caper in ’92

Scotland have qualified for Euro 2024 — the fourth time they will join the continent's elite for a summer of adventure. Daniel Gray reminisces on when Andy Roxburgh’s team made the breakthrough in '92.

By Illustrations by Tom Wood

This article first appeared in Issue 20 which was published in June 2021.

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A tournament for which the SFA thought it completely acceptable to allocate shirt numbers according to the greatest amount of international caps won, so that right-back Stewart McKimmie wore 9, allowing a million Dads to shake their heads and mutter at the television: “It’s just not right, it’s just not right.”
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“Early on the ball went to him. I went towards him, and like a puff of smoke he was gone. I turned around and he was six or seven yards past me. I thought, this is going to be an interesting day.”
An illustration of Brian McClair at Euro 92.

Brian McClair at Euro 92.

11.30am, matchday, that shell suit summer of 1992. The Scotland squad gather in a meeting room at their Gothenburg Sheraton hotel. Its walls are the pallid blue of a children’s ward. Manager Andy Roxburgh reels through the logistics of that evening’s fixture with the Netherlands. He perches between a flip chart proclaiming his team’s formation and a mobile television unit of the type teachers used to wheel into lessons when they were too hungover to hold court.

There is a pause in Roxburgh’s momentum. He is unsure of which tune Scotland will mumble along to in the minutes before kick-off. “Then it comes to anthems”, he says, “I don’t know what anthem we’re playing. Broony?” Broony – Craig Brown, the manager’s assistant, wearing a round-collared white Umbro T-shirt that makes him look like a dentist about to run a marathon in aid of Unicef – is similarly hesitant. “I dunno, I dunno. But I tell you, whatever we do, the whole world’s watching, and we get compared with the rugby team, and that gets up my nose… And if it’s Flower of Scotland, you could learn the words and that’ll make you even more patriotic-looking.”

From our vantage this is a revelation. Now, sub-committees convene and discuss such things. Papers are written. Government ministers brief and are briefed. Patriotism must be approved, choreographed and marketed. This, though, was Euro ‘92, a final hurrah of the old world when so much more was left to kismet and fluke. A tournament from which one qualifying team – Yugoslavia – could be banished with a few weeks’ notice. A tournament which welcomed another nation – the CIS, or the Continuity USSR – one year after its foundation and one year before its collapse. A tournament of merely eight teams whose slogan, “Small is Beautiful”, would make modern UEFA officials, in their obsession with grandiosity, vomit lost dollar signs. A tournament for which the SFA thought it completely acceptable to allocate shirt numbers according to the greatest amount of international caps won, so that right-back Stewart McKimmie wore 9, allowing a million Dads to shake their heads and mutter at the television: “It’s just not right, it’s just not right.” And, a tournament whose bunny mascot was called, simply, Rabbit.

Amidst the Sheraton’s Formica and pine, and with the national anthem mystery unsolved, Roxburgh proceeds to talk tactics. He cautions the players against early bursts of indiscipline, citing the anguish caused by clumsy play in a match with Brazil at World Cup 1990. “Don’t be getting into stupid things, don’t be mouthing off at the referee”, he says. Roxburgh stresses the importance of accurate balls up to Jukebox, or Gordon Durie, a man with a nickname inspired by a television series that stopped running in 1967. He asks that his team open the game up, and that defensively they are two things: compact and aggressive. Then, an unexpected twist. Roxburgh turns to the classroom television and introduces a video he is about to play: “People say that we’re just a wee nation, and we don’t have much effect. We might only be a small country but we’ve had a few effects, and that goes for football as well. Just watch this. It’s got nothing to do with football.”

What follows is a short advertisement which aims to entice corporate investment in Scotland, recently seen and then borrowed by an impressed Roxburgh. In it, over images of man’s quest to visit the moon, a sonorous American voice lists Scottish inventions and advancements, while 67 related references slide across the screen: The Sextant, Experimental Proof of Earth’s Rotation, Helium, Radar… Everything is tied together by the conclusion that without Scottish endeavours, there would have been no moon landings. “It’s a small advert,” says Roxburgh when it finishes, “but I’ll tell you, I didn’t realise all the effects Scottish people have had in taking people to the moon. And in terms of football, we might be a small country, but we’ve had an effect.”

It is unknown what Jukebox, or indeed Duncan Ferguson, make of the video.

To qualify for the European Championships, Scotland were required to finish at the summit of a group containing Bulgaria, Romania, San Marino and Switzerland. It is those ties in transitioning Eastern Europe that seem most alien and compelling now: whistling and baying crowds watched by military police in gloomy green uniforms; television commentaries delivered via muffled landlines; those flapping, balding and moustachioed goalkeepers that the teams of communist countries always seemed to muster, as if they were manufactured to meet a quota set out in a Five Year Plan. Of seminal importance, though, was the game in Berne. Here, Scotland resurrected themselves from a two goal deficit in front of a perturbingly raucous Swiss crowd. Reading a familiar script, Ally McCoist scored from a rebound and in celebration sprinted away as if chasing a thief who had poached his girlfriend’s handbag.

The Scottish campaign was not a dog-eared page near the novel’s end, nor some jaded encore following Italia ’90. Here was a new Scotland, and names like Alex McLeish and Roy Aitken, Murdo McLeod and Gary Gillespie were erased from the teamsheet. “The finals were a launch pad for things to come,” says the affable Roxburgh now. “When I was appointed, they didn’t even mention the Euros, just the World Cups. They said you can use the Euros to prepare. But having got there, our attitude was: let’s go for it.”

In the second week of May 1992, he and a provisional Scotland squad flew from Glasgow to Chicago. In the United States, there would be a training camp at Illinois Benedictine College and a match with the national team, followed by a voyage north to play Canada. The manager reasoned that schlepping to North America was justified by the calm that distance and anonymity could bring. “We were away from the build-up pressure,” says Roxburgh. “The players could go off and play golf and things like that.”

The golf and the things like that mattered. In consideration was, naturally, the clichéd notion of a “good team spirit”, that intangible yet vital constituent of most competent sides. Beyond this, the forging of friendship, said Roxburgh at the time, bore fruits on the pitch: “Good pals will pick each other out. If one person’s got the ball, he’ll find his pal with a pass. You’ll also find that someone receiving the ball, his best pal is the one that’ll run to support him.”

As such, Jukebox, Ferguson, McCoist, Goram and all found themselves at Chicago’s Hancock Tower Observatory and at Comisky Park for a Red Sox fixture with Milwaukee Brewers. The Scotland players wore cricket-style jumpers bearing a North American Tour crest and ate blue candyfloss. “It seems a ridiculous thing to do,” says squad member Brian McClair of the tour rather than the blue candyfloss. “But because we spent that time together, there was a bond between us and a single-mindedness. We felt we had a good squad. There was almost a club-style atmosphere between the players.”

Before kick-off at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, each squad member shook hands with guest of honour Tom Sutherland, the Falkirk-born academic recently freed after 2,353 days of hostage captivity in Beirut. A laboured 1-0 victory in sweltering midsummer, high altitude conditions followed. Pat Nevin scored the only goal, a sublime effort following a cosy one-two with McClair, and his first strike for Scotland. The two were roommates back at the Chicago Marriot and then in Sweden. Perhaps Roxburgh was right. On that afternoon of firsts, Duncan Ferguson limbered up from the bench to make his debut. Afterwards, he complained about the heat, which had left him struggling for breath.

In Toronto, Scotland were victorious by three goals to one. The breathless young striker played again; “Ferguson shines on tour for Scotland” ran a headline in the next day’s Times newspaper. Back home, the players trained in Perthshire and stayed at Dunkeld House hotel, a perfect retreat for fishing and clay pigeon shooting in the name of those passes to pals. There followed a final friendly, tied 0-0 with Norway in Oslo, meaning that since the Italian World Cup, Scotland had been defeated in only two outings. It was not enough to merit echoes of 1978 hubris, but still when the squad flew from rain-cursed Glasgow to clement Gothenburg on June 9, they travelled in hope. “I think that people in Scotland are realistic enough to know that we are not going to win it,” said McCoist, “but what they would like us to do is go out and have a real go.”

Roxburgh was pleased with the cluster of players aboard Air Sweden flight SL241. Injury concerns were not insurmountable – a tooth abscess that left boy wonder Ferguson bedridden and “worn out through lack of sleep” was overcome; Nevin made something of a miraculous recovery from an ankle strain sustained in America. Of more annoyance was the creeping media narrative that Scotland lacked gumption and creativity, and that a 14,000-mile round-trip for two friendly matches amounted to a flawed strategy which would result only in player fatigue. “I guarantee that our traditional virtues will be seen in Sweden, especially when we have the backing of our supporters”, answered Roxburgh.

Those supporters travelled to Scandinavia full of ale and glee. That latter sensation sparkled for the players too. They, after all, would be the first Scottish footballers to compete in a European Championships. Touching down on the tarmac left McClair with “a feeling of excitement. It was one of the highlights of my career. To be able to go to Sweden was a wonderful dream coming true.”

McClair and his pioneering teammates would face Euro ’88 winners Holland, world champions Germany – bolstered by reunification, with its wider player selection pool – and, as Roxburgh puts it, “the CIS, who were really still the USSR. You couldn’t have imagined a tougher draw.” Scotland had the smallest population of all eight qualifying countries, and were distant outsiders to lift the trophy – comfortably beyond eventual miracle winners Denmark – at odds of 30-1. ‘The dispassionate verdict must be that Scotland will struggle to come home with as much as a point from their group,” wrote Roddy Forsyth in the Times. Roxburgh’s attitude, though, was admirable: “There was no sense of anxiety. We were relishing the idea of playing those teams. We didn’t like to have the territory and the ball to ourselves. We played at our best off a tackle. In a highly competitive game, we would win a tackle and we would burst forward from that. It was instinctive. So we were programmed for playing against these better teams.”

After log-flume rides at Gothenburg’s Liseberg amusement park came respite and then that video moment. Once the tape was ejected, Roxburgh reminded his charges: “No other Scottish player… has ever played in a European Championship finals. All the superstars of the past, nobody ever did what you’re doing.” Scotland were then serenaded from the Sheraton’s entrance to their team coach. Heroes to those gathered in navy shirts and kilts, the attitude amongst the Oranje was disdainful; Dutch players claimed to know the names of only two or three of their Caledonian counterparts and Marco van Basten asserted that: “In Scotland, it is all kick and rush.” By contrast, all who knew football knew of Koeman sweeping up, Wouters springing forward, Bergkamp conjuring chances, van Basten stroking them home masterfully. Not to mention Roy twisting like an errant kite and the dreadlocked sorcerer Gullit. “I was playing left side of midfield, in direct opposition to Gullit,” remembers McClair. “Early on the ball went to him. I went towards him, and like a puff of smoke he was gone. I turned around and he was six or seven yards past me. I thought, this is going to be an interesting day. But I like to think that I wore him down a bit.”

And therein rests a truth of the whole Scotland team that early evening in the curvaceous Ullevi stadium; after a mesmeric start from Gullit et al, they corroded the Dutch with resilience and pluck, and no little attacking endeavour. Richard Gough was a titan; in midfield, Stuart McCall, Gary McAllister and Paul McStay strangled Oranje creativity and thrust their team forward. McStay and Gough nearly scored. Instead, late on, Bergkamp did. “We gave as good as we got. It could easily have finished a draw, or even a victory,” Roxburgh reflects now.

Scotland travelled 200 miles east to Norrköping for their remaining two games. The squad stayed deep in countryside beyond the old cotton mill city in a hotel with no other guests. Entertaining themselves became important. There were singing contests and horse racing nights. Roommates McClair and Nevin linked their Nintendo Game Boys and played Jack Nicklaus Golf and Scrabble. One staff member had access to a video library of movies. “If there was a particular film Pat and I wanted to watch, we could ask for it and then go and sit in the TV room,” McClair says. “Usually with Pat it was some avant-garde thing in black and white.”

Scotland’s resolute showing against Holland left them buoyant ahead of their game with Germany. “We will send them back to Glasgow tomorrow,” boasted the German manager Berti Vogts. Beneath a piercing cloud of air horns and bagpipes, the outsiders made a pulsating start. The Scots spun their opponents dizzy. Chance followed chance then followed chance. Dave McPherson scooped over from three yards out, perhaps destabilised by the heft of his mullet. And then, naturally, Germany scored twice. Onwards battled Scotland, sometimes robustly; Guido Buchwald and Stefan Reuter required head bandages, Karl-Heinz Riedle broke his nose. “The second goal was freakish,” remembers Roxburgh. “The scoreline was a nonsense. We dominated the game. We had 13 corners, they had two. And yet we lost.” After the game, well over 1,000 Scotland supporters refused to leave the stadium until the manager had addressed them and taken their uproarious plaudits.

Their final game of Euro 92 meant nothing mathematically and everything morally. Scotland were deeply determined to defeat a CIS side that could still qualify for the latter stages of the competition. “We went in as if it was our cup final,” recalls Roxburgh. “They were shocked at the way we played. But it was the only way people could say we deserved to be there, that we were just unlucky. So that last game was vital for justifying our being there.”

Another fine performance was this time sprinkled with the good fortune that victories sometimes require. McStay’s opener in a 3-0 victory hit the upright and then rebounded into the net from the back of diving Russian goalkeeper Dmitri Kharine, as ever in his tracksuit bottoms. The third goal, from McAllister, was a penalty, and in between McClair finally scored for Scotland courtesy of a long-range effort kissed on the cheek by a deflection. “A dubious goal, but still a goal. It was a brilliant moment for me. It’s one thing representing your country, but the greatest part of football apart from winning medals is scoring goals, and I hadn’t managed to score for my country in 25 appearances.”

Scotland had not reached the moon, but at least they had thrown a lasso into the sky. And sometimes that is all you can ask for.

This article first appeared in Issue 20 which was published in June 2021.

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