These days, Europe is a foreign land when it comes to success for Scottish clubs, and for the national team the world is not enough. FIFA may have expanded the 2026 World Cup to 48 teams but the Sea of Tranquillity on the Moon probably has a better chance of making the finals than Scotland.
The 2018 World Cup in Russia seems a forlorn hope for a team who have beaten only Slovenia, Malta and Gibraltar in competitive matches during the last 18 months. Failure would mark a 20-year absence from the finals of the World Cup. For a nation which is still footy mad, it is almost unbearable. It’s an even longer absence from the European Championships. The SFA was behind the proposal to expand the Euro finals to 24 teams, which is almost half the number of eligible nations, but even that wasn’t enough to buy Scotland a ticket to the dance.
That absence is even more painful when you consider that from 1974 to 1998, Scotland reached six World Cup finals, including five in succession, and two Euros. A generation grew up believing Scotland had a divine right to take part in those summer football festivals, and there is one man, I believe, who is responsible for that. Step forward Thomas Henderson Docherty.
‘The Doc’ was only in charge for 14 months in the early 1970s but he still has the highest success rate – 66 per cent – of any Scottish national team manager. He gave debuts to players who would form the backbone of the Scotland squad in the 1970s and early 80s and helped bring back some cockiness into a team that was underperforming.
But, hang on. Willie Ormond, Ally McLeod, Jock Stein, Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown are the guys to praise, aren’t they? They actually got us to the finals and they deserve the recognition however without the platform that Docherty built in his short time in charge, it’s arguable whether Scotland would have enjoyed the level of success they did.
To put Docherty’s spell in charge into context, you have to understand where Scotland were when he took over. The 1960s was a time when it could be argued that the country produced some of its greatest ever footballers but during that decade, and beyond, the national team was a huge disappointment.
Jim Baxter, Denis Law, Ian St John and Jimmy Johnstone never graced the final stages of the world’s premier football tournament. With an abundance of talent at their disposal and an open goal, Scotland missed the target time after time, missing three World Cup finals in succession.
Czechoslovakia were playing against Brazil in the final of the 1962 World Cup in Chile while the Scotland players they beat in a qualifying play-off were at home. While England partied their way to World Cup success in 1966, Law was playing golf in Lancashire. As the English watched the dazzling delights of Mexico 70 on their new colour TVs, Scottish fans were changing the channel.
In addition to those failures in World Cup campaigns, Scotland came nowhere near reaching the latter stages of the newly-introduced European Championship, though its format at the time perhaps makes that less of a surprise.
Those failures may have been marginal but they meant the world’s best footballing nations were having a party to which the Scots were never invited.
As well as that Czech play-off in 1962, a team robbed of key players due to club commitments – yes, really – lost out to Italy in 1966 while a narrow 3-2 loss in Hamburg to eventual semi-finalists West Germany denied them a place at Mexico 70. Bear in mind the core of that German team had been runners-up in 1966, would come third in 1970 and many of them would still be there when they won the trophy in 1974, and you can see that Scotland weren’t enduring the humiliation they do nowadays by teams once considered lesser lights; they were inches away from taking a place at the top table. But they never did.
This may have made some sense had Scottish club football been suffering, but in terms of Europe, the little country on the edge of the North Atlantic was in fact riding pretty high. Successful sides in the Scottish First Division could expect to go reasonably far in the major European competitions, and they quite often did.
Celtic famously won the European Cup in 1967, the first British club to do so and with a team of 11 Scots born within 30 miles of Celtic Park. It’s an achievement which 50 years on remains just as remarkable. Six days later, it could so easily have been a Scottish double as Rangers narrowly lost to Bayern Munich in the Cup Winners’ Cup final. And had things gone differently for Kilmarnock in the semi-final of the Fairs Cup, a hat-trick of Scottish teams would have made it all the way to the summit of Europe. Killie lost out to Leeds United, who were making a habit of reaching European finals, in that Fairs semi-final.
It is remarkable to think that between 1966 and 1974, Celtic reached the quarter-finals of European competitions on seven occasions with at least five semi-final and two final appearances in that time. Over the same period, Rangers made three semi-final and two final appearances including their 1972 triumph in the Cup Winners’ Cup final. That was the year that Celtic and Rangers played the second-leg of their European semi-finals at the same time on the same night in Glasgow in front of a combined total of 155,000 fans, Celtic only missing out on a third European cup final in five years in a penalty shoot-out with Inter Milan.
And it wasn’t just the Old Firm enjoying continental success. Dundee lost 2-1 on aggregate to Leeds United in the Fairs Cup semi-final in 1968, Eddie Gray scoring the decisive goal just 10 minutes from the end of the second-leg, while in 1969, Dunfermline Athletic narrowly failed to reach the Cup Winners’ Cup final, losing in the semis to eventual winners Slovan Bratislava. Dunfermline also reached the quarter-finals of the Fairs Cup in 1966.
So at club level, Scotland were firmly among the elite. But for some reason, this success didn’t translate into international success. At that time, there was a divide between the Anglo-Scots and home-based Scots with some favouring the former and others the latter but the truth of the matter is that many of the players helping Rangers, Celtic and the others do so well simply disappeared while wearing the dark blue.
Jimmy Johnstone, for instance, was recognised as world class but had been discarded at international level by the late 1960s after too many poor games. I have an image from that Hamburg defeat of the goal that won it for West Germany. The ball is played out to pacy winger Reinhardt Libuda and as he races in on goal Tommy Gemmell takes a swipe at him and misses before Libuda sweeps the ball into the net with Billy McNeill desperately trying to get back. Gemmell and McNeill had been at the heart of the Lisbon Lions yet never really hit the heights for Scotland.
Following the failure to qualify for Mexico 1970, Scotland didn’t change that much initially, but by June 1971 they were also all but out of the 1972 European championships. Three losses in a row after an opening round win over the weakest side in the group, Denmark, left them with no hope of progressing. Bobby Brown, the manager who had overseen the 1967 demolition of the World Cup holders England at Wembley – the only real bright spot in the preceding decade – went soon after, his era ending with two wins out of his final 14 games.
This heralded the moment in September of that year that arguably built the foundations for more than two decades of international success.
For those observing Scottish football at this time, the appointment of Docherty came as quite a shock. Indeed even the Scottish Football Association seemed slightly unsure as Docherty was initially only given a caretaker role. Bobby Brown and his predecessors had been part of an era when Scotland sides were chosen by committee. The man given the chance to breathe life back into the national side had never been a committee kind of guy. Indeed one of his biggest regrets was having the captaincy taken off him by the committee for the opening game of the 1954 World Cup.
‘The Doc’ had also been part of the last Scotland side to feature in a World Cup, in Sweden in 1958. Scotland lost one and drew one, the only home nation not to progress to the quarter-finals. Docherty had played in the first game, a draw with Yugoslavia, and then, in a precursor to his move into managing and because he was one of the more experienced players, he was asked to watch Scotland’s next opponents, Paraguay. He reported back that they were a robust side that needed players like Docherty in the Scotland side to combat them. He was ignored, didn’t play, Scotland lost and went home.
His experience of the finals in 1954 hadn’t been much better. After a narrow loss to Austria, Scotland lost 7-0 to Uruguay. He’d seen at first hand the shambles that surrounded a team ill-prepared to take on the best in the world. Scotland sent only 13 players to Switzerland and players wore thick cotton jerseys which weren’t practical in temperatures which reached 30C. Interviewing Docherty three decades later, it was clear how angry he still was about the way the players had been treated. The SFA sent many more officials than players and stayed in top hotels. One of them had been to watch Uruguay and reported back only that they were “dexterous”. This was Scotland’s first foray into the World Cup – they had huffily turned down a place in the 1950 finals in Brazil because they’d finished second to England in the Home International championship which had been deemed a qualifier despite FIFA saying that second place was sufficient.
Docherty had enjoyed a successful playing career, first at Celtic but most notably at Preston North End. He’d been appointed manager of Chelsea at just 33 and resigned in 1967 not long after winning the FA Cup. Spells at Queens Park Rangers and Porto followed and he had just joined as Terry O’Neill’s assistant at Hull City when Scotland came calling.
He had always been a larger-than-life character who was not averse to stating his opinion, which made the appointment by the SFA all the more remarkable. But the turnaround in fortunes was immediate. The then secretary of the SFA, Willie Allan, wasn’t much of a fan and famously told Docherty he’d be pleased if the press never found out about his appointment. “Well, I think they’ll realise when they see me sitting in the dugout at the first game,” replied Docherty.
He warmed to the young players coming through clubs outside the Old Firm as well as others who had been disregarded by the previous regime. He took advantage of a recent rule change to call up Arsenal keeper Bob Wilson, who it turned out had had a Scottish grandfather. It was the beginning of a trend that divides fans to this day.
Docherty had initially been given the caretaker role for the final two European championship dead rubbers and in the first, against Portugal at Hampden, John O’Hare and Archie Gemmill scored in a 2-1 victory. It was a great win but Docherty had recently coached Porto so knew the opponents pretty well. For the final game he was up against Belgium, a very strong side that would eventually get to the European Championship final. Docherty gave a first cap to a young Celtic player called Kenny Dalglish and Scotland inflicted the only defeat on the eventual group winners.
After losing 2-1 to a Cruyff-led Holland in a friendly they should have at least drawn, Scotland then won three in a row before narrowly losing to England at Hampden. There was no doubt, however, that Scotland were on the right track and with the 1974 World Cup in Germany approaching, a sense of optimism, which had been missing during the 60s, re-appeared. A 2-0 win over Peru which featured the deadly trio of Cubillas, Chumpitaz and Murante who would haunt Ally McLeod at Argentina 78, set him up for the upcoming World Cup qualification.
Just before that, Scotland were invited to take part in the Minicopa, a tournament to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Brazilian independence. England had originally been invited but declined so Scotland stepped in. The 20-team tournament was actually bigger than the 16-team World Cup at that time and was split into two. Scotland were invited to join after the initial stages which included the likes of the Republic of Ireland and a CONCACAF select.
Some of the bigger European nations – England, Italy and West Germany – were missing but Argentina, France and Portugal were there. The complicated nature of the 2026 World Cup has nothing on the way the Minicopa was framed but it eventually boiled down to two groups of four with the winners contesting the final and the runners-up playing off for third place.
Scotland were drawn in a group with Brazil, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, all of whom would feature heavily in the story of the Scottish national team over the next few years.
Docherty was robbed of some of his key players as managers like Willie Waddell of Rangers refused to allow many to travel to South America in late June and early July, but he was undaunted. In a sign of Docherty’s new approach, unfashionable Partick Thistle provided three of the squad: Alex Forsyth, John Hansen, and Dennis McQuade as well as former Jag Jimmy Bone who had ben transferred to Norwich City just a couple of months earlier. Lou Macari, Martin Buchan, Willie Morgan, Asa Hartford, Willie Donnachie and a re-invigorated Law featured in sides captained by Billy Bremner.
Two draws against Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, the latter ending 2-2 thanks to a Buchan own goal in the 87th minute and a missed penalty by Morgan, left Scotland with a game against Brazil in the Maracana in front of 135,000 people. The hosts, who were already in the final, prevailed 1-0 courtesy of a Jairzinho goal eight minutes from time. Watch the few moments that are available on YouTube and Scotland don’t look out of place. They don’t create many chances but hold the ball like the Brazilians and the prompting of Bremner foretold the way the team would play over the next few years.
That experience helped cement the core of the team that would begin the qualification campaign for the 1974 World Cup.
In the autumn of 1972, Scotland started that campaign with two wins over Denmark – in those days one of the minnows. The 4-1 win in Copenhagen was, according to Docherty, the best performance under his management. The tough games, however, were to come against the only other side in the three-team group, Czechoslovakia. But as it turned out, Scotland would only need one win thanks to the Czechs drawing with the Danes in Copenhagen, and they would eventually get there without The Doc.
In December 1972, while attending a Manchester United game in which they lost 5-1 to Crystal Palace, Docherty was asked by Sir Matt Busby to take over, even though Frank O’Farrell was still in post. It was too good to turn down.
Docherty has since said he regrets the move. The money was better and Docherty’s head had been turned. With Scotland he had missed the day-to-day involvement with players and also thought the opportunity to manage a club like United wouldn’t come again, so barely 12 months after raising expectation levels and bringing back some optimism to the fledgling Tartan Army, the Doc was history.
It was Willie Ormond, who was as outward looking as a manager but much less flamboyant in personality, and not Docherty who will forever be associated with that wonderful September evening in 1973 at Hampden when Jim Holton and Joe Jordan scored the goals against the Czechs that took Scotland into the finals. Of course in West Germany, Scotland were the only unbeaten side, beating Zaire and drawing with Brazil and Yugoslavia before exiting on what would become the Scots’ preferred way to leave a World Cup finals: goal difference.
The team that took the field against Zaire in Dortmund for that first game was heavily influenced by Docherty.
David Harvey, Sandy Jardine and Kenny Dalglish had all been given their debuts by him. He’d brought Peter Lorimer and Law out of international exile. Holton was capped by Ormond but it was Docherty who had signed him for Manchester United from Shrewsbury. When you look at the other players who made their debuts during his Scotland reign – George Graham at the age of 27, Buchan, Macari, Donnachie, Hartford – and the players like Johnstone who he brought back, you can see that while he may have been in charge for just over a year but his influence extended far beyond that.
The 1974 finals marked the start of five consecutive appearances at World Cup finals for Scotland and a generation grew up expecting to compete with Brazil, Germany, Holland and the like on a regular basis. Although the record of never getting beyond the group stages still stands, the 19-year absence – and counting – that Scotland has endured since 1998 perhaps puts that period into perspective. What we regarded as frustrating back then should be seen with hindsight as a tremendous success.
And what would we give for one more chance to get back among the big boys? Now, our club sides are further away from the latter stages of European competition than ever and Scotland sits alongside Benin and Guinea-Bissau in the FIFA rankings. But in those heady days of the early 1970s, Tommy Docherty gave Scottish fans something to believe in, and for that alone we should always be thankful to ‘The Doc’.