The ones that got away

No other country has anything like as poor a record as Scotland when it comes to clubs going out of Europe on away goals. Is it just bad luck, or is there something deeper going on here?

By Mark Poole

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

Almondvale Stadium, August 2002: Livingston are just about hanging on for a goalless draw against FC Vaduz from Liechtenstein in the Uefa Cup preliminary round second leg, when, on the stroke of full-time, Marius Zarn turns a corner into the net, giving the visitors a 2-1 aggregate lead. It seems like a typical Scottish hard-luck story. But there’s confusion, which is only cleared up when the referee confirms to Jim Leishman that he blew for full time seconds before the goal. The hard-luck story is turned upside down, the Vaduz players, their staff and the five travelling fans are incensed, and Livingston march on, on away goals, to the first round, where they lose 8-6 on aggregate to Sturm Graz.

It may have been jammy, but on that night Livi earned the only positive away goals record of any Scottish club.

Between them, Scottish clubs have played in 39 ties that were settled on away goals, but have only progressed 10 times: a 25.6% success rate. No other country has anything like as poor a record over anything like as many matches. Northern Ireland and Iceland’s clubs have progressed from 25% of their away goals ties, but that’s based on just 12 ties for each nation. The only other countries with comparable records are the Faeroe Islands, Liechtenstein and Kazakhstan, each across four or five ties. Of the 11 countries whose clubs have experienced away goals as often as Scotland, only one – England – has a success rate below 45%.

Dunfermline were the first ever club to go out of the Fairs Cup – the precursor to the Uefa Cup – on away goals and the second to go out of any European competition under the rule, losing to eventual winners Dinamo Zagreb in the second round in 1966. It was particularly galling for the Pars because their results against Zaragoza in the previous season would have put them through to the semi-final if the away goals rule had been in place then, but instead they lost after extra time in Asturias.

Rangers, Celtic and Dundee United have each lost two thirds of their away goals ties, while Aberdeen have lost five out of seven. Apart from Livingston, every other Scottish club has lost all of their away goals ties: St Johnstone once, Hibs, Motherwell and Dunfermline twice each, and Hearts three times. And that’s just in senior European competitions. Hibs have also gone out of the Intertoto Cup on away goals, against Odense Boldklub in 2006.

But is Scotland’s away goals woe significant? Or is it just luck? The luck has sometimes been good for Scotland’s clubs – and not just for Livingston – like when Celtic were beaten 4-1 away and 2-0 at home by Legia Warsaw in their Champions League qualifier in 2014/15 but the Poles briefly fielded an ineligible player in Glasgow, and Celtic were awarded a 3-0 victory, putting them through on away goals.

But the overall record for Scottish clubs on away goals is overwhelmingly unimpressive, and that is often more to do with tactics and ability than luck. The  familiar debate that plagues the away goals rule – and that informs demands for it to be withdrawn – is whether it encourages defensive play at home more than it encourages attacking play away. The existence of that debate demonstrates a simpler truth: that any team with the necessary pragmatism, tactics, talent, teamwork and confidence to successfully adapt their tactics to play defensively at home and attack away have a better chance of victory, while a lot of teams lose on away goals because they don’t adapt. Or can’t.

Celtic’s experiences across two away goals ties illustrate the importance of these qualities. When they knocked Celta Vigo out of the Uefa Cup on their way to the final in 2003, winning 1-0 at home then losing 2-1 away, it was with qualities that they often demonstrated under Martin O’Neill: confidence, teamwork and ability, which enabled them to keep it tight at home and nick a vital away goal.

But against Partizan Belgrade in 1989, it was Celtic’s defending at home – ‘suicidal’ according to Ian Paul in the Glasgow Herald – that sent them out of the Cup Winners’ Cup. With a minute left at the end of one of the most dramatic matches ever seen at Parkhead – Barry Davies said in the BBC commentary that you needed ‘a calculator to keep track of the score and a pacemaker to make sure you’re alright’ – they were leading 5-3 on the night, and 6-5 on aggregate, when Partizan broke forward and Slađan Šćepović – father of Stefan – grabbed the last-minute goal that knocked Celtic out on away goals.

Billy McNeill claimed after the match that any team that scores six goals in a tie ‘should certainly go through’, but Celtic had been far too open at the back throughout the game, when a 1-0 home victory would have taken them through.

But most Scottish away goals defeats have been more frustrating than dramatic. On the same night as Celtic’s fruitless 5-4 defeat of Partizan, Aberdeen lost 1-0 away to Rapid Vienna and went out of the Uefa Cup on away goals, after having won 2-1 at home. Out of Scottish clubs’ 29 defeats on away goals, 23 have come when our clubs have failed to score away from home.

Of course, there’s no shame in losing narrowly to high quality opposition. A lot of Scottish away goals defeats – especially up until the end of the 1980s – came against big European names, from Hamburg to Anderlecht, Porto, Borussia Monchengladbach, Feyenoord, Dukla Prague, Liverpool, Stuttgart and Villarreal. Losing by the narrowest margin against good teams fits the Scottish narrative of glorious defeat and perhaps we’re too often willing to accept it, while quality opponents’ main priority is always reaching the next round, even if it is just on away goals.

So what can Scotland’s European representatives learn from all of this in their qualifying ties this summer? It’s clear which tactics help clubs win on away goals and that it’s usually down to more than luck. It’s still a way of winning, even if it’s a draw, and shouldn’t be considered some sort of dark art. Tactics often need to be adapted during a game. A 1-0 home victory is a good result against a club of similar quality, and a 2-1 away defeat isn’t bad either. If you’re defending an aggregate lead at home in the last minute, don’t be afraid to run down the clock or park the bus. If you’ve won 2-1 or 3-2 at home, don’t try to sit on that lead away. The gap between glorious defeat and narrow victory is really a gulf.

And, finally, always know all the rules of the tournament, because Rangers were erroneously and briefly knocked out of the 1971/72 Cup Winners’ Cup by a referee who didn’t have a full grasp of the away goals rule. Having beaten Sporting Clube de Portugal 3-2 at Ibrox, Rangers went down by the same result in Portugal and the game went into extra time, during which each team scored once more. The referee ordered a penalty shoot-out. In a tense atmosphere in a passionate stadium, Rangers missed three of their first four spot kicks while Sporting scored all four of theirs. While the Portuguese players and fans celebrated, Rangers retreated, dejected, to their dressing room, until journalist John Fairgrieve came in to tell them that the away goals rule still applied in extra time. Manager Willie Waddell went to find a Uefa official and the mistake was overturned. It was the first time that a Scottish club had won a tie on the away goals rule. Three rounds later, Rangers lifted the trophy.

Like the referee, Willie Waddell and presumably all of his players had been blissfully unaware of the precise rules. Which begs a mischievous question: if Rangers had known that the draw would put them through, could they still have secured it? How would they have coped with the tension? Maybe – as well as too often struggling to score away from home or adapt our tactics and being too fond of a glorious defeat – there’s something in the Scottish psyche that means our clubs find it particularly hard to cope with the pressure of defending the narrowest of leads, when a draw is no longer a possibility and one goal is the difference between victory and defeat.

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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