One other night in Turin

Roxburgh, Leighton, Costa Rica, Conejo, Sweden, Müller, Taffarel . . . the story of Scotland and Italia 90.

By Mike Gibbons

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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The Scotsman published the mock-warning headline WARNING: COSTA RICA BEATABLE. Everyone thought they were; the team contained part-time farmers, bank clerks and petrol pump attendants. Costa Rica’s presence was partly applicable to Fifa controversially banning Mexico from the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers.
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However draining the season had been, the legs that the Scottish players found to run Sweden into the ground had seemed knotted by nervousness just days earlier against Costa Rica.

Right there, right then. Back in the epochal Italian summer of 1990 the World Cup was waking up from history. Italia 90 took place right in the middle of one of those fleeting phases where the world hoodwinks you into believing that everything is going to be okay. ‘It was before Iraq invaded Kuwait and after the Berlin Wall came down,’ said comedian Arthur Smith in the documentary The Crying Game in 1994. ‘All the teams that were supposed to be in the World Cup were there, no one had boycotted, so it was a sort of wonderful window of peacefulness. It was the end of history.’

Teams quickly set about making it. England, as has been mentioned elsewhere at length, came within a whisker of the final with a campaign that helped cause a sea change in their national game. Cameroon were a sensation in reaching the quarter-finals, the best run of any African team in history; the Republic of Ireland literally gave it a lash, long-balling their way to the same stage in their first ever World Cup; Colombia made it to the knockout rounds for the first time after a 28-year absence from the tournament. A good climate, then, for going above and beyond.

If Andy Roxburgh was going to see Scotland further, it would be after standing on the shoulders of not just giants but legends. When the Scottish Football Association’s head of coaching was appointed as Scotland manager in the summer of 1986, his toes touched down unsteadily near the heads of the two all-time greats: Jock Stein, who had guided Celtic to the European Cup and died in the Scotland job during qualification for Mexico 86; and Alex Ferguson, who took charge in the aftermath and had guided Aberdeen to the high peaks of Scottish and European football. Even with their CV’s they had failed to project the national side beyond the opening round of a World Cup, like everyone that had attempted it before them.

To say it was a big ask for Roxburgh to rebuild the Scotland team and take that giant leap in Italy four years later was a colossal understatement. He had never played above the level of the Scottish Football League, and his only managerial experience was with Scottish youth teams. While studiously attaining his coaching badges, he’d held down a job as a primary school teacher. At the 1986 World Cup he was busy doing technical studies for FIFA, when at half time during England’s quarter-final with Argentina a group of journalists joshed with him about the possibility of taking the role recently vacated by Ferguson. What seemed a light-hearted fantasy became a reality just weeks later; SFA secretary Ernie Walker vaulted Roxburgh into the biggest job in the country. ‘In one fell swoop,’ wrote Archie Macpherson in Flower of Scotland, ‘the SFA had altered the course of the national team management and presented a decent, intelligent and totally dedicated man with a task quite beyond him.’

The task included transition, and the departure of two truly great world class talents at Scotland’s disposal. Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness, player-managers at Liverpool and Rangers respectively, were soon gone. The talent pool beneath also took a hit. When Ferguson left Aberdeen to manage Manchester United in November 1986, the New Firm era ended soon after. Dundee United quickly faded after a heroic run to the 1987 UEFA Cup final, and Souness’ Rangers plus a resurgent Celtic resumed full control of the Scottish Premier League title. Amid all this upheaval, Roxburgh clattered into a hurdle that had in fairness proved insurmountable for any Scottish international manager before him; he failed to qualify for the European Championship in 1988, usurped by Jack Charlton’s rising force in the Republic of Ireland.

Vultures circled but the SFA secretary Ernie Walker, a staunch defender of Roxburgh, stood by his man. The next task of qualifying for Italia 90 took on a distinctly uphill feel, especially when Scotland were drawn in a group with Yugoslavia and France. The Yugoslavs were one of the game’s rising forces, but fortunately for Roxburgh he caught France in a transitional phase of their own. After finishing fourth and third in the previous two World Cups, a raft of retirements had debilitated a French side that had been one of the most thrilling of the decade. Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana had packed in, and Michel Platini was now the manager. The Carré Magique had disappeared, and Roxburgh landed a timely blow as the French were on their way down.

Scotland took nine points from the first ten available in the group. A 96th minute winner by Richard Gough away to Cyprus was later followed by a high octane 2-0 win over the French at Hampden Park in March 1989. Both goals that night were scored by Mo Johnston, who’d been abandoned in disgust by Ferguson before the 1986 World Cup after some high jinks before a qualifying play-off. Roxburgh took a punt on bringing him back, and was repaid with six crucial goals in the qualifying rounds. ‘When I took over this job Maurice had a reputation, and I was advised not to touch him with a barge pole,’ said Roxburgh after the campaign was done. ‘But I’ve known him since he was a boy and I ignored the advice. I think we have proved mutually beneficial.’

Scotland went on to make it to Italia 90, but it was a close-run thing; in their final three games, they were soundly beaten away to Yugoslavia and France and picked up the point they needed in their final match, a nervy 1-1 home draw with Norway. In the very last minute, a speculative long-range thwack from Erland Johnsen went through Jim Leighton to set up an anxious injury time. Scotland had made it though, and were presented with a whole different set of challenges for their Italian summer when the draw was made. They would play Costa Rica and Sweden in Genoa before a tie that was now taking on an octennial sense of destiny. The group would conclude with a trip to Turin to play Brazil.

Problems were stacking up for Roxburgh well before Scotland landed at Christopher Columbus airport in Genoa. The struggles at the end of qualifying formed part of a run where Scotland won only two games out of eight before the World Cup started – against Malta on the eve of the tournament and a wholly against form 1-0 win over world champions Argentina a few months earlier. During those games Scotland had managed to put through their own net an impressive four times. That was hardly going to do wonders for the confidence of Leighton. The howler against Norway was the start of a miserable 1989-90, where his form deteriorated so badly that Manchester United manager Ferguson dropped him for the FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace.

At least Leighton was fit. Davie Cooper and Steve Nicol were ruled out with injury before the squad was announced, and the vital Johnston only made it at the eleventh hour. He carried a torn stomach muscle into the tournament, one of several walking wounded that included Gary Gillespie, Alex McLeish, Stewart McKimmie, Craig Levein and Murdo McLeod. Another injury was dropped on Roxburgh after the squad was announced and it was too late to change it; Ally McCoist was so desperate to go to Italy that he kept a hamstring injury a secret from Roxburgh and the medical team. Yet the squad was still strong enough to leave Brian McClair, John Robertson and Alan Hansen at home. Even though the bookmakers ranked them as 66-1 outsiders, no one thought Scotland were likely to be inconvenienced by their first opponents.

Along with the United States and the United Arab Emirates, Costa Rica were widely considered to be the worst team in the competition and nailed on for three defeats. When they lost against Wales in warm-up matches before the tournament, The Scotsman published the mock-warning headline WARNING: COSTA RICA BEATABLE. Everyone thought they were; the team contained part-time farmers, bank clerks and petrol pump attendants. Costa Rica’s presence was partly applicable to FIFA controversially banning Mexico from the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers. With four third-placed teams from the six World Cup groups guaranteed to go through to the knockout phase, beating Costa Rica was a potential gateway to Scotland’s uncharted territory, and everyone knew it.

‘I believe that winning the opening game will be enough,’ Gough said beforehand. ‘A draw wouldn’t be a disaster, but a defeat would be regarded as a catastrophe by the entire country and have such a devastating effect on the players that we would not recover.’

The game, which Roxburgh had called ‘our World Cup Final’, was a nightmare that unfolded at painfully slow speed in the intimate Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris. In a press centre in Cagliari the author Pete Davies, taking notes for his seminal book All Played Out, saw the journalist Hugh McIlvanney being mocked by his English colleagues in the first half as they watched the game on television. ‘They’re fucking hopeless, just like we thought,’ groaned McIlvenney. The Scotland coaching staff had concluded that Costa Rica’s goalkeeper Luis Gabelo Conejo couldn’t cope with crosses. The strategy was therefore simple; start with big Alan McInally up front, and swing it in from out wide.

McInally, who was at Bayern Munich and had scored past AC Milan’s vaunted back four in a European Cup semi-final in April, had as miserable a day as anyone. Moreover, it turned out that Conejo, who played in the Costa Rican second tier, could cope with crosses and plenty more besides. He was voted man of the match, pulling off a string of brilliant saves that would ultimately lead to him being nominated as one of the best players at the World Cup by FIFA. Down at the other end, it took just one effort on target to seal one of the most numbing defeats in Scotland’s history. A slick move culminated when a back-heel by Claudio Jara released Juan Cayasso into Scotland’s area, who then lifted the ball over Leighton for the only goal of the game. Scotland still had 41 minutes to try and retrieve it but, faced with an inspired Conejo and the brutal afternoon sunshine, they wilted to defeat. The Scottish players slunk off with ‘What a load of rubbish!’ ringing in their ears.

A punishing period of introspection followed. Roxburgh repeatedly referred to Scotland’s 19-4 shot count like a mantra, but those statistics were as irrelevant in 1990 as they are now. There weren’t a set of numbers that could explain away a performance that, for all Conejo’s brilliance, was flat and riddled with anxiety. There was an argument that Scotland had over-thought it; Roxburgh had unsubtly played down expectations in the week leading up to the game. In one interview, he had said that the kick-off in Genoa was at ‘a Costa Rican kind of time.’ To cap a miserable week Gough picked up an injury and was sent home, while Johnston and Jim Bett hit the headlines for hitting the champers and allegedly breaching a curfew after the match. Back home, there were calls for Roxburgh to quit.

But the world and the World Cup keep on spinning, and Sweden landed in Scotland’s orbit in Genoa five days later. The Swedes had lost to Brazil in their first game, which only increased the stakes on the night. With the ante upped, Scotland beefed up. Levein replaced the injured Gough, and Bett, McInally and Paul McStay were bombed out of the side. In came Murdo McLeod, Gordon Durie and, on the right, a player that the RAI television titles in Italy listed as ‘Flack’.

Robert Fleck had been given his debut against Argentina earlier in the year, and was then quickly discarded. When Cooper pulled out of the squad on the eve of Italia 90, Fleck was summoned from his holidays in Yugoslavia with a specific task in mind. The first time that Swedish sweeper Glenn Hysen had ever seen Fleck’s face, he had been sent off for persistently fouling him on behalf of Liverpool in a game against Norwich in 1989-90. ‘He was fast and I was a bit late,’ Hysen remembered in the pre-match press conference, where he put on the mock chills of terror when Fleck’s name was mentioned. ‘Before I played him I did not know he was fast. So now I know.’ It formed part of a chippy build-up between the two camps in which Swedish coach Olle Nordin was particularly dismissive of his opponents, promising to ‘make life hell for Scotland.’

Unsurprisingly, there was tension in the tunnel. ‘Alex McLeish was growling at people,’ remembers Stuart McCall. ‘Big Roy Aitken was snarling at the other side. Even little Robert Fleck was eyeballing Liverpool’s Glenn Hysen, who looked more like a male model than a football player. It was intimidation and not ability as such that beat the Swedes.’ McCall had also made his debut against Argentina, and quickly became integral; Roxburgh summed him up as ‘controlled fire’. He was vital in such a game where, in a statistic that Roxburgh didn’t reference afterwards, Scotland committed twice as many fouls as their opponents as the game frequently threatened to go off.

McCall scored the opening goal, scrambling in a flicked-on corner that Fleck had won by stretching the Swedish defence out wide. The Swedes were one of the biggest let-downs of Italia 90, tipped with much nose-tapping from those who know as dark horses and then flopping miserably. Scotland’s victory was virtually sealed with ten minutes to go. Fleck, the bane of Hysen’s life that season, pulled the Swedish defence out of shape again on the right. He slid in Scotland’s captain Aitken, who was tripped over trying to latch onto the rebound from his initially saved shot. Johnston dispatched the resulting penalty. Of course, Sweden made it interesting; a hulking mass of hair and testosterone called Glenn Strömberg pulled one back in the dying minutes. Scotland just about held on to secure their fourth ever victory at a World Cup. The relief was palpable, and it was time for Guantanamera. ‘Do it the hard way,’ sang the Scotland fans at the end. ‘We always do it the hard way.’ Now it was time to do it the incredibly hard way.

‘Oh Christ, I think we’ve annoyed them,’ were Gordon Strachan’s thoughts when Scotland took the lead against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. They were then hosed down 4-1 by one of the greatest teams the game has ever seen. Yet Brazil’s failure to win that World Cup and the one that followed had since seen them stray from their faith. Although they rocked up to the 1990 World Cup as one of the hot favourites, and were the recently crowned South American champions, the Brazilians had adopted a more pragmatic approach in response to their disappointments of the eighties. They had adopted the garish European affectation of the sweeper system and their famed number 10 jersey, belonging here to Sporting Lisbon’s Silas, didn’t feature in any starting line-ups in Italy. Brazil were still a formidable side, and carried the intimidatory value of a reputation for breathtakingly skilful football won years before. 

Scotland and their fans trooped to Turin to sort out their fate. At the low-scoring Italia 90 the scramble for qualifying places in the final round of group games was incredibly complex, but if Scotland could hold Brazil to a draw they would almost certainly be through to the knockout rounds. There were even hopes that Brazil, who were already qualified, might get the cigars out for the evening and take it easy. The game was far from a stroll; the evening was brutally tense, and took place in the aftermath of an epic pre-match thunderstorm.

Roxburgh had wanted to play Levein as a sweeper to help control Brazil’s forwards, a plan nixed by injury in the days leading up to the game. With Gillespie only fit enough for the bench, Aitken dropped back to sweeper and McStay slotted back into midfield. Containment was not an unwise option; although Brazil’s approach play might have gone down a more prosaic route, the lethality of their forwards was undeniable. Careca had just won Serie A with Napoli, while PSV’s Romario arrived carrying a reputation as the next big thing despite only just making the tournament after breaking his leg three months earlier.

The rejigged plans were jiggered in the first half when Scotland formed a wall to get in the way of a Brazilian free-kick. ‘I had told Ally McCoist to swap places in the wall,’ McLeod said later, ‘and I would attack the ball.’ Instead, the ball attacked him. Brazil’s left-back Branco possessed a booming left foot and clanged his strike flush into McLeod’s head. It knocked him out instantly. After rounds of smelling salts and a foolhardy attempt to play on, the utterly disorientated McLeod was replaced by Gillespie. His final act was to almost head the ball into his own goal from a corner, from which he’d been preparing to wheel away in triumph believing he’d put Scotland ahead. ‘At one point I wasn’t even sure who we were playing against,’ McLeod said later. ‘It was the biggest night of my career and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing during most of it.’

Gillespie had to get with it immediately. Aitken returned to midfield so that he could drop into the sweeper position, but it was a risk. Gillespie’s hamstring problems meant he hadn’t played for three weeks, during which he’d been going through training drills in a swimming pool using a harness adapted from North Sea oil rigging technology. In the second half, a deft move from Brazil put Gillespie one on one with Romario, who left him standing. Leighton closed down the danger just in time. Yet Scotland were getting closer to their target; Sweden were one up against Costa Rica in the concurrent fixture in Genoa. As things stood, with only fifteen minutes left Scotland were directly through to the next round in second place.

That deteriorated quickly. Costa Rica equalized in virtually the same breath as Branco cleared a header from Aitken off Brazil’s goal line. While the group permutations were being calculated, disaster struck. A low, twenty-five yard wobbler from Alemão was saved by Leighton, who could only parry the shot straight back out in front of goal rather than out to the side. Careca reacted quicker than Gillespie, both of whom flew in at the ball along with the scrambling Leighton. The ball squirmed out of the melee like a bar of soap, popping up just a yard out from goal by the post. Müller, who had replaced the disappointing Romario, strolled calmly into shot for a simple tap-in. 

‘It was a soft goal,’ Roxburgh later reflected. Leighton booted the post in frustration, his harrowing club football nightmares having gone international. In Genoa, the incredible Costa Ricans went 2-1 ahead as events in Turin drifted into injury time. The last chance of the game fell to Scotland. McCall nodded down a long cross, Fleck had a swing and a miss and the ball broke to Johnston, six yards out. He caught the ball clean but Brazil’s goalkeeper Taffarel, channeling his inner Conejo, threw up a hand to pull off a miraculous reflex save and turn the ball over the bar.

‘First of all we have to be perfectly blunt and say that the better side won the match,’ Roxburgh conceded at the end. ‘But to lose it seven minutes from the end is hard for us to take, as you can imagine.’ Scotland finished third in Group C, on just two points and with a negative goal difference. They needed some big breaks the following day, and didn’t get any. Uruguay beat South Korea with an injury time goal to sneak out of Group E in third; a 1-1 draw played out by the Republic of Ireland and Holland saw them draw lots to qualify in second and third in Group F. The first round was over and it had claimed Scotland for the fifth time in a row, a nap hand of disappointments.

Costa Rica’s experiences at Italia 90 were eventually turned into a feature film; Scotland’s provoked an immediate inquest. Roxburgh had bluffed pre-tournament that has squad would be the fittest at the finals. ‘We didn’t come to this World Cup to work and train for it,’ he admitted when it was over. ‘We came to recover.’ Fingers were pointed at the draining SPL season, prompting suggestions to reduce the number of league fixtures from 36 t0 30. ‘Everybody knows the domestic programme is no help to the national team,’ said the SFA’s secretary Jim Farry, ‘and it is not encouraging the kind of skills we would prefer to watch and have at our disposal.’ By 1991-92 the number of league fixtures had risen to 44.

However draining the season had been, the legs that the Scottish players found to run Sweden into the ground had seemed knotted by nervousness just days earlier against Costa Rica. The campaign had followed a pattern that was all too familiar, particularly in the denouement. The error that led to Brazil’s goal, in the words of McIlvenney, ‘a blunder by their goalkeeper that was in keeping with a suicidal tradition.’ That it could have been rendered irrelevant but for a jaw-dropping save by Taffarel, custodian for a nation famous for producing goalkeepers that chuck them in, was an irony almost too cruel.

Italia 90 might have been eerily reminiscent for Scotland’s fans (20,000 of whom went to Italy, with no reported arrests), but it couldn’t have been further from the ordinary for Roxburgh. Facing the white heat of a World Cup as a manager for the first time, the experience had been draining. The hours of interviews, press conferences, medical consultations on injured players and agonizing over selection is a merciless treadmill, before you even get to sorting out the tactics to nick a point off Brazil. ‘None of this is meant to sound like bleating,’ Roxburgh said later. ‘The intensity of it all was quite a shock. There were times when I simply thought I would not get any sleep.’ It’s not just people in England that lie awake thinking about what might have been in Turin.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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