It was the look on my pal’s face that I remember most. I must have been about 11, at my first Scotland game, getting my first autograph on my first programme. Scrawled and unreadable, already smudged, hastily scribbled on a picture over the chest of Daniel Passarrella holding the cup aloft, it was still unmistakably Asa Hartford’s autograph. The midfield dynamo, the hole-in-the heart guy. The perm. I was overjoyed. I pushed my way back through the chaos outside the main entrance at Hampden, where my mate stood gawping. To my mind, he saw me as his hero for the day.
“What have you just done?”
I held my prize aloft, making that cheering crowd noise as I ran around him,
“Naw, seriously. You’ve just barged past Diego Maradona.”
When I looked back, bubble well and truly burst, the chance to get the golden ticket of Maradona’s autograph was lost forever. Asa Hartford seemed tiny and insignificant in his Gola trackie, quietly entering the stadium unnoticed by anyone but me. Shrinking like a salted snail, my pal’s laughter following me around for the rest of the day, I couldn’t care less what the score was.
Less than a year after they’d ‘won’ their own World Cup, Argentina came to Glasgow to show us how it was done. Maradona had been too young for that tournament but was already the player he’d go on to be. Quite simply the best player I would ever see in the flesh. You can still see highlights on YouTube.
Argentina ’78 had been my first big World Cup and the chance to see much of the winning team in the flesh was unmissable. I remember the ’74 Scotland games but nothing much more. The terrors of ’78 live with me still. The terrors of every World Cup involving Scotland live with me still.
I could just about remember Germany ’74. On the night of Billy Bremner’s miss against Brazil we were selling our house in Glasgow and on the verge of moving out to East Kilbride. I cried that night. For various reasons. But Argentina was devastating. From King Kenny’s beautiful, graceful glancing header at Anfield to the newspaper images of Willie Johnston’s despair, Ally McLeod’s head in his hands, the whole experience may have scarred me for life.
Thirty-five years later, I found myself leafing through some old boxes in that house in East Kilbride, cardboard boxes filled with another life. Amongst the old copies of Roy of the Rovers and school jotters, I came across a scrapbook, from Boots the Chemist, filled with memories of Scotland’s next stab at the World Cup. Spain ’82. The corners beginning to turn, the tape used for the newspaper clippings now dried and loose, it’s very possible I hadn’t looked at it since the day after Marco Tardelli’s famous run.
And it’s an amazingly beautiful thing.
Four years on from Argentina, I was 15, the world’s worst paper boy, and I, apparently, after completing disappointing Highers at school, had the time and resources to complete a whole scrapbook of World Cup clippings. Starting from the team’s relaxed departure from Glasgow Airport, heading for a pre-tournament friendly against Torralto – a crushing 9-1 win with both Graeme Souness and Steve Archibald scoring hat-tricks – to the closing page with Dino Zoff holding up the trophy, it is an amazing wee archive.
But what struck me most was that Spain ’82 was different to our other World Cup attempts in that we started off very well. No disappointing wins over Zaire; disasters against Peru; even dull disappointment against Denmark and Costa Rica. Alex Cameron called Gordon Strachan the ‘Maestro of Malaga’ as we horsed New Zealand 5-2. Sombreros aplenty, the Tartan Army took to the streets of Spain, optimism flowing. Two ‘stupid, crippling goals’ could be forgotten for a while, even though they appeared as a shadowy background to the celebrations.
The same copy of the Daily Record would predict an easy win for West Germany over Algeria; unknown to all of us, their defeat would lead to one of the stories of the tournament.
That Strachan would steal the show shouldn’t have been a surprise. He was one of only three Scottish League players in a team packed full of stars from the top league in England. Danny McGrain had won the league with Celtic and Alan Rough had played his last full season for Partick Thistle as they were relegated. Aberdeen had just won the Scottish Cup, hammering Rangers 4-1; it would be an indication of what was to come in the next few years, with Strachan at the heart of it all. But there is little doubt that this was a great Scottish team; perhaps our last great side. Led by the hugely popular Jock Stein, our players went into the tournament with a realistic confidence; appearances on Top of the Pops alongside John Gordon Sinclair and Christian made them household names. Yes, we had a dream, but after the trials of Argentina, we kept it to ourselves.
As for Argentina, the holders would have a traumatic time in many ways. The arrival of Maradona on to the world stage held much hope: unfortunately, they lost the opening game of the tournament to Belgium on June 13, a match the TV bosses refused to show live. Perhaps they had other things on their minds, though. The following morning, Argentina would surrender to the UK to bring an end to the Falklands conflict. It was the first time I became aware of politics and the World Cup had brought it to my attention.
Despite all the disappointments we’ve experienced in the World Cup, it might be something of a contradiction to say that our greatest disappointment may come in games we actually win. Not Peru or Costa Rica or Morocco; perhaps losing two goals to New Zealand was just as damaging; perhaps failing to score more than two against Zaire in ’74 proved more fatal. Being 3-1 up, even for a short while, against Holland in ’78 was just a tease; more recently, 2-0 at home to Malta in qualifying. Disappointing victories often overshadow honourable defeats.
The fading headlines in my scrapbook told a tale of one such honourable defeat to Brazil: ‘No Disgrace, ‘Scotland’s Brave Show’, and ‘Super – For Just 45 Minutes. It was 1-1 at half-time, and those who remember David Narey’s ‘toe-poke’ may find it difficult to remember a better goal outside of Archie Gemmill’s. When I recall that moment all my grey hair disappears, I’m 15 again and screaming with delight, jumping on the sofa and hugging anyone who’s nearby. The collective joy, the relief, the payback for ’78; all wrapped up in one David Narey screamer.
That it only lasts fifteen minutes is irrelevant now. It was a beautiful fifteen minutes.
For that short time, leading the great Brazilians, top of the group and cruising, it was, perhaps, the greatest quarter of an hour in our national team’s history.
Even at that young age, I knew that it couldn’t and wouldn’t last. What
followed was such a complete dismantling that we couldn’t help but stand back and enjoy the show. Alex Cameron reported: “Few teams in the world –
if indeed any at all – would have lived in such a cauldron,’’ with a Brazilian team who wouldn’t it make past the quarter finals. It was brutal and beautiful; agonising and awe-inspiring.
There are times in our footballing lives when even when our team is being taken apart that any criticism becomes irrelevant; we can recognise art; we can recognise the best of the best. And this was one of those moments. We would feel bad in the morning. We would be faced with a tough last game against Russia. But Brazil were wonderful that night.
It seems inconceivable now that Dave Narey’s Dundee United were just a year away from winning the league, separating Aberdeen’s trophy laden seasons. Fans today could only imagine what a Scotland without the behemoth Old Firm hoovering up every trophy would be like. But it was real. And those guys played alongside Dalglish, Souness and Hansen from Liverpool; Steve Archibald who would move on to Barcelona; European Cup winner John Robertson of Nottingham Forest; John Wark of UEFA Cup winners Ipswich; Asa Hartford – ASA (I’ve got his autograph) HARTFORD!!!
And for a time, they led Brazil.
Our recent failure to qualify for Russia 2018 is a cruel reminder that we live in different times and, while it is unfair to compare teams from completely different generations, we can only look back at that team against Brazil and drool. We all knew them, everyone knew them, and, as nation we sat down with hopes and dreams of success at a world level. Of course, we might do that again if we ever qualified but that seems a remote possibility. How many of that 1982 World Cup squad are legends? How many of our recent squad will be? Could it be described as our last golden age?
Despite that, Russia thrashed New Zealand without conceding and we needed to beat them. England were cruising through the early rounds, Argentina were impressive and would go on to eliminate Brazil and Northern Ireland would qualify after beating the hosts, Spain.
The ’82 tournament also featured one of the great shocks in World Cup history: West Germany had been the favourites but lost to Algeria. The staggering scoreline is reflected in the odds before the match. Algeria were 20-1 against and West Germany were 9-1 on! What happened next is equally shocking. The Germans needed to beat Austria to go through; any more than one goal of a difference and Algeria would qualify in place of the Austrians. West Germany scored early on and the rest of the game was played out at walking pace. It was embarrassing. Algeria were cheated. The 15-year-old me was outraged. I was becoming increasingly aware of the links between football and politics.
Algeria protested and demanded that both teams be thrown out of the tournament but, of course, that would never have happened.
When I first reached out to pick up my scrapbook, a clipping of a photo from the Daily Record slipped out. Willie Miller on his backside, John Robertson with his head in his hands, Frank Gray looking to the linesman. On the reverse side, a news report claimed that Jock Stein may be about to join Motherwell as manager. The script seems too obvious this time around.
Russia, tipped to go far in the tournament, were outplayed for an hour. A Joe Jordan goal and a ferocious pounding of the Russian defence saw us totally in control. Then the inevitable: the equaliser; the collision between Hansen and Miller that led to their second; the final, heroic fight to the end and Souness making it 2-2. It would never be enough.
Ken Gallagher in the Daily Record: “But this was not the same as the shaming retreats from Argentina. Hundreds of Scottish supporters waited outside the ground to give the team an emotional farewell.”
A great team who fell agonisingly close to the finish line. Since then, I recall a great night out to watch us beat Sweden in Italy and a celebratory tournament opening against Brazil, but there has been little World Cup cheer. Qualification seems ever further away. It would be a tragedy if young fans never got the chance to see us participate in a World Cup. It became the norm for many of us and kindled in us a love for our national team which never goes away.
But, lest we forget: I firmly believe that the squads of ’74, ’78 and ’82 were genuinely great teams. They were undoubtedly world class, and were peppered with big names on the world stage. We should have been doing better than we were; we should have been in the latter stages of World Cups. And, if we had, how much would that Asa Hartford-autographed programme be worth now?