Football’s ‘It’s A Knockout’

The Home Championships were as quintessentially Seventies as Porridge, Are You Being Served and The Sex Pistols.

By Gordon Cairns

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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Despite England’s comparative superiority, the event was ultra-competitive; the eventual winners only finished the tournament with a perfect record on three occasions during this period. Each team was capable of winning points on any given day, perhaps due to the familiarity of playing styles.
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When Umbro modified their template to give teams their version of Adidas with diamonds instead of stripes, the competition gave Scotland a jump start on club sides such as Everton, making Scotland the first team to wear the iconic design.

For just over a decade that neatly overlapped the 1970s, the British Home Championship was converted into a competition that was perfect in its compact unfussiness. The world’s oldest, international football tournament – it began when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom – was wrapped up in a week with a keen competitive edge as four teams, familiar with each other’s playing style, took part in a league format to win a rare thing in international football: an actual trophy. The simplicity extended to the kits as the teams very rarely changed from their traditional home jerseys. And so year after year, like warring factions in Medieval Tuscany, four bold colours faced off; the Greens against the Reds against the Blues against the Whites. The one concession to modernity was that Northern Ireland or Scotland would sometimes wear either green or blue shorts, for those watching at home in black and white.

For a kid getting into football, it was perfect in its brevity, timing and accessibility. It was broadcast live on TV during the first warm optimistic days of spring when the blackbirds sang at twilight and you could stay out later at night and replay the matches down the park. That the 1970s were peak Scotland – the last time we were the pre-eminent team in the UK – cannot have been a coincidence in the warm glow this tournament is held in my affections. Across the middle of a decade that featured two World Cups exclusively ours, plus properly heroic stars in McQueen, Dalglish and Jordan, Scotland defeated England in three matches out of four, winning the competition twice. And while entrance to the international tournament might be considered the greater achievement today, at the time both World Cup campaigns of ‘74 and ‘78 were considered failures as we didn’t progress from the group stage, giving our home successes even greater significance. Our superiority over England now seems quaint. The programme for the 1976 game at Hampden listed Scotland’s 36 wins against England’s 34 with the headline: ‘England are creeping up!’ By 1980, the list was printed without a headline. In the last 30 years, Scotland have only beaten England once.

But this sense of simplicity is at odds with the official history: an unloved competition marred by threats of terrorism, pitch invasions and underlying tensions and abandoned as soon as possible. As early as 1974, the ‘Encyclopedia of British Football’, edited by Martin Tyler and Phil Soar, dismissed the Home Internationals as obsolete, irrelevant and “a tired anti-climax to the season”. For England and Scotland “It had become a duty, like spending Christmas with relations.”

Footage of Northern Ireland against England at Windsor Park, Belfast in 1977 belies the Encyclopedia’s dismissive comments. The game was played in the early summer of God Save the Queen and punk (although as the Sex Pistols singled was banned by Radio 1, for me it was the summer of Do Anything You Wanna Do by Eddie and the Hot Rods) in front of 35,000 fans crammed so tightly together on the terraces that any slight rippling movement, such as removing the cellophane from a cigarette packet, must have caused breakers up the banks of supporters.

Scores of others were on the stadium roof waving Red Hand of Ulster flags while sporadic outbursts of violence and bottle throwing punctuated the game. Disconcertingly it seems fans, sporting massive collars and impressive moustaches, wishing to move around the ground had to do so pitch-side, adding to the sense that a major incident was imminent. In the days before luminous jacketed stewards, it’s hard to tell if any were present. On the pitch, the home nation had five Manchester United players with Pat Jennings in goal. Gerry Armstrong, the hero of the 1982 World Cup, was replaced at half time by a young Martin O’Neill, then with Norwich City, in a compelling match won by England with a late goal by Dennis Tueart.

This contrast between the memory of how a quintessentially 1970s event – the footballing equivalent of the weekly television game show It’s a Knockout – was experienced and how it was regarded by the authorities is perhaps best illustrated through how the new briefer format came about. It was created through necessity rather than design at the beginning of the 1970s after running for nine decades in a more elongated fashion, being used for World Cup and European Championship qualification after World War Two. This method of qualifying was abandoned after 1968; Scotland’s iconic Wembley victory in 1967 was part of a final failed attempt to get through to the European Championship by this method. At the time the all-powerful English League had an agreement with the FA to limit the national team to only four games during the season, a figure which wouldn’t get you past October in today’s busy international calendar, and these four matches would be needed for qualifying matches. The domestic tournament had to go. However Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales successfully fought this decision and so the competition was stuck onto the end of the season.

At the time, the Welsh and Irish organisations received three-quarters of their income from the Home Internationals and there was a very real fear that these football associations would fold without the gate and TV money. They were initially unhappy with the end-of-season compromise but were promised that English League teams would not block the release of their players as had happened in the past. At the time only the English national team could veto a club’s attempts to block a call-up, but as almost every Welsh and Northern Irish player played for an English club and at least half of the Scotland team would regularly be drawn from across the border, this increased England’s advantage in the tournament.

Despite England’s comparative superiority, the event was ultra-competitive; the eventual winners only finished the tournament with a perfect record on three occasions during this period. Each team was capable of winning points on any given day, perhaps due to the familiarity of playing styles. The majority of victories were claimed by England, beating the Irish eight times, Scotland seven and the Welsh on five occasions. The Welsh and Irish defeated each other four times a piece while Scotland beat Northern Ireland six times, against four Irish victories, and five victories over the Welsh.

This level playing field is best illustrated by Northern Ireland in 1972; they defeated England at Wembley for only the second time since the war then went on to lose to Scotland before drawing with Wales, finishing a poor third. George Best, who had an uneasy relationship with the tournament, missed this famous victory, having announced his first retirement from football. In April 1970 the flawed genius was sent off against Scotland for throwing mud at the referee, frustrated at the lack of protection from Eric Jennings, and this physicality was present throughout the decade. Six years later at Hampden in a comfortable 3-1 victory for the Scots over the Welsh, Derby County’s Archie Gemmill went right through his doppelganger in red, Terry Yorath, players who matched each other in lack of hair but in excess of hardness. He left the Welsh captain lying prone on the turf around the half-way line. When the Welshman bounced up to remonstrate, Gemmill put his hand in Yorath’s face and shoved him back down. Meanwhile the Tartan Army sang “Nice one Archie”.

This win against Wales in 1976 was part of Scotland’s first victorious British Championship campaign since 1967. The story of that Wembley success may well have been defined by Jim Baxter but the victory over England in 1974 was down to a more influential performance by another Jim, Johnstone, which has never been celebrated in the same terms. Johnstone was not the one-dimensional jinking stereotype he is sometimes remembered as, but playing as a number 10, and ably supported on his right by Peter Lorimer, his momentum and link up work controlled Scotland’s play in the final third. Never noted for introspection, England defender Emlyn Hughes recalled: “I was embarrassed to come off the pitch. Jimmy Johnstone absolutely crucified me.”

Scotland’s 2-0 defeat of England at Hampden was the first since that more famous result yet had been approached with surprising trepidation. In his match report in the Glasgow Herald, Ian Archer wrote: “Rarely in the whole series has one match against the English been preceded with so much introspection as this latest little war game.” Unlike Baxter whose desire was to humiliate the opposition on the pitch, Johnstone’s opponents sat behind typewriters in the press box, who had pilloried him through the back and front pages in the days leading up to this match after being cast adrift on a boat without oars after a ‘team bonding’ session down in Largs. Perhaps this disciplined, unselfish performance was inspired by the wish to contradict the public image of a man cast adrift from his team-mates. As he left the field, he “gestured to the press box” in the words of commentator Brian Moore, mouthing a two-worded epithet. Sadly, this was one of his last games for his country; he didn’t play in West Germany in the following month’s World Cup.

The following season’s rematch highlighted the unpredictability of the competition. Scotland suffered the biggest defeat of any team during this decade, a 5-1 thrashing, yet still finished in equal second place overall. The side was definitely weakened due to the large number of players involved in Leeds United’s European Cup final clash with Bayern Munich four days later. Six Scots played in Paris, including first-team regulars Billy Bremner, Lorimer and Joe Jordan, but the biggest loss was that of goalkeeper David Harvey, who had been injured in a car crash a few months earlier. Harvey was replaced by Rangers’ keeper Stewart Kennedy, whose performance was so poor it followed him around for the rest of his career in Scotland’s lower divisions and became the punch-line of a time-related playground joke: ‘Five past Kennedy’. While English commentator David Coleman might have tried to remain neutral in his analysis of the match, I think we can assume he enjoyed the wordplay the goals allowed him. For the first: “No wonder he looks disgusted, he never even moved.” The second goal arrived two minutes later announced by Coleman’s metaphor: “He must have lost his geography” while Kennedy slithers down the post. After each goal, Kennedy became Scotland’s very own Marcel Marceau, miming a different version of ‘abject despair’.

By 1976, Kennedy was replaced by a keeper who had never played top flight football before: Alan Rough, the fifth number one in as many seasons for the tournament. Another player from an unfashionable club, Willie Pettigrew of Motherwell, also played in two of the fixtures, scoring against Northern Ireland. He then disappeared from international football at the age of 22 with a record of played five, won five, scoring two goals. Scotland’s perfect record in this tournament was no doubt aided by playing all three games at Hampden Park, due to the troubles in Northern Ireland. In fact, the match where Best was sent off in 1970 was the only game between the sides that was played in Belfast in the entire decade, although England and Wales both played at Windsor Park on a number of occasions over the same time span. From a distance of 40 years it is easy to be sceptical. Were Scottish players in greater danger from a terrorist attack than other British players, or was the threat used for our sporting advantage? Is it fair to add the SFA were happy for Scotland to play in the National Stadium of Santiago in Chile in 1977 where political prisoners had been tortured four years previously?

Of course the political machinations which are part of the official history of the tournament were not part of my memory of matches watched in the living room with my brothers. The match against England always fell on the few occasions when both my parents worked on Saturday, which coupled the excitement of the match with the anticipation of getting dinner from the chip shop with a bottle of Strike Cola. But 1976 was different, as my eldest brother drummed for the Glasgow Battalion of The Boy’s Brigade who provided the pre-match entertainment. To know someone who was actually there was deeply impressive to my nine-year-old self.

When Kenny Dalglish put the ball through Ray Clemence’s legs for Scotland’s winner that year, Coleman’s commentary sounds far more sympathetic towards the keeper than with Kennedy the season before: “One can only feel despair for Ray Clemence.” This was Dalglish’s sixth goal in the competition and he would score another three in 1977, giving him nine goals in his first 14 Home International matches. After joining Liverpool later that summer he played in a further 12 matches in the series but didn’t score again. Did he feel he had more to prove as a home-based Scot against players from the rest of the country?

Modernity came to Scotland this same long hot summer in the form of a row of diamonds on a sleeve. The Scotland jersey didn’t even have a manufacturer’s logo until 1975, yet this was the decade when branding entered wider culture, partly on the back of the 1974 World Cup. Yugoslavia drew with Scotland wearing a now classic blue Adidas jersey with two white stripes and one red down the sleeve. More parochially, the home nations used British manufacturers and the Home Internationals were one of the first televised occasions where British teams wore shirts redesigned to incorporate the kit manufacturer’s logo or design. When Umbro modified their template to give teams their version of Adidas with diamonds instead of stripes, the competition gave Scotland a jump start on club sides such as Everton, making Scotland the first team to wear the iconic design. England’s Admiral jersey with red and blue trim on the sleeves was introduced in 1974 after the appointment of Don Revie, who brought in the manufacturer from his old club, Leeds United. The jerseys outlasted the manager by four years, not being altered until 1980. It was the Welsh jersey where Admiral got most radical, copying Coventry City’s tramlines design in yellow and green on a red background. The contrast between the elegant design and the tough moustachioed Welsh hard men with flopping spaniel ears haircuts who wore it, encapsulates the era when larger numbers of men attempted to break out of the straightjacket of masculinity.

Shortly before the 1977 competition, Willie Ormond resigned to take over at Hearts, apparently because the SFA wanted a more forceful and charismatic manager to contain player indiscipline – such as the events at Largs – in place of quiet competence. He was replaced by Ally MacLeod who began by acting in a stereotypically Ally MacLeod manner before his first match in charge, against Wales. He announced to the press that of a Welsh team packed with experienced English first division players, he had heard only of Derby County’s Leighton James. After a 0-0 draw, Yorath, now of Coventry City commented: “Perhaps he will know some of our names now, and not be so ignorant.” Yet MacLeod’s statement might not have been braggadocio but actual ignorance, not in the sense of rudeness that Yorath implied. After watching Nottingham Forest beat Manchester United 4-0 the following season in their run to a league title, MacLeod stated he wanted to take all of their eligible players to Argentina. A local photographer hired four kilts for Kenny Burns, John Robertson, Gemmill and John McGovern for a group shot with Brian Clough. However the image was unsellable when McGovern wasn’t selected. “McGovern’s Scottish?” MacLeod replied when the snapper telephoned to complain, not realising the player who became the only Scot to lift the European Cup twice as captain was  from Montrose.

In the light of later events, it tends to be forgotten just how successful MacLeod’s first year in charge was, crowned by victories at Anfield and Wembley. After the first away defeat of England in 10 years, he said: “Maybe I should quit now, that’s three games without defeat and the championship. Probably the wise thing would be to go back to Aberdeen and ask for my old job at Pittodrie.”

This match has created two lasting images in my mind, from memory and then history. I have a fantastically vivid colour snapshot in my mind of Gordon McQueen rising into the sunshine, higher than the crossbar, his boots at shoulder height of the English defence stuck on the verdant green turf, to head in Asa Hartford’s cross for Scotland’s opening  goal. Equally I see the black and white image of fans cracking this same crossbar, used as propaganda to either show the crazy antics of the Tartan Army or as a grim image of Scotland’s hooligan shame. The after-match media coverage must have inspired Mark E. Smith of The Fall to write the NWRA, where he imagines Scotland fans as an invading Northern army against the South:

‘The streets of Soho did reverberate,

With drunken Highland men

Revenge for Culloden dead

The North had rose again’

In the same interview quoted earlier, MacLeod had added ominously that bad times were still to come and while he saw out 1977 without defeat, Scotland seemed to grow collectively old in 1978, winning only two more matches under MacLeod. Players in their 30s such as Willie Johnstone, Bruce Rioch and Don Masson who had excelled only one year previously didn’t have the legs for another campaign. The manager was either too loyal or just not proactive enough to immediately replace them with Robertson, Gemmill and Graeme Souness. He then used the 1978 edition of the Home Internationals to work out what his best line up was, with eight changes between the first and second game, weeks before the World Cup opener against Peru. By comparison, in the 1974 competition, Willie Ormond used just 17 players in total – the team lining up against England took on Zaire with only one change.

The final few seconds of the game against Wales foreshadowed what was to be a gloomy summer. With Scotland ahead due to Derek Johnstone’s second goal in as many games, Scotland survived a Welsh penalty rattled against the post and then allowed time to run down passing between defenders and keeper Jim Blyth, at a time when the goalkeeper was still allowed to pick the ball up. Then with no Welsh player in view Willie Donachie clipped the ball neatly into his own net. The keeper was so far from the ball he barely moved towards it. As a forewarning, it was Shakespearean.

The optimism of the mid-1970s was slowly dissipating, not helped by a wet spring. This was my last term at primary school, and perhaps my anxiety of future school uniforms and school dinners rather than coming home for lunch to listen to the radio made Scotland’s failings even more unbearable. I must admit at this point, my obsession with this competition began to wane, to be replaced by an obsession with music.

My favourite song about the 1970s – actually the only song I know of about that decade – is The Osmonds by Denim. The lead singer Lawrence, who was originally from Birmingham, lists all the things he remembers about that time, such as ‘chopper bikes, Oxford bags and kung fu fights’. But in the midst of this cultural reverie he recalls ‘There were lots of bombs, they blew my home town up.’ The sense of being drawn up short listening to the song is exactly how I felt when terrorism intruded into the Home Internationals, causing it to be cancelled in 1981. Scheduled to run between the 16th and 23rd of May, with Wales and England due to play at Windsor Park, on the 1st of March IRA prisoner Bobby Sands began a hunger strike in the Maze Prison in an attempt to be recognised as a political prisoner before dying on the 5th of May. He was to be followed by 10 other hunger strikers. Ten days before the football tournament was due to begin 600 extra British troops were sent into the province, while a woman collecting census forms and two Protestants driving a milk float were murdered.

The previous summer the English national team were granted an unusual Downing Street reception before they took part in the European Championships in Belgium. The national press published a picture taken on the steps of Number 10, as both Kevin Keegan and Emlyn Hughes, bedecked in their England blazers and grey slacks, kiss Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Keegan is the bolder, actually laying lips on the Thatcher cheek, while Hughes air kisses. In the centre of the shot, Thatcher holds a football as if was a handbag someone had defecated in. For many in Ireland, Thatcher was toxic and this association with the national team would have almost certainly made the risk of an unprotected England team running out onto a pitch in Belfast too great to take.

The tournament limped on for a further two years, reverting to its pre-1970s format of the first games being played in February, before being put down. Every so often there is the call for the return of the competition, but like updated versions of Porridge, Are You Being Served and the Sex Pistols, things of the past are best left where they remain.

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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