How 1978 changed me

Following Scotland’s fortunes in Argentina as a nine-year-old taught me a lot, both about football and about life.

By Bernard Thompson

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

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Scotland had, in fact, comfortably beaten the European Champions, who themselves had overcome those same West Germans to take the title, only a year before. Did that make Scotland better than Czechoslovakia? Apparently so. And better than the World Champions?
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Re-watching the action doesn’t get any easier; in fact it may be worse. With the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, the sheer ineptitude of Scotland’s play is more easily identified, bringing with it the sort of wincing reactions that can only come with recollections of harsh lessons.

“We’re on the march with Ally’s Army,

We’re going to the Argentine.

And we’ll really shake them up,

When we win the World Cup.

Cos Scotland are the greatest football team.”

I regret to say that I remember nothing of the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany. I cringe to think what I must have been doing. Crashing cars on my bedroom floor, most probably, while my more-developed five-year-old peers were applauding Bremner, Jardine, McGrain and Scotland’s heroism in leaving Germany unbeaten after three matches. However I distinctly remember singing, “Yabba-dabba-doo – we support the boys in Blue and it’s easy. Easy!”

All I really “knew” of the West Germany finals was that the Dutch were the good guys, shamefully beaten by the unsporting hosts. Today, I don’t agree. Many things change with time, a better-informed perspective and evolving sentiments but I hope I have matured some and learned a little about football and about life.

The World Cup in Argentina, four years later, was an entirely different experience for me. My imperfect memories are vivid, painful, and confused, though surprisingly accurate, as I pore over the facts of what I thought I had known and often wished that I had not.

Like an old scar that occasionally catches my eye when I look in the mirror, the intervening years have made the more distant causal events seem less real – like a naively-written TV drama from the 1970s. Something like the Six Million Dollar Man: gripping at the time, to my nine-year-old mind, but now more an improbably-contrived work of farce.

 

A late awakening

My full awakening to the international game came in 1977. England 1, Scotland 2. Goals from Gordon McQueen, ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish and some English guy (Mick Channon – penalty).

Wembley was packed to the gunnels with Scottish fans, several of whom had been celebrating in the Trafalgar Square fountains in a manner in which I would have understood to be impolite. It seemed the stadium was filled with Scots, which was largely true, as the complaints from the then Minister for Sport Denis Howell confirmed: “The match might as well have been played at Hampden Park and there would have been far fewer problems.

“It seems that all the tickets found their way to Scotland – it was difficult to find a single Englishman there.”

The “problems” Howell referred to were the pitch invasion, the dancing, climbing onto the crossbar, which collapsed under the weight of exuberant men in tartan and flares, swinging lager cans. Removing those same goalposts from the stadium along with a sizeable proportion of the hallowed turf. Bringing bloody mayhem and vulgar “get-it-right-up-yis” to respectable living rooms across the UK.

To me, it was raucous, innocent fun. My gleeful eyes had been opened to everything football could be and I wanted it all. I had fallen.

Like an unfortunate gambler, lucky on his first night in a casino but thereafter forever cursed. I was hooked on football, drunk on its possibilities. To excite, to let rip, to be out of control, to be better than them – whoever they may be – and shove it right in their faces like a custard pie. I was yet to experience true disappointment in life. It was not yet June 1978.

Though few would have guessed it when the domestic season ended, 1978 would be a year of seismic changes in Scottish football. On the club scene, Rangers secured their second domestic treble in three seasons, prompting their manager Jock Wallace to leave for reasons that were never fully explained and be replaced by his retiring captain John Greig.

Celtic reacted to the success of Rangers by unceremoniously dumping their legendary boss Jock Stein and replacing him with his own former captain Billy McNeill, whose Aberdeen side had been pipped at the post by Rangers in the 1977-78 season.

The Dons turned to a promising young manager, conveniently sacked by St Mirren, with notions of challenging the Glasgow clubs’ long-established dominance of the game, declaring Pittodrie to have been “set up for success”. Alex Ferguson was yet to sucker-punch Scottish football.

All of these changes took place over what the Glasgow Herald’s Ian Paul described as “ten days of wonder”, while at Tannadice, an unsmiling, laconic Jim McLean, apparently obsessive in all his football beliefs, was quietly building a team from a club that was deemed to belong among the also-rans.

I had become vaguely aware of some of these events through Sportscene, Scotsport, Grandstand and World of Sport. On radio, it was the slowly-delivered, considered words of Bob Crampsey and the educated telephone-voice of David Francey, with nasal after-match comments by Jimmy ‘Were you at the game?’ Sanderson.

I lived less than two miles from Hampden, but I was never taken to games. However football radio commentary had unique qualities, which I did not yet understand beyond the confusion of hearing, “It’s a goal!”, after a momentary lapse in concentration and trying to balance my invigoration with the need for caution as I waited for the crowd noise to die down so I could hear which net the ball had entered.

Radio, I learned, could be a much more powerful visual medium than TV or radio. Every listener creates the images they most desire. Crampsey and Francey did much to persuade me that football was a far more exciting game than anyone enjoying blanket television coverage in the modern day will ever appreciate.

They heralded the awesome sound of the Hampden Roar as the teams took the field, painting vistas in which full-blooded heroes battled in navy blue Umbro shirts, with diamonds down the sleeves, similarly-trimmed white shorts and red socks. Sweat steaming through sunshine, rain or sleet. My imagination – always better, faster, stronger than reality – did the rest as I sat on my bed, my young heart racing without fear of arrest.

But, while I probably watched or listened to most of Scotland’s qualifying matches for the World Cup in Argentina, I only really remember two.

21st September, 1977: Scotland 3, Czechoslovakia 1

Having lost 2-0 in the first match in Prague (where I would later make my home) Scotland had, in fact, comfortably beaten the European Champions, who themselves had overcome those same West Germans to take the title, only a year before.

Did that make Scotland better than Czechoslovakia? Apparently so. And better than the World Champions?

The win set up what was effectively a play-off between Scotland and Wales for the place in Argentina – and one of British football’s most memorable occasions.

12th October, 1977: Wales 0, Scotland 2

Having been inundated with ticket requests, the Welsh Football Association took the fateful decision to host the match – their home game – in England, at Liverpool’s Anfield, cramming in as many fans as possible.

The result was that thousands more Scots were able to get tickets and, in an electric atmosphere, it was questionable if the match could really be considered a home game for Wales at all. The match has gone down in sporting folklore.

With Scottish fans seething behind the Welsh goal, Jordan and Wales’s David Jones fought to reach a Hartford cross. A hand reached up and deflected the ball. Penalty to Scotland!

My keen but untrained eyes attributed the touch to Jordan but I was dismissed as the child who knew nothing, though I was happy to be corrected. (Much later, my judgement was vindicated, though I received no apology.) Don Masson stepped up to slot the penalty away with the coolness of a snooker player rolling in the final black when the match had already been won.

Wales had worn bright red shirts with short sleeves on the night; Scotland, their navy blue and long sleeves. The penalty decision could only have been made through gross incompetence by the French referee, Robert Wurtz, corruption (surely unlikely) or the intensity of the atmosphere and screaming Scottish fans influencing the decision.

Would the same decision have been made at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham, before a crowd dominated by Welsh fans? All we can say is that wrongly damaging Welsh hopes of qualification would surely have been a much more daunting proposition.

Dalglish added a second goal with a header and Scotland were on the road to Argentina. The Welsh complaints were largely dismissed as inconsequential in Scotland – never known to harbour a grudge – and seemingly played down by the English-produced national media.

The Daily Mirror’s Harry Miller described Wales as “desperately unlucky”, and noted that “Television appeared to show that it was Scotland’s Jordan – not Welshman Jones – who handled” but his report did not take issue with Jordan’s protest: “As far as I know the ball did not touch me.”

But, philosophically, Miller concluded, “From the depths of their broken hearts, Wales will probably admit that the group’s most talented team is going forward to the finals.”

The Glasgow Herald report diplomatically omits reference to any contentiousness at all, although Jim Reynolds does point out that Scotland had been denied a strong claim in the first half. Of the penalty Scotland were awarded, Reynolds reports that “Jones punched it away” and Masson scored “with Jones holding his head in shame”.

The only shame to vex the Aberdeen Press & Journal was caused by Scottish hooliganism, which was viewed rather more sympathetically by the Glasgow broadsheet, largely blaming the police.

Scotland had qualified by the skin of their teeth and the spit from the referee’s whistle. But that didn’t matter; the people were euphoric. I was euphoric, though I didn’t fully understand exactly what the World Cup meant to football fans.

 

Representing Britain

As the United Kingdom’s sole representatives, the Scottish team was enjoying the full attention of the British media, with the whole of Britain apparently urging them on. In truth, Scotland’s qualification was made all the more delicious to most fans because the English would not be there.

And, of course, Scotland were going to go all the way and win the tournament. At least, that’s what manager Ally MacLeod seemed to be saying and the Scottish fans were only too willing to believe him. Finally, those 12 years of excruciating hurt since England had lifted the trophy at Wembley would be erased and we could tell them exactly where to deposit their replica Jules Rimet.

Like the surfer in the Old Spice advert, Scotland was riding an ecstatic wave of hope with a liberal splash of entitlement, and MacLeod, like a sporting Svengali, had the football world and wider public in the palm of his hand. “You can mark down 25th June 1978 as the day Scottish football conquers the world,” said MacLeod as 22,000 fans waved the boys off from Hampden singing, “Que sera, sera. Whatever will be will be. We’re going to the Argentine! Que sera, sera!”

One banner, scorning both caution and grammatical tenses, proclaimed: “Argentina. We came, we saw, we conquered.”

“What will you do if you win the World Cup?” ITN’s Trevor McDonald asked MacLeod, who revealed that he had already declined an invitation to 10 Downing Street, in the event of a victory, so that the injured Danny McGrain could be the first person on British soil to touch the trophy. Doing little to dampen the expectation, MacLeod replied: “Retain it.”

As for me, I was no longer singing “Yabba-dabba-doo” but “Ally’s Tartan Army” by the comedian Andy Cameron, in the tradition of terrible pop songs dedicated to football teams.

With typical grace and humility, we sang of our gratitude for the support of the wider United Kingdom, which Prime Minister Jim Callaghan (publicly fearful that the failure of the Scottish devolution bill would bring down his government) had assured us was ours. Margaret Thatcher had done likewise.

“We’re representing Britain,

And we’re gaunny do or die.

England cannae dae it,

Cos they didnae qualify – Hoy!”

As for the manager, “He’s our Muhammad Ally – he’s Alastair MacLeod,” went the song but, for once, Cameron wasn’t joking. He even appeared on Top of the Pops.

Perhaps a world-beating notion really had taken hold with that win over Czechoslovakia. It seemed to matter little that in the pre-World Cup Home International Championships, Scotland had been unable to win a game against three teams that had failed to qualify for Argentina.

Personally, this gave me cause for scepticism but I was quickly silenced by a blast of derision and learned the skill required to enjoy any fictional romp – the suspension of my disbelief. Most of us seemed to do the same. Football has always had the ability to cause otherwise rational adults to transmute into fanciful dreamers and, quite often, buffoons, but as the tournament approached there was a frenzied atmosphere around MacLeod, encouraged by a man who was the epitome of the gallus Scot.

 

Method behind the madness

But the idea of performing strongly should not have been unthinkable. The Scottish squad was peppered with stars of the English game, chief amongst whom were the backbone of the then European champions,  Liverpool: Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish.

Archie Gemmill, John Robertson and Kenny Burns (then England’s player of the Year) would be major players in the great Brian Clough era at Nottingham Forest, which brought two European Cups in the period of English dominance of the tournament.

Defender Gordon McQueen and centre-forward Joe Jordan moved that summer from Leeds to Manchester United, where they joined fellow Scottish internationals, defender Martin Buchan and Lou Macari, full of running and goals in the days when speed, agility and aggression were more important than tactical positioning.

There were other acknowledged stars: Asa Hartford and Willie Donachie from Manchester City, along with the national captain Bruce Rioch and Don Masson from a Derby County side that was admittedly on the wane.

There was also a very quick winger, Willie Johnston – then with West Bromwich Albion – in whom MacLeod had great faith, as well as Aberdeen’s Stewart Kennedy and Joe Harper. Then there was the notable figure of full-back Sandy Jardine, who, along with McGrain, had been voted as part of the ’74 World Cup team-of-the-tournament. Rangers were also represented by defensive hard man Tom Forsyth and the prolific striker Derek Johnstone. (Notably there was not one Celtic player in the 22.)

The goalkeepers were an obvious weakness. Partick Thistle’s Alan Rough was the man in possession of the jersey, though often criticised when Scotland conceded a goal. Coventry City’s Jim Blyth and Aberdeen’s Bobby Clark were both respected keepers but rarely considered of true international standard.

With arguably Scotland’s strongest-ever group of players to choose from, confidence was not entirely misplaced. But the mania of outrageous expectation requires a medium of communication and there is no doubt that the print and broadcast journalists played their part in daring Scotland to bypass the hopes-and-dreams stage and move full-steam towards expectation and planning for a defence of the trophy.

The build-up in the press often flits from the naïve to the comical. Both the Herald’s Reynolds and Alastair MacDonald in the Press & Journal felt moved to mention by name (with conflicting spellings) Hipolito Molineri, the manager of the Sierras hotel, who had pledged to spare no effort in welcoming the Scots.  MacDonald was particularly impressed by the “host of helpful girl interpreters – selected I’m sure, as much for their charm and beauty as for their considerable linguistic talents”. Reynolds advised us that Cordoba was known as an Argentinian version of Glasgow. Meanwhile Gill Meadows in the Birmingham Post, reporting from Brussels, failed to find a Scottish audience for his warnings that misbehaving fans could be “shot on sight”.

As Scotland’s tournament was due to begin, the Glasgow Herald buzzed with excitement around the unprecedented television coverage.

“By Sunday, June 25, when Scotland wins the World Cup, the nation will have had the opportunity to have seen 115 hours of football on television. In Scotland, the old familiar voices of Archie Macpherson and Arthur Montford will bring news of our victories…

“BBC also have a film unit for news and features and STV for a special documentary on the World Cup. STV are looking upon this as a bit of a scoop because they are being allowed to watch the Scotland team morning, noon and night. ‘We will be there when they train – even when they have breakfast’.”

In the same section (on the morning of Scotland’s opening match), James McKillop, stationed in Cordoba, stated: “Two disasters can befall the nation tonight. The suggestion that we might not win is unthinkable and can be dismissed out of hand.

“The second disaster? A breakdown in the multi-million-pound colour television system, installed by the military junta entirely on your behalf.”

In the age of ubiquitous multi-angled, high-definition football, the thrill of watching ‘live via satellite’ fuzzy pictures with crackling sound – which seemed only to enhance the experience of watching those few matches – may be difficult for many to appreciate, but the element of ‘TV extravaganza’ added even more to the sense of anticipation.

 

Hopes dashed, crushed, eviscerated

3rd June 1978; Peru 3, Scotland 1

The Saturday started gloriously with warm sunshine and the sweet intrigue of facing the unknown with a special kind of hope that came from faith in the wisdom of my elders leading me to expect to be pleasantly surprised.

By bedtime, my life and perspectives – on football and more – had changed forever.

Virtually all I knew about Peru was that they had a cracking white strip with a red diagonal stripe. I could have told you a great deal more about other teams – especially Brazil and most of the Europeans – thanks to a Figurine Panini album and special World Cup supplements, which I had devoured, as children often did.

But I confess that, believing that Brazil and the hosts were the only Latin American teams worth considering, I hadn’t done my homework on Scotland’s first opponents but had underestimated them. These two faults, I apparently shared with the Scottish national team manager.

“I am not in the least worried by Peru… We will let them do the worrying,” MacLeod said, rallying the fans. “But it will not be easy against Peru… I have never thought that way. They are a very good side going forward, so it should be an open, attacking match.”

Open and attacking it was, but aside from the start of the match with Scotland taking the lead through Jordan, it was mostly Scotland being open and Peru attacking. And if MacLeod’s warning seemed to show that he knew something about the opposition, a reported comment from him that Buchan would have to keep Juan Carlos Oblitas in check was exposed when the players lined up on opposite sides of the pitch.

Re-watching the action doesn’t get any easier; in fact it may be worse. With the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, the sheer ineptitude of Scotland’s play is more easily identified, bringing with it the sort of wincing reactions that can only come with recollections of harsh lessons.

I couldn’t have told you, without checking back, that it was Cesar Cueto who unthinkably equalised for Peru, his goal throwing the entire experience into one of unscripted anxiety, the sudden realisation that all may not be well and there was nothing I or anyone else watching could do about it.

But worse would follow with the fleeting chance of hope restored. Another Don Masson penalty. And yet, this time, the cool, calm and collected hero of Anfield seemed instead languid and sloppy with his easily-saved attempt.

And then, a man I could never forget. Teófilo Cubillas was not just memorable for his two goals but for the image of him glorying in the destruction of a football team, a nation’s pride and my sense of confidence in anything I was told. It is that image most of all, with the midfielder roaring towards the camera with outstretched arms, while his team-mates launched themselves on top of him that would define Argentina for me.

He looked every inch the conquering hero – and he was. But he had stolen a role meant for a man in blue and the world was suddenly spinning in the wrong direction. I can’t even remember if I cried that night. I probably did. After all, the papers were reporting the same of grown men who had spent fortunes to travel across the Atlantic to share in Scotland’s expected glory.

It didn’t seem possible that it could get any worse. But the next morning sorted that out perfectly.

 

From Back to Front

The press reaction to the result was predictable enough: unanimous condemnation of almost all the players on show and MacLeod for picking them. With the wisdom of hindsight, the entire personnel selection as well as MacLeod’s over-confidence and apparent lack of preparedness – barely remarked on before the match – were seized on with venom.

“Ally MacLeod has cost Scotland any chance of the World Cup,” wrote Frank McGhee in the Mirror, under the headline: “Tartan Tatters”. McGhee hastily noted that the words were not his, but a fan’s, before going to state his full agreement.

“Scottish show-offs now face the big showdown,” ran the headline of Reynolds’s piece in the Herald: “I watched in disbelief a Scottish performance so miserable, so dreadfully inept, that I just wanted to hide from the local people who have given the Scots such tremendous support since we arrived here.”

“We’ve no chance,” said Denis Law in the same paper. But, if the back pages were writing themselves, my own life education was to be extended by the front pages carrying the image of Willie Johnston, with the news that he had failed a drugs test.

Today, any nine-year-old would likely have an idea that drugs were not only something you took when ill, but four decades ago, kids were more easily-sheltered. But I was learning roughly what ‘pep pills’ were while questioning why people wouldn’t take medicine that could make them faster.

I was also seeing the truly dirty side of football for the first time. Johnston, who then and ever after described himself as a sort of unwitting victim of ‘drug-regulation-gone-mad’ is not well served by the twin prosecutors of the quoted word and the internet.

“Sent home in disgrace – Johnston admits: I took pep drug’”, the Herald front page declared on the Tuesday, with the news that the SFA had already taken steps to get him on the first plane back to Scotland. “I took two pills because I was feeling low with hay fever,” Johnston pleaded in the days before medical exemptions (in fact, neither the FA nor the SFA had any rules about drug-taking at all). “I have taken them while with West Bromwich. I just did not realise it would cause all this trouble.”

In those days, only someone connected to the world of medicine – or one prepared to visit a reference library – could have told you that Fencamfamin (or Reactivan) is primarily considered a stimulant with little or no evidence of its recommended use for alleviating the symptoms of hay fever. However, Ron Atkinson was quick to assure Johnston that his conduct would not affect his West Brom career in any way and the club doctor admitted giving the same type of pills to Johnston – but not any to take to Argentina.

If there was any consolation, it was in the fact that Scotland were unlikely to be disqualified (an increasingly attractive option, to some) and reports that it would have been worse if we had beaten Peru as the result would inevitably have been reversed, following the failed test. But the mud through which the name of Scotland was being dragged was seemingly endless.

MacLeod blamed the players, who took umbrage at the slight and blamed him in return through leaked stories to the press – as well as some direct quotes – noting that Peru were far better-briefed on Scotland than the reverse.

MacLeod, clearly shell-shocked and having had no clue how to react to such adversity, had made a hopelessly ill-judged move in blaming the majority of his players from a position of such obvious weakness, declaring that eight of the 11 picked had been failures. He may have been correct but in seeking to deflect blame he did nothing for his own standing or any hope of solidarity within the squad.

The activities of the entire camp were now being viewed in a new light. Stories emerged of players being on a potential bonus of £20,000-£30,000 per man, depending on the reports, with MacLeod on £100,000 (when his annual salary was said to be £14,000).

Fans wanted to know if the money would be paid to Johnston, or at least the papers told us that the fans wanted to know. There were also emerging oblique references to the players’ drinking habits, which did nothing to win back support.

 

Redemption and reset

As a child, it was bewildering and I could not have known that I was undergoing a process that involved tanning my delicate hide into one befitting a hardened cynic.

But the next game was with Iran, who I hadn’t ever imagined would even have played football. So, surely, the aberration was out of the way and we could look forward to some sort of reset: Scotland giving a good cuffing to a footballing minnow and racking up much-needed goals in the process. That was what was required, according to the media, with only an emphatic win giving Scotland any hope of qualifying.

Having had time to reconsider his responses, MacLeod said of the Peru match: “I accept responsibility – on and off the park.”

But then assuming the pose of steely determination and defiance that Scots love, he declared: “We’re like the ‘Dirty Dozen’ [referencing the Hollywood film about military reprobates given one last chance of redemption]. So to hell with everyone,” Ally added, displaying yet more suspect PR skills, “we’ll defy them all.”

A raft of changes was made, in answer to howls from fans and the media (though perhaps further damaging his personal esteem in the eyes of many of the squad) and the players were ready to show the world how the real Scotland could play.

 

7th June, 1978; Scotland 1, Iran 1

I had learned quickly – quickly enough to have joined with Scotland fans the world over in watching matches in a constant state of: ‘Is this really happening?’ My impressions at the time were that Scotland were simply inexplicably hopeless – again a judgement that has stood the test of time.

I recalled that we were lucky to score but, on a more recent viewing, the Scottish goal looks downright suspicious. (Though there has never been any suggestion of any corruption.) With the ball running into the Iran box Jordan clearly shoves the defending Andranik Eskandarian, who at the same time collides with his goalkeeper Nasser Hejazi and, while on the grass, still manages to slot a firm strike into his own net from about 15 yards to give Scotland a half-time lead.

If that was the luck Scotland needed, we would take it, however embarrassing, in the hope that it might lead to an Iranian collapse. In fact, it led to a superior Iran team taking the game by the scruff of the neck and Iraj Danayfar beating Rough at his near post in the 60th minute.

So, Scotland were out. Or so I thought because I had again listened to older, wiser, more knowledgeable people.


A last hurrah?

Well – what do you know – Scotland did have one last faint hope of qualifying. It simply meant beating the defeated heroes of 1974 by three clear goals. Sure, as the Observer’s Hugh McIlvanney noted, MacLeod was “the most grimly beleaguered manager even the Scots had known”, and he quite reasonably opined that “Scotland had every right to pessimism”.

The Dutch were, of course, without Johan Cruyff (falsely rumoured to have stayed away in protest at the atrocities of the Argentinian military regime). But even the names of the players that they had seemed to carry an aura of magic delivered with panache.

Johan Neeskens, Rudi Krol, Rob Rensenbrink, Rene and Willy van de Kerkhof (I just liked saying the twins’ name).

Wim Jansen, the future Celtic head coach, who had played for Feyenoord in the European Cup final against Celtic in 1970, and who had conceded the German penalty ni the ’74 final, was not on my radar. But Johnny Rep was.

However, we were badly in need of a straw to clutch at and the last chance of “playing for pride” was enough to keep us interested.

 

11th June, 1978; Scotland 3, The Netherlands 2

Of course, as anyone who has taken a passing interest in the Scottish national team’s history will know, the scoreline does nothing to convey the maelstrom of feelings of that evening amongst fans who were largely emotionally spent.

Getting ready to watch the game with absolutely no expectation of anything more than seeing a bit of pride being displayed by the Scots.

A converted Rensenbrink penalty was no surprise, even though, with Souness restored to the ranks, Scotland were competing well.

An equaliser from Dalglish (often maligned for failing to match his club form in navy blue) before half-time was a just reward and, though no more than a token, at least we were on level terms with one of the teams of the tournament. Just after the break and another penalty from Gemmill put us 2-1 in the lead, but only children and fools were hoping for miracles.

And then, on 68 minutes, came the moment to surpass all understanding, when Gemmill single-handedly took on the Dutch defence before scoring the goal of the tournament and still, probably, the finest goal ever scored in a Scotland jersey.

Scotland were suddenly one goal away from qualifying for the next round at the expense of the Dutch who, perversely, had to lose by fewer than three goals if they wanted to avoid Brazil in the next stages.

A battered nation dared to hope, to punch the air, to believe that the football gods may have decided that we had had enough punishment and to dish it out to someone else for a change. But only for four minutes. Because if those gods exist at all, they are cruel, sadistic sons-of-bitches.

What I remembered most about Johnny Rep’s fatal goal was how relaxed he appeared and how from the moment the ball came to him, scoring seemed inevitable. There is a legend that at the very moment Rep scored, MacLeod was saying, “Go on – hit it,” before his head sank into his hands.

We knew that our World Cup chance was over – probably forever – but it was difficult to choose a sentiment. Was there room for a little pride from that last win over the eventual runners-up (again) or did the display only add to the frustration of the calamities before? Which should take precedence – anger, disappointment or dejection? And who, among so many candidates, was to blame?

MacLeod, certainly. He clearly failed to study the opposition in depth (something that his contemporary Brian Clough was often able to pull off successfully in European competition).

His decision not to play Souness and to stick with Rioch and Masson has often been criticised. (Even the Herald’s pre-tournament special noted that Rioch had “had a miserable club season but has never failed to produce the goods for Scotland”, and remarking that “If the games in Argentina are to be played at walkabout pace, then Masson will be one of the big personalities.”)

Neither Masson, Rioch, Johnston nor Donachie (who had clumsily clattered Buchan during the Iran match leaving his team-mate bleeding from a head wound and having to be replaced) would play for Scotland after 1978. And nor would Lou Macari, deemed a disruptive influence by the SFA, accused of agitating too aggressively for increased bonus payments and leaking stories to the press for money.

There were others to blame, too. While MacLeod was initially kept on, there was a suspicion that he may have been used as a lightning-rod for the attacks that were coming thick and fast, in order to deflect some of the blame from the infamous Park Gardens suits at the SFA.

That view may have some merit. Ten years ago, under the 30-year rule, it was revealed that even the British charge d’affaires in Buenos Aires at the time, Hugh Carless, had felt that the embarrassment to Britain was such that it was worthy of official note: “The Scottish team, which had an emotional send-off in Glasgow from thousands of cheering supporters, was greeted in silence on their return. In retrospect it would seem that the poor Scottish performance was due to complacency and lack of professionalism on the part of all concerned with Scottish football. They seemed provincials out of their depth in international waters.”

Few associated with Argentina came back with their reputations enhanced and even fewer seemed moved to try to make amends. One who has is Tom Forsyth, who revisited the issue in 2010, and last year, when he revealed in The Scotsman: “I still don’t like talking about Argentina. We had it won before we got there. Then when we arrived, realised we still had games to play. I blame Ally to some extent because the preparation was bad, but the poor man aged 20 years from the stick he received as everything fell apart. In the Holland game I had a chance to make it 4-1, which would have qualified us, but headed straight at their keeper. What a diddy.”

In his earlier interview he was even more candid: “But there was another reason for ‘78. We, the players, didn’t do our jobs. We didn’t do ourselves, or the Scottish people, justice. And for that I apologise.”

The tournament itself would be mired in further controversy, not least with accusations that the Argentinian organisers were scheduling matches to allow their own team to know exactly what they had to do in order to progress.

Brazil protested bitterly over the hosts’ 6-0 defeat of Peru (in a match refereed by Wurtz), which saw Brazil eliminated and Peru accused of being involved in match-fixing – a charge that was later supported, in 2012, when Peruvian Senator Genaro Ledesma claimed that his government agreed that the team would throw the game. (Argentina had allegedly asked for this in return for accepting troublesome Peruvian political prisoners, who were then tortured).

But the hosts won, under the stewardship of the chain-smoking Cesar Luis Menotti (and without Diego Maradona) with Mario Kempes the star of the tournament, scoring twice in that final against the Netherlands.

Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa would sign for Tottenham Hotspur and Alberto Tarrantini would join Birmingham City within a few months.

Fate would eventually lead Jock Stein, who had declined the Scotland job before MacLeod was offered it, to accept the position after 44 unhappy days at Leeds United.

Scotland qualified for the World Cup again in 1982, with the Falklands War bringing Argentina again to the forefront of Scottish minds. Suitably chastened, we went seeking no more than respectability, with the BA Robertson song, “I have a dream”, being as blatantly tongue-in-cheek as possible, lest we be accused of getting ideas “like in Argentina”.

We got exactly what we were looking for – an exit on goal difference with some decent displays.

And me? I still watched Scotland but I had learned a few things. I had learned never to put too much faith in the judgement of others when it contradicted my own. I learned to take bravado with a pinch of salt and that humility is always better than hubris. And I learned to be  careful where I invested my hopes,
beliefs and expectations. And never in Scotland.
 

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

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