England 2, Scotland 0; June 15, 1996
In a clearing in the woods, in a small town around six miles north of Glasgow, stands a squat little tree stump. Or, at least, it did in 1996. For all I know it has rotted away, or been chopped down, or simply succumbed to its injuries in the 22 years that have passed since then.
See, on a warm Saturday afternoon that summer the tree had the misfortune of being Paul Gascoigne, at least in the eyes of the four overimaginative eight-year-old boys who laid a vicious beatdown upon it, blows raining down from their Cica and Hi-Tec trainers on the peeling white bark, which – if you squinted hard enough – looked a bit like Gazza’s bleached blond hair. I don’t need to explain what match me and my friends Chris, Adam and Martin had just watched, or why we were so consumed with hatred for Gascoigne, do I? Brown, Venables, Shearer, McAllister, Seaman, Gazza, Hendry… Geller. The sunshine, the immaculate Wembley turf, that glorious tartan Umbro strip, water spraying out of a yellow bottle and onto a chubby face. Surely every little detail of the fourth Group A match at Euro 96 is ingrained in the minds of every Scotland fan who was alive then, and perhaps even those who weren’t. If the Oasis gigs at Knebworth two months later represent Nineties pop culture at its zenith, England-Scotland at Euro 96 is arguably the moment that defined the decade’s football culture in the UK. Looking back at it now though, it isn’t the absence of zonal marking or false nines that’s striking, or the fact that every player is wearing black boots and looks well over 30 (mainly because they were, in the Scotland team’s case).
It’s my own strength of feeling. Since then I’ve seen countless other Scotland matches and watched my club side win and lose league titles on the last day of the season without the sport ever provoking emotions as intense as those I felt that day. I’ve lived through an independence referendum without feeling quite as passionately patriotic. I knew so much less about football then, and understood so much less about my homeland’s character and history, yet cared so much more. Braveheart and Rob Roy had both been released the year prior, and a recent school trip to Bannockburn had taken on the significance of a religious pilgrimage in my mind. This was the context we viewed the result in – not simply as a defeat to a bigger nation with better players at their disposal, but an injustice, another all-consuming ignominy inflicted on us by the same people that brought you the Right of Prima Nocta. I daresay eight-year-old me would have reached for his medieval ball and chain weapon if you’d told him that one day he’d be living in England, working and socialising with Sassenachs every day.
But there were a lot more Scotland internationals to endure before that happened…
Brazil 2, Scotland 1; June 10, 1998
The playground of Lenzie Moss Primary School, just a short walk from Gazza the Tree’s location, is overrun by a contagion when Scotland again take the field in a major tournament almost exactly two years later. A contagion of Saltires, rippling through the air and painted on top of the beamers worn by expectant bairns as World Cup 98 kicks off with a match between the greatest team on earth and some mob called Brazil in Paris. I’m not yet 11 years old and this is the fourth international showcase Scotland have graced during my lifetime – a fact that’s nigh on impossible to comprehend with hindsight – but it’s the first I’ve truly immersed myself in. The wallchart, the pull-out guide, the N64 game, the full kit; I’ve got all the accoutrements. Look at the line-up Craig Brown selected at the Stade de France that day and you’ll see that his team of haggard, ageing, defiantly unglamorous pros did not easily lend itself to being hero-worshipped by school kids. We manage it though. We manage it because the message the universe had used the events at Wembley two years prior to send us has somehow faded from our minds. The one that read: “The Scottish national team will bring you nothing but embarrassment and pain; don’t waste valuable time following them when you could be out building dens or doing garden runs.” Another stinging slap awaits, however, one that we ourselves provide the momentum for by running all the way home to catch the 4.30pm kick-off. Cesar Sampaio’s extremely un-Brazilian front-post header and John Collins’ penalty leveller – replete with goofy self-reverential celebration – are but a preamble to the event we’ll call Boyd’s Doom. Never fear, Mario Zagallo; hit the showers, Original Ronaldo; we’ve got a veteran full-back who’ll net your late winner for you with his chest. Ten-year-old me is slightly older and wiser than the eight-year-old version that mistook a birch tree for a portly English playmaker, but he’s still years away from developing the self-deprecating humour that’s absolutely essential to survive long-term Scotland fandom, so there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and of course it only gets worse. Proving that Del Amitri, the band behind official team anthem Don’t Come Home Too Soon, are indeed fate-tempting bastards, Brown’s men wind up bottom of the group after scraping a draw with Norway and being royally pumped by Morocco.
Scotland 1, The Netherlands 0; November 15, 2003
It feels tragic to admit, but if there’s an era where I was at my most passionate as a Scotland fan – going to every home game at Hampden, boring everyone around me with Christian Dailly stats & facts – it was the Berti Vogts era. Vogts certainly didn’t do anything to earn such unwavering support, but since 14/15-year-old me was playing and watching football more than ever before, that obsession had to be directed somewhere, and the national team was the main vessel it was funnelled into. It’s sometimes easy to see Scotland’s 20-year exile from international tournaments as one long, miserable death march, but there have in fact been peaks and troughs, and the German’s two-year reign was undoubtedly the deepest, darkest trough. It might be a bit like saying Theresa May’s not as bad as Maggie Thatcher, but even the Craig Levein era looks like The Enlightenment when compared to Vogts’ Dark Ages. EVERYTHING was shite: the results (drawing with the Faroe Islands, losing to Lithuania), the plummet down the rankings (from 20th in 1999 to 77th shortly after Vogts left), the untalented cloggers who were tossed caps (Lee Wilkie, Kevin Kyle), even the strips (remember that wretched pinstriped Fila number?). Nonetheless, Vogts did achieve something that none of his five successors have when he took Scotland to a qualification play-off. The bigger picture is we were tanked 6-1 on aggregate by Wesley Sneijder, Ruud van Nistelrooy and co, a Netherlands squad Vogts’ troubled brood never had any realistic hope of stealing a place at Euro 2004 from, but in the first leg some sunshine briefly broke through the clouds (not literally), and I was there to bask in it. I’ve still got a photograph somewhere, the date printed in orange text in the bottom left corner, showing me, my mum, a family friend and the family friend’s Saltire face-painted son in the stands at Hampden that winter’s day. I’m not sure when exactly it was taken but I assume it had to be at some point after James McFadden’s winning goal had soared beyond Edwin van der Sar and into the net, so joyous and imbued with naïve hope do we look. “Soared” is in fact completely the wrong adjective for the 20-year-old’s massively deflected shot, but that’s the thing, up in the stands it appeared that the ball had soared, and it was only when watching the highlights back later that night that we realised the decisive role Frank de Boer’s shins had played. On reflection the strike feels symbolic of the play-off itself. The reality, when it eventually became clear, may have been ugly, but the illusion, fleeting and foolhardy as it proved, was utterly glorious.
France 0, Scotland 1; September 12, 2007
There are quite a lot of similarities between a lads’ holiday and a Scotland qualification campaign, when you think about it. Both involve spending lots of time trying to get into big parties full of cooler, sexier people than yourself, knowing that A) there’s a good chance you’ll get knocked back when you reach the end of the queue, and B) you’ll only make an arse of yourself if you do somehow gain entry. (And that’s without mentioning the 6am drinking sessions, amirite, Bazza?) Maybe that’s why I was on the Greek island of Zakynthos – better known as Zante – on my first ever holiday sans Mum and Dad, when I witnessed the highest high Scotland have enjoyed in that aforementioned 20-year spell in the wilderness. Vogts had gone, Walter Smith had restored credibility but left abruptly, and Alex McLeish had stepped in a third of the way through Euro 2008 qualification to inherit a surprisingly promising-looking situation in what should have been a group of death. Now the same age McFadden had been during the Netherlands play-off, I had sat at the pool bar with my mates four days earlier and watched Faddy hit another Hampden goal in a 3-1 win over Lithuania, setting us up nicely for the big one, France away at the Parc des Princes. Schteve McClaren’s England were playing Russia at Wembley that night, and of all the dive bars on the Laganas strip only one was showing our lot. That’s right, the one with the St George’s Cross plastered everywhere and the Artful Dodger-esque PR working the door. If Tommy Robinson ever opens his own chain of themed bars, this place will be the template. It should have been the worst possible venue, but it turned out to be the best. The further you get into your adolescence in the West of Scotland, the more difficult it becomes to be a wholehearted fan of good old Ecosse. Of the group thronged round the screen in the bar that night most had allowed their love for Scotland to be eclipsed by their love for either Celtic or Rangers, a relationship which promised to deliver everything one with the national team could not. Success, mainly, but also street cred. At an age where you’re more concerned than ever with the concept of ‘cool’, you can’t help but realise, with a growing sense of horror, how spectacularly naff everything about the Hampden match-going experience is. The cheesy songs, the awful fashion sense, the unnecessary firework displays before low-key games against Baltic states, Ronnie the Corrie… Put it this way: if Scottish football was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the Old Firm would be Will, and the national side would be Carlton. But youthful self-consciousness was shoved aside like an empty glass of raki on the night in question. A Laganas branch of the Tartan Army was abruptly formed, with Dodger and his colleagues forced to become honorary members, as we wildly celebrated another McFadden winner soaring – and this one definitely DID soar – into the top corner. We may have failed to qualify in the end (obviously), despite the result in Paris taking us top of the group, but there’s no doubting the momentousness of what was achieved against a Les Bleus side that had been one missed penalty away from winning the World Cup 14 months earlier and could afford to leave the likes of Patrice Evra and Karim Benzema on their bench. I would say it was the best sporting feat seen on that holiday, but my mate Gareth drunkenly sank the winning shot in a game of pool with his eyes closed, so…
Scotland 2, England 2; June 10, 2017
Hmm, we appear to have skipped over the George Burley and Craig Levein eras in their entirety and most of Gordon Strachan’s reign, don’t we? Don’t worry, reader, you really didn’t miss much. If there’s something that jumps out at me about those years it isn’t a particular result or performance, it’s more the way the Scottish national team came to occupy a different space within my life. Somewhere along the line I seem to have realised that, much like Christmas, New Year, Burns Night, St Andrew’s Day, weddings, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs and every other occasion on the Scottish social calendar, Scotland fixtures are if nothing else a right good excuse to get yourself down the boozer. I might not actually have attended one since Levein’s side eked out a 1-0 over Lithuania in September 2011, but I have watched almost all of them in places like the Rhoderick Dhu and the Islay Inn with friends, our layers of Scotland supporter scar tissue covered with the thick coats of sarcastic self-awareness our ten-year-old selves sorely lacked, so that the actual result has little bearing on our enjoyment of the day out. That cosy set-up was interrupted, however, when I was offered a job in England late last summer. When Strachan’s Scotland ended their World Cup 2018 qualification campaign with a 2-2 draw in Ljubljana last October, blowing the nation’s best shot at reaching a play-off since Vogts in ’03, I was slouched on the sofa in my new digs in Liverpool, relying on my Twitter feed to provide the pure hit of shame and self-pity I could have got first-hand north of the Border. Thankfully though I’d had a much more fitting ‘goodbye to all that’ back in June. The Crystal Palace, the massive Wetherspoons just round the corner from Glasgow Central Station, was well and truly rammed for Scotland v England at Hampden. The people crammed into the pub could broadly be defined as ‘casuals’, a bracket I myself seem to have sleepwalked into over the years, but the celebrations when Leigh Griffiths’ free kicks whipped into Joe Hart’s net in the 87th and 90th minutes are unlike anything I have ever seen. By the time Harry ‘Buzz Killington’ Kane cruelly, inevitably jabbed in his 93rd minute equaliser I was drenched head-to-toe in Tennent’s Lager and an older gent was having blue kitchen roll applied to his scalp by the bar staff after being caught with a flying pint glass. Anguish and ecstasy, confusion and chaos, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat and then drunkenly dropped between the couch cushions of compromise – that was more like it.
As of right now I don’t know when I’ll next see Scotland play at Hampden, or even in the company of my countrymen down the pub. I have little faith that McLeish is the Prodigal Son who’ll lead us to the Promised Land, or that our latest batch of youngsters can be the significant upgrade on previous generations that we need them to be. But I’m not too bothered. One day – mainly because UEFA and FIFA will keep tinkering with the competition formats to the point where us and the Faroes can qualify – we WILL play in an international tournament again. A lot of kids might have to lay the smackdown on inanimate objects between now and then, but as long as we’ve got moments like those McFadden and Griffiths screamers to sustain us, being a Scotland fan will remain a strangely addictive pastime.