Euro 2020 saw Scotland compete in an international tournament for the first time since 1998. A break of 23 years, if you count Euro 2020 as being held in 2021.
But there was a time when they were regulars at major tournaments, particularly the World Cup, in the seventies and eighties.
1974 and 1978 Scotland were the only home nation to qualify. Despite having some of the finest talent in Europe, they were probably hampered by managerial indecision and ineptitude. For Spain â€™82 they then had a manager with proven class and success, and a squad which was arguably better than Englandâ€™s at the time, and I would argue the best theyâ€™ve ever had.
The â€˜Old Firmâ€™ grip on the football in Scotland had been gate-crashed by Alex Fergusonâ€™s Aberdeen. They were Premier League Champions in 1980. It was a breakthrough as it had been 15 years since a club other than Rangers or Celtic had lifted the title. â€˜The Donsâ€™ followed this up with runners-up spots in the following two years. They also confirmed a changing of the guard with an emphatic 4-1 win over Rangers in the Scottish Cup Final in 1982, having already knocked Celtic out in the earlier rounds. Itâ€™s noticeable the club contributed four players to the â€™82 squad, two more than Celtic and four more than Rangers.
But the feature of Scottish football for the previous ten years or so, was how many players filled the team-sheets south of the border. The great Leeds side of the late â€˜60â€™s/early 70â€™s had Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer, Joe Jordan, David Harvey and Eddie Gray at the core of their success. Liverpoolâ€™s dominance in the late 70â€™s really took off once they recruited their tartan trio of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen.
By the end of the seventies, Ipswich had emerged as a serious challenger to Liverpoolâ€™s title aspirations. Again, the foundations of their success drew from players such as John Wark, Alan Brazil and George Burley.
Nottingham Forestâ€™s double European Cup triumph had been possible through the industry of their left-winger, John Robertson. He provided the cross for Francis to head the only goal in â€™78, then scored the only goal of the game to retain their trophy 12 months later.
1974 and 1978
Scotlandâ€™s appearance in West Germany in 1974 seemed to signify a change in the power of British football. This was the first tournament England had failed to qualify for since the War. Theyâ€™d been one of the favourites in the previous two, winning in â€™66, so their absence was a huge shock. But despite assembling a strong squad, and going through the group unbeaten, Scotland never made it to the Second Phase.
Failing to progress on goal difference was also their undoing in â€™78. 1974 can be down to manager, Willie Ormondâ€™s, conservatism with selection. For 1978 it was clear the muddled selection policy was far too reckless, as Ally McLeod appeared to believe his own hype when no one else did.
Both tournaments could be significant for Scotland meeting the team considered by many to be â€˜minnowsâ€™ first. However, where Zaire fully justified this tag in West Germany, Peru was far better than McLeod was prepared to consider four years later.
If Peru were underestimated in 1978 then Scotlandâ€™s next opponents, Iran were not considered at all. An embarrassing 1-1 draw left them needing to beat the Dutch by four clear goals. They almost managed it too, but failure was softened a little by possibly the best performance from a Scottish side in any tournament, and certainly one of the greatest goals scored at a World Cup.
In 1974 they could also point to holding the defending champions, Brazil to a goalless draw. But then it left them needing to beat Yugoslavia. They conceded inside the final ten minutes and although Joe Jordanâ€™s goal avoided defeat, they ultimately trudged off home early.
The 1982 tournament was approached with some trepidation by Scottish fans, based on what had come before. But they were hopeful changes had been made in key positions, e.g. the manager, which could produce a different result.
Jock Stein was considered a legend in Scotland for all the success he had brought Celtic ever since taking over the helm in 1965. Within two years they were the first British side to lift the European Cup (now Champions League). He won the league title in his second season, the clubâ€™s first for 11 years. In 13 years at Parkhead he won ten league titles, eight Scottish Cups and six League Cups, along with the famous European Cup win over Inter.
He took over the national team once McLeod finally translated the writing on the wall to realise he wasnâ€™t wanted anymore. Stein had just taken over the Leeds United job, but couldnâ€™t turn down the top position in Scotland. So after just 44 days at Elland Road he was off.
The measure of his popularity in the country was evident in over 65,000 turning up for his first match in charge when they came 1-2 down to beat Norway, 3-2.
Qualification for Euro â€™80 was a failure as they lost twice to eventual runners-up, Belgium. Their record in qualifying for World Cups gave them top seeding for the Spain â€™82 draw. They were pitted against Northern Ireland, Portugal, Sweden and Israel, who were competing in the UEFA section for the first time. Excitement built as they began their campaign.
Spain â€™82 qualifying
Back in 1982 there were no international windows and no structure to the calendar, so nations arranged fixtures between each other. This made for a muddled look as some countries could play more matches earlier in the campaign than others.
Their first match was a trip to Stockholm to meet a Sweden side whoâ€™d already been held at home by Israel. The Swedes were expected to provide stiff opposition, so when Gordon Strachan scored the only goal of the game Scotland were delighted to get off to a winning start.
But a month later the doubt returned as they were held to a goalless draw at Hampden by Portugal. On the same night the Irish eased past Sweden and Scotland had given up their advantage.
They didnâ€™t play again till the following February when they met Israel for the first time ever. Another 1-0 win away was encouraging, although theyâ€™d have preferred more than Kenny Dalglishâ€™s goal.
Northern Ireland then visited and walked away with a point, before the return fixture with Israel gave Scotland a chance to improve their goal difference. Two penalties from John Robertson helped them to a 3-1 win. The next night the Irish beat Portugal and Scotland were now well placed at the top of the group with the Irish their nearest challengers.
In June Sweden beat Northern Ireland and Portugal to move into second place, but theyâ€™d played a game more than the Scots.
Scotland then drove home this advantage by beating the Swedes in September. This meant when they arrived in Belfast to meet Northern Ireland a draw would be enough to book their passage to Spain. The game ended goalless, so Scotland were confirmed as qualifiers for their third successive World Cup, with a game in hand.
They lost their final group game when Paul Sturrock scored his first goal for his country, in Lisbon. It didnâ€™t matter, of course and the Irish joined them as the mood around Britain was buoyant.
World Cup â€™82 â€“ the draw
The draw for Spain â€™82 was held in Madrid in January of that year. It was a shambles. This was Blatterâ€™s first World Cup as President and he was still in his honeymoon period. Names were to be drawn from cages by local children. But the cages didnâ€™t always open and the FIFA officials could be seen rebuking the young lads rather too vehemently for the watching public. Cries of exploitation grew louder when it emerged these were from a local orphanage.
Scotland had originally been drawn out in Group Three along with Argentina. But Blatter had forgotten his own rules with the draw and they were moved to Group Six, along with Brazil.
The other teams drawn alongside them were USSR and debutants, New Zealand.
The build up to the tournament saw them lose a friendly in Valencia but beat the Dutch at Hampden. The Home International Championship was a little frustrating. They again drew in Belfast, beat the Welsh but lost to a Paul Mariner goal in the big one at Hampden.
Stein assembled a squad of experienced players, many with important European matches under their belts.
Ten of the 22 had played in European finals. Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen for Liverpool. Alan Brazil, John Wark and George Burley for Ipswich. Allan Evans for Aston Villa, Joe Jordan and Frank Gray at Leeds and John Robertson for Nottingham Forest.
Along with the Liverpool, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest players, there were another eight who had won league titles. Danny McGrain and Davie Provan at Celtic. Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, Gordon Strachan and Jim Leighton at Aberdeen, and Alan Rough at Partick Thistle. Steve Archibald had won the Scottish league with Aberdeen before moving south and winning back-to-back FA Cups with Tottenham.
Of the other four, Paul Sturrock and David Narey were in the Dundee United side which won back-to-back Scottish League Cups in 1979 and 1980. Asa Hartford was in the Manchester City side which lifted the League Cup in 1976. That left the second reserve goalkeeper, George Wood who was understudy to Pat Jennings at Arsenal.
It was an impressive list of players, arguably stronger than England.
World Cup 1982 â€“ Group Six
Scotland were in Malaga to take their bow on day three of the tournament. The previous night theyâ€™d watched Brazil come from a goal down with 15 minutes to go to beat the Soviet Union in Seville. They were up against New Zealand who were managed by Fleetwood-born, John Adshead The Kiwis had come through a play-off against China to reach the final stages for the first time in their history.
The â€˜All-Whitesâ€™ contained several players who were born in England and Allan Boath, Sam Malcolmson and Adrian Elrick, all born in Scotland. They were skippered by Steve Sumner, whoâ€™d been an apprentice at Blackpool before moving down under. Heâ€™d scored six in a 13-0 win over Fiji in qualification. Up front they had Birkenhead-born, Steve Wooddin and 19-year old Wynton Rufer, who would go on to be voted Oceania Footballer of the Century.
Jock Steinâ€™s toughest decision was who to leave out. He had a talented squad and in those days could only choose five substitutes to sit on the bench. He plumped for Aston Villaâ€™s Allan Evans to partner Alan Hansen at the back, with Alan Brazil alongside Kenny Dalglish up front. Joe Jordan and Steve Archibald were on the bench. The width was provided by Gordon Strachan on the right and John Robertson on the left.
Scotland were overwhelming favourites, but as they found in the two previous World Cups this didnâ€™t always give them the advantage. When Kenny Dalglish finished a neat move to give them the lead after 18 minutes it was so-far-so-good. His shot on the half-hour was too hot for van Hattum to hold onto and John Wark was on hand to knock in the rebound.
Two minutes later, Strachanâ€™s right-wing cross was headed in by Wark and 13 minutes of the first half still to go, it looked as if Scotland might run up a cricket score. The Scots created a few more chances before the break but didnâ€™t add to their three-goal advantage.
Eight minutes into the second period and with no addition to the score, Stein brought on Steve Archibald for Alan Brazil hoping it would produce a goal. It did, but not for the Scots. Danny McGrainâ€™s backpass was too timid for Rough and Steve Sumner nipped in and scored New Zealandâ€™s first ever goal at World Cup level.
Suddenly Scotland looked nervy and uncertain. Ten minutes later a simple ball over the top saw Steve Wooddin clear on goal and he fired past Rough to reduce the deficit to a goal. Surely the Kiwis couldnâ€™t pull off a shock, could they?
On 73 minutes Scotland had a freeâ€‘kick right on the edge of the â€˜Dâ€™. Robertson took it and floated it into the top corner. The whole country breathed a sigh of relief. Then with 11 minutes to go, Strachanâ€™s corner on the right was headed in by Archibald. Scotland won 5-2. The result was less than convincing as everyone felt Brazil and the USSR were more than capable of matching, if not bettering that result. It meant Scotland were now under pressure for their next two matches.
Matchday Six saw the Scots move to Seville to take on Brazil. This was one of the greatest sides the world had ever seen, yet Brazil had stuttered a bit in their opening game against the Soviets.
Stein rang the changes. The headline was dropping his captain to the bench. Danny McGrainâ€™s defensive error had allowed New Zealand back into the game in Malaga and consequently he was dropped in favour of Dundee Unitedâ€™s David Narey. Allan Evans made way for Aberdeenâ€™s captain, Willie Miller who lined-up alongside Hansen at the back. Stein packed the midfield this time with Asa Hartford coming in to support Souness and Wark. A front two of Archibald and Robertson suggested the aim was to keep things tight rather than go all out to win the game. Souness had the captainâ€™s armband for the night, with Dalglish on the bench.
Back in 1974 Scotland had pulled off a creditable 0-0 draw against Brazil, then the World Champions. Ultimately it wasnâ€™t enough to get them through the group, but it could be something they could take inspiration from for this fixture.
Brazil were soon into their stride and Cerezo and Eder both fired wide from long range. Zico was beginning to run things from midfield too. Socrates headed just wide at the far post from a corner and there was no doubt Scotland were under the pump.
Then it happened. 18 minutes in and right-back Narey came forward, skipped through the defence and fired an unstoppable right-foot shot from the edge of the area. It flew into the roof the net with Waldir rooted to the spot. The goal was worthy of coming from the boot of any Brazilian, but gradually it dawned on the Scottish players and supporters. â€œOh no, what have we done?â€. Theyâ€™d scored a Brazilian goal against Brazil and they just knew they were going to pay for their impertinence.
At half-time, BBC pundit Jimmy Hill angered all north of the border when he described Nareyâ€™s goal as a â€˜toe-pokeâ€™. Whether it was or not didnâ€™t really matter as it was a stunning strike.
Scotland lead for 15 minutes. Brazil earned a free-kick in a fairly central position about 30 yards out. Zico took it and curled it into the top right-hand corner of the net with Rough unable to move.Â Serginho shouldâ€™ve put them in front before the break but he headed over at the back post.
With the score level at the break it was vitally important Scotland kept things tight for the opening 10 minutes or so of the second period. A corner on the left saw Oscar get ahead of Souness to head Brazil into the lead just three minutes into the half.
Zico shot just wide after skipping through the defence and then in another attack, Serginho fed Eder in on the left. The elegant winger feinted to shoot and then deftly dinked the ball over Rough, who again didnâ€™t move. Aesthetically it was a brilliant finish. The attack had been fast-paced and it looked as if Eder was setting himself to fire the ball home. Yet in that one moment he had the presence of mind to just stop the flow and lift the ball over the keeper.
Stein brought on Dalglish for Strachan and McLeish for Hartford to play three at the back, but they couldnâ€™t stem the flow, which was now a torrent. Brazil were now like a boxer toying with an opponent backed onto the ropes. Any minute they looked like they could launch the knock-out punch, but kept everyone waiting. Eventually they rounded off the scoring with Falcao calmly slotting in a pass from Socrates from 20 yards out.
1-4 and Scotland were well beaten. But theyâ€™d given a decent account of themselves and Brazil really had been impressive. 24 hours later and the Soviets beat New Zealand 3-0 in Malaga.
Scotland went into the final group match, against the Soviets in Malaga, knowing anything other than a win would see them bow out.
On matchday ten of the tournament, Scotland lined-up in Malaga needing to win. Stein again shuffled his pack bringing in Jordan to partner Archibald up front. Dalglish was now not even on the bench, and with Narey keeping his place at right-back, Souness again had the armband.
The Soviets were predominantly made up of players from Dinamo Kiev and Dinamo Tblisi. Tblisi had knocked Liverpool out of the European Cup that season and also included former European Footballer of the Year, Oleg Blokhin.
The atmosphere in the La Rosaleda Stadium was noisy with an estimated 20,000 Scots making themselves heard. After 15 minutes, Archibald pounced on some hesitation in the Soviet defence from a counter-attack and Jordan was through on goal. As Rinat Dasaev came out, Jordan slid the ball under him for a dream start. Four years earlier Jordan had given the Scots a similar dream start against Peru in their opening game in Argentina, before things went horribly wrong. In 1974 he scored two of Scotlandâ€™s three goals in the group stage.
But this time they held their lead to the break and Scots fans really were beginning to dream this might be their year.
In the second half the Soviets gradually took control of the game as Scotland began to look nervy again. Right on the hour the Soviet skipper, Aleksandre Chivadze came forward from his sweeper position and as the Scots failed to clear an attack, his scuffed shot dipped over Rough for the equaliser. The momentum was definitely with the Soviets, for whom a draw was enough.
Strachan and Jordan were taken off with McGrain and Brazil coming on. This gave Scotland five defenders on the pitch again. But they were unable to make a breakthrough and as the game moved into the final five minutes things were getting tense.
A ball played forward down the left for the Soviets was intercepted by Hansen. But his header looped behind him and as he turned to pass the ball back to Rough he hadnâ€™t noticed his defensive partner Miller come over to help. The two defenders collided with each other, and the ball ran free for Ramaz Shengelia, now clear on goal.
As he drove towards the area he only had Alan Rough to beat. The keeper provided little resistance as Shengelia rounded him and passed the ball into the empty net. It was a horrible goal to concede and seemed more akin to Ally McLeodâ€™s hapless side four years earlier. For the mistake to happen to two of the finest defenders Scotland has ever produced, seemed particularly puzzling.
Scotland now needed to score twice.
Almost immediately, Souness skipped past a couple of tackles to fire a shot into the net from the edge of the area to bring things back level. But it was too little too late and Scotland just couldnâ€™t find the winner. A 2-2 draw saw a First Round exit for the third successive World Cup. Each time on goal difference.
It seemed a cruel end, just like 1974, but ultimately Scotland had contributed to their own demise as they had done in 1978.
Looking back it seems incredible a squad containing the likes of Souness, Dalglish, Hansen, Miller, Strachan, Wark and Jordan could not reach the Second Phase when other less talented sides did. They were unlucky to have met a stunning Brazil side. That Soviet Union side went on to beat 1980 European Championship Finalists, Belgium in the next round, yet failed to progress on goal difference.
Jock Stein was pragmatic after their exit;
â€œI am very disappointed we have not qualified. If we had played the way we did in any other section we could have gone through. We are quite proud of the side, of their attitude and tactical application. I think once again we were at the wrong end of a vital decision. The players assure me that John Wark was pushed inside the box. It was definitely a penaltyâ€
He went onto add;
â€œWe have proved we can compete at this level, if not win. Tonight, I think we have done Scotland proud, both on and off the field.â€
The penalty decision Stein referred to came on 77 minutes when Wark appeared to be pulled down by Baltacha but the ref just signalled for a corner. In the first half the same Soviet defender had appeared to handle the ball in the area, but yet again the ref thought otherwise.
The Scots were left to reflect on how they let in two goals against New Zealand when they were cruising. This cost them as the USSR had been 3-0 up against the same opponents and held onto their lead. Weâ€™ll never know whether Scotland would have scored five if New Zealand hadnâ€™t come back to reduce the deficit to one goal. But in truth losing 1-4 to Brazil when USSR only lost 1-2 was what did for them in the end.
David Nareyâ€™s goal seemed to galvanise the Brazilians and they produced some scintillating football. But then maybe they were already off and running from beating the Soviets so late in the game. It seems reasonable to suggest Scotland may have faired better had they been Brazilâ€™s first opponents. Brazil certainly seemed to take a while to kick into gear, which ultimately the Soviets benefitted from.
What is slightly puzzling is the way Stein brought on an extra defender against both Brazil and USSR when they really needed a goal. Of course, you canâ€™t point the finger of blame on the manager for the rare defensive error by Hansen and Miller, no one predicted that.
One other point is the goalkeeper. There were times where Rough was rooted to the spot on several of the goals. Weâ€™ll never know whether Jim Leighton would have made a better job back then. He was uncapped going into the tournament, and Stein clearly put his faith in Rough and believed his experience of having played in Argentina â€™78 would serve the team better. Rough only earned two more caps after this tournament, and Leighton went on to break his record as Scotlandâ€™s most capped goalkeeper. Perhaps the tournament came just too early for Leighton, or it could be argued Stein should have tried him out in the run-up to the tournament to see how he fared.
Unfortunately for Scotland, it was yet another World Cup when many will remember their mistakes rather than the positive nature of their play.
The greatest Scotland side ever to go to a World Cup? I would say so, but the record books suggest they suffered the same fate as the 1974, 1978 and then 1986 editions.