BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
It’s 1978 and somehow, like a crazed preacher on mescaline, Scotland manager Ally MacLeod has got them believing in the barricades. In a series of fist pumping press conferences for the upcoming World Cup, in a country that would follow an otter into a volcano if you stuck a kilt on it, he’s somehow managed to take patriotism and optimism to new levels. It’s impressive stuff if you’re an outsider. Especially, from a man that resembles a depressed coat hanger.
For the wily old football writers however, Ally’s rhetoric falls on deaf ears. As the press conferences come and go they collectively sigh at the madness of it. Whilst the nubs of their pencils still write busily into notepads, they know the Scotland manager may as well be talking in Swahili. They’ve heard stories of his induction into the Scotland dressing room: ‘I am Ally MacLeod and I am a winner,’ he told the players, which may have raised eyebrows amongst the likes of Dalglish, Gemmill and Souness who have plied their trade somewhat higher than the echelons of the Scottish League Cup Ally’s lifted. Still, that’s nothing to what he says when asked what he intends to do after the World Cup. He bangs his hands on the side of the team bus and stares down the journalist like the great God Shiva – his eyes burning like mad fireflies in the night. ‘Retain it,’ he says simply.
The fatalism surrounding Scotland World Cup campaigns had always hung on them like dead skin, but at least going into the 1978 World Cup, there were positive signs. A difficult qualifying group that included Wales and Czechoslovakia had been navigated successfully, which was something the Auld Enemy hadn’t managed to achieve south of the border. For once Scotland had the bragging rights on the world stage and it could have been argued that they had the better players too. The Scotland team were a mixture of genuine guile and steel. Whilst it was outlandish to suggest that they were going to win the trophy, there was still genuine excitement about them.
However, from the very moment they landed in South America, trouble seemed to follow them like a tartan hex. Firstly, the Scottish FA had not exactly landed them in the lap of luxury when it came to hotel accommodation. A swimming pool without any water in it (we’ll come back to this later), and an army of stray dogs around the grounds meant the players affectionately nicknamed their luxury abode the ‘Bark Lane Hilton’. Such gallows humour would begin to evaporate once the campaign began to teeter on sheer unprofessionalism. In the lead up to their first group game against Peru, the Scotland team were alarmed to discover that MacLeod and his backroom staff had failed to compile a detailed report on their South American opponents. What garbled notes they did have meant that the Scottish defenders ended up marking players that were on the opposite side of the pitch to where their manager had told them.
As they duly trudged off the pitch after a 3-1 defeat, the Scotland team probably thought things couldn’t get any worse. Unfortunately, it could – in the form of Willie Johnston’s unconventional cold cure. Whilst it was never explained why a cold remedy was needed in the balmy climate of South America, it just so happened that Willie’s had a listed substance in it. Lemsip it certainly wasn’t, and he was sent on the next plane home. The rallying refrain of Scotland’s World Cup song was suddenly beginning to seem ironic. ‘We’ll really shake them up when we win the World Cup,’ sang Ally’s army. Only their campaign was starting to seem as shaky as a young Elvis Presley’s hips.
In the privacy of his hotel room, Ally MacLeod must have feared that the football Gods were conspiring against him but at least for the next game he could breathe easy – a game against Iran, a certain three pointer to redress the balance and save his reputation amongst the already circling football writers. Like vultures they sensed a sacrifice and the rumour that Ally’s one coaching instruction in the Peru defeat was to ‘hoof it long’ was music to their ears. It would become something of a cacophony in Córdoba. After an hour of a dour match and trailing 1-0, the unfancied Iranians somehow conspired to score an equaliser against the lacklustre Scots. The match would limp to a 1-1 draw. To pour salt in the wounds, Scotland’s goal hadn’t even been scored by a player in a dark blue shirt. It was an Iranian own goal that gave them their first point in the tournament.
The ensuing press conference played out like an existential drama. A thin faced MacLeod looked like someone had removed all the air from his body. Bizarrely, his reasoning for Scotland’s poor performance was the empty swimming pool at the hotel and the fact that this gave his squad nothing to do. Turning to a dog that had wandered in inquisitively he then remarked that ‘it was his only friend’. The dog duly bit him. As a piece of symbolism, it summed it all up perfectly. A manager who had quoted Ali and his jab against the world in the lead up to the tournament, now ironically needing a tetanus jab of his own.
The abyss now beckoned – a final group game with the imperious Holland and to make matters worse, Scotland had to beat them by three clear goals. Yet, on a strange night in Mendoza, some weird alchemy finally clicked; a witching hour of Scottish voodoo performed on the Dutch side suddenly had the world sitting up and taking notice. Falling behind to an early Holland goal, they would reply through Dalglish and a penalty to give themselves a glimmer of hope. In the 68th minute that glimmer would turn into a lightning bolt. It was a third Scotland goal created by the Gods themselves. Archie Gemmill danced through the Dutch defence like an imp of the perverse to beautifully slot home. Time seemed to stand still, and the tournament threatened to be turned on its head.
Had Ally been right all along, the world wondered. Were Scotland really the greatest side the world had ever seen?
Of course they weren’t. Dutch class and realism wouldn’t quite prevail, but they would get a goal back and end Scotland’s hopes for good in the white heat of the South American sun. It brought to an abrupt end a footballing journey that was doomed from the start, a campaign that wouldn’t leave behind a footballing legacy, but in terms of lunacy and entertainment, was second to none.
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