June 2006 Scottish Football

We’re off tae Argentina, we’ve got to do or die,
Others cannae do it . . . cause they didnae qualify!

So sang a gleeful Andy Cameron in ‘Ally’s Army’, in the hot summer of 1978 as the Scottish team boarded a plane for Buenos Aries for the World Cup.

But the wheel of fortune spins and, sadly, for the second time in a row, Scotland will not be sending a team to the World Cup this summer. But instead we can reflect on Scotland’s (considerable) involvement in the development of both domestic and international football and, along the way, perhaps allow ourselves a few moments to reflect on previous triumphs . . .

1872 WAS A LEAP YEAR. Certain cultures believe that leap years are significant, filled with strange portents, and this one was no different: much of the city of Boston was consumed by fire, a large meteorite struck Great Britain, at Banbury, near Oxford, and the Marie Celeste was found floating crewless in strange waters. But another event took place that year of far greater historical importance than all of these combined, an event which would send shockwaves down through the centuries, affecting generations to come and leaving an indelible mark on almost every country in the world: Scotland played England in the world’s first international football match.

The November morning had been wet and drizzly, but the sun came into view over Glasgow around lunchtime and was shining weakly over the West of Scotland Cricket club, in Partick in the city’s west end, when play commenced at 2.20pm, twenty minutes later than advertised. Just 4000 people watched as, on a pitch slick and greasy from three days of continuous rain, history was made as the two teams, resplendent in knickerbockers, battled their way to a 0-0 draw.

Of course the origins of football stretch back much further than this. Some scholars point to evidence that the game was played in China before the birth of Christ, but the evidence is hazy. In a book written almost 400 years ago, David Wedderburn, a poet and teacher at Aberdeen Grammar School, described a match in his pocket-sized tome Vocabula. Whilst older descriptions of ball games involve kicking, historians say that the Scottish manuscript, written in Latin, is the first to report on players passing the ball forward and attempting to score past a goal keeper. The 1711 edition of the manuscript was stored for years at the National Library of Scotland.

In the United Kingdom the game began to gain widespread popularity during the 13th century. These early games were bloody, riotous affairs, closer to small wars than any football game we might recognise today. Unlimited numbers of people took part, with whole towns often playing each other over vast fields. Stabbings and deaths were routine.

Although the Scots were a highly regarded football nation it was the English who first professionalised the sport, but only with the aid of a Scotsman: William McGregor, who was director of Aston Villa. McGregor persuaded 12 teams (including Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Everton) to agree to a regular home and away fixture list and, in 1885, the world’s first football league was born.

The Scots would not have their own equivalent until the Scottish League was set up in 1893. However, in the intervening eight years the Scots continued to exercise a considerable influence on the game: a football brain-drain took place, with English clubs luring Scottish players and experts down South. The temptations involved in the embryonic transfer market were huge: in 1890 Wilson, goalkeeper for Vale of Leven, was offered three pounds ten shillings per week to play with Blackburn. As well as an additional one pound a week to continue working as a dyer! Third Lanark striker James Oswald probably didn’t ponder too long before he succumbed to Notts County’s mouth-watering transfer offer: 160 pounds per season and his own tobacconist shop with 500 pounds worth of stock!

It’s worth remembering that in the 1890s the average Glasgow fitter earned 36 shillings for a 54 hour week. Offers to move down south were not to be sniffed at.

Scotland’s contributions to the development of the game were equally impressive in other areas. Glaswegian born architect Archibald Leitch was the pioneering football stadium designer of his day – by the 1920’s 16 out of 22 of England’s First Division stadiums were Leitch designs. The most famous example of his work still in existence is probably Ibrox. (This would undoubtedly please Leitch, who was a devout Rangers fan.) Meanwhile, further afield, it was another Scotsman, Schoolteacher Alexander Watson Hutton, who set up the Argentine Football Association, which is the oldest South American football body. His contribution to the game in Latin America was massive and he became known as ‘the father of South American football.’

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, football became a worldwide phenomenon as clubs and leagues were established in every country in the world, but the game suffered a derailment during the First World War. In Scotland the Second Division was scrapped and the First Division struggled as thousands of young men swapped boots and balls for gas masks and rifles. The entire Hearts team signed up on the same day and many of them were never to come home, dying in their prime as – like so many young men of their generation – they were cut down in great swathes in Flanders, Ypres and The Somme.

Between the wars football flourished to an incredible level. Back in the days before safety regulations and fire limits enormous crowds would cram themselves into Leitch’s hulking stadiums every Saturday. In 1937 close to 150,000 people crammed into Hampden Park for an international between Scotland and England. A week later the same number returned to see Celtic beat Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup final. This was a world record at the time.

The years between the wars were a halcyon time for Scottish football: 1928 saw them beating England 5-1 at Wembley, a scoreline which will make many older readers sigh with nostalgia, and younger ones rub their eyes in disbelief. The victory earned the Scots the affectionate sobriquet ‘the Wembley Wizards’ and the following year they played their first international abroad when they travelled to Bergen, where they beat Norway 7-3.

But it was in the years after the Second World War that British football really boomed: in England 41 million people attended league games in the 1948-1949 season while, north of the border, Rangers played to over a million people in one season and close to 150,000 fans once again descended upon Mount Florida in Glasgow, filling Hampden to bursting point as Motherwell and Dundee clashed in the 1952 Scottish Cup final.

Scotland’s performance statistics in the World Cup since World War II are, like the Scottish football team itself, a scintillating blend of the sublime and the ridiculous. An impressive qualification record – qualifying every single year from 1974 through to 1990 – is offset by the fact that the team has never progressed beyond the first round.

Yet there have been some incredible highlights along the way, like the 3-2 defeat of England at Wembley in 1967. Then, of course, there was Archie Gemill’s goal...

There are probably Scotsmen of a certain age who forget their wives birthdays and their children’s home phone numbers but who could still describe in microscopic detail Gemill’s miraculous goal against The Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

Video Clip

View a movie of Archie Gemill's 1978 World Cup goal.

Gemill picked up the ball on the edge of the Dutch box and dribbled past three defenders before coolly lobbing the ball over the keeper. As it plopped into the net – taking Scotland to a 3-1 lead over the tournament favourites, and tantalizingly close to going through to the second round for the first time ever – four thousand miles away, in Glasgow tenement flats, on remote Borders farms and Highland bars, an entire nation of Scots went simultaneously berserk: banging their heads on the floor, kissing televisions and screaming from their windows. Or, as Ewan McGregor’s character Renton succinctly puts it in Trainspotting, after his encounter with the beautiful Diane (Kelly MacDonald) – ‘I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemill scored against Holland in 1978!

Scotland’s 1978 World Cup shirt has been ranked as one of the top three coolest strips of all time by Germany’s popular Stern lifestyle magazine. It was only matched by Brazil’s 1970 and Germany’s 1954 kit. This summer, Scottish football fans are forming an unlikely alliance. Trinidad and Tobago striker Jason Scotland plays for St. Johnstone and his international shirt, emblazoned of course with ‘SCOTLAND’ on the back, has become the number one must-have accessory for members of the Tartan Army. A spokesman for Adidas said that they simply cannot get enough shirts into Scotland to meet demand, with sports stores in Glasgow and Edinburgh selling out of the shirts as soon as they get them in stock. Jason himself commented that ‘to have Scotland’s support makes it special . . .

The Scots, long inclined by experience and culture to support the underdog in any situation, probably agree in their millions.