Friday, June 15, 2018

'78 and all that

With World Cup 2018 underway, thoughts of Scots turn to other years ending in 8. France 1998 was the last time we qualified for a major tournament, and 1978 was the year of the Argentina tournament.
Champions: it could have happened!
BBC has just broadcast a documentary, Scotland 78: A Love Story, looking back at the year Scotland was the sole team to qualify from the British Isles, and when the whole country became convinced that we were all set to win the tournament. The past is indeed a different country.
As a nostalgic, you'd expect me to be delighted to return to that interesting time in our history. However, like many Scots, I still bear the scars, and I was only 11 at the time. I've been putting off watching it, until the first day of the World Cup when I cracked.
The story goes that the Scottish team came under the spell of a charismatic manager Ally MacLeod, who led the team to qualification, and then seemed to preside over a period of national hysteria where expectation built to such an extent that many were convinced that Scotland simply had to turn up in Buenos Aires on 25 June 1978 to collect the trophy.
King Kenny: celebrates scoring in 1977
Maybe I'm trying to exculpate myself from that delusion, but I can't remember being so convinced that it would be so simple. My first memory of Scotland playing was the 5-1 drubbing by England in the Home Nations championships in 1975. The elders in my village thought that would be 'Easy!' too. These were the same guys who would save their money to make the bi-annual pilgrimage to Wembley for the match against England, to routinely swamp the stadium with Lions Rampant, Saltires and tartan to the extent that we used to call it Spot the Englishman.
Practically every village in Western Scotland used to send a bus down, terrifying the locals with their numbers, their incomprehensible language and drunken antics. They'd return a few days after the game finished, skint and ruddy faced, already planning the next trip.
These jolly boys outings were obviously only partly about the football. They were largely about getting away from the everyday with your mates and getting pished... in England.
Fan-tastic: even Rod got in on the Wembley mischief
So maybe the idea of going to Argentina didn't seem as daft as it was presented in the documentary. Yes, it was over the other side of the world, but Scottish fans were used to travelling overseas - Lisbon in 1967, and the rioting Rangers fans in Barcelona in 1972 to name just two examples of Scottish cultural exchange.
One idea that wasn't really explored in the documentary was how the Scots led themselves to be hypnotised by MacLeod, because that's the narrative. I suspect that his cardinal sin was to tell people what they wanted to hear. Scots bought into that storyline wholeheartedly, as did the whole of Britain actually. There didn't seem to be a lot of critical thinking.
Of course, money was a big part of it. Although the endorsement ads look cheesy now, it was early days for that sort of thing, and both the FA and the players were probably filling their boots to an unexpected degree. Who would want to rain on the parade and say "Of course, we might not win."
I had a piece of merchandise that my dad got for me. It was a pint jug - the perfect gift for a Scottish 11 year old - which had the team badge and the signatures of all of the players on it. I was so naive that for ages I thought they had actually signed it, not realising the wonders of promotional printing.
And what a team that was. In some ways Ally MacLeod did have reason to have a level of confidence - Buchan, McQueen, Rioch. Dalglish, Jordan, Souness, Macari, Rough, Hartford, Gemmill... That wasn't a bad selection.
I watched the first match against Peru at a Scout camp in Hamilton. The leaders had set up a telly in a marquee. It must have be tiny - there were no projection screens in those days. Truth be told I can't remember much about the game apart from the overwhelming level of disappointment at the 3-1 result. Did I watch the Iran game? I doubt it.
Ditto the Holland match, although we all remember Gemmill's wonder goal, which, in convincing the most one-eyed fans that we could have won the tournament, is up there with the 1967 'real world champions' myth of Scottish football.
Super Gemmill: lest we forget (chance!)
One particularly unedifying aspect of the tournament was the treatment of Willie Johnston, who was sent home for failing a drugs test. In these days of TUEs and the number of top athletes who seem to be asthmatic, his expulsion for an over the counter hay fever remedy seems harsh, but not as harsh as the way the blazers of the FA threw him under the bus. It seems crazy that the team doctors didn't know what players were taking or have processes in place, but was in line with the general amateur nature of the overall affair - not so much different from my village's bus trips to Wembley in truth.
Scotland '78 makes the point that the whole affair, with its echoes of the Darien expedition, dented the national psyche to such an extent that the country didn't vote in sufficient numbers for independence in 1979. The fact is that there was a majority who voted yes, but the government of the day dictated that it was such an important vote that there should be a threshold - something that sticks in the craw of nationalists to this day.
Would but there have been such a threshold for Brexit - an equally important vote.
As it is Argentina in 1978 probably gave Scots a sharp lesson in the dangers of national exceptionalism - something that England has still to learn given Brexit. Scotland was changing fast, as the pictures of dreary, graffitied tenements indicate. Twelve years later, Glasgow was the Smiles Better European City of Culture. I remember visiting it around that time, years after I'd last been as a child, on one of the occasional trips to the Barras, when the tenements were being pulled down and the sight of poor people selling their belongings on the pavement made it seem like another world to an impressionable child. At this later date, the cleaned up sandstone buildings seemed magnificent, the museums were engaging and exciting, and people had a swagger.
By the Nineties Scottish pride and confidence was based on things other than our football team: history, art, architecture, the landscape, the education system, and the people. And it wasn't an unquestioning pride, as the most recent independence referendum result shows. I'd venture that people realise that as a small nation, Scotland's place in the world will be tied to other larger entities. They just can't decide which they will be.
Beside the online sledging, the level of debate about the country's future was genuinely soul searching because of that. People realised that there are no easy solutions and choices have consequences, something that again seems lost on the Brexiteers.
Maybe that's something we should thank Ally McLeod for.