Scotland’s road to Mexico ’86 was two years and nearly 30,000 miles long, a journey beset by club v country spats, bureaucratic cock-ups, birds n booze controversies and – putting all that into perspective – tragedy.
National team boss Jock Stein’s decision to bring Davie Cooper into the fray in place of Gordon Strachan as the Scots chased an equaliser in the vital World Cup qualifier in Wales the previous September proved to be the last of his life.
The Rangers winger subsequently levelled from the penalty spot but events on the park were forgotten when Stein collapsed on the trackside shortly before the end of the game and was rushed inside the stadium for emergency treatment. Despite the best efforts of the Ninian Park medical staff, the man many considered to be the greatest ever Scottish manager succumbed to heart failure and died at the age of 62.
The draw in Cardiff had been enough to see Scotland pip Wales to a two-legged play-off against Australia. Stein’s assistant was Alex Ferguson and the Aberdeen boss, though utterly distraught at the loss of his friend and mentor, agreed to take the manager’s job on a temporary basis.
The pool of players that Stein and then Ferguson could draw upon as their UEFA Qualifying Group 7 campaign began in October 1984 was far from shabby. Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness had started for Liverpool when they beat Roma to lift their fourth European Cup months earlier while a further two Scots had been in the matchday squad. Dundee United – narrowly beaten by Roma in the controversial semi-final of that competition – and Aberdeen, who had won the previous year’s Cup-Winners Cup, provided Scotland with the backbone of a squad used to pitting their wits against Europe’s best. The national team was bolstered further by players from top clubs at home and abroad and, having qualified for the past three World Cups, hopes were high that Scotland could not only make it four in a row but also progress beyond the group stages for the first time.
Scotland came flying out of the blocks and followed up an opening day win over Iceland with a sensational 3-1 victory over the much-fancied Spanish at Hampden thanks to a goal from Dalglish and a double from Celtic’s Mo Johnston. In true Scottish style, however, the euphoria of the Spain win was followed up by a loss in the return leg in Seville and defeat at home to Wales, who most people thought Scotland would be fighting it out with for second-place and the inter-continental play-off.
A second win over Iceland set up the fateful clash in Cardiff but deeper problems within the squad were starting to become apparent. Top clubs, already facing punishing domestic and European schedules, made little attempt to hide their displeasure at having to release their star players for international duty. A string of call-offs followed the announcement of each squad and served to frustrate the Scottish management team, media and fans, with the commitment of Liverpool captain Alan Hansen in particular, being called into question.
Then there was the issue of Hansen’s long-time teammate and the man many believed to be the finest player Scotland had ever produced. Now player-manager of the Anfield side, it was clear that Dalglish’s glittering on-field career was winding down. He was selecting other, younger players ahead of himself for Liverpool and even though he was on course to became the first Scotsman to win 100 caps for his country, his appearances for the national were become more infrequent as well. Speculation was rife that he would turn down the opportunity to become the first player from the home nations to play in four World Cup finals if Scotland qualified.
After a fine season, Mo Johnston was one of the men in line to fill Dalglish’s golden boots but the Celtic striker blotted his copybook during the build-up to the home leg against Australia in November 1985. Johnston was blamed for a late-night incident at the side’s hotel involving alcohol, girls and – almost inevitably – Frank McAvenie that left the notorious disciplinarian Ferguson irate. The Celtic striker was dropped for the game and never played for Scotland under Fergie again.
The passing of ‘Big Jock’ had cast a long shadow over Scottish football but Ferguson managed to galvanise the national side and emerge triumphant for the play-off with Australia, although the 2-0 aggregate victory was to have consequences for the domestic season and Scotland’s World Cup preparations.
The logistics of getting the Scottish squad to and from Australia for the second-leg resulted in two weeks when the Premier League fixture list was almost entirely depleted, just as surprise league challengers Hearts were hitting their stride. Despite the exceptional run they embarked upon, the Tynecastle squad remained untroubled by international recognition. As such, they were the only team not left with a build-up of fixtures and main challengers Celtic were still desperately trying to resolve their backlog as the last days of the season approached.
The final midweek of the season was the last available date for Celtic’s oft-postponed clash with Motherwell to be played. The Scottish Football League were determined that under no circumstances would any fixtures be played beyond the designated final day of the league season but this meant a clash with Scotland’s World Cup warm-up match against Holland in Eindhoven. Motherwell were also insistent that the game be played before the Dundee-Hearts encounter at the weekend as Celtic remaining in contention would ensure a bumper gate at Fir Park. The result was an unseemly spat that led Celtic supporters, not for the first or last time, to claim the authorities were determined to do everything in their power to undermine the Parkhead side’s on-field endeavours.
The club reacted to the selection of Paul McStay, Roy Aitken and Murdo MacLeod by refusing to release three of their biggest stars for the Netherlands game. The situation descended into farce when the SFL suggested the Celtic trio be allowed to fly back from Holland early after the game to enable them to play in the Motherwell match, which would be moved from the Wednesday to Thursday evening. Celtic were not of a mind to force their best players to play four games in a week and gave the proposal the short shrift. As the SFA and league continued to make conflicting public statements, the national team boss expressed sympathy for Celtic before adding, “The Dutch will be wondering what kind of country we are but we will just need to bite the bullet and get on with it.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Eindhoven friendly (a 0-0 draw), Ferguson made it clear that he had no interest in becoming national boss on a permanent, full-time basis. While the scale of the Aberdeen manager’s ambitions in club football were well known, the bureaucracy and politics he was forced to deal with could hardly have endeared him to the role either.
Warm-up matches and domestic season completed, the nation turned its attention to Scotland’s meeting with the original group of death. Lying in wait were Denmark, making their World Cup debut but European Championship semi-finalists two years earlier, and Uruguay and West Germany, who between them had won a third of all the World Cups staged to that point.
Despite Ferguson’s travails and the scale of the task awaiting them, there was optimism surrounding Scotland. This, after all, was a group talented enough for the doubts over Hansen’s commitment to see one of the best defenders in the world omitted and for the up-and-coming Johnston to be ruled out following a fairly minor disciplinary matter.
Scotland’s squad for Mexico consisted of only three Old Firm players – Roy Aitken and Paul McStay of Celtic and Rangers’ Davie Cooper. Graeme Souness – recently unveiled as Rangers’ new manager – was still listed as a Sampdoria player while Steve Archibald was plying his trade with Spanish giants Barcelona. No less than seven turned out for top-flight English clubs. Five Dundee United players meant they were the most represented club in the squad. Four Dons and Hibee Alan Rough made up the rest of Scotland’s World Cup complement.
The nation’s most decorated player was not on the plane, however. Kenny Dalglish was originally named in the 22-man squad but quickly withdrew, a decision that many attributed to Hansen’s omission although Dalglish has always insisted that his knee was simply not up to another summer of football. His best days may have been behind him but the loss of ‘King Kenny’ was a massive blow all the same.
Scotland kicked-off their campaign against Denmark. Things did not go to plan. A legitimate-looking Roy Aitken goal was disallowed but the Danes were deserved winners and the single-goal margin of victory could have been greater as their free-flowing football began seducing fans around the world.
By the time the Scots’ second group game against West Germany came around, the world was well acquainted with the Mexican Wave and the de rigour leaping over advertising boards to celebrate a goal. Gordon Strachan was to provide one of the iconic images of Mexico ’86 when he ran towards the hoardings after putting his side ahead in the first-half only to realise he too short to hurdle them. The Manchester United midfielder had to settle for resting his leg on top of the board instead.
West Germany drew level before the break and a Rudi Voller goal early in the second half put them ahead. Scotland threw everything at the Germans in an attempt to grab an equaliser but their efforts were fairly easily repelled. Played two, lost two. And yet, qualification remained a distinct possibility if the Scots could beat a Uruguay team that had just been thrashed 6-1 by the swashbuckling Danes.
The cause was not helped by disharmony behind the scenes. Frank McAvennie had finished the 85/86 season as second-top scorer in the English league with 29 goals to his name and had been widely tipped to lead the line in Scotland’s group games. Instead he found himself on the bench for the Denmark and West German matches and made his dissatisfaction plain to his manager.
“I got 10 minutes against the Germans and the same length of time in the previous match against the Danes,” he said. “I was too disappointed to enjoy the rest of the tournament.”
The striker’s mood dropped further when he and Scotland captain Graeme Souness were left out for the last, all-or-nothing game against Uruguay.
“The two of us were sharing a room in the worst hotel in the world,” McAvennie recalled. “The Scotland squad and official SFA party were the only guests and there was nothing to do while we were stuck in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by armed guards in case we staged a breakout. I remember Souey saying to me in the room one night that he had a suspicion Fergie would leave him out of one game altogether.
“I know why I got the heave from the team and the bench. I’d questioned the manager’s judgment and paid the price by being dropped. If there was one match where you wanted Souey in the trenches beside you it was against them. Souey was the only superstar we had.”
Souness’s ageing legs may have been struggling in the blistering Mexican heat and his form in the tournament thus far had been poor but there could be little doubt that his aggression and physicality could have been utilised against a team the mild-mannered SFA chief Ernie Walker would afterwards describe as ‘scum’.
Uruguay were down to 10 men after a minute following an X-rated tackle on Strachan by Jose Batista. Despite their numerical advantage, Scotland failed to unlock the Uruguayan defence as the South Americans took cynicism to a new level in a shocking display of footballing brutality. Late, high and dangerous tackles continued to fly in. Hair and the more personal parts of the Scots’ anatomies were pulled. Eyes were gouged. Spit flew. Injuries were faked. Time was wasted. The referee was harangued. It would be inconceivable now for them to go about their business without having their numbers further reduced but, sticking by the standards of the day, French referee Joel Quiniou was unlikely to show another red card after handing one out so early. Obviously intimidated he effectively handed the Uruguayans impunity.
Uruguay were fined 25,000 Swiss Francs for their misdemeanours and threatened with expulsion from the tournament while manager Omar Borras was banished to the stands for the following game. That was of no consolation to Scotland, however, and the Tartan Army were flying home without a victory and only a single goal to show for their efforts.
The Scots undoubtedly endured more than their share of bad luck but there was severe disappointment that a better fight had not been fought. This was, after all, a strong squad, something that McAvennie acknowledged.
“One goal in three games told its own story and that’s why the memory of 1986 will always be tinged with sadness for me,” he said. “But at least we had a squad in those days where there was quality in depth to the extent that you could have an argument over team selection.”
Veteran football writer Ron Scott agrees that the talent at Scotland disposal made the hurt of once again failing to break out of the group stages the more acute. He also looks back on a national team was on the verge of depletion.
“The Scots who played for Liverpool were the last world-class players Scotland produced,” he said. “Hansen wasn’t picked for Mexico and Souness retired from international football after the World Cup. Dalglish missed Mexico through injury although he did play another couple of matches but that was the end of an era as well.”
With another summer without Scottish participation in a major international championship upon us and today’s squad is more likely to be feature players from the English third-tier than Serie A and La Liga, the days of underperforming on the big stage seem a halcyon era.
Grant Hill is the author of ‘AK 86: Two Shots In The Heart of Scottish Football’, which will be published in paperback format next month.
Signed copies, costing £7.99, can be pre-ordered from Wholepoint Publications at http://wholepoint.jimdo.com/ak86/