Mexico in 1986 should have been a second chance for Jock Stein to experience the World Cup – sadly the big man never made it.
It was a campaign that was ultimately tinged by sadness following Stein’s tragic death from a heart attack at Ninian Park in Cardiff, as Davie Cooper’s late penalty kept Scotland’s qualification hopes alive by booking a two-legged play-off with Australia.
But what should have been a celebration became somberness and mourning as the national team manager passed away in the medical room after he collapsed in the tunnel, not knowing that Cooper’s spot kick had taken the country closer to Mexico.
Step forward Stein’s trusted lieutenant, an up and coming young Aberdeen manager by the name of Alex Ferguson, to take over our nation’s hopes, but the play-off with the Aussies was the immediate concern and a huge task for a manager new to the international scene.
Thankfully Cooper and debutant Frank McAvennie, from West Ham, scored to seal a 2-0 win at Hampden, giving us a healthy advantage for the second leg in Melbourne a fortnight later, but a goalless draw meant the Scots were heading to their fourth consecutive World Cup finals.
After hard luck stories in West Germany in 1974, Argentina in 1978 and Spain four years previously, Ferguson was looking to become the first manager to lead Scotland to the knockout stages for the first time, trying to succeed where predecessors Willie Ormond, Ally MacLeod and the late Stein had previously failed.
But Lady Luck wasn’t smiling on the Tartan Army when the draw was made and we were put in a group with Euro 84 semi finalists Denmark, 1982 World Cup runners-up West Germany and South American cracks Uruguay. This was to be the “Group of Death”.
Preparations for the tournament started well with wins over Israel (1-0) and Romania (3-0), where Kenny Dalglish reached his landmark 100th cap for Scotland before defeat to England in the Rous Cup and a goalless draw in Holland.
Then it was into the real stuff and the first blow for Ferguson came when Dalglish, a sprightly 35 years old and having just helped Liverpool to a League and FA Cup double, couldn’t go to Mexico after getting injured in the FA Cup final, leaving Ferguson having to find a replacement.
Steve Archibald was given an unexpected call-up despite struggling for games with Barcelona and he was on the plane for Mexico where the tournament would finally start.
The first game was in Nezahualcoyotl where the Danes awaited, a team becoming a European force after their impressive run to the semi-finals in the European Championships in France two years before. This time they were determined to shine on the world stage.
With an array of talented players in Michael Laudrup, Soren Lerby, Jesper Olsen and hitman Preben Elkjaer-Larsen, it was no surprise that they took the tournament by storm and their first ever World Cup finals appearance yielded a 1-0 victory over the Scots.
A close encounter took place and the quality of the Danes shone through, particularly in Laudrup, who was the creative genius in Sepp Piontek’s side.
However it was a through ball from Frank Arnesen that freed Elkjaer, who came forward and found Willie Miller of Aberdeen in the way. The ball broke and it was the Danish striker that got there first as he slid it past Jim Leighton and into the net for what turned out to be the winner.
Not the ideal start, but it was a decent performance and it perhaps gave some hope to Alex Ferguson as he looked ahead to the West Germany game next, where if Scotland were to have any chance of reaching the last 16, we had to get something from the ever-efficient Germans.
Three changes were made with Alex McLeish, Charlie Nicholas and Paul Sturrock replaced by David Narey, Eamonn Bannon and Archibald and although there was a goal to cheer, the West Germans showed their quality in the lunchtime heat of Queretaro.
Scotland’s only goal of the tournament is not so much remembered for the actual finish itself, but more the celebration of its scorer, Gordon Strachan. The Manchester United man picked up Roy Aitken’s through ball and flashed an angled shot past German keeper Harald Schumacher to give us a lead.
The pint-sized midfielder took off to celebrate and looked to jump the advertising boards to celebrate with the fans. However he realised he was too small and instead, somewhat amusingly, lifted his right leg and rested it on top of the board.
The West Germans, coached by the legendary Franz Beckenbauer, were not having that and Rudi Voller soon gained parity when he put away Klaus Allofs’ ball across Leighton’s six-yard box.
It was Allofs himself that scored the winner in the second half when Voller’s tenacity saw him win a duel with Steve Nicol in Scotland’s box, with the Cologne striker firing home from 10 yards, making it 2-1.
It left a potential battle with Uruguay for third place in the group, which still provided a route into the second round, but Scotland needed to beat their South American opponents.
So it was back to Nezahualcoyotl for the showdown with the Uruguayans and the game was barely in its infancy when French referee Joel Quiniou brandished the quickest World Cup red card in history.
Only a minute had passed when Jose Batista cynically scythed down Strachan and Uruguay were down to ten men for the remaining 89 minutes. However Scotland couldn’t make the breakthrough in a 0-0 draw, although Nicol wasted the best chance when his inexplicably soft shot from four yards was somehow stopped by Uruguay keeper Fernando Alves.
So another World Cup trip ended in abject disappointment and failure and Alex Ferguson’s spell in charge of the national team ended also, with Andy Roxburgh set to take over as the permanent Scotland coach.
It was only four years until another World Cup trip. This time to Italy.
Originally published in Issue 12 of our football fanzine, The 12th Man, written by Craig Anderson.