In an era when nationalism was described in terms of “90-minute patriots” many commentators have ascribed the failure of the 1979 devolution referendum at least in part to the disastrous World Cup the year before. What exactly went wrong in Argentina, and are we right to still instinctively shudder as a nation when we hear the three words “disaster for Scotland?”
The campaign that was to end in such glorious failure in… is really bound to one man, national manager Ally MacLeod, and so the story really begins with his appointment in 1976. A naturally effervescent character, MacLeod had forged his reputation at Ayr Utd and Aberdeen, winning the League Cup while at Pittodrie. MacLeod's confidence and enthusiasm proved infectious, and, after Scotland defeated England 2-1 at Wembley in 1977, the nation would have followed MacLeod to Mars.
In the event, Argentina was the destination, as the World Cup qualifying campaign saw the Scots progress to the championship. Qualification was not without its own drama however, as the final game, against Wales, amply demonstrated. Even the venue was odd, the game being played at Anfield, home of Liverpool, as Wales's Ninian Park had a crowd limit of only 10,000. The Scots took the lead in the most fortunate, and dubious, of circumstances, the referee awarding a penalty for handball after Jordan and Jones had both jumped in the box. The fact that Jordan kissed his fist afterwards showed perhaps what really happened, but no matter, Masson colly converted and the Scots were ahead. In an even contest Scotland eventually ran out 2-0 winners when Dalglish, scoring on his home club's pitch, doubled the Scottish lead with a great header. It was a great way for Dalglish to celebrate his 50th Scottish cap.
Amid the euphoria, extravagant promises were made, and unhealthy expectations fostered among the fans. MacLeod was certainly not blameless in this, announcing that, even if Scotland didn't win the World Cup, they would certainly come home “with a medal” and, when asked what he would do after the World Cup, his reply was “Retain it.” Behind the scenes things were falling apart as well, as the players got involved in an unseemly row over bonus payments, although it was to transpire that they wouldn't have to worry too much about those.