1978 World Cup
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.
The high water mark of the enthusiasm was reached with the send-off of the players, as the squad was paraded round a packed Hampden in an open-topped bus. Thousands more lined the route to Prestwick airport with toddlers brought from the villages of deepest Ayrshire to cheer the bus from flyover bridges. No other team departing the country had received such a send-off. They were to be joined in Argentina by a UK-wide press pack, (Scotland being the only representatives of the Home Nations) and thousands of Scottish fans who had travelled by plane, boat and, allegedly, submarine. The cries of dismay and derision of this band of travelling fans were to provide the backdrop to the tournament.
The first game of the tournament involved Scotland facing up to Peru in Cordoba. After the pre-tournament hype, it was now time for the Scots to show what they could do on the pitch. The answer, after this display, was not much. The Scots did take the lead, through Jordan, but by half-time the South Americans were level. The second half went from bad to worse as the Peruvians took control. Masson saw his spot-kick saved by Quiroga in the Peru goal, before two goals from the mercurial talent of Cubillas took the game miles beyond Scotland, as energy levels among the Scots sapped.
After the ignominy of the Peru match and the Johnston scandal, a shell-shocked nation waited for the next encounter, this time with Iran – scarcely a footballing powerhouse - and surely three points in the bag for Ally's Army. Now was the time to put things right. Or not. Iran were certainly underestimated and the Tartan Army were in for another nasty shock. Yet again the Scots took the lead, through an Iskandarian own goal, but a lacklustre display allowed the Iranians to level the game, and they were unlucky not to take all the points from this encounter. The mood of the entire nation was summed up by the television pictures of MacLeod sitting in the dugout with his head in his hands, utterly disconsolate. How could things have gone so badly wrong? It was indeed a “disaster for Scotland.”
The final game of the group saw Scotland facing up to the might of Holland. The Dutch may have been missing the genius of Johann Cruyff (who was boycotting the tournament for political reasons) but they remained one of the favourites to win the competition outright and, with the Scots needing to win by 4 clear goals, it looked like a case of lambs to the slaughter.
As so often is the case, in Scottish sport however, the national team were not prepared to lie down and meekly submit. Even after the Dutch had taken the lead through a Rensenbrink penalty the Scots rallied, and Dalglish grabbed an equalising goal. Just after the break, Archie Gemmill converted a Scottish penalty to give the Scots the lead, and then, with 70 minutes on the clock, came the moment of magic that Scots still talk fondly of to this day.
It was not to be. Johnny Rep launched a thunderbolt of a shot past Alan Rough to bring the score to 3-2 and Scotland were out. Holland went on to reach the final of the competition, the Scottish team returned home to a nation in despair and looking for somewhere to pin the blame.
The legacy of the 1978 World Cup looms large in Scottish international football history. The underestimation of our opponents, the disastrous consequences and the subsequent vilification of the optimistic manager and players produced a sense of fear amongst the SFA. Never again would a Scottish manager talk up the prospects of his team. In many ways this is grossly unfair: Scottish football could dearly do with someone of Ally MacLeod's enthusiasm today to manage to get the whole country excited about the international team. It is also no disgrace to have lost to a very good Peruvian team and to have beaten Holland, and but for a bit of luck in the game against Iran, Scotland could easily have taken a place in the second round.