In the summer of 1978, I was a young and impressionable lad, very much looking forward to my first World Cup. Like the rest of the nation, I had no doubts our boys would return victorious. We were, after all, a country with a rich footballing tradition and our players played for some of the best teams in Europe. It was our manifest destiny.
Now, had I been German, Spanish or even Italian, combined winners of nine World Cups, my youthful confidence could be forgiven but sadly I’m neither, I’m merely Scottish, and in footballing terms, Ewan MacGregor’s character in Trainspotting, rather hit the nail on the head when he stated, “It’s shite being Scottish, we are the lowest of the low…”.
Fast forward almost forty years and I still find it remarkable that a nation of renowned “canny pragmatists” could be so uncharacteristically upbeat. We Scots, are wholly of the “glass half-empty” sort (and not because we like a wee dram or that an empty glass makes a convenient and dangerous weapon) we are just pathologically negative. Meet a cheery Scotsman and he’s probably just out the pub. We have built a national character on the healthy distrust of any type of optimism. The phrase “too good to be true” should be our national motto. In fact, walking around with a “smug-like” smile on your face in some parts of the country would be seen by some as an invitation to inflict bodily harm upon you, probably with the aforementioned “half-glass”.
But the world was a very different place in 1978. For a start everybody wore huge flares, and I mean everybody, men, women and children! On a windy day you could witness great swathes of the public struggling up the High street with their trousers flapping around like errant sails. Men had long hair too, which, in some towns, made it difficult to discern the sexes, especially in those where the women had facial hair.
The seventies was a very singular decade. There was no internet for a start. Had there been, a simple Google search would have quickly disabused us of the notion that Scotland had any chance of winning the World Cup. In those days, most people didn’t even know where Argentina was! It was pre ‘Falkland’s Conflict’ and the world was yet to know of Maradona or Messi (although, Maradona was introduced to a worldwide TV audience with his half-time ball juggling skills). Argentina was simply some place next to Brazil and we didn’t even know they played football. Oh! How blissfully ignorant we were.
Amid all this “blissful ignorance” there emerged a character unlike any we have seen since in Scottish football. His name was, Alistair Reid McLeod, and he was about to take a nation of five million people on a fantastical adventure that would inevitably end up (in typically Scottish fashion) in not-so-glorious failure.
The nation’s alarm bells should have been ringing when he proclaimed, “You can mark down 25 June 1978 as the day Scottish football conquers the world.” And, when a journalist asked him “What do you plan to do after the World Cup?” MacLeod replied: “Retain it.” As a statement of unqualified bombast and blind optimism, it ranks up there with former president, George W. Bush’s, “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003 that heralded, “the end of combat operations in Iraq,” a mere fourteen years too prematurely.
But a strange thing happened. Instead of running him out of town as a charlatan, the whole nation became intoxicated with Macleod’s “snake-oil salesman” brand of unyielding enthusiasm. Even hardened men, the type who wore their negativity like a badge of honor, bought into McLeod’s “grand ambition”. There were 25,000 people at the national stadium, Hampden Park, to see the team off on their quest for immortality and “inevitable victory” in Argentina.
Up until his appointment as Scotland manager, McLeod’s biggest achievement in football had been a League Cup Final success for Aberdeen against Celtic. On a personal level, he was also named, Ayr’s “Citizen of the Year” award in 1973, which is something akin to being “employee of the month” at a suburban McDonald’s in rural America.
In fairness to McLeod, the team wasn’t without it’s talents. Kenny Dalglish, our talisman, had just won the European Cup for Liverpool with a goal against Club Brugge. Alongside him in that all-conquering Liverpool team were Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness. And in Archie Gemmill we had a player who would go on to score one of the goals of the tournament and the following year win the European Cup with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. It was undoubtedly a good squad, arguably the best Scotland has ever sent to a major finals but they were, by no stretch of the imagination, “the greatest team the world had ever seen,” as McLeod had earlier suggested.
The truth is, they were rank mediocre and not even guaranteed to get out of the group stage but McLeod had bewitched us all and to the tune of the terrace anthem, “Ally’s Tartan Army,” a nation joyfully chorused that, “we’d really shake ’em up when we win the World Cup”.
There nearly wasn’t a World Cup at all as the Netherlands led calls for a boycott. Argentina at that time was under military dictatorship and run by General Jorge Rafael Videla who was conducting a “dirty War” against his own people and human rights violations and “forced disappearances” were widespread. Videla avoided the potential embarrassment by guaranteeing there would be no bloodshed during the competition. However, three-time European Footballer of the Year Johan Cruyff and West Germany’s Paul Breitner both refused to take part, with Cruyff only revealing his real – non-political – reasons for not traveling 30 years after the event.
In hindsight, it would probably have been better for the national footballing psyche of Scotland if the World Cup hadn’t happened and the Scottish players had just stayed at home cutting the grass or playing dominoes in the pub, or whatever professional players did back then during their downtime.
After a somewhat inglorious start against Peru, our keeper, Alan Rough, appeared glued to the middle of his goal as shots flew past him at will and from all distances. We were quite literally thumped 3-1. Having recovered our breath for the next game we played the “mighty” Iran, renowned more for their ability to wage war than play football. No image sums up this game better than the TV footage of McLeod, sat in the dugout, head in his hands and seemingly asking himself, “where did it all go wrong”?
In the final game, Scotland had to win by a margin of three clear goals which, while improbable was not impossible. The improbable quickly became the impossible, however, when we learned our next opponents were the Netherlands, who, rather unfortunately for us, had just invented a blended of football that was termed, “Total Football”. Needless to say Scotland fell at the final hurdle but some national pride was restored when we beat the eventual finalists, 3-2 and witnessed an improbably Brazilian-like goal from a very Scottish looking player, the diminutive and balding Archie Gemmill.
Upon the teams return from the tournament, it was as if the nation had collectively woken up from its intoxicating state and was now nursing the most venomous of hangovers that McLeod bore the brunt of. MacLeod himself summed up the country’s mood: “With a bit of luck in the World Cup I might have been knighted,” he said. ‘Now I’ll probably be beheaded.” As it was, he merely resigned after a defeat against Austria.
Upon his resignation, the Scottish FA issued a statement saying: “Regardless of the depressing aspects of Mr. MacLeod’s latter days in the Association’s employ, it would be quite unfair not to comment that he was largely responsible for kindling an enthusiasm for the Scottish team that far exceeded anything which had gone before. The Association benefited considerably from that enthusiasm and should not forget it.”
As a nation, we’ve never quite truly recovered from McLeod’s “big con”. His belief that the “ugly ducklings” of world football could just waltz in and steal the biggest and most glittering prize in the sport, seems ludicrous now, but for one glorious summer, a nation chose ‘to believe’ and a part of me will always be thankful for this astonishing act of blind faith, for we Scots have had very little since to celebrate.
For a man much maligned, the last word should, in fairness, belong to McLeod himself, “I am a very good manager who just happened to have a few disastrous days, once upon a time, in Argentina.”