Scotland’s National Team: Eleven Impossible Jobs, Plus Substitutes

The first thing Capello said on becoming England manager was that when an Englishman pulled on his international shirt, he lost all the confidence he felt at his club: he played in fear. The task for Capello was to create the conditions for confidence that already existed at Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. And in that he succeeded, but could he have done it for Scotland? I argue not. The Scottish job, for the time being, is beyond the power of a single man. If the Scotland team are to experience what England experienced in 2009, change has to come from the Scottish FA, the Scottish press, the Scottish clubs, and, especially, in Scottish fan culture itself.

The problem doesn’t lie with Scottish managers, and it doesn’t lie with Scottish players. Scotland, as any glance at the English Premiership or at post-War European Cup football will show, has a competitive advantage when it comes to the production of fine football managers. Any country in the world, with the possible exceptions of Italy and Holland, would love to possess the Scottish managerial production line for themselves. Nor, as I will argue, are the players deficient. The obstacles are psychological. There are three of them. Sadly, just because it’s “all in the mind” doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to shift.

Obstacle One: The Scottish Team’s 2 Contradictory Roles

Scotland are underdogs, so the song says. I’ll come back to the song in a minute. It’s an easier position for a fan than a player: compare the joyous flagwaving and national pride with the fear and tension visible in that row of dark blue shirts. Beside them, the Italians, who were meant to be intimidated by the weather and the passion, jog easily on the spot and wait their turn.

Football has plenty of real underdogs – Iceland, Slovenia, Faroe Islands – countries with neither population nor history nor experience to help them. For places like these, the status can work for them from time to time, and the sheer lack of expectation can work in their favour.

But Scotland’s footballing pedigree isn’t Iceland’s, or even Norway’s. Think of that managerial competitive advantage. Think of the comparatively huge domestic audience (far more Scots per head actively watch the game than any other country in the British Isles and indeed in Europe). Think of Scotland’s clubs, successful on the European stage.

Scotland’s song is an underdog’s song for a country that is not quite comfortable with playing the underdog. There’s the sneaking suspicion that, had it played its cards more cleverly, Scotland would not now be comparing itself with nations with 5m people – the Irelands – but with nations of recent international pedigree, like France or Holland. And unlike England, Scotland thinks it should play its cards cleverly.

So in trying to play the underdog card against Italy – by throwing rain and cold and bluster and bullshit against one of the most experienced sides in the world – Scotland was both true and untrue to itself. Italy scored almost from the kick-off. It was all the ringmasters at Hampden deserved for ungracious, psychogically ill-advised behaviour. All it achieved was to put the wind up their own men.

The Italian goal cleared the air of all the nonsense, and after that, Scotland put in exactly the sort of fine performance they are entirely capable of. If only they’d been able to approach the game in a more steady, mature and calm manner – which would have been both politer to their Italian guests and less likely to play into their hands – it would, I am sure, have been the means to the qualification that Scotland deserved.

But it’s easy to say, less easy to achieve. Consider this well-known and recent moment in the history of the Scottish national team:

This is the Scottish Underdog Rampant. (I can’t watch it all the way through: it’s all so embarrassing and painful). Note the various assumptions at work: for Scotland to win, one or more players has to put in a lifetime perfomance – beating a team like France is a once-in-a-lifetime miracle and not plannable for – hysteria and invocations of magic are appropriate and acts of patriotism. (I don’t want to take away from the win against France, which was enjoyed right across the British Isles – it’s just a convenient example).

But those ingredients aren’t the only ones around. Had that been Iceland, Icelandic fans would have celebrated the win without ever looking for it to happen again. McFadden’s had to go into subsequent internationals burdened by that goal and the other one – burdened because Scotland aren’t comfortable with the underdog idea, and end up wanting underdog-style victories at regular enough intervals to achieve non-underdog footballing goals.

Let’s go back to the song, now. For those of you not familiar with it, here are the most important lyrics:

And stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again

I acknowledge, by the way, that this is Scotland’s choice of unofficial national anthem – their Land of My Fathers, their O Canada. It’s the country’s obvious right to choose their own song. But that passage is in all three verses. I just regret that Scotland chose something so.. Balkan, so Greater Serbia, when they had Scotland the Brave or The Banks of Loch Lomond to choose from.

It’s the England thing, and if we’re already having to cope with a clash between the desire for underdog status and the suspicion that underdog isn’t good enough, then don’t add the England thing on top of it. But Scotland has, does, and probably always will.

It’s a pity. Because I’ve learned two things about the England thing since moving to Scotland.

The first thing is that Scotland is not just different from England. It’s probably more different from England than France, Spain or Italy. The sheer number of basic differences in language, attitude, approach and opinion is so great that there is no danger – of any kind, at any time – of Scotland being remotely impinged upon to any effect by her southern neighbour. I’ve learned that not many Scots in Scotland realize just how secure as a country and as a nation they really are. It’s a shame: they can afford to relax into themselves much more than they do where England is concerned.

The second thing that I’ve learned is how few Scots realize that the English have gone away, never to return. The Scottish-English rivalry – it’s one hand clapping. The English just don’t care. The Scots can be as passionate in their distrust as they please. It makes no difference to the Rosbifs.

It irritates, even infuriates, some Scots that English football fans will cheer a Scottish team, club or international, as if it were their own. Not all: I’ve seen Scots hush Scots during an England game when they tried to catcall during the anthems. And England, don’t forget, are still stuck with God Save The Queen, and what that awful dirge has to do with sport or country is anyone’s guess.

I can see the Scottish point of view. I don’t agree with it, but I can see it. It feels patronizing to some, as though the English still regard the Scots as property. They don’t, but that’s a common view here, and because it plays a part it, and those who hold it, need to be understood and taken seriously.

The Scots are now alive to the cost to their politics of the England thing, and there’s what amounts to a consensus that the time has come for Scotland to stand on its own financial feet as much as possible, and that the costs of that are worth the trouble. The England thing has meant a dilution of responsibility – there was always Westminster to blame! but that’s fading fast now as experience of government from Holyrood (a place Westminster could learn from, incidentally) accumulates.

The cost of the England thing in sporting terms is best described as a distortion of ambition. Beating England matters too much. If beating England matters more than e.g. catching Holland or France in the World rankings, then certain things don’t get done. Because England can be beaten in one-off games, like 1967, like 1977, or bested without victory as in 1996 and 2000. But catching Holland requires that Scotland see all that as second class goods – all very well and enjoyable, but not to the point. Letting go to that degree is hard.

We’re not finished with the England thing, but let’s move on to our second obstacle:

Obstacle Two: The Scottish False Football History

It isn’t often said, so should be said more often: the surprising thing about the 1960s is not so much that England won a World Cup, but that Scotland didn’t. England have had periods in their history when they’ve had better players available in greater numbers than 1966. 1946, for instance, or 1957, or 1970. For Scotland, the 1960s were the boom years. I look at the qualification matches for the 1966 World Cup and note that, but for five minutes of madness against Poland at Hampden, Scotland would have matched Italy for points (and beat Italy, too, 1-0 at Hampden. It would have done in 2007..)

In 1970, Scotland had to get past West Germany:

It could have gone either way: had just one of those endless Law headers turned into a goal, Scotland would have gone into their final two games with everything to play for. Up against one of the leading quartet of world sides in 1969, Scotland looked… every bit their equals.

But did they know it? Is that how it felt at the time? Up against a divided country full of American soldiers and shoved up against Russians, unable to stand on its own two feet? Because that’s the thing: you can choose underdog status without realising that you’re doing so, and it leaks all over your talent and ability, corroding what would otherwise shine. It might have occurred to the West Germans that theirs was a client country, with only fifteen years of proper football participation behind them, up against the nation of Stein! and Celtic! a nation whose men sat even until then in tanks in the Rhineland.

I think the first obstacle – the reluctant underdog thing – creates a second: Scotland do not know to this day how good they are at football. On occasion, a sort of pumped-up hysteria is allowed in as a substitute for knowledge, as against Italy in 2007, or in the equally ill-advised Hampden farewell in 1978.

The real story of Scotland’s 1970s World Cups remains to be told. The one that’s out there is inaccurate and unhelpful in the extreme. I refer to what you might call the humiliation scenario, and claims of upset hubris.

The humiliation scenario sets out to portray Scotland’s teams of 1974 and (especially) 1978 as having gone out with big heads and come back with sore ones having embarrassed the nation in the process. That’s one way to describe a winning draw with Brazil and victory over Holland.

I see those two World Cups, and to a lesser extent the (in my view) equally misrepresented 1982 World Cup, as creditable perfomances from a side who had no idea, when all is said and done, of their own powers. A side who went into tournaments full of the knowledge that they’d never proceeded beyond the first round and empty of the knowledge that they wielded a squad containing Law, Dalglish and Bremner..

..and how Capello’s “fear” comes in and works its magic. And how the idea of humiliation and embarrassment leaks in and damages everything in sight.

No one outside Scotland thought them humiliated. Outside Scotland, everyone thought that you’d just about beaten Brazil (and Scotland must have thought themselves up against the 1970 lot to begin with). Outside Scotland, everyone thought you were coping well with Peru by playing your own game, and that it was when you tried to ape the short passes of south americans that things went wrong. And as for the Holland game, no one did better against that great Dutch side, ever: Scotland genuinely beat them, in justice as well as goals, something that neither West Germany (1974) nor Argentina (1978) could claim.

Scotland, in short, took the lessons from their ’70s and ’80s losing World Cups that Argentina could well have taken from their dubious winning ones. And in doing so, Scotland creating a rolling accumulation of pain and disappointment that was both unnecessary then and too much for men to carry now. It’s time for a reassessment.

The self-flagellatingly harsh assessment of Scotland’s World Cup performances has had two powerful effects on subsequent events. First, the weight of perceived failure has led to defeats in important games that would otherwise have been won. In 1996, the unnecessary defeat came against England, who were outplayed on the day, and even a draw would have taken Scotland through to meet France in the second round. How many Scots remember a fighting draw against the Netherlands of Bergkamp, Davids, Seedorf, Reiziger and de Boer? As it was, only a Dutch consolation goal against England kept Scotland out of the next round. Embarrassed? Humiliated?

The other impact is on Scottish players now. How does it feel to fill the shoes of men you are constantly told were legends who.. humiliated Scotland, a humiliation you – you inferior soul you – have to avenge? These players were one scuffed shot against Norway away from a World Cup playoff place this year, but you wouldn’t have known that from the treatment they and the manager received, not just from the press and television, but from their own Scottish Football Association.

Properly organized, the men Scotland has at its disposal are perfectly capable of qualifying for one of the two international tournaments. But not if they are told that they’re a dud generation, lesser men than the heroes who let down their country. That’s too much to carry. It’s the same burden that did for English national teams in the wake of 1966: never as good, never as moral, never as.. English! as the crewcut heroes of yore.

There’s opinion in Scotland that thinks this is a national trait: “we”, meaning the Scots, just kind of.. go in for.. noble inglorious humiliating defeat: it’s part of our identity, part of our history…

..in which case, why do you sing about Bannockburn before matches, and how current would this view be now had e.g. Scotland scored once more against Yugoslavia in 1974, once more against Holland in 1978, and once more against the Soviet Union in 1982?

That’s how close it was, and that’s noble inglorious defeat and national humiliation for you. There’s another way to look at it, one that could help Scotland under a new manager now. But it’s hard to make that kind of change, certainly now when that historical cement has had 30 years in which to set fast.

Even if the trick could be pulled, there’s still another obstacle in the way.

Obstacle 3: Dances of Death

That’s two dances: between the Scottish national team and Scottish national puissance, which we’ve already vaguely touched upon – and between the Scottish national team and the Scottish Premier Division.

There’s nothing wrong, and quite a lot right, with a country choosing to use football to express itself on the international stage. Brazil chose to, quite deliberately, back in the 1920s, before they had any footballing tradition at all. 25 years later, they won their first World Cup, which shows what can be done with determination. Almost a decade after the Brazilian decision, Germany decided that football was a lower class pursuit and that there were better ways to assert one’s nationhood.

Scotland is in the perfect position to choose the Brazilian approach over the German. And it may be about to do so. Henry Mcleish taking on the job of reporting ways of promoting Scottish football is the equivalent of Tony Blair doing the same for England – except that, to match Mcleish, Blair would not have watched Jackie Milburn as a child (which he never claimed to have done, by the way) but have been Jackie Milburn.

There’s only a 5 million population to play with, and not many of that population actually play at present (10% of Dutch turn out in one form or another). But the depth of knowledge and the history is there, and there are good things being done quietly in some of the smaller clubs up and down Scotland that promise much for the future.

But for now, it would be better if Scottish puissance were not seen as quite the function of Scottish footballing performance it is now. It’s too much for men to carry, not without the infrastructure, training and attitude necessary to bring it off. And when so few Scots actually play the game, it’s unfair on those who do. Choose literature; choose wave power; choose Edinburgh’s superb pubs. Choose something else until football can manage it.

As things stand, any Scottish team has to carry not just the hopes, but the perceived reputation of the country on its back. No one outside Scotland thinks that the country is somehow diminished by its footballing performance, and in any case, outside perception of what that performance is is almost certainly higher in Paris or Rome than in Glasgow.

Then there’s the matter of the Scottish Premier Division. Europe’s triumphant overachievers in European and UEFA Cups, over the entire period up to and very much including Celtic’s UEFA Cup Final of a year or two ago: but there’s a perception that when the Premier Division fails, it’s the job of the national team to compensate. Or, when the Premier Division succeeds, it’s the job of the national team to do likewise. With options like those, it would be as well to take “Proud Edward” (by the way – the 1967 songwriters mean Edward II!) out of the tune and replace him with a front two of Scylla and Charybdis.

Conclusion

I don’t think the national side can get away from any of this: it’s the backdrop they’re stuck with. But continue in this vein, and there’s no other future but more of the same: a potentially perfectly competent side carrying too much baggage and fear to play in the way it needs to to achieve what it’s capable of.

There’s no quick or easy way out. But there may be a way out. If the Mcleish report comes up with a sensible development plan that can deliver a steady stream of decent players to back up the ones that are produced more or less by accident as they are now, that, added to the gradual away-from-England, away-from-the-past lensing effect that Holyrood is achieving (albeit by inches) might be enough.

There’s no need for a foreign manager, although I believe a case should be made for the continuing excellent crop of Scottish managers to seek work in mainland Europe more often than they have before now. But Scotland has fine managers. Learn from a Capello, sure: but Scotland’s managers have plenty to teach others. That isn’t the problem.

Flower of Scotland isn’t the problem, although it’s a nonsense and not anywhere near as good as older rivals. Playing the underdog card is the problem. Call it The Fan Delusion if you like: the idea that the emotional experience and attitude of the fan in the stand is the one required by the players on the pitch if they are to succeed. It let Scotland down badly in 2007.

I felt it coming before the game. Scottish commentator after Scottish commentator came forth to claim that Scottish passion! and Scottish weather! and the Hampden crowd! would make life hard for Italy and sweep the Scots home. It betrayed football, that attitude: it betrayed Scottish footballers. It said, you aren’t good enough. Only hysteria and superhuman (“McFadden! James McFadden!”) performances of which you aren’t ordinarily capable will get us there.

It took an Italian goal to clear all that nonsense out of the road. After that, Scotland played an excellent match. Why did they have to give Italy a goal start in order to do that? Because, as things stand, playing for Scotland is eleven impossible jobs. It’s a psychological burden that would bring down an Ali, a Waugh brother, a Michael Johnson. I wish I could see it ever being shifted. In fact, I see it getting worse.

Happy New Year, Craig Levein.

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14 responses to “Scotland’s National Team: Eleven Impossible Jobs, Plus Substitutes

  1. Excellent. I doubt Scottish people would be comfortable with believing in their hearts that the team could succeed. Generations of dissapointment are a hard thing to live with.

  2. This is brilliant, absolutely brilliant – the sort of post I would absolutely love to write.

  3. Cracker – but I’ll need to read it again. So, as holding statements:
    (1) “there is no danger – of any kind, at any time – of Scotland being remotely impinged upon to any effect by her southern neighbour. ” Not quite: the BBC imposed/seduced Christmas on us. My father had been a notoriously liberal employer – he shut the firm at midday on Christmas and gave everyone the afternoon off. During my childhood he moved to closing for the whole day. We’d been Englished.

    (2) “The second thing that I’ve learned is how few Scots realize that the English have gone away, never to return. The Scottish-English rivalry – it’s one hand clapping. The English just don’t care.” I couldn’t agree more. When younger I had a few times to explain that the English, bless them, were far too ignorant, incurious, unintellectual and parochial to know or care anything much about Scotland. The idea that they both cared and were motivated by ruthless malice was itself malicious, and also absurd, ignorant and rude.

    Now, football….

  4. Fantastic – the underdog card, the postcolonial neurosis…an in depth and elucidating explanation!

  5. “We’d been Englished”: aye, but increasingly we and the English are Americanned. Except, thank God, in sport.

  6. Lovely, lovely, wonderfully good.

    Possible typo: Rangers’ UEFA Cup final of a year or two ago. Unless, of course, you meant it as written, in which case my apologies (but of course I am bound to point it out).

  7. second video looks nice

  8. The first thing Capello said on becoming England manager was that when an Englishman pulled on his international shirt, he lost all the confidence he felt at his club: he played in fear.

    Contrast this with the All Blacks. I caught an interview with Zinzan Brooke the other day on TV and he said the first time he pulled on the black jumper he felt he was invincible and could run through anything.

    I’d never considered any of this sports psychology stuff until I started reading this blog, it’s great enlightenment. Well done!

  9. Out of interest, James, what would you suggest that the new manager did to change a player’s approach? I think Woodward has some good ideas in ‘Winning’.

    I’ve argued before that we should be getting young players learning languages when they are in secondary school (this would help them play overseas and, indeed, manage overseas) but also some investment in player education would probably help as well. No?

  10. I’ve argued before that we should be getting young players learning languages when they are in secondary school …

    Let’s start with English and take it from there…

  11. Forgive me, James, but on this occasion I can’t go with you. Scotland have two teams, Rangers and Celtic, the rest draw crowds of practically none. Before the mass import of foreign players into England many of the best Scots played down south. Do you need me to start on them?

    Today, how many top Scottish players are playing in England? How many of them are really top? Fletcher at Manchester United (United fans have taken to referring to him as Fletcherinho: he’s good but he’s not a genius IMHO) . The rest? The Laws, the Johnstones, the Baxters, the Lorimers, the Bremners, the Gilzeans…? No, you see, you have made me start on them. You and the others can pick it up. There are no others. None. It’s not psychology; it’s absence.

    Scottish players in Europe? None, obviously.

    I admit I feel remarkably ungenerous about Scottish football. Their greatest pleasure in life was occasionally beating the English. Now it is just seeing the English beaten. By anyone. The abysmal small mindedness of this is stultifying and despicable. I must say I have picked up a little of it, in that it gives me a very minor kind of pleasure to se the Scots lose. And I’m bloody Hungarian!

    I really don’t give a toss about Scottish football. I used to admire the grace and fire of Scottish teams a long time ago and even care, up to a point. But now they can deep fry other teams’ pizzas for all I am concerned. Which may, incidentally, be why there are not so many young Scots footballers about.

    And all that stuff about ‘but for one scuffed shot…’ You could tell England’s story in exactly the same way. In fact you could tell any losing team’s story that way.

    There is a history in which working class Scottish boys kicked a football about on the street and in the playground with a peculiar pride and intensity. Their relative slightness and poverty drove them to develop skill as a compensation. All poor countries did this and some excelled at football, and I include Hungary in that.

  12. And Gordon at Sunderland, Hutton at Spurs, Fletcher at Burnley, Berra at Wolves, McFadden and Ferguson at Birmingham. However, I agree Scots are no longer playing at the big teams of Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs (bar Hutton), United (bar Fletcher etc).

    Interesting point about foreign teams. Even fairly recently, Collins (Monaco), Lambert (Dortmund), Archibald (Barca, Espanyol), McGhee (Hamburg), Jordan (Milan), McInally (Bayern) all managed to play at a high-level overseas. Hell, even Jimmy Calderwood knocked out a few years in Holland.

    My point above may stand – if our young players learnt one or two languages they’d probably be more likely to play overseas. That is, of course, if we actually consider the tactical and technical side of their development as well.

  13. Cracking post.

    The revisionist account of 1978, on which you are convincing re the Dutch, may be a tough sell. (It was before my time. But I note you can discuss Peru, but do not mention Iran).

    Still, I think you may have reasons to be more optimistic, over time, about the psychological neuroses (as you say about the English); and yet perhaps less reasons for optimism, for now, about the football itself.

  14. A fine piece of writing.