As Scotland’s Andy Murray makes British history at Wimbledon, pedantic but understandable fissures in “national identity” will no doubt come to the fore again. In the aftermath of Euro 2012, however, the British Isles are more united than anyone cares to admit. Another international tournament: England are eliminated at the quarter final stage. Eire take a pounding. Scotland don’t qualify, Wales are never there and Northern Ireland’s just a memory.
It hasn’t always been like this but, last time it wasn’t, there was no Twitter or Facebook. No wonder we rely on Greece and Denmark to do the properly unexpected in the European Championships. Little surprise we need Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Germany to entertain us with authentic international tournament football. And how dare we claim, as so many BBC and ITV pundits have done over the decades, that the French, Dutch and Italians infuriate us. Summer finals glory isn’t a completely closed shop but, if you’re from these parts of north west Europe, you’re usually barred.
Following the singularly un-dramatic penalty drama of Kiev, the usual stats have poured in about English football letting itself down on the big stage: They’ve never defeated a previous World Cup winner in knock-out football, except on home soil; They almost always lose penalty shoot-outs; The Premier League has had provided 8 finalists in the last 8 Champions League campaigns so why is the England XI still falling short? For me, the most telling factoid is that England remain the only nation to win the World Cup in their one and only appearance in a major international final. As an anal retentive I find that insulting to the integrity of the world’s most famous football competition. As a Scotsman I find it worrying for all the home nations, but for mine in particular.
It’s hardly news that some Scots have succesfully fought the genetic programming to celebrate all England defeats. What’s probably less well-known is that this phenomenon isn’t confined to the moronically myopic element of the Rangers support which made the England strip the biggest selling jersey north of the border a few years back. Yes, I was among the biggest fans of Terry Butcher and Mark Hateley’s Glasgow club careers. But not for one sober second did it have me turning against the land of my birth when it came to the international stage. I wasn’t exactly gief-stricken over Roy Hodgson’s latest penalties loss but neither was I e-mailing mates with “Carlsberg don’t do penalty shoot-outs …”. There’s nothing to be celebrated here because, frankly, whatever those buggers down south do, Scotland soon follows in microcosm.
The greatest Scotland victory of the modern era? Wembley 67 – which would have meant absolutely nothing without Wembley 66. England don’t enter the first European Championships – Scotland don’t enter the first two. The FA Cup starts in 1872, the English League in 1888 – Scottish Cup 1874, Scottish League 1890. Go right back to England inventing the game and us inventing passing. Go back to the 19th century moment when Scotland became football’s first foreign nation and, like the Asian sub-continent at cricket and the new world at rugby, began showing the inventors how it should be played. There is unquestionably a historic “trickle up” effect in mainland UK.
Scotland did have a League Cup, a “Premier Division” and the small matter of a European Cup winner before our southern neighbours. However, the worth of those domestic competitions has been questioned since Day One and, as amazing as Celtic’s greatest triumph was, it has also become a constant reminder of how far short we’ve fallen in the subsequent 45 years. Jock Stein’s great side did reach another Champions Cup final but, in many ways, the Lisbon Lions are becoming as retrospectively freakish an episode in Scottish football as Alf Ramsey’s Wingless Wonders must often seem to the FA. And it’s in international matters where Scotland are usually sucked into the Anglo slipstream, producing a watered down version.
In 1950 England qualified for their first World Cup and were humiliated, 0-1, by the USA. Scotland agreed to go to the following tournament, in Switzerland, and were humiliated, 0-7, by Uruguay. Geoff Hurst’s most famous hat-trick was followed two years later by England’s highest ever European Championships finish, third at Italy 1968. Within six years Scotland were embarking on a run of five straight World Cup finals appearances. Some would contest England’s best performance at the Euros was in fact 1996 where, although the bronze medal match was long gone from the format, they lost their semi on penalties. Fair enough. Euro 96 England defeated Scotland, who finished only one goal away from the knock-out stages in the SFA’s best ever European Championships. England reached their last two tournament semi-finals in the 1990s, while Scotland were reaching their only two European Championship finals. So as long as England continue their more recent quarter-finals trend, you’ll forgive me for being convinced Scotland will continue to arse it up in the qualifiers.
Cross-border traffic in personell and ideas makes behavioural similarities inevitable. But the hateful fixation with all things England has resulted in Scotland fans being satisfied with too little (as long as England qualify we’ve got an interest in any major international tournament just through cheering on whoever they come up against). Similairly, the SFA’s instinctive clinging to FA coat-tails produces the diluted version of England’s failures it deserves. Derby rivalries are great if you use them properly. I doubt Greece would have won Euro 2004 if Turkey hadn’t finished third in the 2002 World Cup. But letting that rivalry be the limit of your scope is all kinds of fatal. After the loss to England at Euro 96, the ultimately fruitless Wembley “win” in the Euro 2000 play-off is the most gutting moment in my Scotland-loving life. The “Auld Enemy” tradition gave these set-backs the bitter tatse but it was the fact they came in competitions with wider meanings than the Home Internationals or Rous Cup which hurt most. We’d beaten England, at Wembley, more than once in living memory. But to do it in a competition far bigger than our petty little Victorian Britain squabble would, I hoped, allow Scotland to move on.
Scotland haven’t qualified for a finals since and I was pushed over an edge by that Euro 2000 qualifying campaign. In the last two home games in the group I sat in an Ibrox with 20,000 empty seats and then, on a Saturday at 3pm, a less-then-half-full Hampden. Yet the moment we drew England in the play-off I couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money. I instantly decided to join the Scotland Travel/Supporters Club. I’d never again be locked outside a game I’d earned the right to be at by doing something as boring as supporting Scotland in games not involving England. And I also realised, from now on, the team I most wanted to see Scotland pump was the other team in the next World Cup final. England fans saw Scotland as a cuddly novelty act right up until the 80s, until An Evening With Gary Lineker or until the derby with Germany became so one-sided they decided to turn their attention on Scotland – a team they had a 50-50 chance of beating and a support which had been crying out for years to have their hatred reciprocated.
And where has it got us? Where has it got any of the UK national sides? Pubs and living rooms the length and breadth of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were having a titter at England’s expense the Sunday before last. But three of those nations shouldn’t forget some of their decent players from the last 30 years ended up taking their chances with the Republic of Ireland. The idea of a British national team repels me – this rant isn’t part of the Scottish Parliamentarians’ cross-party anti-independence campaign – but, speaking as a football fan, Scotland need to start walking the walk in respect of being truly seperate from England. A love of booze and fatty foods hasn’t stopped Germany ruling the globe. Xavi, Inistea and Messi prove that diminutive Scottish genes might actually be a bonus. Our “small” total population is substantially larger than that of Croatia, Uruguay and, well, New Zealand. I used to cite the Kiwis as a perfect example of another verdant, soggy, mountainous nation of repressives who’d turned their mono-sport obsession into world domination. But now we don’t even need to use Rugby as an example, seeing as how the All-Whites have qualified for a FIFA world Cup more recently than Scotland.
If the Tartan Army are worried that eschewing Schadenfreude at English defeats will deny us our only positive vibe in life, here is one final summer stat: Nine countries have won the European championships, yet only ten different nations have provided winners of the Champions League/European Cup, and Scotland’s one of them. Turns out we do know how to get into closed shops after all.