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If not Scotland, then who to support?

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THE EURO 2020 football tournament, played in 2021, has been tremendous, full of good football, goals and drama, and a wonderful tonic for everyone after the many trials and tribulations of the last year or more. Scotland was at the party for the first time in 23 years, England broke through almost all of the barriers that they have struggled with for over 50 years and Italy, the country so devastated by COVID were fitting winners. Not only had they the technical ability, but the character and game management skills as well. They deserved their win.

Most people watching these tournaments hedge their bets, supporting a range of teams for different reasons. This gives us an interest right up to the end, and maximizes our enjoyment. No-one switches off when their team goes out. They then look out for some-one else.

First Memories 

My first memory of the World Cup was 1982. I come from Northern Ireland, and we had qualified for the first time since 1958 when Pele had been just a boy. We were young teenagers in 1982, and Norman Whiteside was playing as a 17-year-old for Northern Ireland. It was like some-one in your class at school was playing. We knew who we were supporting, first and foremost, but there were no rules on who else you could support or why, and we all took advantage of that.

As a young Man Utd supporter, I was curious about England. United captain Bryan Robson scoring against France in 27 seconds really got my attention very quickly, and there was another team to keep tabs on. Scotland were there too. I knew some of their players, but most played in the Scottish league and I didn’t recognise them, but of all the first round games, the one that stands out in my memory was the game against Brazil, the ticker tape everywhere, and that screamer of a goal from Dave Narey. Jimmy Hill called it a “toe poke”, perhaps the best example ever of the jibes that the English and Scots like to throw at each other. I have since come to recognize this as an art form at which the Scots are arguably the best, getting under the other’s skin, but England managed to nail that one. Narey’s goal was amazing, my most memorable ever from Scotland. The dark blue jersey made a distinct impression on my young mind as well although as yet, I had no real reason to support them. I had no connection as yet.

Rule No 1- Support your own country. 

Rule No 2- Support your club team members too, whatever country they play for, or at least, don’t wish ill against them. 

1984 

I learned my next lesson in the Euro finals of 1984. None of the home countries qualified, but you couldn’t help but admire Michel Platini and France. You could support whoever you wanted to in these tournaments, and no-one cared or asked why. If it created a talking point, so much the better.

Rule No 3- Support whoever else you fancy. You don’t have to justify your choice. 

1986 

Northern Ireland where still a good team, and kept themselves ticking over by winning the 1985 Home Championships, the last ever, making us the reigning British champions. At the end of 1985, we had to go to Wembley and avoid defeat to qualify for Mexico in 1986, which we did. There was no suggestion of the English doing us any favours. This was my first experience of watching two teams who I might have supported in different contexts. A hierarchy had been set in my mind. England where OK, but they were not my number one.

Scotland qualified for Mexico against Wales, and there was no love lost in that match either.

No-one could take the result for granted. The excitement was intense, then followed by the tragedy of Jock Stein dying. Suddenly, I was a lot better briefed on Scotland and I had felt their pain. I would shortly be going to university in Edinburgh, and now had another team to look-out for and support. I felt a stronger emotional attachment to Scotland now than England, so they would become my No 2 team behind Northern Ireland. They have barely played one another in the 35 years since, and never in anger so, in effect, I now have two teams. There has never been any conflict of interest in my mind about this.

Throughout 1986, we were well briefed on all three qualifiers from within the UK. Saint & Greavsie gave us all the information we needed on ITV on a Saturday morning. They covered everyone, and did it fairly and well. The late Ian St John, a proud Scot, was the anchor of the programme, and accepted by everyone in that role. No-one would have stopped to think or analyse where he was from. When some people say today that we don’t hear Scottish voices at a UK level, well, then we did, and no-one questioned it. St John was there on merit. The English did not begrudge him his place. Saint & Greavsie was my football education.

None of the home nations did that well in Mexico. We all had our moments, and we were all at the party which was important. Gordon Strachan scored against West Germany and couldn’t jump the advertising billboards in celebration, a memorable moment, but they couldn’t score against ten-man Uruguay either, and went out from the Group of Death. Northern Ireland got a point before being whacked by Brazil. I missed the England game against Argentina because of exam pressure. I caught the highlights afterwards. I understood the controversy, and felt the disappointment. I wish I had seen it live, but I wasn’t that bothered. Not really. There was plenty else going on. Again, I had a soft spot for France.

Rule No 4- Establish your hierarchy of support 

1990 

England and Scotland qualified again for Italy 1990, but this time the Republic of Ireland qualified instead of Northern Ireland. Despite the political differences, I found myself supporting them against England at the tournament in the group stages, largely because they were viewed as being the underdogs. Their players were all recognisable to me, and I felt that established stars like Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan and Kevin Sheedy deserved success.

Here now was my complicated relation ship with England. The rugby union Five Nations Championship had taught me that I would support any of the other home nations against them for reasons we all understand, but not France who, in contrast, I had a soft spot for in football. Now I was supporting the south against them. In the first knock- out round, I was back to supporting England against Belgium, but I found myself supporting Cameroon against them again in the quarterfinals. The story of Roger Milla and his team was just too strong. I hated Lineker for scoring those two penalties, but I jumped up and punched the air in delight when he scored that goal against Germany in the semi- final. The crowd in the bar in central station in Glasgow where not in the same way of thinking, and told me so. They cheered the German penalties as England went out, and for the first time, I did wonder why that should be. This was well before the more divided politics we have in Scotland today.

After the tournament was over, I went to see Hearts play Spurs in a pre- season friendly at Tynecastle. Paul Gascoigne was playing for Spurs, and the crowd booed him on to the pitch. Gascoigne played a blinder, and when he was substituted in the second half, the same crowd stood and gave him a standing ovation. Clearly, the Scots relationship with the English can be complicated too, but they appreciate and respect class and quality. I saw Gascoigne some time later against Rangers at Ibrox where the bleach haired Ian Ferguson shackled him utterly and didn’t give him a kick, and the crowd relentlessly taunted him “Fergie’s gonnae get you”. Within a few years, Gascoigne became a hero for that same crowd with Ferguson playing beside him. They were some team when those two were together.

Rule No 5- An underdog can trump one of your lower hierarchy of teams 

Rule No 6- Don’t take the anti- English stuff too seriously. 

1994 

Only the Republic of Ireland qualified for the USA in 1994, with none of the home nations getting there. They played Northern Ireland in the qualifiers, needing a point at Windsor Park to go through. I was devastated when they got that point. Politics were at play, and I preferred to seen them denied, despite having cheered for them four years beforehand. It wasn’t just politics though. It was our perception that they had a touch of arrogance about them now, and part of the feeling was against that. It is one thing being an underdog, but things can change if you are not any more.

Rule No 7- Change your mind about a team if you want to. 

Rule No 8- Politics sometimes does come in to play. This is the world we live in. 

1996 to present 

Since then, England have qualified for just about every tournament. Scotland and Northern Ireland for only a few between them. England have progressed from the group stage at just about every tournament, only to be confronted with devastating loss at some point further on. Thirty years of hurt in 1996 has now become 55 years of hurt, and everyone seems to accept that this is just the way it is going to be.

The context in Scotland has changed. We have missed every tournament since 1998 until this year, at times when the Republic, Wales and even Northern Ireland have qualified. The political situation has changed here. It is tempting to think the England vs Scotland thing has gotten worse, but I am not so sure. I am cautious still about openly cheering an England goal, but that is not new, having learned my lesson in the bar in Glasgow Central rail station in 1990, long before devolution.

I don’t have much of a problem with the Anyone But England (ABE) thing as long as people keep things in perspective, and there is no aggression involved. There is no unwritten rule that we have to support them or not support them. A recent poll has suggested that a third of Scots would never cheer for England in any circumstances, but two thirds do not hold that view, and to me sounds about right. ABE is not the dominant view in Scotland, but there are times when many of us will certainly support those playing against them.

Rule No 9- There is a peculiar relationship with England that all the other home countries have to be aware of, and we cannot discount that. It is a function of their dominance. 

Off the Ball 

A recent Off the Ball programme on Radio Scotland was interesting to listen to. The pretext was they didn’t support the ABE concept (allegedly), but what where your reasons for supporting Italy in the final? Reasons ranged from happy memories of the Italian ice cream parlour in your street to having a jar of Dolmio sauce in the cupboard or having an Italian granny. This was good radio, and what you would expect in Scotland. More intriguing was when politics was introduced by unreconstructed nationalist co-presenter Stuart Cosgrove, who maintained he had no time for ABE and rejected trying to politicize Scotland vs England differences. It is interesting because you can find any number of football programmes on the BBC iplayer in which the same Stuart Cosgrove explains how following the Scotland football team has historically been our substitute for not having a parliament.

Cosgrove criticised what he describes as the English media establishment for contacting him seventeen times about what Scotland thinks about England doing so well, implying that they have simplistic single tracked minds. What he didn’t seem to understand is that people contacted him because normally, it is he who talks more about these things than anyone else. The lack of self-awareness of the more bitter nationalists is astonishing, and Cosgrove certainly falls in to this category. I should have contacted the programme and asked when was the last time he supported England against anyone, calling out his professed view on ABE. Cosgrove went on to say that he was beyond caring who won the tournament when at that point it seemed inevitable that it would be England. The bitter nationalist seemed to have nowhere else to go.

Rule No 10- Blind hatred is not a valid reason for going against a team, especially if you cannot recognize within yourself what your real motivation is. 

Rule No 11- If you really don’t like another team, either don’t deny it, or attempt to at least introduce a bit of humour in to it. 

Cosgrove also maintained that in 2021, we had to listen to English coverage in Scotland, but they didn’t have to listen to coverage of events here, implying that if Scotland had been playing in the final, that it would not have attracted the same attention. Well, we all know that this would not have been the case. We can evidence the semi- final coverage for Wales in 2016, of either Ireland team in previous World Cups, or Ian St John fronting up Saint & Greavsie in the 1980’s at the same time as Bob Wilson (another Scot) was the long time host of their BBC counterparts Football Focus.

Perceptions 

To me, the home nations and the Republic of Ireland see these tournaments in different ways. They all want to be there, and they all want to do well, but their capacity for doing so varies enormously.

England won the World Cup in 1966, that did actually happen. Because they have done it once, they think they should be able to do it again, and are always disappointed when they can’t. Their team carries the weight of expectation from their fans and their Press, and with their population, their wonderful football league, their pedigree and some of the players they have produced, you can understand why their expectations are so high. A country of that sort should have won more than they actually have.

The two Ireland teams and Wales cannot realistically expect to win these tournaments, and it is always difficult for them to qualify, but when they do, they give it a go. All have got out of their groups at least twice, so tournament football is enjoyable and successful for all these countries. It doesn’t always happen, but as the song goes, “that doesn’t stop us dreaming”.

By contrast, although Scotland used to always qualify, more so than England, they have yet to ever get out of their group. They have never done so at any tournament. Scotland’s defining moment at a World Cup was that Archie Gemmell goal against the Netherlands, but the result was ultimately glorious failure. So the Scottish experience is that while we have these incredible highs, it is not going to be enough and disappointment will result. We accept this. Mentally, such an attitude must work against us succeeding. The paradox is that we still think we are capable of winning a tournament or at least beating the best teams. It is the wee diddy teams we struggle with. The 0-0 draw with England this year suggests that if we could actually get through a group, we might actually do quite well in the knock out stages. After all, we are the team that has a 100% success rate in penalty shoot-outs.

Looking forwards 

I would love to see Scotland doing better. Would we do better if England were doing better? We might do because their league could only get better because of that, and that would provide opportunities for young Scots to play more regularly at a higher level. Scotland teams did best when we had players doing well in England, and participating fully in their game. Ian St John and Bob Wilson would never have had the opportunities they did if they held the same views as Stuart Cosgrove about England.

The other thing about England this summer is that their team have done a lot of good for a lot of people, and people have sensed that, even here in Scotland. We need to be big enough to admit that.

Rule No 12- If you do want to support England, be open and confident about your choice. 

If more people can do that, then politics and sport can be kept at a reasonable distance most of the time, and we will all be the better for that.

By the way, did I mention that Northern Ireland are the reigning British champions?

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Photo of 60s England kit bag by Mickael Denet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34455030 

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