England and Scotland, who meet at Wembley on Friday in only the fourth competitive fixture since annual encounters were abandoned in 1989, are the two oldest international teams in the world. They have played each other more often than anyone else, took part in the first ever international fixture in Glasgow in 1872, and enjoy – if that is the word – one of the most ancient and grudging of rivalries.
Or they used to. These days the Scots would rather take on the Auld Enemy in a referendum than a football match. The sad decline of Scotland as a force in the game has been reflected in an almost complete lack of interest in cross-border skirmishes in recent years, not helped by the fact that the last time Wembley staged a qualification game between the two countries Kevin Keegan’s England produced a performance of such staggering lifelessness that they managed to get beaten by a Don Hutchison goal even as they limped toward a predictably brief visit to Euro 2000.
The only reason Friday’s event has been talked about at all in advance is because it takes place on Armistice Day, giving rise to the annual stupidity of the poppies on shirts debate. That is not going to be reopened here; suffice to say that the sooner poppy-wearing is allowed to return to being a private and personal gesture the better.
Most people over the age of 50 will be able to remember England and Scotland playing each other on a regular basis. After a dozen initial friendlies the tradition of meeting every year was continued via the now defunct British Home Championships, which ran for exactly a century, interrupted only by the two wars.
Following the demise of home internationals in 1984 the Rous Cup was contrived to ensure Anglo-Scottish matches took place for another five years, until the long tradition ended in 1989 with the score standing at 43 English wins, 40 Scotland wins and 24 draws.
There have been five meetings since, with England winning at Wembley during Euro 96, in the first leg of their 1999 play-off at Hampden Park and in two more recent friendlies. Hutchison’s Wembley winner was not enough to cancel out the two goals Paul Scholes had scored in Scotland.
That is 144 years of history in outline, though what modern audiences recall of the Anglo-Scottish football rivalry tends to boil down to four particular games. The first was in 1961, a home international at Wembley, when England won by the prodigious score of 9-3. Jimmy Greaves scored a hat-trick, Johnny Haynes a brace, and Dave Mackay was among the scorers for the visitors. Appearing for Scotland, a pre-Torino Denis Law was still playing for Manchester City, Ian St John had yet to leave Motherwell for Merseyside, while Celtic’s unfortunate Frank Haffey – “What’s the time? Nine past Haffey” – is alleged to have set the precedent for years of mickey-taking over the standard of Scottish goalkeeping.
If the Scots sought revenge, they achieved it in some style at Wembley in 1967 with a 3-2 victory over the newly crowned world champions. The prosaic truth of the matter is that Jack Charlton was a passenger for most of the game, sent to hang around upfield after injuring himself in an early challenge with Bobby Lennox, and though Scotland won the game they failed to top their group and it was England who made it instead to the 1968 European Championship.
Yet that is not how the game is remembered north of the border. Law, who everyone knew had preferred a round of golf to watching England’s World Cup final in 1966, scored the first goal and took pleasure in tormenting the home defence. Playing for time near the end, Jim Baxter teased Nobby Stiles with a spot of keepy-uppy on the pitch, and at the final whistle Scotland declared themselves unofficial world champions. The BBC Scotland website suggests the game belongs in the canon of glorious Scottish failures and should not be regarded as a famous victory, though that is hardly a popular view.
One of those glorious Scottish failures was the ill-fated trip to the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, and a year earlier they limbered up by beating England again at Wembley in the home internationals. Ally MacLeod was still in optimistic mood as Scotland manager while storm clouds were beginning to gather over his English counterpart Don Revie.
Gordon McQueen and Kenny Dalglish scored Scotland’s goals in a 2-1 victory, answered only by a late Mick Channon penalty, but the game is really remembered only for its immediate aftermath, when Scottish fans invaded the pitch and gleefully vandalised the goalposts. They might have been in for a rude awakening in Argentina, though at least they were going. England under Revie would fail to qualify.
The group game at Wembley in Euro 96 was eagerly anticipated, complete with the usual battle of Britain overkill, because it was the first meeting between the nations for seven years, an unimaginably long interval outside wartime. It turned out to be worth the wait.
Everyone remembers Paul Gascoigne’s delightful goal and the notorious dentist’s chair re-enactment that followed. Less readily recalled after 20 years are Alan Shearer’s opener, David Seaman’s penalty save – a minute before Gascoigne’s goal – or the ball moving on the spot as Gary McAllister took his kick.
It is a matter of debate whether football really came home in 1996, and perhaps our friends north of the border have a view on whether England’s run to what would prove to be their last semi-final to date should count as famous success or glorious failure. But what is certain is that victory over Scotland brought the hosts’ tournament to life after a dull draw against Switzerland in the opening game.
It seems equally certain that Friday’s match will not feature anyone impudently lifting the ball over a defender’s head before slotting it past the goalkeeper, prior to indulging in carefully pre-planned Drambuie and tequila-themed celebrations with his team-mates, though one lives in hope.
The Guardian Sport