By Tom English
- 5 Jun
- From the section Scotland
|‘Scotland 78 – A Love Story’|
|Date: Wednesday, 6 June Time: 21:00 BST Where: BBC One Scotland & thereafter on BBC iPlayer|
There’s a moment in Wednesday’s BBC documentary ‘Scotland 78 – A Love Story’ when Derek Johnstone reflects on the tedium of life cooped up in their hotel in the small town of Alta Gracia, a desolate base camp near Cordoba where Ally MacLeod’s squad would spend three weeks in the fateful summer.
Such was the boredom in the place that the boys, serenaded out of Glasgow against a backdrop of national delirium sparked by MacLeod’s hubris, took to watching a colony of leafcutter ants carrying their wares across the grounds of their hotel. The fun, such as it was, came in the task of trying to flick a pebble and knock the leaf out of the ant’s jaws.
Even as he’s telling the story, 40 years on, there’s a look of bewilderment on Johnstone’s face. In that, he’s far from alone. Bruce Rioch, Joe Harper, Willie Johnston, Alan Rough, Lou Macari, John Robertson – all come across like men who have just spent two hours whirring about in an industrial-sized tumble dryer.
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This story of Scotland daring to dream and waking up in a nightmare never gets old. It’s a footballing farce, a sporting tragic-comedy. Some of the gold is provided by the Tartan Army and the extraordinary lengths some of them went to in order to be part of history. Not the kind of history they were getting, but history all the same.
How many books, or chapters of books, have been written about 1978? How many newspaper and magazine articles? How many documentaries? And yet there’s a buzz – as there should be in the case of this absorbing film – about a new telling of what went on in Argentina. It’s like opium to the people.
Nostalgia becomes more and more important to Scotland football fans as the years go by and major championship after major championship carries on without them. In the dog days of the present, there’s nowhere to go for a national team thrill except the past and nowhere in the past is the drama more Shakespearean than 1978.
Some of the footage you may have seen, some you undoubtedly haven’t. All of it is eye-popping. MacLeod’s bravado is of Muhammad Ali proportions. Mixed with the memories of his family in the here and now, it’s poignant and sad. Everybody has had a good old laugh at MacLeod’s expense over the years, but he was a man with a wife and kids who were suffering at home.
As it all started to unravel, Faye, his widow, says that all she wanted to do was “fly out and give him a hug”.
You want to reach into the television and get him to button his lip, but you can’t. Had MacLeod been canny and well-prepared then Lord knows what this excellent Scotland squad might have achieved and what impact on Scottish political history it might have had.
His confidence in his team leads him to say that he’s cleared a place in his wardrobe for his World Cup winner’s medal. No, Ally. He spoke at times about how the World Cup final date would come to be known as National Ally Day.
It was pantomime stuff and it was infectious. A bandwagon rolled. AC/DC played a gig wearing Scotland jerseys. Blue Peter presented the somewhat perplexed squad with a special good luck badge. Companies piled in to get a bit of the action. Chrysler cars, Trustee Savings Bank, the Valentine greetings card company.
Scottish nationalism was on the march with the SNP making record gains. A pro-union newspaper in England wrote that Scotland winning the World Cup would be like “distilled firewater. Hooched up on that, the nationalists could rampage to victory”.
MacLeod basked in the attention as the pied piper of Scottish football. His status as a hero to follow is perhaps best illustrated by a clip of him getting love-bombed by a group of fans as he’s loading up the boot of his car before his departure for Argentina. “Ally,” says one Scottish youngster. “See the day after your commercial, my ma bought one of they carpets.”
In 1978, Scots roamed across the British football landscape like gods. In the August of 1977, Kenny Dalglish had become Britain’s most expensive footballer when arriving at Liverpool. Five months later, Gordon McQueen would set a new transfer record when joining Manchester United.
Liverpool had just won the European Cup with Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness and Dalglish the spine of the team. Ipswich had just won the FA Cup with John Wark and George Burley. Nottingham Forest had won the First Division title and the League Cup with Kenny Burns, Archie Gemmill, John McGovern and John Robertson. Burns was the player of the year in England. A fine Rangers team had won the domestic treble.
And Scotland? In the qualifiers for the ’78 World Cup they’d eliminated Czechoslovakia, the reigning champions of Europe. By that summer, MacLeod’s squad had in its ranks almost 60 individual medals, from champions of Scotland and England, to Scottish Cup and FA Cup winners, to European Cup, Uefa Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup winners. His group was loaded with quality.
The manager was perfectly entitled to think to himself that they might be good enough to win the World Cup. Saying it out loud again and again and again like Ali on speed was where his problems started.
No research was done on the opposition. A television company offered MacLeod an all-expenses paid trip to watch Peru before the tournament, but he turned it down. In qualifying, the Peruvians had topped their section ahead of Chile and had put five goals past Bolivia, who had already knocked out Uruguay, but Scotland’s players knew none of this. Peru played Brazil and lost just 1-0.
Iran were a poor side but no work was done on how to expose them. That was the ultimate sin. MacLeod was in too much of a rush to get to the final to worry that much about how he intended to get there.
More than 25,000 people sent Scotland on their way at Hampden and only about 100 were there as they slinked back into the country. The players dispersed and carried on winning trophies by the bundle. The success they had with their clubs just reinforced the gigantic failure they experienced in Argentina.
There’s a mesmeric quality to this story of ’78, a legend of how a man and a country lost the run of itself. The team didn’t endure, but the tale of the struggle will live forever.
‘Scotland 78 – A Love Story’ will be broadcast on BBC One Scotland on Wednesday 6 June at 21:00 BST and thereafter on the BBC iPlayer
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