When you hear the noise of the Tartan Army boys, they’ll be coming down the road…on a Wednesday evening…in August…to a national stadium near you.
At the invitation of the English FA, to help mark their 150th anniversary, Scotland will take the trip south to play their oldest adversary in a friendly at the spiritual home of football. A sultry pre-season, mid-week special if ever there was one.
Only Dallas has seen a longer hiatus from our TV screens. And much like the mantra of JR Ewing, for the FA it’ll be as much about the chi-ching as it will the occasion. That aside, 14 years is the longest wait to see the return, in any incarnation, of football’s oldest international rivalry. England’s play-off victory over two cold, dark wintery nights at the tail end of the millennium, for the right to compete in the 2000 Euro Championships, might not seem that long ago. But when you read that Ray Parlour came off the bench for Kevin Keegan’s side in the second leg, it just might put the passing of time into perspective.
There’s a generation of young Scots and English, (throw in there Welsh and Northern Irish kids too), who’ll give you an unconvinced look if you mention the 100 years of annual home internationals under the title of the British Championship. The world’s first and longest run international football tournament was discontinued in 1984, as the English and Scottish FA’s wished to up the competition. At the time, Dickie Davies’ Satuday tash was an endangered species, while Saint and Greavsie’s punditry stint was as crisp as mayonnaise. Those were the days. We’ll never see the likes again; for right or for wrong.
Ironically, the Scotland v England game the following year was one of my first football memories. The short lived Sir Stanley Rous Cup replaced the previous century-old set up. Played exclusively by Scotland and England in its first year, the crowd at Hampden received a 90 minute drenching as Scotland sneaked a 1-0 win. We all have memories of good dreich-soaked matches…this was mine in buckets. Fans didn’t give a fun fick what incarnation the match was played in. Nobody knew who Mr Rous was, but by God, every Scot at Hampden wanted Graeme Souness’ hands on his Cup at final whistle.
Four days on saw the Heysel Stadium disaster, and four years later the last annual England v Scotland clash came to pass. I was on the Hampden slopes that day. The air was infected with latent violence that dripped onto the surrounding streets as England fans smashed up local businesses, and running battles between both sides left shards of glass and chib strewn along Victoria Road. The thing I recall most was that none of the English fans were wearing England strips; only a row of St George’s flags pinned against their perimeter and ‘casuals’ haircuts defined a nationality. English clubs were already banned from European competition. The FA had had enough. Book and history closed.
So what of a potential revival? A further question to fuel the possibility is…has the Scotland – England rivalry diminished? They say familiarity breeds contempt. So, when annual familiarity disappeared over 20 years ago, ceasing the status as football’s longest on going concern, it’s no surprise the corrosion in fierceness, once a hallmark of the occasion. Though is this indeed the case? The Tartan Army were pulled up after their Wembley friendly with Bril just two years ago due to anti-English singing. Collectively, for kilted ones old enough to recall, the clash holds the same appeal as it did in 1967 through to 1999, (’67 being year Scotland beat World Champs England). A desire to hump the English has waned not a jot. Indeed, the long hiatus has left many a Scot salivating with baited breath this FA announcement.
Can the same be said of the English? Have they not bigger fish they’d prefer to fry? The Scots support Scotland…and whoever is playing England. That’s gospel since time immemorial. Though for the English fan base the dynamic is a tad different, having shifted in accordance with the fortunes of their most crucial matches in the last 20 years. The English support England, and whoever is playing Germany or Argentina, such is where fate has landed and the goal posts shifted. Had Pearce or Southgate tucked away their penalties, or Diego Simeone not gone down like a sack of Maris Pipers at Beckham’s ’98 kick out it might’ve been oh so different, so small are the margins in football, (Chris Waddle’s Italia 90 penalty notwithstanding).
Both sets of fans live on memories, welcomed or forced upon; it’s their only common denominator. The Scots do the thing that Scots do so well, always giving poo-poo to 1966 and all that. They prefer to recall Jim Baxter’s keepie uppies at Wembley the following year as Scotland beat Moore, Charlton, Hurst et al on their own patch. Yet younger generations of English are becoming far removed from images of Nobby Stiles’ non-teeth and the sound of ‘they think it’s all over.’ It’s fair to say old fumes are not enough for new fans. The English have deemed their squads capable of winning every major tournament since their zenith, fuelled by the punditry rants of the Jimmy Hills, Trevor Brookings and Gary Linekers of this world. Scots still find it a sport in itself to shout through the telly at their like.
A big issue has been both Scotland and England’s struggle to find a footing in modern football. England squads have failed to match the technical prowess of a Croatia. The Scots have the same recent problems doing over Macadonia types which throws into perspective the gap between the top to the mediocre. English fans have little recognition of the players who’ve made up recent Scotland squads. Gone are the days of Law, Dalglish, Strachan or McAllister – players who heavy influenced the success of their respective English club teams. Which asks the question, is a desire to hump an average (at best) Scotland team high on their challenge agenda?
Just after the match date was announced, Roy Hodgson was giving it some heavy FA prompted promotional spin, when he said, “It will be a huge honour to lead our nation out against our oldest rivals. For us, England versus Scotland is one of the finest fixtures in international football and I know what this game means to both sets of supporters.” Stirring enough stuff, but hardly a call to re-enact Bannockburn. But then again, it’s only the Scots who’ll go down to re-enact Bannockburn. You can see the English taking it and leaving it, much like a dog who takes a bone and decides to leave it in the realisation there’s just not enough meat left on it.
Despite calls for a reprise of the match annually, the summer friendly is likely to be a one off. Ideas, suggestions and possibilities are only fulfilled in modern football if (a) enough money can be generated from them, and (b) enough money can be generated from them. The FA will fill their coffers with the receipts of a Wembers full house (of mostly Scots) come August, of that there’s little doubt. Now, say the clash was given a mandate to slip into an end of season Saturday for the next five years. After a couple of years would it stand alone as a thrilling tie in its own right? For the Tartan Army it would, in the build up at any rate. Though for English fans it’s more likely to act as Euro’s or World Cup warmer upper, should they have qualified.
The Auld Enemy tie in August will be one to keep an eye on, each in the lead up, during and after. What’s thrown around the stands vocally will likely confirm why the idea of an Olympic Team GB Football Squad didn’t really float anyone’s boat. The joining together of English and Scottish players always has and always should be kept at opposite ends of a pitch. The fans agree to agree on that; though Scots do agree a little bit more fervently. Let’s hope the aftermath is tad less chib thrown, and a dash more passion from all concermed to revive the tie altogether…in some, unlikely format.