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The Underachievers: Remembering the Great Scottish Team of the 70s and 80s

After two whole decades of failure, Scotland has finally qualified for an international tournament in Euro 2020 which has been pushed back to 2021 because of COVID-19 but it hasn’t always been like this.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Scottish football was a force to be reckoned with. Spearheaded by Dalglish, and containing players of the calibre of Souness, Jordan, Gemmill and Rioch, it was a team that had some of the world’s greatest players.

The management team was brilliant too. Before his 26-year stint as Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson was at Scotland, initially on the staff under the great Jock Stein – the manager of the first British side to win the European Cup – and then as manager in 1986 after Stein’s sudden tragic death.

With this golden generation the side seemed destined to win something, but somehow it chronically underachieved and never fulfilled its potential. Despite qualifying for five consecutive World Cups – the first in 1974 – the team didn’t manage to get beyond the group stages in any of them.

The side’s best performance at a Championship came in West Germany in 1974, a tournament where Scotland were the only home nation to qualify – sweetening proceedings for the Tartan Army.

Going into the World Cup having beaten England and Norway and drawn with hosts West Germany, Scotland’s expectations were high. Managed by Willie Ormond, the team had a terrific balance of experience (Dennis Law) and youth (Kenny Dalglish) plus one of the great captains in Billy Bremner (the combative centrepiece of the Leeds side that won two English League titles).

Being drawn in a group that included reigning champions Brazil made things tricky, but confidence was high: the Tartan Army were heading to their first World Cup since 1958 and they were going to enjoy it.

To go unbeaten at a World Cup and not to be successful seems anomalous, but it’s exactly what Scotland did in 1974. They became the first team (joined by England in 1982) in history to go unbeaten in a World Cup but not win the tournament.

After beating Zaire in the opening game 2-0, they then drew with both Brazil (0-0) and Yugoslavia (1-1), but because they beat Zaire with the group’s lowest goal margin they were knocked out. Incredibly, they were heading home on goal difference without experiencing defeat.

Years later, member of the squad Peter Lorimer was asked if he thought the team could have gone all the way in 1974. “The belief in the squad and the quality in the squad was good enough to win a World Cup,” Lorimer said. “Whether we would have gone on to do it, you can never say."

While fans and World Cup aficionados tend to think 1974 was Scotland’s best chance of winning a World Cup, all would agree that their finest moment came four years later in Argentina. It was here – against the apparently invincible Dutch side – that Archie Gemmill scored one of the greatest ever World Cup goals.

“3-1!” bellowed the commentator, “a brilliant individual goal by this hard little professional has put Scotland in Dreamland.”

Picking the ball up just outside the box, with six touches Gemmill managed to dance through the Dutch defence, faking a shot, dummying, jigging his way to the goal where – despite the tight angle – he casually put the ball over the goalkeeper.

The game finished 3-2 to Scotland, and while it wasn’t enough to ensure their qualification it was a historic result against a Dutch side that were almost untouchable – in fact, this loss to Scotland was only one of three Dutch losses during this period, the other two both being in finals (1974 and 1978).

Beating the Netherlands showed the quality that Scotland possessed during this period; if they could beat the Dutch they could hope to beat anyone.

But Lady Luck was never with the Tartan Army, and in subsequent World Cups more misfortune and failure came: 1982, Alan Hansen and Willie Miller collided, allowing USSR to get a 2-2 draw when Scotland needed a win; 1986, the group of death (West Germany, Denmark and Uruguay) proved too much; 1990, goalkeeper Jim Leighton's fumble saw Brazil score the only goal in a 1-0 loss.

Since then, things have gone downhill for Scottish international football; their last World Cup appearance was in 1998. But there could be something special on the horizon.

The focus now is on qualification for Euro 2020, a tournament being held in 12 cities across Europe, including Glasgow. National stadium Hampden Park will play host to both group and knockout games, and the Tartan Army will be out in force.

In the 1996 film Trainspotting Ewan McGregor’s character Renton famously said, “Christ, I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978.”

If Scotland can get through qualification it’s a phrase that will reverberate in fans’ minds.