NOT for the first time, you fear the old memory box might be playing tricks. An incredible Ralph Milne goal for Dundee United with a dribble begun behind the halfway line is heavily on your mind, but people keep saying: “Don’t you mean Eamonn Bannon?”
Why is this goal preoccupying you? Because a national team built on diligence, discipline, neat passing and other honest and modest virtues has only got us so far in qualification for Euro 2016 and that might not be far enough.
The goal seemed like the perfect expression of individual brilliance. Yes, football’s a team game, but isn’t it fantastic when a player declares “It’s my ball” and doesn’t stop, doesn’t pass, doesn’t do anything you’d find in the zipped leather folio flourished so autocratically by Louis van Gaal, manager at one of Milne’s other clubs, Manchester United? A goal, in other words, that’s a rage against the machine.
That is, if it existed at all.
And then I found it: United vs Kilmarnock, just before Christmas 1982, 7-0 to the Tangerines in the season they would be crowned champions. On any other day, David Narey could have controlled the ball on his fairly famous big toe, as he did for goal No.4, and this would have been the game’s outstanding moment. But then came goal No.5 with Ralphie’s crazy slaloming of outstretched hurdies and tactical strictures before a finish of considerable nonchalance. And by the way, crazy should probably be spelled with a “k”, like in a comic, because that’s where this goal seemed to belong.
Forgive the purple prose but isn’t this what we do at times like these? A couple of bad results and we come over all romantic about the kind of football we used to watch, think we’d still like to see, and which we reckon might get us the result we desperately need against Poland in three weeks’ time.
Just imagine: a tight game reaches the 83rd minute at stalemate when there’s the chance of a Scottish breakaway. Could Shaun Maloney do a Ralphie or would his stumpy wee legs out-race his brain causing him to forget the ball? Could James Forrest do a Ralphie or would he leave the Polish defence spluttering in his vapour-trail only to muff his finish? Anyone else? Grant Hanley perhaps?
Now, I am not saying that the Gordon Strachan project has forgone flair. His Scotland have been a whole lot easier on the eye than Craig Levein’s Scotland. His team have tried to play football with as much expresiveness as the manager has considered reasonable, given the players available to him. But flair is undoubtedly what we need right now.
We are not a big side, capable of bludgeoning our way to this vital win. We do not have a genuine world-class player like the Poles do in Robert Lewandowski. We can pass the ball around to form interesting geometric patterns in our own half of the field, but we can’t do it in the final third like Germany did at Hampden last Monday night.
This is a tough group, tougher than the ones from which Wales and Northern Ireland will qualify, and much tougher than the “Hello birds, hello sky” gambol required of England. (Those who know their Molesworth will recognise this as the refrain of the school sap, Fotherington-Thomas). We crafted good goals for ourselves in Dortmund and Warsaw, and a lovely one to beat the Republic of Ireland in Glasgow. We play smarter football than the Irish, who are supremely cloggy even by Martin O’Neill’s standards, and until the Georgia game it didn’t look like the Republic’s draw away to Germany or the Poles’ defeat of the world champions were going to imperil our chances. But then we failed to match what all our rivals had achieved: a win in Tbilisi.
This could be the one that kills us. When was the last time the entire team performed so dismally without one redeeming feature? It says something about the progress made under Strachan that I can’t remember. When everything comes off for you it can be said that the stars aligned. In Tbilisi the rubble aligned. Thus far in the group, none of the main contenders have turned in a game to equal our capitulation. On that basis we don’t deserve to go to France.
In times past, and goodness knows we’ve been in this kind of pickle before, the cry would have gone up for some good, old Scottish gallusness. Bring back Jimmy Johnstone! Recall Charlie Cooke! We would place our faith in mercurial talents and hope against hope they’d got a good night’s sleep and would strut on to the pitch and cement their elusive legend.
But we don’t really produce that kind of footballer anymore, or if we do then that kind of football – brilliant on its day, unreliable the other 364 – is gradually drummed out of them by the prevailing culture, modern systems, the passes-completed obsession (with easy and dull passes still counting) and what Jinky might have termed the tackling-back tyranny.
Thinking back to Monday at Hampden – and let’s be generous because we usually are: the privilege of being able to watch the best in the world at work – Scotland have become more like Germany in the traditional sense while Germany have become more like the Scotland of our dreams.
Scotland under Strachan, a noted Germanophile, are now efficient, which was how the four-times World Cup winners used to be damned with faint praise. On the other hand Germany, because their central midfield through Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira who wasn’t available has been precision-engineered to such off-the-scale super-efficiency, can afford to have the likes of Mesut Özil fluttering around and getting involved on a whim. And you thought Germany had no indigenous butterflies.
Laments for the lost boys of Scottish football don’t usually lack source material. In the week of Ralph Milne’s death we witnessed the return of Derek Riordan who could, if he felt so inclined during training at Hibernian, be urging Islam Feruz not to squander his chance through casual self-destruction. Strachan, a moral manager, knows the kind of player he likes and maybe Milne in his pomp wouldn’t have got a look-in, just as he didn’t with the boss’s predecessors. But come Poland on 8 October, he would love a Ralphie special, arriving like a bolt out of the dark blue. We all would.