Scots do it again, being edged out only inches from glory for the second time in a matter of days, writes Aidan Smith
Did you see the study yesterday claiming that Scotsmen are the happiest Britons? According to the European Health Interview Survey, they wear their metaphorical bunnets at the jauntiest of angles. They don’t drink or smoke as much anymore. Challenging the stereotype of the “Sick Man of Europe”, they’re the healthiest specimens to be found on these isles, radiating upbeatness in body and mind. So, come on then: just how happy did you feel, waking up after Twickenham?
Twickenham, and ten days before it, Hampden. First our footballers, then our rugby players. One crushing result followed by another. You could call this highly unfortunate sequence Ten Days That Shook Scotland if we hadn’t been there before. Seen the movie. Own the rights, in fact. Pretty much invented the concept of glorious failure.
But it’s still some effort to exit two competitions in quick succession in the manner we did. You could term the final moments of both games freakishly similar but, aha, this is Scotland we’re talking about …
With seconds remaining, we’re beating superior opponents. Victories few thought possible are within our grasp, only for the ball – round or oval, it’s all the same – to suddenly take on a life of its own.
Against Poland in a qualifier for football’s Euro 2016, there’s a horrible bagatelle involving a Polish backside, a Scottish hand, and a post before the striker, Robert Lewandowski, scores what will surely end up being the ugliest goal of his distinguished career from three and a half inches to put us out.
Against Australia in the Rugby World Cup on Sunday, the horrible bagatelle features many players, their failure to hold on to the egg down to drookitness and desperation. And then someone does grab it, only for the Scottish forward Jon Welsh to be deemed offside.
His team-mates are angry at the decision – which Australians will admit afterwards was the wrong one – and the Scots in the crowd are absolutely bloody furious. Sensing this, the South African referee sprints straight down the tunnel, the converted penalty having condemned us to another exit. As I say, double-whammies like this are rarer than hen’s wallies. To achieve such, you have to be truly world-class at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and indubitably that is what we are.
So when is it going to stop, eh? When is this tyranny of near-miss, cock-up and what a fondly-remembered commentator would term “disaster for Scotland” going to end? And what do you tell your sports-daft eight-year-old who’s never known anything else, save for despairful representatives of the dark blue nation slumped once again on the turf, receiving consoling pats on the head from opponents possibly more handsome and definitely more successful?
I suppose you have to tell the laddie, as my father told me when I was that age, scribbled in a birthday card after an especially crushing blow, that one day, don’t know exactly when, they will do it: they will win. But that day seems as far off as ever.
Sometime around a famous 1974 victory over England at football, the Paisley-born novelist Gordon Williams, the first Scot to be Booker-nominated and a regular on the beer and urine-soaked terraces of Hampden when there were fewer ostentatious plumages among the fans, wrote: “Please God let us win this year. Please God don’t let the team do anything silly. Please God give Scotland a break.”
Williams’ words kick off a terrific collection of fitba musings called We’ll Support You Evermore but, with the benefit of hindsight, his words make him sound almost greedy. Our footballers had progressed to what would be the first of five consecutive World Cups and victories over England were semi-regular and spectacular. The rugby team led by Andy Irvine had become dashing and would eventually win two Grand Slams. This was as good as it was going to get for us, at either sport.
I must confess I wasn’t really up for the Rugby World Cup. Recent disappointments had scunnered me. As you get older, you don’t want to put yourself through any more torment. Plus, you think yourself more sophisticated with a wider range of interests than back then when there were only three TV channels (none in a power strike) and one variety of boil-in-the-tin steak pie. Plus, your country’s grown up a bit with its own parliament and has other outlets for self-expression beyond ball games and especially those with our internecine nearest-and-dearest. Plus, if you remember 1978 and Argentina you always have the right to plead insanity, flat feet, a broken heart or something.
But then your boys run out. They’re greeted, as Williams put it, by “the big crowd, the pipes, the yellow flags, the thunder of the shouting”, and you get swept along. You know what happens next. As Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked: “Football, bloody hell.” He should have added: “Rugby, goodness me.”
Four decades ago, Williams dubbed his countrymen “the greatest talkers of rubbish in the world… wee boys looking for fairy-tales”. I don’t think we’re that anymore, and nor are we masochists who secretly love sporting tragi-comedies or comi-tragedies. We simply dared to believe Scotland could beat Australia only to end up with our narrowest, bravest and – not wanting to contradict myself on the self-flagellation stuff – greatest-ever sporting defeat.
Some good may come of Sunday, but not right now. I don’t feel particularly healthy and I’m certainly not happy. The sense of loss is best summed up by another great Scottish writer, Alan Sharp, at the end of We’ll Support You Evermore. Scotland have recently lost – ignominiously – and Sharp writes: “I suppose I’m here to testify that it doesn’t work. If I had any remaining doubts they were dispelled about a week ago. I was sitting outside my house in Los Angeles wearing a Scottish jersey with 14 on the back and watching a tall bearded man called Hal Moseley from Texas go in to sleep with my wife.”