SCOTLAND’S football skills might not impress Brazilians too much. But when it comes to superhero sailors, a toff from Hamilton was certainly able to show them a thing or two, writes Stephen McGinty
Like a fire that burned brightly but was quickly reduced to ashes, my passion for football was at its height in 1982. I was ten years old and Scotland had qualified for the World Cup in Spain. Looking back, it seems as if every waking minute was spent playing football which, for me, meant standing between the white goalposts or piled jerseys dreaming of Alan Rough’s light blue pin-stripe goalkeeper jersey, the away top with the black collar and padded elbows. I can’t remember ever being so covetous of anything before, at least not since the Starsky & Hutch shoulder holster and service revolver.
The 1982 World Cup was made extra special by the inclusion of New Zealand in Scotland’s group, which coincided rather well with the arrival the previous year at Our Holy Redeemer’s primary of Adrian King, a new pupil from New Zealand and quite the most skilful football player in the school. “Kiwi” as he became known, soon earned his jersey in my team, Whitecrook under-11s, and became a prodigious goalscorer.
Looking back, I can still remember the morning after Scotland beat New Zealand 5-2 and the remorseless gloating that took place in the schoolyard. Kids can be cruel, but, of course, revenge was a dish best served up by Brazil, and when David Narey scored for Scotland, it seemed only to make them mad as they hounded us around the pitch for the rest of the 90 minutes to win 4-1.
I loved watching Brazil play. I loved the way they moved. I loved the way they passed and I loved the way they scored goal after goal, which made STV’s April Fool the previous year all the more cruel. I was off school, ill and laying on the sofa when the lunchtime news revealed that the station had an exclusive story. Scotland had been in secret negotiations with Fifa and had secured the role as host nation for the 1986 World Cup. I couldn’t believe it. The giants of football playing here, in Scotland, and then the miracle became even more illuminated and magical when the cameras showed Kilbowie Park, not two miles from my home, and the home stadium of Clydebank FC.I think the stadium held perhaps 10,000 people, but the voiceover explained that this could be the scene of a titanic match between Brazil and Russia.
I leapt to my feet and was screaming to my dad that we had to get tickets. How could we get tickets? It was then he explained that it was only a joke, that the World Cup wasn’t really coming to Scotland. I argued with him and said that it had to be true. After all, it was on the television.
I can’t quite place the exact point at which my love affair with football began to fade. Perhaps it was preferring to watch Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger on BBC2 instead of Scotland versus Russia on BBC1. Or the ignominy of winning “best conduct” at the football awards. I know the high point of my playing career was when we found ourselves, by a combination of luck and another team’s expulsion, in a cup final, and when the game went to penalties, I managed to save one. Perhaps I just decided to quit at the top.
My current apathy towards the beautiful game means that I am unmoved by Rangers’ financial misfortune or Neil Lennon’s decision to retire from Parkhead, and yet the forthcoming World Cup in Brazil has stirred my interest. For while Scottish football fans will regret the absence of our national team, those who are also fans of history can take comfort in the fact that 180 years ago it was a disgraced Scottish naval admiral who helped to secure Brazil’s independence from Portugal.
Thomas Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald, was born near Hamilton in 1770, died 84 years later in London and was among the most skilful and daring naval officers of his day. A man so wily, courageous and devious that during the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon himself nicknamed him “Le Loup des Mers” – the Sea Wolf.
Both CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian based their literary heroes, Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, on Cochrane, who once evaded a Spanish warship by claiming his vessel was plague-ridden and, when later chased at night by an enemy frigate, tied a lantern to a water barrel and dropped it over the side in the knowledge that in the darkness the frigate would follow the illuminated barrel. He was almost constitutionally incapable of respecting authority and once fought a duel after he was insulted at a fancy dress party where he was dressed as a common sailor.
Yet what forced him to sell his considerable naval skills to the highest bidder was his involvement in a stock exchange fraud in 1814 in which a false rumour of Napoleon’s death was deliberately started in order to spike share prices. When the stock exchange launched an investigation, six people were found to have profited – including Cochrane, who sold his entire holdings, some £139,000, in a government stock called Omnium. Although the evidence was circumstantial, he was sentenced to 12 months in jail, given a £1,000 fine and ordered to stand in pillory outside the Royal Exchange for one hour. Yet so popular was he that the sentence of pillory was dropped for fear of triggering a riot among his supporters.
Instead, after being stripped of his rank and knighthood, Cochrane went into exile and accepted an offer to head the Chilean navy before accepting a similar offer in Brazil. In 1823, Brazil was still struggling to secure its independence from Portugal and the new president needed to secure supremacy of the sea. Unfortunately, at the time when Cochrane took command of the navy, it consisted of just eight ships, two of which were unseaworthy, while two were used as fire ships. He faced Portugal’s fleet of a battleship, five frigates, five corvettes, a brig and a schooner.
An attempt to tackle the Portuguese fleet head-on ended in failure when he noted that his own vessel’s cannons were firing too slowly. An officer was despatched below decks and discovered the men in charge of the powder were deliberately slowing down the attack.
Yet one of his later successes was when he laid siege to the port of Maranham and sent ashore a letter claiming to be at the head of a vast Brazilian navy and army. The note requested the immediate surrender and read: “I am anxious not to let loose the imperial troops upon Maranham, exasperated as they are at the injuries and cruelties exercised towards themselves and their countrymen.”
The trick worked. The port surrendered. It was the nautical equivalent of a cheeky nutmeg.
Over the next three months, Cochrane’s skills allowed his fleet to win great swaths of territory in the north of the country, but the bounty promised to him – a share of captured vessels – never materialised and when he sensed a movement against him, he simply commandeered a Brazilian warship and sailed across the Atlantic to the Azores and from there back to Britain.
He eventually overturned the verdict against him, and had his title and rank restored. He was one of the most remarkable Scots of the 19th century and despite the manner in which he left the country, Brazilians still refer to him as “the South American Lafayette”.
Scotland may not be running out on to the pitch during the forthcoming World Cup in Brazil, but we should take comfort and pride in the fact that a Scot once played for Brazil during its most crucial competition. Thomas Cochrane played the game beautifully –and, most importantly, he won.