Aidan Smith: At Wembley, the ugliest, jammiest victory will do

Denis Law is hugged by a fan after Scotland beat England 3-2 at Wembley in April 1967. Picture: Getty Images
Denis Law is hugged by a fan after Scotland beat England 3-2 at Wembley in April 1967. Picture: Getty Images
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We need inspiration. Our last two performances were grim. Any more of that and we won’t be going to the World Cup and a new manager will be needed. Next up, though, it’s England at Wembley. In a pink strip, for goodness sake. So I do what I always do in such situations – turn to The Scottish Football Book.

Did you get this for Christmas? Every boy able to read – and we all could back in the 1960s and 1970s; the World Cup of education definitely included us – swore by its glossy hardback cover, the numbered sequence and the legend: “Edited by Hugh Taylor.”

That cover, back in the day, was invariably a shot of the year under review’s Scotland-England game. No 9 shows Eric Caldow shaking hands with Jimmy Armfield in 1963. No 11 has Ian St John, arm aloft in celebration, after smashing into Gordon Banks in the act of scoring. No 13, rather generously, considering 1967 was Scotland’s greatest-ever victory, features the Auld Enemy on the attack.

I’ve dug out the Wembley years and they make for fascinating reading. For instance, there was high anxiety about how Scotland would perform in ’67, just like now. Much – possibly too much – would depend on a couple of guys.

“Never,” declared the unbylined piece, “did Scotland more desperately need at their best the two most amazing footballers of the age – the two who can be charming, courageous, or alarming, outrageous; the two who are heroes to millions of schoolboys and anathema to thousands of veteran football fans who don’t go for the ‘mod’ trend… Denis Law and Jim Baxter.”

The mod trend – whatever could that be? Well, this was ’67, a strange time for veterans, what with all that long hair, flower power and free love. The Summer of Love was mere weeks away but it didn’t impact everywhere. I’m always amused when I happen across, say, Airdrie match programmes from that fabled year which advertised the Tip Top Restaurant, “the first choice for high tea”. Not LSD – high tea.

The fact that not everyone was letting it all hang out would have allowed the esteemed Hugh and his ilk room to be reproachful. “These two are undoubtedly the greatest players in Britain, individualists supreme,” continued the SFB, “but we were also recalling that they had sometimes when playing for Scotland been completely out of tune, too languid or too intent on trying to outdo each other in virtuosity.”

This Friday, any kind of win will do. The ugliest, jammiest, most improbable victory will be fine. It almost breaks your heart, then, to read how in ’67 Scotland had the desire to finesse, with the finest of paintbrushes, beautiful triumphs and yet those demanding critics in the pressbox eyrie would still find fault. “When the English are on top,” the book continued, “their natural expression is to hammer in goals. But the Scots like to use artistic flair to expose the limitations of scientific efficiency. The manner of victory, not the extent of it, was what mattered to Scotland.”

Thus, because of too many “cute moves” and a desire to “nark” their opponents, a game which could and should have been 6-2 only finished 3-2. Oh, for 3-2 this time with the winner bouncing off a pink Scottish belly, reminiscent of one of Mr Blobby’s moves, and to hell with aesthetics.

Could this at long last be Chris Martin’s moment? The big man from Derby has still to convince but incredibly, if these old Wembley dispatches are a reliable guide, the Lawman had similar problems. In ’65, when Scotland left the Twin Towers with a 2-2 draw, the SFB reported: “The fans were angered by the attitude of some of the Anglos in the team, especially Law, who had failed to live up to his reputation.” England, forced by injuries to play with nine men, took the honours.

Two years previously it was the Dark Blues’ turn to be reduced – by Caldow’s leg-break – and following the first-ever penalty of Baxter’s career they achieved “one of our most magnificent victories of all time… the yellow standards of Scotland, like an immense field of daffodils, swirled and danced and flickered triumphantly in the wind”. But still the SFB had grumbles. “The trouble lay with the inside-forwards,” it stated. “Denis Law and John White have seldom been in any Scots team and done so little to deserve it.”

Rangers winger Davie Wilson had deputised at left-back that day. Two years before that he scored what he told me earlier this year was his best-ever goal to get Scotland back to 3-2, only for goalkeeper Frank Haffey to “start his carry-on”. Final score: 9-3 to the Auld Enemy. “The rest of us were devastated,” added Wilson, “but guess what Frank did the next morning at the railway station? Posed for photos for the papers with his arms outstretched. He was copying the clock which read a quarter to nine – that terrible scoreline.”

The Scottish Football Book has urgent questions after this Scottish football tragedy but uppermost was this: “Should we depend on an all-tartan eleven?” The vanquished contained two Anglos but obviously it was felt that the team could do without Dave Mackay, an “unpredictable genius”, and Law, who delivered another questionable performance.

Wow. Such demands of its gods, and such condemnation of them. Scotland arrived in the 1960s on the back of two World Cups when they’d finished bottom of their groups both times, garnering just one point. Surely not much had been expected of them. But when England were the opposition and especially at Wembley it seems that everything was expected of them.

The mutterings regarding Law would be mirrored later when it was felt that Kenny Dalglish wasn’t reaching the heights with Scotland that he did with Liverpool. If we knew then what we know now! These guys were as good as it would get. In the words of Joni Mitchell, another big fan of the Scottish Football Book: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

In later years we tried to downplay the Scotland-England fixture. Eventually we managed to downplay it right out of existence. Here it comes again, pregnant with significance, but let’s not be too hard on our boys – they’ll do their best, I’m sure. A victory and I’ll celebrate with LSD, not high tea.