DON’T dare put it to John Collins that maybe, just maybe, Scotland won last time they played at Wembley because England could afford to lose.
That maybe, just maybe, the 1-0 victory in the second leg of the teams’ Euro 2000 play-off in November 1999 was meaningless because it didn’t overturn the 2-0 loss for Craig Brown’s side at Hampden four days earlier.
Collins can close his eyes and still picture the Tartan Army in full song as he walked off at Wembley, and still feel that aged 31 he chose the right moment to “bow out” from the international domain that had brought him 58 caps. In his mind, the mental images he can recall of his final 90 minutes in a Scotland shirt ought to disabuse any cynics with the temerity to suggest that, ultimately, England had their ancient adversaries right where they wanted them – even after the concession of a Don Hutchison strike, right. “They probably thought: ‘This is easy’,” says the former Hibs, Celtic, Monaco, Everton and Fulham midfielder. “But, trust me, their faces after 15 minutes showed they were thinking: ‘S***! We aren’t getting hold of the ball here.’
“When we went 1-0 up, serious pressure was on. You saw it in the faces, they were arguing, shouting and bawling. Panic set in. The hardest thing in football is to change the momentum of a game. You want to start with a good momentum and get on top and I have been on both sides of that. I know what side I like and what side I want to be on as a manager or a coach.”
The stakes may be altogether more mundane on Wednesday when Wembley plays host to the first meeting between the British neighbours in 14 years. Collins, though, wants his countrymen to show the same belief and bravery that he feels he and his team-mates did in both 1999 games. Even though the first of those encounters ultimately proved fatal to Scotland’s qualification hopes.
“When we went to Wembley then there was still a feeling within the camp that we could go down there and get a result,” says Collins. “England didn’t dominate us at Hampden. They’d scored two good goals from [Paul] Scholes, but they never pinned us in and we were very confident as a team. You have to be in massive games like Scotland against England. You have to go and express yourself. If you go on to the pitch with fear, players hide and you are a dead duck. You must go down there with everyone wanting the ball and it is a great surface now. It is an even better stadium as well. It is a sensational venue and I am sure every player has got to be really, really excited.
“You need character to play at the top level and confidence, self-belief and dedication. You have to tick lots of boxes, especially when you go up against England on their home park with something like 90,000 fans there. We’ll have a good support there too, though. One thing about playing for Scotland, wherever you are, is that you will hear the fans. Trust me, that does inspire you and push you.”
In 1999, Collins, who now coaches Scotland’s under-19s, and his midfield comrade Barry Ferguson channelled all those adrenaline-producing elements to impose themselves and set the tone for Scotland’s first win at Wembley in 18 years.
“That was always the plan,” adds Collins. “Could we get hold of the ball and silence the crowd? The greatest thing to do away from home is get hold of the ball and keep it. The home fans don’t like it, the home players don’t like it and you can create a bit of tension.
“England are so used to teams going there and sitting off them, admiring them and thinking they’ll just play second fiddle and watch them dominate the ball. I don’t think that is a mindset we should go down there with. The mindset should be to go down and show we are good players. Let’s try to keep the ball off them and surprise them. It is maybe unrealistic to expect us to dominate, but we have to hope to get a hold of the ball and keep it during periods. We have to make them chase and work to get it back. If you go with a survival mindset, you are on a hiding to nothing but that is what a lot of teams do. It has never been my mindset.”
In seeking a ball-winning and ballsy approach in midweek, Collins knows he need look no further than Celtic captain Scott Brown. The 28-year-old may cut a slightly more mature figure than the youngster that Collins enthused about when he was managing at Hibs, but he still likes to play the “big I am” on the big occasion.
“I don’t think Scott Brown gets intimidated. When you have played for Celtic or Rangers in front of 60,000, you don’t get intimidated. Those days are gone for top players, I think. Maybe when you are 17 or 18, you can talk about being intimidated. Not later in your career. I think he has [the ability to run the game] but we have to go down there and produce a team performance. It is all about everybody playing together when they don’t have the ball, keeping it tight and working hard to win it back.”
Exactly the sort of display, indeed, that Gordon Strachan’s team conjured up in the World Cup qualifier in Croatia last time out. Only the hopelessly optimistic thought of Zagreb in June as the place where Scotland could snare a competitive win for the first time in 20 months and end a record losing streak of four games. The 1-0 win, thanks to an opportunistic strike by Robert Snodgrass, was Scotland’s best result in six years while England have fashioned little similar of late. Draws away to Montenegro and Poland this year mean they are not a shoo-in for their World Cup qualifying group, while a friendly draw with the Republic of Ireland in their last Wembley outing in May did nothing to quell grumbles about Roy Hodgson’s stewardship of the national team.
Collins, never slow to say exactly what he thinks, isn’t exactly wowed by the current England set-up. He says: “There is pressure on them because they are struggling as well. They are the home team and every English fan will expect them to win comfortably, I am sure. But who have they got? Steven Gerrard is coming to the end. [Frank] Lampard is coming to the end. Who frightens you? They don’t have a Gareth Bale, a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Lionel Messi. They have good players, but I don’t think they’ve got players you would be petrified of, no one you’d think would tear you to shreds. That’s the way I would take it just now.”
And, for all the 45-year-old might be content as a coach, he would surely love a crack at securing a Wembley double, were a time machine available. But, along with most of his countrymen, he will have to settle for an edge-of-the-seat vantage point. “The whole country will be watching even though there is nothing at stake,” he says. “Everybody who loves football or plays football will probably be in front of their TV because there hasn’t been a Scotland-England game since 1999. There will be a buzz from everyone if we can get a good performance and a good result.”