AS HE settled into his new role as Scotland assistant coach yesterday, Stuart McCall was provided with another opportunity to reflect on the sliding-doors scenario that saw his young life reach a significant fork in the road.
After being named in both the Scottish and English Under-21 squads on the same day, he elected to play for the land of his birth rather than the land where his heart lay.
He began to regret his decision almost immediately. Scotland manager Jock Stein phoned his family home in Leeds and sportingly wished him good luck. “I know how hard a decision it must have been,” he told him, making McCall regret his decision even more.
What would have been the effect on his career – and life – had he not dithered to such an extent that the final whistle blew before he could make a first England appearance in 1984, against Turkey? In those days, even the briefest of appearances for the Under-21s would have tied him to England for the rest of his career.
A photograph exists of manager Dave Sexton almost tugging the substitute towards the pitch as the seconds ticked down and McCall dilly-dallied while pretending to retrieve shin pads from under the bench.
Had he make it on to the pitch there would have been no goal in the 1990 World Cup against Sweden, probably no move to Rangers – who at the time were hamstrung by the three foreigner rule – and probably no invitation to join Gordon Strachan’s backroom staff this week.
“Sometimes you look back at the defining moments of your career and that was mine,” he said. “I had always dreamed of playing for Scotland. I’ve told the story many times of how my manager [at Bradford City] was Trevor Cherry at the time and there were no mobile phones. So I was pushed down the England route against what I really wanted to do. I remember going home on the bus welling up about what I had done.
“All the papers were full of ‘McCall rejects Scots, England win the battle’,” he added. “I felt I couldn’t change my mind; it was all over the papers. It was hard because I had been brought up so differently. So I went away with England and I was on the bench and did everything I could not to get on the park. I was behind the goal and Tony Cottee came round to say: ‘You’re going on.’ And I’m thinking: ‘I’m not, you know.’ Someone gave me shin pads and I threw them under the bench and started shouting: ‘Where’s me pads, where’s me pads?’”
Despite coming so close to playing for England, there is no prouder Scot than McCall, whose father, Andy, earned one B cap for Scotland in a career spent entirely with English clubs. This accounts for McCall’s accent, which is the result of being born a goal-kick away from Elland Road, Leeds United’s ground.
However, even as a youngster, he would have done anything to play for Scotland. Yesterday, it looked as though he had given his front tooth. His gap-toothed grin called to mind his hero Joe Jordan; he explained that it was the consequence of biting into a particularly hard mint earlier that day.
It didn’t prevent him talking long and passionately about the welcome surprise that was Strachan’s invitation to join the Scotland set-up. The No 3 post had been expected to be filled by someone with less experience. It can only be to Scotland’s benefit that someone with McCall’s managerial pedigree has agreed to come on board. He also brings the managerial team’s international cap total up to 94.
McCall has had minimal contact with Strachan over the years, although they played once together for Scotland – against Russia in a friendly at Ibrox in 1991. They were on opposing sides when Rangers and Leeds United met in the Champions League in 1992. McCall was switched out wide by Walter Smith and told to shadow Strachan. Within 15 minutes, he had been switched back inside again after Gary McAllister put Leeds in front in the opening minute, although Rangers recovered to win 2-1.
Like Strachan, McCall has scored for Scotland at the finals of a major tournament. Strachan was injured during Italia 90, but McCall filled the red-haired midfielder vacancy, scoring to help Scotland on the way to a 2-1 win in the second group game against Sweden.”
As for his hopes for the near future with Scotland, McCall said: “We are not being over-ambitious in saying we can go and win the next two games in the group. I know it’s a big ‘if’, but, if we did that, the table would look a bit different and it might give a little of bit of optimism.”
Of course, there is the little matter of a game against England to look forward to in August. McCall grinned. “I can’t wait. My boy has already come to me saying: ‘Dad, Dad, can we get tickets for that?’”