FORTY seasons ago, Donald Ford was in the form of his life – and so were Scotland. The national team were heading for the 1974 World Cup finals, a tournament from which they would return as the only unbeaten team, and one which Ford still believes was a missed opportunity of historic proportions.
In many other eras, the Hearts striker would have won his first international cap far earlier but, in a time when the likes of Denis Law and Joe Jordan were playing up front, competition was fierce.
Yet finally, in October 1973, a week before his 29th birthday, Ford’s talents were recognised by national manager Willie Ormond. Hearts had begun their league campaign with a 3-2 win at Morton – Ford scored all three from the penalty spot – then followed that with a 4-1 victory at home to Hibernian. An aggregate win over Everton in the Texaco Cup and a 3-0 win at Ibrox continued the Tynecastle club’s excellent run of results, and Ormond, who would later manage Hearts, selected Ford for the last game of the qualifying campaign for the 1974 World Cup.
“I had been having a very good season with Hearts and got called up for the match against Czechoslovakia,” Ford remembers. “I came on for Denis Law in the second half and played the last 40 minutes – I hit the goalkeeper on the forehead with a shot, and I did quite well.”
Scotland lost that match 1-0, but they had already qualified for the finals in Germany thanks to a 2-1 victory over the same opponents the previous month, and Ford remained in Ormond’s plans. Hearts’ form faltered going into 1974, but he recalls one game in particular that caught the Scotland boss’s eye.
“In February, we had a Scottish Cup tie at home to Partick Thistle that went to a replay. We were lucky to get the replay, actually, but we won it 4-1. I made one goal for Willie Gibson and scored the other three myself, and it was probably that game that got me into Willie Ormond’s final World Cup squad.”
Ford won his second cap against Germany the following month, coming on early after Law was injured. Goals from Paul Breitner and Jurgen Grabowski put the Germans in command before half-time, and Kenny Dalglish’s goal after the break was the only reply Scotland could muster.
“Then, in the Home Internationals, Denis Law, who was coming towards the end of his career, played against Ireland. Then I played against Wales and we won 2-0.
“Against England it looked like I was going to start, but I was on the bench and we beat them. So that was me, settled on the bench.”
Settled, but restless. With the quality of players round about him, Ford was content to acknowledge that he should not have a starting place in Ormond’s team for the World Cup finals. But, with Scotland having been drawn against Zaire, Brazil and Yugoslavia in the group stages, he was sure there was one match in particular – the first, against the African nation – where he had a role to play.
“What a tremendous first-choice Scotland team that was. It should have won a lot more. That squad that went to the World Cup was just a superb footballing team, and it was so near to immortality.
“If we’d just scored one or two more against Zaire…but Billy Bremner, fantastic player though he was, slowed the game down when it got to 2-0. We could easily have scored more goals.”
A victory – any victory – might have been the priority for Bremner, the captain, and for Ormond. But there was always a good chance that the two teams to progress from the group would be those who scored most against Zaire, and so it proved. Scotland drew 0-0 with Brazil on the day Yugoslavia, who had also drawn with the South Americans, put nine past Zaire. The Scots then drew 1-1 with Yugoslavia with a late goal from Jordan, while Brazil got a 3-0 win over Zaire that put them through at Scotland’s expense.
It was an agonising way to go out of the tournament for a Scotland squad still widely regarded as the best yet. Ford recalls that agony unfolding in slow motion in the first match, as he saw lumbering opponents who were there for the taking if only Scotland had gone all-out to attack.
“I was sitting on the bench, and if I was at the World Cup for anything it was to play in that game against Zaire. Their defenders were big but they were very slow, so I thought it was my sort of game. So I was sitting there, waiting to be called on. But it never happened.
“I can count myself very privileged to have had a very enjoyable career. But if there was one wee regret, it was not getting on in that game.”