Scotland v England: The big missed Qatar opportunity but why World Cup owes everything to 150 years ago

‘You couldn’t write the script!’ is an oft-used commentator’s observation, screeched at moments of high, unexpected drama.

Bobby Lennox turns to celebrate scoring Scotland's second goal against England at Wembley in a famous victory in 1967.
Bobby Lennox turns to celebrate scoring Scotland's second goal against England at Wembley in a famous victory in 1967.

Perhaps the phrase was even employed when Japan overturned Germany’s 1-0 lead earlier this week, or possibly when Saudi Arabia delivered one of the all-time World Cup shocks against Argentina 24 hours earlier. Maybe even yesterday, when Iran breathed life into their tournament hopes with a dramatic, politically loaded 2-0 win over Wales.

However, one script has remained unwritten. Regrettably so. It was too perfect, too reliant on the suspension of belief. And yes, to use another cliché, it would have risked being rejected by Hollywood for stretching credibility levels beyond what’s reasonable.

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Only a couple of measly wins stood between Scotland meeting England beneath an Arabian moon on Tuesday evening. An ancient fixture being transported to a World Cup held in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar would have seemed extraordinary enough. But the date – November 29, 2022 – meant the occasion would have been supplied with an extra charge. While not quite 150 years since the same two teams took part in the first official international football match, it would have been near as dammit to it.

Jim Baxter scores for Scotland against England at Wembley in 1963.

Ground zero is West of Scotland Cricket Ground at Hamilton Crescent in Partick, which was not even part of Glasgow at the time.

Had Scotland managed to make it to the Ahmed bin Ali stadium on Tuesday, there's every chance the Group B clash would have spilled into the actual 150th anniversary of the first international match given the amount of additional time being played at this World Cup. Indeed, it’s almost guaranteed that England v Wales, the team who took Scotland’s place and of course that of Ukraine, will tip over into St Andrew’s Day.

Post-midnight finishes for games kicking off at 10pm local times seems the norm, which means it's very likely England will be playing football on such a significant date. Sadly, Scotland won’t be. A dispiriting, script-busting 3-1 play-off defeat by Ukraine in June saw to that.

But there will be a game being staged to mark such a significant anniversary. Supporters will be welcome to attend a re-enactment of the first match being staged between two teams of school pupils at the original venue in Partick on what is, essentially, the 150th birthday of the Tartan Army

Scenes from the 1872 match between England and Scotland in Partick, Glasgow, Scotland. The match resulted in a 0-0 draw.

Other events have already been held. One, at the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park on Thursday night, attended by Scottish Football Association chief executive Ian Maxwell, explored the birth of international football.

The connection between what was predominantly a cricket ground in Glasgow – although rugby was also played at the venue – and what is going on in Qatar at present was spelled out. “Everything in international football springs from that first match in Partick on November 30, 1872,” agrees author and sports historian Andy Mitchell. “The whole global phenomenon of international football has its roots in those pioneers from Scotland and England.”

It's impossible to overstate the significance although no one will be advised to hold their breath while waiting to see whether Fifa will mark the occasion in an appropriate manner. More can hopefully be expected of the SFA.

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“As international football did not exist, it became necessary to invent it,” begins a book by the respected English sportswriter Brian James titled simply “England v Scotland” – note the order of the teams, despite Scotland hosting the first game – which was published in 1969.

Scotland's Leigh Griffiths fires home the equaliser against England in 2017.

At that time, following 1968’s 1-1 draw at Hampden, England were well ahead on goals scored – 251 to 185 – but only just in terms of victories, 41 to 39. James calculated that 105 matches had been played to that date although the author included those played during the two world wars, which aren’t now considered official meetings (mercifully as far as Scotland are concerned, as it means an 8-0 defeat in Manchester in 1943 can be struck from the ledger).

The series resumes next September. With Scotland being unable to make an appointment with England in the desert, a game to mark the anniversary will be held at Hampden early next season. A new strip, understood to feature a nod towards the outfit worn by the 1872 pioneers, will be worn on that occasion by Scotland and at other games next year.

In a very unlike-SFA step, news of the anniversary match was teased in adverts in both this newspaper and the Herald earlier this month. They consisted of full page reproductions of the notices advertising a coming “Foot-ball match” between Scotland and England in 1872: “Admission: One Shilling”. All later became clear when it was confirmed the countries would resume what has become a rather intermittent rivalry by meeting for what is – officially – the 116th time in a special "anniversary heritage match".

It will be just the sixth time they have met this century. England are now leading 48-41 on wins. Honours were shared on that historic first meeting. A 0-0 draw was an inauspicious start to the concept of international football – although, as this World Cup is currently demonstrating, goals cannot always be guaranteed.

Scotland fans celebrate on the pitch after their team's victory at Wembley in 1977.

Given the English FA was established in 1863, it is perhaps surprising it took so long, another nine years, for a game to take place between England and Scotland, although, as Mitchell explains in First Elevens, his authoritative book on the birth of international football, several unofficial games had taken place in London already, and the SFA was not actually formed until after the first international – in 1873.

Many of the participants in those very early challenge matches were drawn from English public schools such as Charterhouse. “The social demographic would soon change,” writes Mitchell. “The Scotland players of the first international … included the sons of bakers, clerks and gardeners, with not a title or double-barrelled name to be seen.” A Thomson, a McKinnon and a Leckie were among those who featured against an England team drawn from nine different clubs, including three – Ottaway, Brockbank and Kirke-Smith - from Oxford University.

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Only drawings, by the illustrator William Ralston, exist of the first official clash. “A photographer had been commissioned, but sadly he packed up and left when the Scotland players refused to commit to purchasing prints,” writes Mitchell.

This might have helped to further establish the stereotype, prevalent even then, of the tight Scot. But these men were generous in other ways, particularly in their willingness to export the passing game south of the Border as well as, ultimately, elsewhere.

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Early this coming Wednesday morning, far away from the oppressive heat of Qatar, in an overgrown and for so long undisturbed corner of Cathcart cemetery, a wreath will be placed on a grave in plot I-567. There is an area of the graveyard in question that has now become known as footballers’ corner due to the number of significant footballing figures either buried or honoured there, including the first managers of both Rangers and Celtic, William Wilton and Willie Maley respectively, and George Pattullo, who scored 43 goals in 23 games for Barcelona between 1910-12 and is credited with being their first foreign superstar.

Scotland's Richard Gough (top right) outjumps Kenny Sansom to head the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton into the net for the match-winning goal in 1985.

They all had their stories to tell, no more so than Joseph Taylor, a member of the first-ever Scotland XI. Taylor, a defender, played Scotland’s first six games, which means he took part in the first five games against England. He skippered Scotland in two of these six matches.

Colin Taylor, Taylor’s great grandson, will make the journey next week from Northamptonshire, where he is based. He has been invited to take kick-off when two teams of schoolchildren re-enact the 1872 game on Wednesday precisely 150 years to the minute since international football began in earnest – 2pm.

Colin only discovered his great grandfather’s final resting place as recently as 2012. He grew up knowing precious little about his direct association to one of the most significant men in Scottish football history. Taylor also features heavily in the early history of Queen’s Park, one of the most important clubs at the time. On Scottish Cup third round weekend, it’s worth noting Taylor earned three winners' medals with Queen's Park in the 1870s.

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Colin’s father, also Colin, did not tend to speak much about his grandfather. That tends to be the way of it in most families. According to his son, Colin Senior found it hard to speak about his own experiences in the Second World War, when he took part in convoys to Malta and Russia, never mind peer further back in the dim and distant and recall the sporting exploits of his distinguished antecedent.

“It was during Calcutta Cup games … that’s the first time I was aware my dad was mostly Scottish,” says Colin, who was born and brought up in England. “Dad was the first of the line to be English born – in Cheltenham – but he would be supporting Scotland.

“You look back in life and think of opportunities, times when you might have said ‘tell me more, Dad …’ I remember he had a little drawer which he shoved stuff in. He had his war medals in there, he didn’t pay great attention to them, there were brass buttons in there too.

"But I now know there was one of Joseph’s medals in there. I guess I used to play with them. One day I said, 'Dad, what is that?' He did not want to talk about the war. But he did say one day that his grandad played football for Queen’s Park and for Scotland. I didn’t think anything more of it, I must be honest. It did not change my life.”

What did change his life was father’s death, aged 70, in 1993. Despite the frustration of realising that he had left it too late, but then isn't that always the way, he was motivated to find out more. He was aided by the early incarnation of the internet.

"My uncle was still around," he recalls. "He was older than Dad. The internet was now available. He had hand-written charts and we pored over those. He had a photo of Joseph’s grave. He has been up in Scotland looking for it. He figured it was in Langside. He was told Langside had been bombed in the Second World War and that the bodies were moved somewhere else. He said the memorial stone had probably been lost.

“It actually has his handwriting on the back of the photograph still, which says ‘I believe the stone is in Langside, possibly lost during the Second World War’. My uncle died on November 11, 2012, and I found the location of Joseph’s grave on November, 19 2012. Eight days afterwards.”

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Colin had already endured futile trips to Glasgow to wander hopefully around cemeteries. He was presented with a copy of Men with Educated Feet, a revised statistical history of Queen's Park originally published in 1984, when he was directed to Lesser Hampden after a visit to the Scottish Football Museum next door. But the Eureka moment arrived with the improvement of online library newspaper archives. He found a report detailing Taylor’s achievements which included his final resting place.

“I came upon a piece about Joseph and it said he was buried in Cathcart cemetery," he says. "And that was right around the time my uncle died. I emailed Cathcart and they responded with the location of his grave."

One upshot is that Colin and a cousin, Alex, will be in Glasgow next week. He has never been to watch Scotland at Hampden but plans to attend next year’s game against England. Now 65, he completed a parkrun event at Queen’s Park in Glasgow as recently as last year. “Running in my great grandfather’s footsteps if you like," he says. "I came up last September and I really enjoyed it – but it is very hilly!” He took in a Queen’s Park game at Firhill, where they were playing at the time. Perhaps fittingly, the match, against Airdrie, finished 0-0.

“I also took the opportunity to get to Cathcart. I waded through the brambles to get to Joseph’s grave,” he says. He is now negotiating "to take ownership of the lair". Although a slightly grisly-sounding phrase, it is the logical next step now that direct relations have been identified.

The long-term aim is to stabilise the grave and, with the permission of the authorities, place a plaque to acknowledge Joseph's place in the history of the game as a Scotch professor – the phrase, dating to the 1880s, used to describe those talented Scottish footballers who travelled south as well as abroad to teach others about the passing game.

Although Scotland themselves are absent, the result of such missionary work can be detected even now in Qatar. It's why such care and attention must be devoted to the final resting place of the men who made it all possible. Joseph Taylor's grave has become covered with creeping ivy and overhanging trees, causing damage to the headstone and rendering the inscription almost unreadable. What can still be made out is the month and year of his death – October 1888 – after a battle with pleurisy and tuberculosis. He was only 37.

A crowdfunding campaign, managed by Colin and supported by the Scottish Football Historical Group, whose long-term aim is to commemorate the individuals who have had influence on the game both here and worldwide, is due to launch soon to preserve the grave and prevent further damage.

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In the meantime, Colin will return to his great grandfather’s graveside again on Wednesday, a wreath in his hands. It’s a hackneyed phrase, never more so than during big international football tournaments. But let no one tell you otherwise: football really will be coming home.

Don Hutchison rises above the England defence to score for Scotland during the Euro 2000 play-off second leg match at Wembley in 1999.