Argentina 78: When the nation went mad for Ally's Army

It started in triumph as the team set off to claim the World Cup for Scotland. Just a few weeks later it was all over amid defeat, drugs scandals and tears.

IN DUNFERMLINE, Ronnie McDevitt shows off his most recently acquired piece of memorabilia from the Argentina World Cup – one of the plastic bags rushed out by a supermarket chain with a crude 'Good luck' logo. "It's amazing what folk will flog on eBay," he says. Amazing, too, what folk will buy – 30 years after a football tournament which for Scotland ended in humiliation and disgrace.

McDevitt never made it to Argentina but to this day still wishes he'd been part of the whole mad adventure. John Cullen was there, and in his Edinburgh flat he digs out three bottles of World Cup vino purchased in Cordoba, labelled in the light blue and white of the host nation. "Maybe I should open them now," he says. "No, they probably went off ages ago. I'll only end up getting poisoned."

In Ayr, Faye MacLeod looks out of her window at the remains of the church where Robert the Bruce gathered the Scottish Parliament shortly after victory at Bannockburn. "You see that copper beech? The family planted it in Ally's memory." It's barely climbed above the wall, but for MacLeod this is great progress. With a smile, she adds: "I'm not surprised it's decided to show itself for the anniversary. That'll be another of Ally's jokes."

A modest tree, some dodgy plonk and a poly bag: all mementos of the year Scotland wrote the manual on how not to win the World Cup. But in Elton-on-the-Hill in Nottinghamshire, in the B&B owned by Don Masson, you won't find a single souvenir from his long career as a footballer. "I sold my Scotland shirts and caps, everything, and bought myself a hot tub," he says. "And I sit in it every night and wonder if I ever played the game."

So who do we have here? The Hopeless Dreamer, the Hardened Realist, the Manager's Widow and – how could we forget? – the Player Who Missed The Penalty. All of them remember Argentina in their own ways. All over Scotland – and anywhere that expat Scots gather to talk football, including Argentina, from where some never returned – you'll find different perspectives on 1978.

But that is nothing compared with the torrent of accusation and recrimination immediately following Scotland's exit. The side's abysmal start to the tournament – they lost to Peru, then could only draw with lowly Iran – was redeemed slightly by Archie Gemmill's wonder goal in the 3-2 victory over Holland in the final group game, but it was too little, too late. We needed to beat the Dutch by three clear goals to progress to the last eight. Why weren't the team better prepared? Why wasn't the homework done on Peru and Iran? Why so much bragging about how we were going to win the trophy?

When we didn't win it – spectacularly – a gloom descended on the nation. Maybe it fell heaviest on the homes of MacLeod and Masson, the coach and his midfield playmaker. MacLeod's daughter, Gail, drops in during her mother's reminiscences and says that while proud of her dad, bad memories of playground taunting mean that even now she doesn't always let on who he was. And Masson's son, Neil, says of the penalty miss: "I got beaten up at school for that. It was the start of me getting picked on forever."

His father thinks about the penalty every day. If he'd hit it harder, lower, higher – anywhere out of reach of the Peruvian goalie – would Scotland have won that game and marched on to glory? But if that hot tub suggests a decadent lifestyle, you should also know that Masson thinks about the penalty when he's reading his bible, or cutting the grass in the local churchyard or sitting on his own in St Michael's and reflecting on how his life has changed since June 3, 1978. After Argentina, Masson found God.

Now 61, he has kept in trim playing tennis. He's also retained the swarthy complexion that set him apart from his peely-wally team-mates – he looked like a continental (passed the ball like one, too). "There was an Italian POW camp in Banchory, where I'm from," he says. "It was a family joke that my mum got to know one of them quite well."

The penalty miss was "life-defining". Masson was inconsolable in the dressing-room and wanted to come home right away. When he eventually did get back, he wanted to give up football for good. "I was incredibly self-critical as a player," he says. "After a game I wouldn't think about the good things I'd done – only the bad and how I could eradicate them. But I'd do this in my head. I still haven't seen a re-run of that first match against Peru and I still haven't seen that penalty miss. After it, my self-esteem hit rock bottom. I'd let the whole country down. I didn't feel like I was any use to anybody."

But within three years, Masson had lost his father Jock (heart attack), mother Babs (cancer) and wife Margaret, who died of an aneurysm, aged just 39. "All of that put a daft penalty into proper perspective. And it was after Mum passed away that the Lord came to me. If he hadn't, I probably wouldn't have coped with Margaret's death.

"Up until that point I'd been a typical footballer, hooring about all over the place. Women were laid on a plate – we were like pop stars. So I wasn't much cop as a husband and father. I was a horrible man.

"I tried to become a better person. I was lucky to meet Brenda. We sold our homes, bought a hotel and got married – all in the space of six weeks. Suddenly, I was a waiter. Me, an ex-footballer? Brenda made me get out there and do it and, instead of take, take, take as a player, I found myself on the other side. I thank the Lord for that. Guilt plays a big part in who I am now, and that penalty miss plays a big part in the guilt."

Masson is being too hard on himself. He scored a penalty to help get us to Argentina in the first place and his performance in another qualifier, against reigning European champions Czechoslovakia, was majestic. Everyone, the whole country, got a wee bit carried away.

The Bay City Rollers and Rod Stewart swathed the pop charts in tartan as Saltires and Lions Rampant covered those parts of the Wembley pitch not ripped up by the kilted hordes. It was a fine time to be Scottish and the SNP were daring to dream of independence.

A friend of mine got married on June 3, 1978, and, with the full consent of his bride's parents, the reception was halted so everyone could watch the Peru game. After the 3-1 defeat, the wedding turned into a wake.

The rest of Scotland's World Cup played out like a ludicrous South American soap opera. The draw with football nobodies Iran was probably a worse result ('The End of the World' was the Daily Express's front-page headline in war-outbreak type-size). Willie Johnston failed a drugs test and was sent home in disgrace. Two images of Ally MacLeod – one with his head in his hands; the other with what seemed like his only friend, a shanty-town stray – are burned into the national psyche. In the last group match against Holland, Archie Gemmill scored a stupendous goal – then at last the nightmare was over and Scotland could get down to the vital task of beating itself up.

According to legend, some in the 600-strong detachment of the Tartan Army were keen to hire submarines for the expedition. Along with two mates, John Cullen, now 57, opted for the plane on a 1,300 Thomas Cook package deal. If he had a pound for every time he's seen himself in Argentina on TV, he'd be well up on the deal. "There's a bit of footage they always show of fans giving the team pelters. I'm right in the middle with long hair," says Cullen, who is now bald.

In the blame game that followed, the pre-World Cup open-top bus parade was dubbed the worst stunt in PR history. Call-centre worker Ronnie McDevitt, now 47, was there. He still has the 30p ticket stub from Hampden, and remembers a happy, family-oriented occasion and no bravado from the team, only sheepish glances.

"Ally didn't organise that event," he says. "Those who like to knock him always claim it was a sell-out, but the stadium was only a third full. I don't think it was an arrogant thing to do. And did Ally really say we would win the World Cup? If so, I bet it would have been with an impudent smile. He was a great showman."

Inspired by tales of fans trekking the 7,000 miles to Argentina, McDevitt went on the road with them after 1978, and in the 30 years since has only missed one trip, to Canada. And he's not alone in thinking that MacLeod has been treated unkindly by history – the Tartan Army branch in his adopted Ayr has launched a campaign to have him inducted into Scottish football's Hall of Fame.

Faye MacLeod, who was 72 last week, is cheered by this. "Forgiveness has been a long time in coming," she says. "Ally's World Cup record was 'won one, drawn one, lost one' – better than some. But you'd think Scotland had only ever qualified for one tournament, because Argentina still seems to obsess everyone."

Photographs of the great showman line the hall of her home: Ally with Rod Stewart, Ally with Jean Rook, the self-styled 'First Lady of Fleet Street' (this one against a backdrop of the Hampden terraces littered with empty beer cans after another delirious performance by his Scotland), and Ally with Faye, whom he wooed when she was 16 with a bag of Dolly Mixtures.

In the living-room there's a World Cup plate and – an official gift from the Dutch – a World Cup egg-timer. Three minutes: that's all there was between 'Dreamland' and the departures gate, between the Gemmill goal and Holland striker Johnny Rep sending us homewards to think again.

When Ally was a club manager, according to Faye, his post-match routine after a defeat was to lie on the bed for half an hour; the family knew to leave him alone. But this was different. Like Masson, he felt that he'd failed his country. "It took him a long, long time to get over Argentina," she says. "A year later we were on holiday in Ibiza and he suffered a burst ulcer and lost two-thirds of his blood. I'm sure that was caused by all the stress."

Later, he was afflicted by Alzheimer's. "I heard all the jokes about how that must have been a good thing for him because finally he could forget about Argentina – but the truth is he never forgot," adds MacLeod. "I'd often find him with his autobiography, re-reading the same chapters. He forgot a lot about football. We'd go and watch Ayr United and he'd be baffled by new-ish laws. But I think Argentina stayed with him right to the end.

"Sometimes his forgetfulness would be funny and sweet. He'd ask: 'Will you marry me?' – forgetting that he had. But it was very sad for the family when the twinkle in his eye disappeared.

"He had a great sense of fun. I think my son David was 25 when he finally stopped looking above doors to check for water bombs. He was the dressing-room comedian even back in his playing days. At Blackburn Rovers, a theatrical agent wanted to turn him into a stand-up. When he got the Scotland job, he was worried about that getting out. But Ally made football fun. It is a branch of the entertainment industry, don't forget. After him, it didn't seem so much of a laugh."

Scotland's World Cup was beset by problems, not all of them down to the manager. Masson talks of gloomy hotels, seven-hour card games and mind-numbing boredom, sometimes only enlivened by arguments about bonus money.

In the tournament build-up, Ally MacLeod advertised carpets dressed as a gaucho. He was criticised for this but Faye says the Scottish Football Association encouraged him to top up the 14,000 they paid him through endorsements.

After 1978, Scotland wasn't allowed to get over-excited – about football or politics or anything. Never again would a Scotland manager sport a silly hat and rubber moustache. A smacked-bum, no-supper era followed the MacLeod years; scandal-free off the pitch, but lacking panache on it. The parliament arrived eventually but at World Cups, the team are still beating the postcards home.

How bad was Argentina? Maybe it's best summed up by the born-again penalty-kick sinner, for during those three tantalising minutes against Holland, Masson thought the unthinkable. "I've never told anyone this before," he says, "but when Archie scored I was muttering, 'You idiot, what are you doing?' I was dreading the team qualifying for the next phase and having to stay in Argentina. A few of us watching in the stands were like that."

A modest tree, some dodgy plonk, a poly bag, a plate and an egg-timer. Not quite the glittering trophy, then. But maybe Fraser Mackay came back with the best memento from 1978 – an Argentinian bride.

Thirty years ago, he left Edinburgh committed to the World Cup cause. "I thought we would win it," he says. "But then everything went wrong." And shortly after that everything went right. He met Roxana in Cordoba, each viewing the other as exotic. "Her country was under military rule. I don't think she'd seen so many pale-faced men who could drink so much before. I liked her for all the obvious reasons.

"The Scots guys got mobbed in the streets and women would ask us to autograph their expensive suede jackets. My mates and I got invited to be guests of honour at a school where the kids sang songs while the teachers gave us liqueurs. Everyone asked the same question: 'Did we like Argentina?' By that point we absolutely loved it."

Now 61 and working in the restaurant business, Mackay eventually persuaded Roxana to come and live with him in a country that has never won football's greatest prize, and now they have two sons. For Scotland, for the generation of us still haunted by Argentina, that may be as good as the World Cup ever gets.

Time of our lives

When we weren't singing along to Andy Cameron's 'Ally's Tartan Army' football anthem, 1978 saw us donning white suits as The Bee Gees dominated the charts – Saturday Night Fever sold a million copies a week and a succession of singles from Grease topped the charts. The Sex Pistols, defeated, hung up their bondage gear.

On the big screen we watched Superman and The Deer Hunter, while Dallas and The Sweeney topped the TV ratings.

The average house cost 13,820, milk was just 11p a pint, a loaf of bread cost 28p and 58p got you 20 cigarettes. Despite all this, Labour PM Jim Callaghan's Lib-Lab pact was collapsing under the strain of a weak economy and we were about to enter the Winter of Discontent.

Louise Brown (above), the world's first 'test-tube baby', was born in Oldham, and Pope John Paul II began his long reign following the deaths of Paul VI and John Paul I.

In America, serial killer David Berkowitz, 'Son of Sam', was convicted of murder after terrorising New York, and in Guyana possibly the largest ever mass suicide took place, when 900 members of Jim Jones's People's Temple were found dead.

VCRs had just hit the shops and the world's first mobile phone was launched. Space Invaders took over arcades, and Sweden banned aerosol cans as the world slowly woke up to the hole in the ozone layer.

Fondue was all the rage, and at the typical dinner party you could expect prawn cocktail, followed by a Vesta curry and Angel Delight, all washed down with Double Diamond, Creamola Foam or Babycham for the ladies.