He dared to dream an impossible dream

ALLY MacLeod, the decent and well-meaning man who took Scotland on a misguided journey from euphoria to bitter reality, has died. He was 72.

MacLeod had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for two years, a condition that robbed him of the memories of his playing and managerial career.

Yet despite his considerable achievements as player and manager, MacLeod’s reputation was determined in the course of two weeks in Argentina in 1978.

In the weeks before the World Cup, Andy Cameron’s Ally’s Tartan Army became more than a song; it was a contract.

MacLeod had put faith in the best squad Scotland had put together since the Second World War - Souness, Dalglish, Jordan, Gemmill and more - and said they could win the cup. Ally said so; the nation lived the dream.

Scotland’s qualifying group comprised Holland, Peru - whose players were described by MacLeod as "old men" - and Iran, the "minnows". The old men of Peru flashed past Scotland’s defence to win 3-1. Against the minnows, Scotland could only draw 1-1 thanks to an Iranian own-goal.

Scotland had to beat Holland 4-1 to scrape through. Archie Gemmill’s wonder goal gave them hope at 3-1, but just three minutes later, Johnny Rep lashed a shot beyond Alan Rough, to pull the score back to 3-2 and kill the dream.

In the intervening 26 years, the debacle has been laid on MacLeod’s shoulders, which, in a sense, was too great a load for one man.

Everyone else had bought into the dream. National euphoria prevailed and 25,000 fans flocked to Hampden to wave off the players, who greeted fans from an open-topped bus.

MacLeod’s great mistake was to offer Scotland a hope that would prove false, when he said: "I think a medal of some sort will come!" The magnitude of his personality had persuaded Scots they could win.

Privately, MacLeod was more realistic. Before he left his home in Ayr for Argentina, he told his wife, Faye: "God help me if things go wrong. I will either come back a hero or a villain."

The most enduring television memory of Scotland’s involvement - apart from Gemmill’s goal - was the sight of MacLeod holding his head in his hands.

There is no doubt he was at fault; MacLeod had not done his homework and thought the Scots could beat the world by "playing to their strengths".

The team and MacLeod were savaged. He was not helped by tales of players carousing and the disgrace when Willie Johnston tested positive for drugs and was sent home.

It was all summed up at a Scotland press conference, following the two miserable results, when a dog sidled up to MacLeod. He told the sports hacks: "Look - my only friend."

MacLeod, who had taken over as Scotland manager from Willie Ormond, struggled on until October 1978 before resigning. But the players who were in his squad quickly point out he was not solely to blame.

Defender Sandy Jardine said: "All we ever hear is that Argentina was Ally’s fault. He was partly to blame, so were his coaches, 24 players and the SFA."

And Willie Miller, who captained Aberdeen under MacLeod during his time as manager, believed he paid a heavy price for lifting the nation’s spirits. He said: "His power was getting people to listen. No matter how outrageous the statements, Ally had you believing what he said could happen. When he was at Aberdeen, he lifted the players and lifted the town and I will remember him with affection."

MacLeod started his career as a left-winger with the now-defunct Third Lanark, and played in the 1960 FA Cup final with Blackburn Rovers.

He also played for Hibs and St Mirren, but it was as a manager he won acclaim - at Aberdeen, Ayr United, Motherwell, Airdrie and Queen of the South.

His extrovert nature and popular touch captured supporters’ imaginations. He galvanised Aberdeen in the 1970s and it was inevitable that he was the man for Scotland in 1977.

Kenny Dalglish said Ally MacLeod was "a real larger-than-life character, who brought a great deal of humour into any company". Joe Jordan said: "He was always the optimist. That’s what I will remember. He never really changed, only a little bit during the World Cup in Argentina, when we were under pressure."

A Scottish Football Association spokesman said: "Everybody in Scottish football is saddened. Ally was a guy who devoted his entire life to football. He was at Hampden last July to accept an award from the Tartan Army in appreciation of his services to Scottish football."

Tributes to Ally MacLeod

"Ally was a real larger- than-life character. He was somebody who brought a great deal of humour into whatever company he was in. The game nowadays could certainly do with more characters of his ilk."

Celtic and Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish

"He was always the optimist. That’s what I would remember of him. He loved his football."

Ex-Manchester United and Scotland striker Joe Jordan

"Ally MacLeod was a Scottish hero. His passion for his country and for football were infectious. He should be remembered for his fantastic achievements. He was a great family man and a special Scot." - First Minister Jack McConnell

"Ally MacLeod was one of Scotland’s great sporting legends who gave his all for Scottish football. He will be greatly missed by people all across the country, and my deepest sympathy is with his family and friends at this sad time."

SNP leader John Swinney