Aidan Smith: ‘England sent away, tae think again’

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YOU know that Gary Cahill, don’t you? Sturdy oak at the heart of the England defence.

Flailing branches for arms which stop net-bound shots. Hasn’t been rumbled for this offence as yet but in places where refs from “the Prem” gather to discuss issues of the day they’re on to him and next time it’ll be a penalty. Well, Gaz reckons his team have just got nastier.

England were “too nice” in the World Cup, according to manager Roy Hodgson. This wouldn’t be everyone’s summation of their performance in Brazil. Too unimaginative, some would contend. Too easy to work out. Too loose in possession. Too stodgy. Too stuffed with the overrated, the overplayed and the over-indulged. Too insular. Too boring in the face of tremendous verve from elsewhere. Anyway, Hodgson says they were “too honest” in what was their worst-ever World Cup and need to get streetwise like Uruguay. Cahill asserts that the transformation has already begun, which is very handy, because England are due in the East End of Glasgow on Tuesday.

In the history of Auld Enemy football, Scotland and Scots have borne witness to a fair few of England’s big days, their new eras, their religious conversions. Obviously Denis Law missed the biggest day – 30 July, 1966 – and chose to be on a golf course in Manchester, far away from a TV or a transistor. And while some Scots were present in the Wembley pressbox, the doyen of fans-with-typewriters, Hugh McIlvanney, recorded that they “sat in a smouldering sulk … and insisted that they did not know what all the fuss was about”.

But take the conversions, the times when England were sent to the drawing board, tae think again: we actually prompted some of them. This is Jonathan Wilson in his book The Anatomy of England: “From the first international, a goalless draw against Scotland at the West of Scotland Cricket Ground in Partick in 1872, there was a sense that England were somehow being left behind.” England came north as the inventors of the game, fully expecting to thump a nation where football was in its infancy. The English were stout yeomen; the Scots spindly skelfs. Reasoning it would be futile to try to compete physically, the crafty, under-nourished Scots decided to pass the ball around their lumbering opponents. Result: we murdered them 0-0. Not that England rushed back over the Border and ripped up their rulebook. They weren’t altogether convinced that passing worked.

The doubts persisted through to 1928 when once again a team of stunted Scots left them befuddled. “Bewildered, baffled and beaten,” claimed the Evening News. “One bit of weaving embraced 11 passes and not an Englishman touched the sphere.” This, of course, was the triumph of Alex James and the Wembley Wizards – 5-1 in England’s backyard. “Another demonstration,” said the Glasgow Herald, “that Scottish skill, science and trickery will still prevail against the less attractive and simpler methods of the English style”.

Just three years after that came another demonstration. Ernie Blenkinsop struggled to get to grips with a new-fangled defensive system (great name, though) and the 2-0 Hampden win inspired LV Manning’s memorable phrase in the Daily Sketch about Scotland having “picnicked happily in the open spaces”.

Fast forward to 1953 and England’s watershed defeat by Hungary. Maybe you thought that victory was entirely down to the marvellous Magyars. In fact, Scotland – Zelig-like – managed to squeeze into this episode as well, with Hungary’s top blazer revealing they had been taught “the Scottish style” 20 years before – by an Englishman. England, he said, seemed to have forgotten the lesson.

The following decade Scotland were guinea pigs for Alf Ramsey’s 4-2-4 and the introduction to the midfield of – another terrific name – Norbert Stiles. Glad to have been of service, guys, and judging by what happened on 30 July, 1966, these experiments seemed to work. And by the way, Stiles may have been a proud Englishman but that gap-toothed but half-blind, run-forever patter of his was pure Caledonian in origin.

So England won the World Cup and, moving on quickly, they then proceeded to lose it. A year later Jim Baxter played keepy-uppy, Alan Ball got called Jimmy Clitheroe, Scots fans danced little, self-conscious White Heather Club jigs on the Wembley turf – and, for once, Pickles the dog couldn’t help. We were the new unofficial-but-who-cares? world champions. Again Scotland were doing England a favour. The 3-2 win should have dispelled complacency but it didn’t.

At Euro 96 we missed a penalty which immediately led to one of England’s greatest-ever goals and enabled them to stay in their own tournament for a while longer, until the traditional, Teutonic, 12-yards-from-goal, tragic ending. There were other spin-offs from this. The ball bobbled before Gary McAllister’s spot-kick which was reason enough for England to rip up their cabbage-patch and build a new Wembley. They got a bit carried away, as is their wont, and now every Take That reunion until 2038 and every monster truck world championships until 2084 will have to be staged there to pay for The Home of Football ©.

Euro 96 was also when England fans stopped hurling cafe furniture across town squares, a quaint custom possibly dating from Norman times. Italia 90 had given them an insight into the Scottish way. Just as we’d out-passed them previously, we out-behaved them in the piazzas of Genoa and Turin. “The world was introduced to the great shambling, drunken carnival that the Tartan Army had become,” writes David Goldblatt in his book, The Game of Our Lives. “While England’s travelling support continued to cause trouble, the Tartan Army was acquiring an unofficial ambassadorial role for the stateless nation.”

The Scots were “drunk but happy, self-confident but self-mocking”. The only threat was to the Italian baked dough staple: “We’re gonnae deep-fry yer pizzas!” Two years later at the Euros UEFA crowned them the fans of the tournament. Four years after that, England supporters started borrowing their clothes. (Not literally, you understand. An Englishman at the football would look silly wearing a Glengarry with four-foot-high feathers. As indeed does a Scotsman).

Yes, English football has a lot to thank Scotland for. We’re like a ghost they cannot shake. We’re like the footballer-of-the-future arriving and unseen at the back post. England thought they invented this role with Martin Peters but really it was us. And now the fixture with our friends in the south, the oldest in the world, returns to Glasgow. It’s a great pity that John Terry, Ashley Cole and David Beckham have quit playing for England; they could have been sure of a special welcome. No matter: the whiteshirts come north at yet another key juncture. Wayne Rooney, their captain, has entered his second century of appearances. And, of course, they’ve developed this new way of playing involving tackling, utilising the indigenous bulk which goes all the way back to 1872 and the odd bit of gamesmanship. Tuesday should be fun.