Henry McLeish: Scots need to ditch ‘anyone but England’ attitude

Harry Kane is out-jumped by Scotland's Charlie Mulgrew during the 2-2 draw at Hampden last year (Picture: Michael Gillen)
Harry Kane is out-jumped by Scotland's Charlie Mulgrew during the 2-2 draw at Hampden last year (Picture: Michael Gillen)
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Obsession with the ‘Auld Enemy’ is a distraction and Scotland must focus on creating its own team of footballing world-beaters, writes former first minister Henry McLeish.

Tonight, the World Cup semi-final between England and Croatia will attract record-breaking TV audiences, not only in England but in every part of the United Kingdom. For Scots, given our long memories of epic struggles with England on and off the pitch, who will we be supporting?

This has been an unpredictable and enjoyable World Cup, where Russia and Fifa have exceeded my expectations and have delivered a spectacular reminder of what the beautiful game represents. But England’s role in this festival of football, has, for Scots, always to be seen through the prism of history, identity, nationalism/patriotism, politics and yes, the irritating, arrogant and overblown remarks of English football commentators!

But let’s not overlook the major issue in this discussion – Scotland didn’t qualify for Russia. We haven’t qualified for 20 years, so our ambiguity and ambivalence towards England, is understandable in historical terms but irrelevant to our immediate and dire predicament as a declining football nation.

England’s progress in the competition has benefitted from a very easy group stage, but no one should underestimate the improvements made under Gareth Southgate. England has done well so far and have never had a better chance to reach the final. If Scots want to support them, that’s okay by me, but I will retain my neutrality and hope that the best team wins, preferably without a penalty shoot-out. You can’t transfer your football loyalties, but you can certainly give praise where it is deserved. We need to learn from other countries, not resent what they are doing. It makes little sense for Scots to adopt the attitude “anyone but England”! Winning the World Cup is the “landing on the moon” moment for any footballer and their country. If Harry Kane is asked next Sunday to step up and accept the trophy as World Champions. What a fantastic achievement that would be and “well done England”.

Our football relationship with the “Auld Enemy” goes back a long way. It is now time to recalibrate, move on and focus instead on our own dismal international football performance. This should be the focus of our anger, frustration, and national despair. We have wasted too much emotional energy on England and its football team over the years. Too often in the past our football rivalry has become a vehicle for the worst excesses of being Scottish. At a time of rapid modernisation, political renewal and a new sense of national confidence, there are bigger priorities.

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On a recent visit to Inverness to deliver a talk on Brexit – another product of delusion, nostalgia, and sentiment on the part of England – I stopped to have a cup of coffee on the battlefield on Culloden Moor. This is always a good venue to charge batteries, not in any nostalgic nationalist way, but merely to enjoy a great historic place to reflect, in what is a strangely peaceful part of Scotland.

In 1746 Culloden was the last battle ever fought on British soil. The Jacobites were routed and destroyed by the Hanoverians in the same time it takes to play the first half of a Scottish Premier League game.

Accepting a bit of historical license, let’s read Scotland versus England for Jacobites versus Hanoverians. So much historic and emotional capital has been invested in our games with England. This is not to say these historic clashes – with crowds we can now only dream about – didn’t matter. The fixture between Scotland and England was played annually between 1872 and 1983. In the early days of the game, after the SFA was created in 1873, the Scotland vs England match made a great deal of sense. These were the first two countries to form associations. Some of the games were spectacular battles, providing some magnificent football and some of the highest attendances ever seen in world football – ten of the largest attended games, attracted nearly 1.5 million fans at Hampden. But its importance, to Scottish football, was past its sell by date. In my view the Home Championship and the Scotland-England fixture – covering over a century of football – had become a major distraction for a country that needed to invest more in European and International football, direct the patriotism and nationalism of Scotland to bigger ambitions, and call time on a fixture that seemed to be more than just a football match. Defeating the Auld Enemy – not always guaranteed – became an obsession and a major distraction. It made sense for this fixture to be abandoned in 1983.

I also enjoyed my own piece of nostalgia that day, thinking back to 1967 when Celtic won the European Cup and Scotland defeated England at Wembley where Jim Baxter tormented the English team, only a year after they had won the World Cup. Football memories are especially precious in a country where we seem to have stopped dreaming about future glory and have instead to content ourselves with arguing about who we should support in Scotland’s absence. We must get the Ghost of England Past off our back.

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Success can have a spectacular impact. I was enthused and inspired by the reaction of England to their victory over Sweden. Nearly half the population of their country watched on TV, it was party time and a nation celebrated the success of their team. The pride, passion and patriotism of a nation expressed through football was remarkable. But I wanted it to be Scotland. Why were we not there I kept asking myself? We think we have better fans than the English, so what if it had been Scotland clinching a penalty shoot-out or scoring a spectacular last-minute goal, what might our reaction have been?

Everyone would have been glued to their TV screens, the country would have come to a standstill, and there would have been an incredible outpouring of national pride and that sense of achievement only success on the world stage can bring. This is the reality that should fire our desire for the transformation of the game in Scotland. Scotland has the potential to be successful. It has nothing to do with the size of population. It has nothing to do with England. It has everything to do with the size of our ambition and the determination to make the national team – both male and female – our number one priority.

Our preoccupation with beating England, and on many occasions, hating England, may have been at the expense of investing more emotional capital and national fervour in other directions. Our football, like our politics, has too often seen England as an historical focus for our weaknesses and opprobrium, not our strengths and ambition.

For 20 years and five World Cups, we have failed to qualify. We are fading fast from the minds of the international footballing community. This is not acceptable, neither is it inevitable. This crisis is home grown. The founding fathers of this great game must be turning in their graves, as we squander the legacy of the early years, ignore our undoubted football DNA, and replace the golden age of Scottish football, from the 60s to 90s, with decline, lesser ambitions for our national teams and a failure to take responsibility for what we are doing.

The advent of devolution and the growth of nationalism have shifted some of our energy, enthusiasm, and passion for the game, away from football and in to politics. The time when nationalism was worn on the back of a football jersey is over. But hopefully we haven’t bought into the idea that the present state of the game is all we can expect. Scotland was a successful footballing nation with a self-belief that created so many legends and beautiful memories. Agonising over England isn’t going to solve our football problems but winning the World Cup might!