With Scottish football fans debating what should become of their unloved national stadium, declassified government papers have revealed the inside story of how UK ministers nearly consigned Hampden Park to history – before U-turning a decade later.
The Scottish Football Association (SFA) lease on Hampden ends in 2020, leading to calls from some unhappy fans for the stadium to be abandoned in favour of Murrayfield, or rotating internationals across Scotland.
But that nearly came to pass in 1980, when Margaret Thatcher inherited a commitment from the previous Labour government to invest £5.5 million to renovate Hampden.
Design work was already under way on a major overhaul of the venue, which was considered a “run-down sporting slum” and “quite inadequate”.
In June, officials in the Scotland Office wrote to Downing Street explaining that Scottish Secretary George Younger was prepared to authorise a spending package to rescue what was “in effect the national ground”.
“Its facilities and general standards are quite inadequate and if it is to remain in use, complete reconstruction is necessary,” officials noted. The cash would be matched by the SFA along with Strathclyde and Glasgow District Councils.
But then as now, Hampden had its critics, including Rangers chairman Rae Simpson, who argued that international fixtures and cup finals could be played on rotation at other stadia, saving the taxpayer millions at a time when the UK was in the grips of a recession and inflation topped 22 per cent.
And Glasgow District withdrew its commitment to the project “because of the effect of government spending cuts on essential services”.
Despite Mr Younger securing an increased offer of £8.5 million from the Treasury to cover the cost of inflation, suddenly the plans were scrapped - on the day the bulldozers were due to move in.
The government was lambasted in the press, who demanded to know “who holds the purse-strings in Scotland”.
The Scotsman dubbed Mr Younger and his junior minister Alex Fletcher a “pusillanimous pair” who had irreparably damaged trust in the government, while the Glasgow Herald wrote that “the government’s handling of the Hampden affair displays an ineptitude exceeding even Scotland’s dismal performance in Argentina two years ago”.
Aberdeen South MP Iain Sproat was branded the “executioner” and a “tightwad” after boasting that he took his calls for the project to be scrapped straight to the Iron Lady.
Behind the scenes, Mr Younger’s officials implored Downing Street to “rebut the allegations that, in resiling on the Hampden commitment, the Secretary of State was acting under [Mrs Thatcher’s] instructions”.
A Scotland Office official wrote: “I said I would let you see some newspaper cuttings to show the extent to which this explanation had gained currency in Scotland; at the cost of great damage to the Secretary of State’s image.”
In response, Mrs Thatcher wrote: “Can Bernard [Ingham, her press secretary] brief the Scottish press?” Twelve years later, the new Scottish Secretary Ian Lang revived the government’s offer to help renovate Hampden.