Aidan Smith: Waiting on the next Scotland hat-trick

‘COLIN, Colin, Colin Stein,” went the chant of fond memory, “the greatest player the world’s ever seen.” The big, blunderbuss centre-forward knew he wasn’t that, far from it, but who could fail to be inspired by such serenading from the terraces in the pursuit of what one did best in life, which was battering a football in the general direction of a net?

‘COLIN, Colin, Colin Stein,” went the chant of fond memory, “the greatest player the world’s ever seen.” The big, blunderbuss centre-forward knew he wasn’t that, far from it, but who could fail to be inspired by such serenading from the terraces in the pursuit of what one did best in life, which was battering a football in the general direction of a net?

Steiny didn’t score great goals, subtle goals, beautiful goals, but he did score lots of them. Special goals, crucial goals, goals to win Rangers the Cup Winners’ Cup and to stop Celtic making it ten in a row. Historic goals like the one for Alf Ramsey’s Brit XI in a game marking our entry to the Common Market. And then there was the last-minute equaliser in the most tragic Scottish football match of them all.

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But while some of his goal feats will probably never be repeated, there’s one which he was convinced wouldn’t stand for any length of time, far less 46 years. Surely someone in dark blue was going to score another hat-trick?

Well, it could happen tonight and maybe it should. Scotland are welcoming Gibraltar at Hampden and basically we’re playing a rock. They don’t have a grass pitch and this will be only their fifth competitive match. They don’t have Fifa membership and can’t take part in the World Cup, so must make do with the bumper-edition, happy-clappy, we’re-all-in-this-together Euros. Gibraltar may have given the world Rita Hayworth, the most glamorous actress from Hollywood’s golden age, and Albert Hammond Jr, the coolest member of The Strokes, but surely they’ll be unable to muster a stout enough defence to prevent a Scotsman recording the dizzying personal achievement of three goals?

How has this not happened since 17 May, 1969, when Stein actually netted four against Cyprus? Before leaving the 1960s we should acknowledge that hat-tricks weren’t exactly bountiful earlier in the decade. This was an era of hugely talented individuals – Denis Law, Dave Mackay, Jim Baxter, John White, Jimmy Johnstone, please no more names or we’ll greet – who couldn’t quite add up to the sum of their parts. Even though Scotland failed to qualify for three World Cups, you might have thought a few more guys could have got to keep the ball, if indeed the tradition existed back then. As it was, The Lawman managed three hat-tricks (actually scoring four on two occasions) while Rangers’ Alex Scott got the other one, against Northern Ireland in 1961.

Post the Cyprus turkey-shoot – and there was a time when that phrase could have started a war, or at the very least some spiteful nil-points voting in the Eurovision Song Contest – even braces were thin on the ground for Scotland. Lou Macari managed two goals against Yugoslavia in 1972 and the following year George Graham strolled his way to a double in a win over Wales. But King Kenny Dalglish wouldn’t appear twice on the scoresheet until 1977 and another victory over Northern Ireland.

Joe Jordan couldn’t score a hat-trick for Scotland, neither could those natural, dead-eyed finishers, Steve Archibald, Maurice Johnston and Ally McCoist. It wasn’t as if Scotland’s presence in a match caused a hat-trick hex, because John Toshack bagged three against us for Wales in 1979. Toshack was a formidable frontman, so no real shame there. Unlike in 2004 when Robbie Earnshaw, not in the same class, repeated the feat for the Welsh. That made it two hat-tricks against us in succession, Ruud van Nistelrooy netting half of Holland’s six in that Euro 2004 play-off thrashing.

When did we start hearing the phrase, “there are no easy games in international football”? It could have been coined for the Scots as the old European order started breaking up, and some new sprats offered themselves for a game. In 1997 Kevin Gallacher scored twice in a 4-0 win over Belarus, although we’d already lost our first international against them a couple of months before. When we recorded decent-sized wins over San Marino (4-0 in 1991 and 5-0 in 1995) and the Faroe Islands (5-1 in 1994 and 6-0 in 2006) nobody scored more than one. Either this was democracy at work or the every-kid-gets-a-prize philosophy taken to extremes. Colin Hendry broke with the habit when he got two against San Marino, the smallest member of Uefa until Gibraltar’s induction last year, but a hat-trick might have been pushing it (no offence, big man).

It’s hard to believe that Kris Boyd and Garry O’Connor, both scorers against the Faroes in their time, never managed a hat-trick, given the feeling that these guys would have sold their grannies for a goal. It’s hard to believe, too, that Alan McInally doesn’t think he didn’t secure a hat-trick against Malta back in 1990, but I’m afraid the stats show that he scored only two.

Of those who did net a dark-blue double, who do we wish had gone on to make it three? Maybe Jim Baxter at Wembley in 1963 or Davie Cooper against Luxembourg in 1986. Certainly Billy Dodds in that Euro 2002 qualifier with Belgium, which ended 2-2. Dalglish hit a couple of beauties against the Belgians in 1982 and a third goal, even one of those sclaffs he reserved for England, would have been great. But surely the great, lost Scottish hat-trick was Mendoza, 1978, vs Holland and Archie Gemmill.

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We could try and claim the moral high ground here and argue that hat-tricks, to use a phrase that didn’t exist in The Lawman’s pomp, are too blingy. We could point out that we’ve never had a striker quite as greedy as, say, England’s Malcolm McDonald, who, as Nick Hornby reminded us in Fever Pitch, would chase balls already trundling goalwards with no chance of a defender’s interception, and, with one of his chunky legs, batter it into the net. And we could say that, of course, three goals for someone tonight would be fine and dandy, but a hat-trick to finally bust Colin Stein’s achievement certainly isn’t our entitlement.

Steiny was quite accomplished at hat-tricks, having scored one on his Rangers debut against Arbroath that season, then another the following week against Hibs, and only failing to get three in three games when a shot slithered past a post in Dundalk in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.

His four against Cyprus in that World Cup qualifier could have been five, but he had another strike disallowed and, when Scotland were awarded a penalty, Tommy Gemmill pulled rank and took the spot-kick, despite the crowd shouting the striker’s name.

Colin, Colin, Colin Stein, the only hat-trick some of us have ever seen.