Davie Provan: Scotland can emulate class of '81

It would be difficult to find many who consider Gordon Strachan's men favourites as they head into the latest do-or-die World Cup qualifier.
Scotland's John Robertson celebrates his penalty winner against England in 1981 with teammate Ray Stewart. Picture: SNSScotland's John Robertson celebrates his penalty winner against England in 1981 with teammate Ray Stewart. Picture: SNS
Scotland's John Robertson celebrates his penalty winner against England in 1981 with teammate Ray Stewart. Picture: SNS

Charlie Mulgrew is the latest to describe Scotland as “massive underdogs” while England’s Harry Kane is talking about rattling in a hat-trick, despite the fact he has managed a total of five goals in his previous 17 caps.

But it is not the first time the Scots have been dismissed ahead of an Auld Enemy clash and while Davie Provan has described Kane’s comments as “careless”, he is one who remembers how exhilarating it feels to turn unfavourable predictions on their head.

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Back in 1981 he made his maiden trip to Wembley, aware that few people were backing the visitors.

“I remember everyone writing us off. That was probably because we were missing our three best players,” he recalled, as he meandered down memory lane at Hampden yesterday.

“Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish were all away with Liverpool preparing for the European Cup so to go to Wembley without your top players meant it was always going to be tough for us. To win, even with a penalty, was hugely exciting. It was the first time I had seen Wembley. So to go there for the first time and be part of a winning Scotland team was terrific.”

The game was decided on a single goal, which John Robertson dispatched from the spot after Stevie Archibald was felled. Provan played his part, though.

“Joe Jordan was screaming for it short but Stevie Archibald had gone long. It was a pass that was on and I got a nice weight on it. Stevie was clever, he could see Bryan Robson coming and he waited for him to commit himself. He took the ball and Robson went through him. The England boys were unhappy at the time but it was a stonewaller.”

It was a night when Scotland irritated and defied their hosts in more ways than one.

“I think the head of the FA at that time was a guy called Ted Croker and because there had been trouble at Wembley in previous Auld Enemy games they had tried to ban the Scottish fans. There were no tickets sold in Scotland and we were told that there would be no Scotland supporters but when we walked out the tunnel it was just a sea of yellow and red from the Lions Rampant! That gave us a great gee up right from the kick off.

“But it was a game where we had to hang in there and for large parts of it they battered us. But we managed to sneak the penalty and Robbo tucked it away.”

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Saturday’s game is one with more at stake than simply getting one over on the neighbours. Strachan has refused to describe it as must-win but Provan believes that while a draw would be notable against a quality England side, it probably would not be enough to book Scotland’s place in Russia next summer.

“I don’t know why – maybe this is my heart ruling my head, but I have a feeling we will do all right on Saturday. Whether it is going to be enough to beat a very good England team I don’t know. But I think there is an element of when it all comes down to must win, it clears the head, and our boys know what they have to do. Hopefully they are going to be good enough to get the win.

“We need to score first. We started well in Slovakia but lost a goal and collapsed. We started even better at Wembley but lost a goal and it went pear-shaped. I think if we score first we have a great chance. If we do that, we will have something to hold on to. But if we lose the first goal it will be a whole different ball-game.”

Just as Jock Stein did in 1981, Provan says that the Scots need to recognise the Auld Enemy’s weaknesses as well as their strengths. Aware that he was missing key players and was therefore relying on some Wembley newbies, the then Scotland manager got them in the right frame of mind and helped them in any way he could.

“He knew it was quite an inexperienced team and I’m sure he would have loved to have Souey and Kenny and Alan in his side but he did his best to gee us all up. He certainly pointed out some weaknesses in the England team who were going to be without a left centre-back and Bryan Robson played left centre-back that day and he tackled Stevie for the penalty. He pinpointed a few things that we should be doing and we defended so well that day. There were times when it was like the Alamo and we were hanging on but we did really well.

“I think you are always nervous before any big game but then there was the whole Twin Towers and Wembley. I had never been there before and I think it was the same for half the team. So it was a huge occasion and a big thrill to even walk out that tunnel and see the Scotland support, and then to walk off having won the game was so special.”

Getting a win on Saturday would trump that and ensure the result would never be forgotten, according to Provan. “This would be absolutely monumental if we could win it. It would be up there with James McFadden in Paris, and Gary Caldwell here.

“Taken in isolation, had it been the first game of the campaign, we would have been happy with a draw against England. But, given the circumstances, I don’t think that is going to be good enough.”

Davie Provan was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is a proud sponsor of Scottish football.