Sir Alex Ferguson has earned multiple accolades and won plenty of trophies in his time in football. However, it is possible that the souvenir cap he will be belatedly presented with before this evening’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Israel will mean as much to him as any of these other titles.
He has previously reflected on the absence of any form of memento to mark the seven games he played – and the nine goals he scored – in Scotland’s epic nine-match world tour in 1967. These were high times for Scottish football.
Not only did Scotland win all nine games, but the six-week trip also coincided with that golden period when two Scottish clubs reached European finals. Celtic became the first British club to win the European Cup against Internazionale in Lisbon while Rangers fell just short in the Cup-Winners’ Cup final against Bayern Munich after losing 1-0 in extra-time.
Ferguson, meanwhile, was knocking them in at a fair old rate for Scotland. Sadly for him and others on the tour, the matches were downgraded to B games. Players from Rangers, Celtic and Leeds United, who reached the final of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, all pulled out.
Caps were only awarded for British Home Championships appearances in any case at the time.
But a review has since taken place, triggered by the publication of Gary Imlach’s My Father and Other Working Class Heroes, and then driven by this newspaper, which saw all full international appearances qualify for a cap.
Now the world tour has been reassessed, with games against tonight’s opponents Israel, Canada and Australia, who Scotland played three times, elevated to full internationals. Ferguson joins Hearts pair Alan Anderson and Jim Townsend, then Clyde player Harry Hood and Burnley’s Harry Thomson in being awarded a special cap.
Alan Anderson junior and Nicholas Hood will be present at Hampden to collect the cap on behalf of their fathers, while Ferguson will make an in-person appearance that is expected to help a sold-out Hampden reach close to fever-pitch in the countdown to such a vital game.
Ferguson was given an early introduction to geopolitics in 1967, the so-called summer of love. “If Kate Adie had travelled on the first two legs of Scotland’s world tour, she would have been in her element,” he wrote in Managing My Life, his first autobiography. The tour kicked off against Israel, although a second game was hastily cancelled due to the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war.
Ferguson had already done his bit to inflame Scottish-Israeli tensions by breaking the nose of an opponent in the opening game, which Scotland won 2-1. Two matches in five days against the same team would have been one thing, but seven in three years, at this level, is quite another.
Such a quick succession of meetings means additional, fresher grievances have emerged, including Israel’s displeasure at losing on penalties in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final fixture at Hampden a year ago yesterday. They extracted some revenge in the form of a 1-0 World Cup qualifier win earlier this year and now seek to make life very difficult for their hosts by beating them for a second time in the group.
Of course, Scotland can do likewise for Israel with a victory on what promises to be an emotional night at the national stadium. Steve Clarke hopes the presence of Ferguson, who led Scotland to the World Cup in Mexico with a 2-0 aggregate play-off win over Australia following Jock Stein’s sudden death, will help inspire his team.
“It will be nice for the Scottish public to see Sir Alex,” said Clarke. “Obviously he had his time as a World Cup manager, in sad circumstances, when he took the team in 1986.
“It is always nice to catch up with Sir Alex and hear his thoughts. It will be great for the Scottish public to give him the ovation and the acclaim he deserves.
“He is very, very supportive of the country,” he added. “He is always positive about the country. It’s great that he will be there to get that cap from such a long time ago. I’m sure he will get a fantastic ovation and it is richly deserved.”
In effect, Ferguson has gone from zero caps to four overnight (he didn’t play in the 7-2 win over Canada that rounded-off the tour). This tally is just two behind Clarke, who made his debut in 1987 and won six caps in total. He is still processing being left out of the World Cup squad for 1990 after being named in the original pool of players.
Like Ferguson, he is sorely aware that nothing in international football, least of all World Cup qualification, comes very easily. Scotland finished second in their group in 1985 despite beating Spain 3-1 and had to travel to the other side of the world in mid-season to defend a 2-0 first leg lead, which they did courtesy of a 0-0 draw in Melbourne.
Clarke is leaving little to chance, bringing in a set-piece specialist in Austin MacPhee and keeping coy on tactics. Billy Gilmour and Nathan Patterson are new additions to the side since the last meeting with Israel in March.
“Somebody said we still only have a 13 per cent chance of qualifying for the World Cup,” said the manager. “That shows you how difficult it is for a country like ourselves to come out of this section.
“But we were looking at a 22 per cent chance before the Austria game of claiming second position and now we are up to 60 per cent.
“Our job is to make sure we cement the result after the two results last month put us into a good position to control the situation.”