Scotland were playing San Marino for the very first time. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, to give them their posh name. A bunch of no-hope waiters, to give them the name conferred by the rest of world football if it was feeling especially superior and not particularly inclusive.
This pimple of a country, an enclaved microstate surrounded on all sides by Italy and not much more prominent than the pimples found on the acreage of tourist flesh covering the beaches of nearby Rimini, had never won so much as a point in international competition. Against Roxburgh’s men in the 1991 European Championship qualifier they would line up their ten-man defence like giant pizzeria pepper-mills and hope to avoid a thrashing.
But Scotland were Scotland, eminently capable of il cock-up grandissimo. A full calendar year hadn’t quite elapsed since the World Cup defeat by Costa Rica, Roxburgh’s blackest day in football… or was it? The man who was our first national team coach, breaking with the tradition of manager, is telling me about another dire occasion, this one concluding with an Alex Ferguson death-stare which is its own kind of black.
“Remember Quiz Ball?” he says, clearly unaware of the Saturday Interview’s obsession with the Question of Sport forerunner for brainy footballers and celebrity fans. “Back when I was a player Falkirk entered a team – Alex, George Miller and myself – and Chic Murray was our celeb. He was a funny guy, although don’t ask me to repeat any of his jokes, or attempt his voice.” This was 1970, the Bairns were going well in the competition, and then in the semi-final against Everton and Ed “Stewpot” Stewart, disaster struck.
“‘Which jockey won the previous year’s Grand National?’ Now, a lot of footballers know a lot about horse-racing but I’m definitely not one of them,” continues Roxburgh. “The question, which would have put us in the final, fell to me. Alex was desperately trying to whisper the answer but I couldn’t make him out. It was all very tense and I blurted the first – the only – name which came into my head: ‘Lester Piggott.’ You should have seen the look Alex threw me. I don’t know if the cameras caught it but I did. He was disgusted. Piggott was the world’s greatest flat jockey and wouldn’t have been anywhere near the world’s greatest steeplechase. How the flamin’ hell did I not know that?
“A few days after the programme I ran out at Brockville. The fans started chanting ‘Les-ter Pig-gott, Les-ter Pig-gott’ at me. Legend has it that Alex rehearsed them before kick-off with a loudhailer. Now, does that sound like him? I don’t really think he’s ever forgiven me for getting the question wrong.”
We’re chatting before that dreadful night in Kazakhstan, Roxburgh unaware of just how bleakly bad things were about to get for Alex McLeish, but able to offer sympathy to one of his former charges and the hope, however forlorn, that Big Eck can somehow salvage a desperate situation.
One of the issues of the raging post-mortem has been commitment, both among the players liable for what some are calling our worst-ever performance and those who elected to sit the game out. Roxburgh says: “In international football the biggest thing is getting your players focused on the cause. They’re all good players individually but can you get them to be a collective? Will they support the team even if they’re not selected? In my era Murdo MacLeod was the best example of that – he was fantastic. If Murdo hadn’t made the starting line-up he simply became the No 1 fan.”
I ask Roxburgh for the worst example and although he declines to offer a name he stresses: “I’m not saying some guys didn’t give me headaches. I remember telling one of the elite players: ‘Your problem is that you’re nearly as crabbit as me.’ International football is a choice. It’s not like club football where players are contracted to play. But what I would say, and it’s something I’ve always believed, is that if you’re Scottish that choice is outwith your control. The reasons should be obvious: there’s that great, passionate Tartan Army willing you to pull on that dark blue shirt and give of your very best.”
Now 75, Roxburgh is in Switzerland, where he lives, having recently visited Malaysia in his role as technical guru for all footballing things Asian. Earlier today he had a dental appointment and with current Scotland skipper Andy Robertson having been beaten by a toothy problem this week I thought I could be tardy with my phonecall. This Andy’s initially brusque tone suggests he rather hoped I would have been bang on time, which seems a good moment to quote another funster called Chic at him:
“Andy Roxburgh is blessed with the tidiest habits I’ve ever seen in a human being.” Chick Young said this, fanfaring Roxburgh as he was about to take charge of Scotland in 1986. Was it true then and if so is he still?
There’s a snigger on the other end of the line. “Everything’s relative. That was probably Chick comparing me with him. I mean, if you could see the desk in front of me right now, it’s a terrible mess of papers for my next conference. But it’s true that I like order and everything in its right place. Take the last conference I organised: I didn’t just concern myself with the programme, the discussions. I had to know about the set-up, the venue, every last detail.” A picture forms in the head of Roxburgh taking personal responsibility for clipping the laminate passes on to their lanyards then, with his slightly bouffant hair remaining rigidly in place, rushing round the bathrooms to check there was enough soap in the pump dispensers. “Every last detail,” he repeats. “I’m pretty obsessive like that.”
So Switzerland with its cleanliness and precision – trains always on time, each Toblerone peak the exact same height – agrees with him? “It must do, I’ve been here since I left Scotland, but I’m not sure Chick would like it.”
Roxburgh resigned from the national team in 1993 in the wake of World Cup failure. He’d got the team to Italia ’90 but missing out on the finals in the United States was considered unforgivable as he’d broken the chain of five qualifications in a row. What standing we had back then and, maybe, what conceit, too.
Before the Asian Football Confederation, Roxburgh held the post of technical director at Uefa for 18 years. So, I’m wondering: for Falkirk, Queen’s Park, Partick Thistle and Clydebank, the latter under his uncles, the Steedman brothers Jack and Charlie, how technical a footballer was he? Another snigger, more like a groan. “That’s so long ago I don’t even know if I can remember. I do remember being asked what I was like as a player when I became Scotland coach. ‘I wouldn’t pick me,’ I said. I was quick and I seemed to be able to score but at Falkirk I was fortunate to be up front with Alex for three years. I was his runner. I wasn’t aggressive in the slightest but he was – extremely.” Roxburgh, according to anecdotal evidence, was a “tiptoer”. “That would be fair,” he says.
And even now he wishes he was still tiptoeing. Prancing up the wing as Fergie’s fluffer/facilitator. Playing football for ever. This is why ex-players continue to hang around the game; they can’t let it go. Roxburgh’s no different and, really, everything he’s done since – that’s coaching Scotland’s underage sides, the big team, all the statesmanlike roles – has been a poor second to the smell of the Ralgex and the roar of the crowd.
“I’m like anyone else who remains in this business; I’m a frustrated player. The best job, the only job really, is to play. When you can’t play or you’re not good enough anymore, and you’re prepared to take on the responsibility, then you can coach. That way you maintain your link to the pitch.”
He makes this sound like a life-support system. “That’s exactly what it is. During the Asian Cup at the start of the year I was down in the dressing-rooms and the corridors before every game, shaking hands with the players or talking to guys like Carlos Queiroz or Felix Sanchez. I love to be close to football, I need to be close to football.”
Aged 23 at Partick Thistle, Roxburgh told the Jags’ match programme: “Hobbies? I have no time for them.” When he took charge of Scotland the profilers were able to winkle out of him an interest in golf, but further investigation revealed that his last round had been a full year before, during World Cup downtime in Mexico where he assisted Fergie, and the round before that four years previously with Jock Stein in Spain. Today, he cannot think of the last time he played.
He continues on the subject of his one true love: “I have this daft wee ritual of always going out to the centre-circle before kick-off and just standing there for a quiet moment. It really is my favourite place to be. Some folk think that at my age I should be over it by now, this fascination with football, but I’m not and I never will be.”
Roxburgh came to the Scotland job having led a representative side to the 1982 European Youth Championships in Finland and what remains our only tangible honour. At the time SFA secretary Ernie Walker called the triumph “staggering”. How, in view of Scotland’s current travails, would we describe it now? Nevertheless, when Roxburgh took command there was scepticism. Indeed Hugh Keevins in The Scotsman maintained that his appointment was viewed by some as a “personal insult”.
The self-taught football intellectuals of the Mount Florida slopes were unnerved by the prospect of coaches replacing managers, especially when those managers had recently numbered Ferguson and Jock Stein and the coaches had previously been schoolteachers. This, Keevins wrote, was “anathema to those who believe it is still possible to shout up a tenement close and have the reincarnation of the Wembley Wizards run out in the correct formation”. Roxburgh made no apologies for his background then, and nor does he now. “I teach football; that’s what I do. And when I die, on my gravestone just the word ‘Teacher’ will do fine.
“I remember the newspaper headlines asking ‘Andy Who?’ but I could understand that, at least back then, for these days a coach coming up through the national system isn’t so remarkable. It was a Wednesday morning when Ernie came to my office in the basement of [former SFA HQ] Park Gardens and said: ‘The international committee would like you to take charge of the team.’ ‘Really?’ I said, and asked for some time to think about it. ‘Okay,’ said Ernie, ‘but the press conference announcing the appointment will be at two o’clock.’
At his unveiling Roxburgh apologised for “not having the power of charisma”. Was he apprehensive about the task ahead? “Not at all. A lot of the guys – Paul McStay, Ally McCoist, Pat Nevin – were players I’d worked with at under-age and we’d been together in hostile environments, like 100,000 in the Azteca Stadium [against hosts Mexico in the ’83 World Youth Championships], and come through these challenges together. Steve Clarke, who scored the winner in that game, told me recently: ‘That was the night I knew I could become a professional footballer.’”
Another of Roxburgh’s proteges was Davie Cooper. “I’d worked with him when he was a lad of 17 at Clydebank and I spent quite a long time trying to get him to use his right foot, all of it in vain.” Then Coop obliged Roxburgh with the first two goals of the coach’s tenure, against Luxembourg. “One of them was with his right. I told him: ‘That one’s mine for all those sessions.’ He said: ‘It was a complete miskick.’”
Scotland never had Cooper or anyone remotely like him in Kazakhstan. “I was very fortunate in my era that I not only had guys who were also great players but also great characters, strong characters.” Few were stronger than McLeish. “He’s a tough guy and he’ll handle the pressure, I’m sure,” adds Roxburgh, without knowledge of that 3-0 shocker. “I really admired Alex when he played for me. He was a great servant to Scotland, a great professional and he also had a great sense of humour.” The latter might prove valuable right now although another stumble against San Marino tomorrow will surely be fatal.
Roxburgh’s formula for negotiating qualification sounds simple but has proved out of reach to his successors in recent times. “We aimed to get off to a good start, beat a big team and avoid a calamity against a wee one.” At Italia 90, however, and with McLeish in the side, Scotland stumbled against Costa Rica, a defeat that’s been recalled over the last 24 hours of self-flagellation, involving the collating and comparing of our grimmest reverses. “We were meticulous until that game but couldn’t get a proper look at Costa Rica. The coach had six months to prepare his team and never showed his hand. That was what killed us.” Roxburgh was then bombarded with the kind of screaming headlines currently assailing McLeish. “My most interesting week in football,” he sighs.
Pride was partially restored at the end of it with the stirring victory over Sweden, who were hosting the next Euros. Don’t worry about them, Roxburgh was told by his bosses – use qualification to ready the team for the next World Cup. But he steered Scotland to the finals in ’92, something his illustrious predecessors never quite achieved.
That necessitated winning in San Marino. The fifth smallest country in the world was a culture-shock for the players. “It was like they’d been dragged back into youth football. When the ball went out of play behind the goals it ran on and on, seemingly for ever. The environment was ugly, the weather was ugly and the game was ugly, but we got out with a 2-0 win.”
Roxburgh desperately yearns to see Scotland back participating in the business end of a showpiece event – “It’s in my blood.” Trouble is, he says, that everyone else wants to be at those parties which the Tartan Army could reasonably claim to have popularised as the most vivacious guests. “Every country is so well coached now, even the smaller nations.” For that surely our guru has to take some credit/blame.