Interview: Bruce Rioch on why he shouldn’t have played against Peru

Bruce Rioch tackles Peru's Hector Chumpitaz during Scotland's 3-1 defeat in Cordoba at the 1978 World Cup. Picture: Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock
Bruce Rioch tackles Peru's Hector Chumpitaz during Scotland's 3-1 defeat in Cordoba at the 1978 World Cup. Picture: Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock
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One of the most treasured documents in Bruce Rioch’s possession is his father’s military file, dad Jim having been a regimental sergeant-major with the Scots Guards. The file runs to 268 pages, covering many different postings, which ensured young Bruce could enjoy the school run in a tank. For an extract, the former Scotland captain chooses three words from the opening testimony penned by the old man’s commanding officer: “Loyal, sober, exemplary.”

“My two sons were reading the file,” explains Rioch. “Maybe they then remembered a conversation we’d had about Argentina. ‘Look at the wording, Dad,’ they said. ‘Loyalty.’ I think in that World Cup Ally MacLeod was too loyal. I was the beneficiary, in that he picked me to play against Peru, but he shouldn’t have done.”

Wow. That’s a sober assessment from Rioch about the calamity in Cordoba 40 years ago. You’d have to say that for honesty, it’s exemplary. The quick, easy shorthand of the 1978 World Cup goes like this: Peru should have been watched beforehand; the Scotland players should have ditched the bubble perms; Rioch and Don Masson should have been told: “Thanks very much for getting us to the finals, guys, but Graeme Souness will take it from here.”

The 24-times-capped Rioch agrees with all this. Well, we don’t actually discuss the corkscrew curls of Alan Rough, Asa Hartford and (sat stewing on the bench) the thundering goal-machine Derek Johnstone, but it’s a safe bet that Rioch didn’t approve of the style, given he sported a military-standard haircut.

He said: “My father would send me to the barber’s for a short, back and sides. ‘Tell them: same as your dad’. Did I want to have long hair like everyone else in the 1970s? Not really, although I did eventually get a pair of sideboards.”

When the BBC’s coverage of the tournament set Scotland’s exit to music, the song, inevitably, was Julie Covington warbling Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina. Souness – with ringlets he always insisted were natural – appeared on our screens when the lament reached the line “The answer was there all the time”. Cue mass cursing as the last, dredged cans of Tartan Special were flung across living rooms. (They missed the bins, of course they did).

“It’s such a long time ago,” says Rioch at his home on the jaggy Cornwall coastline, so jaggy in fact that I’d been told that a rope ladder offered access to the adventurous, although, disappointingly, this turns out not to be the case. “In the season leading up to the World Cup I’ve got to be honest and say I hadn’t been playing my best. I was back at Derby County from where I’d won my first caps. Don [Masson] was with me, the Scotland midfield together. It should have worked out well but it didn’t.

“There were fallouts with the Doc [manager Tommy Docherty] who’d signed me for Aston Villa as a 21-year-old. But I was a different player at 29, a different man. I had my own opinions by then. As a player, though, you think only of yourself. If you know your club form is bad and yet your international manager is sticking by you, you think: ‘Brilliant’. As a manager, and I remembered Argentina when I became one, you have to think of the group, and players not performing have to be got out of the team.

“Would I, in Ally’s position, have stuck with me? I don’t think so. He was incredibly loyal to me. Loyalty out in the world is important, it’s crucial.

Football’s different. If Ally had picked a midfield of Souness, Hartford and [Archie] Gemmill I couldn’t have complained.”

Memories of Argentina have been stirred by this year’s 40th anniversary and by Scotland tangling with the dastardly, diagonally-striped Peruvians
in Tuesday’s friendly.

In truth, though, they’re never very far from the surface and can be revived at a moment’s notice, any time the nation has to check itself against over-excitability and daft dreams. Some veterans of the ill-starred campaign regularly put themselves forward for a bout of sado-masochistic nostalgia and indeed Roughie did this last week.

But we haven’t heard much down the years from Rioch, the straight-backed skipper who was always going to be dubbed the general of the midfield.

In Cornwall, near to Falmouth, the local worthy who’d told me about the rope ladder said Rioch lived quietly and would probably be reluctant to talk, which only made the quest more tantalising. But talk he does, and his story is a good one.

Now 70, Rioch was the Arsenal manager immediately prior to Arsene Wenger’s long reign. He was the Torquay United manager whose fierce moral conviction caused him to 
threaten to quit over a proposed blue-movie-and-strippers night to boost club coffers – and then who resigned in shame after leaving one of his players with a broken jaw, giving up football to sell insurance. And he was the Bolton Wanderers manager who Andy 
Walker rated the best of the striker’s career, but only after reversing this snap judgement of his youth: “He’s never a Scotsman!”

Walker, a player-turned-pundit, admitted in a newspaper column his view had been based on Rioch lacking a Scottish accent and not having played for a Scottish club. “But I soon found out he was every bit as passionate about Scotland as I was and his knowledge of historical events put me to shame,” Walker wrote.

“Good afternoon – I hope the sun is shining with you,” says Rioch when I call at the appointed time, not a second late, hoping this might endear me to the son of a soldier. I mention last clapping eyes on him a decade ago at Easter Road when his OB Odense played Hibernian in the Intertoto Cup. “Sunshine on Leith!” he exclaims. “What a beautiful song. When I heard it sung at the [2016 Scottish Cup] final, I thought it was the most incredibly moving moment I’d ever experienced watching a football match. I even phoned up my eldest boy Gregor, pressed the phone to the TV speaker and said: ‘Listen to this’.”

Rioch has hit upon a theme: “Smith, Johnstone, Reilly, Turnbull, Ormond – how could I as a boy in England have known about them? Only from reading Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, my bible.” Easter Road is one of the seven Scottish grounds at which Rioch has played, along with 92 in England. He’s repeating stats from a recent talk he gave at the local health club where he and his wife Jane are spinning-class regulars. He mentions Hibee Alex 
Cropley, another fine midfielder, like him, born in the garrison town of Aldershot. “We’ve had a laugh about how he’s broad Scots whereas, well, I sound like this…”

Rioch’s mother Maggie hailed from Skye and Jim was born in Kineff, Aberdeenshire – “Where the Scottish Crown Jewels were hidden from Oliver Cromwell’s army. I know all about that and have visited many times.” He grew up the second youngest of four boys, the baby of the family, Neil, being a terrific quiz question. “He’s the first Englishman to have touched the ball in the 1966 World Cup final. Right from kick-off [West Germany’s Wolfgang] Overath booted it out of play. Neil, who was a ball boy, ran and picked it up.”

So if Neil calls himself English, what about Bruce? He can’t remember thinking about nationality overmuch while growing up. “I’ve never been tribal,” he says. “The only team I’ve ever supported is Cambridge City. Born in England, growing up there, the only country I could have played for was England. Then the rule changed.” The Doc as Scotland boss selected him but he declined. “I won’t go into the reasons but can say categorically that I wasn’t waiting for England to come calling.” His chance came again. “I’d just won the old First Division with Derby. [Manager] Dave Mackay said: ‘How would you like to play for Scotland?’ ‘I’d be delighted’, I said. ‘Good. Ring a Mr Donald as in Duck and he’ll tell you where to be’. My debut was a friendly against Portugal at Hampden. Walking out of the tunnel I heard a familiar voice: ‘Hullo mucker!’ It was my brother Ian. ‘Fancy a bite of my meat pie?’ The game went well and we won.”

Two weeks later it was dad Jim’s turn to see Rioch sport the dark blue but this was the 5-1 thrashing by England at Wembley. Goalkeeper Stewart Kennedy takes the rap for the defeat but the scorer of Scotland’s only goal, from the penalty-spot, won’t hear of this. “We got thumped that day but there’s always collective responsibility in football.” This is typical Rioch.

Ask him about Willie Ormond, his first Scotland manager, and he says: “Lovely, what a gentleman.” MacLeod? “Different to Willie, very positive, convinced we were going to do well.” Did the captain share his galloping conviction the World Cup could be won? “What does a player want a manager to say? That he doesn’t think the team can be successful? Footballers are simple creatures; imagine the impact that would have. And have I not just heard Harry Kane say England can do it in Russia?” So what, then, of Jock Stein who after Argentina never picked him for Scotland again? “I was disappointed but I accepted his decision. He didn’t have to phone and tell me – he was the great Jock.” If you’re looking for dirt to be dished Rioch won’t oblige. He is his father’s son, displaying the same loyalty.

He speaks warmly of Jim, dad and hero, and never grumbled about his peripatetic childhood. “I lived in six different barracks and in Germany before I was seven, but no people-carrier ever ferried me to school. I got to travel across the parade square in Sherman tanks, bren-gun carriers and five-ton armoured trucks. It was a marvellous childhood. Four boys but no one screamed at us in the house. Watching my school games, Dad only offered encouragement.

“He was a top-class athlete, could have thrown the hammer in the 1948 Olympics but for a bout of pleurisy, and was bayonet-fencing champion in the Royal Tournament five years out of six.” Now Rioch is laughing because he’s remembering Jim taking him to see another famous state occasion, the country of his birth versus the land of his father underneath the Twin Towers. “Before my first England-Scotland match at Wembley, I was used to the kilt being worn smartly in Dad’s regiment and the Pipes and Drums marching up to Windsor Castle. This was a bit different. I saw a 50-seater bus with more than 100 fans hanging on to the windows – incredible. They had half-bottles of whisky in their sporrans and cans of beer in their tammies. One poor chap accidentally smashed his carry-out against the turnstile. His friends pushed him back out of the stadium: ‘No, Jimmy, you need to refuel’.” As a player Rioch would gain revenge for that ’75 Wembley mauling with two successive victories over the Auld Enemy. “Depending how the Home Internationals had gone, the first game back at your club was always interesting. If England had won their players would merely smile. If we’d won we were unbearable.”

Rioch thinks he’s always had a scholarly approach to football and it began when everyone else was being tribal. His father, a huge influence, took him to see Stanley Matthews play at Chelsea and they would swap sides at half-time to maintain a close-up view of the great wingman. He’d study the double-winning Tottenham team with his two older brothers. “Dave Mackay used to run onto the park, boot the ball 50 feet into the air and cushion it on his left calf. I tried to copy him. I saw Uruguayans produce the most amazing dip with their shooting and tried to copy them.”

The finished article emerging from these studies onto the mud-baked pitches of 1970s England was a progressive midfielder with a cannonball shot. In Derby’s title-winning season Rioch was top scorer, although his eye for goal didn’t mean he could be excused general combat. “You were a hard so-and-so,” I say. “No, I was a dirty so-and-so. It was a very tough era and unfortunately I contributed. I look back and I regret some of the things I did. I don’t think this did happen, but I could easily have broken someone’s leg. So when I became a manager I never allowed my teams to play that way.”

As a boss, too, there were times when he “went overboard” and incidents like the one with Torquay’s Colin Anderson bring more regret, not least because he was lousy at 
flogging insurance for his brother Ian – “I could never close the deal.” It became easy to label Rioch a disciplinarian manager given his military upbringing and stories about him banning players from wearing jeans and fining them for not shaving made good red-top fodder. “I viewed all that as a slight on my father. It was all too easy to say that as the son of a regimental sergeant-major the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree. I was competitive, I was organised, I was a detailed person. ‘Take care of the detail’, Dad used to say, and when you’re pacing out every yard for the Trooping of the Colour you have to do that. I wouldn’t say I had rules, more guidelines, and we all need them.”

The organised, detailed Rioch learned from Argentina. Already in possession of logs of every day’s training since 1971, the manager who brought Dennis Bergkamp to Arsenal but always felt he was minding the shop for Wenger would order a recce in advance of every away game to make sure no hotel was as lousy as the one endured by Scotland in Alta Gracia. So let’s close the book on ’78, at least until the next anniversary…

Rioch was injured for the Iran game, and the humiliating draw plunged a team into further despair. “We’d just lost Bud [Willie Johnston, sent home in drugs disgrace] but that match was horrible to watch. If I’m asked what’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen I always say ‘Scotland vs Iran’ It was a horror show.”

Our man was back for Holland, Scotland needing to win by three goals to qualify for the next phase, and they almost did. I mention how Don Masson, dropped and watching from the stand, told me that, at 3-1, he was dreading Scotland scoring a fourth and prolonging what for him had been tournament hell. Rioch smiles. “That wasn’t me. I was on the pitch trying to help us pull off the impossible. I don’t think negatively, never have done, and that’s down to Dad. I had a great view of Archie Gemmill’s wonder goal. Then when Johnny Rep lined up his shot I thought, ‘He’s too far out,’ but he wasn’t. We were close, just not close enough. But my first manager, Alec Stock at Luton Town, told me that you should always go out and play with style and a bit of class and I reckon that night we did.”