Interview: Tosh McKinlay on Scotland’s great Swiss miss

Tosh McKinlay played in the Euro 96 victory over Switzerland at Villa Park 20 years ago when Ally McCoist's strike proved to be in vain as the Scotland were knocked out. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Tosh McKinlay played in the Euro 96 victory over Switzerland at Villa Park 20 years ago when Ally McCoist's strike proved to be in vain as the Scotland were knocked out. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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I have to wait for Tosh McKinlay to decide that, okay, he’ll do the interview – this is a shy fellow who likes to live quietly – but in view of how long he had to wait for football to pan out the way he’d fantasised in his youth, I can’t really complain.

He’s the Celtic Boys’ Club prodigy who desperately wanted to pull on the hoops for real but when the offer wasn’t forthcoming he headed up to Dundee. Now, McKinlay has the unusual middle name of Valley, passed down through generations of his family. How green was Tosh’s valley back then? Very.

“The editor of the match programme got the lads to fill in a wee questionnaire,” he remembers. “One of the questions was ‘Who would you most like to meet?’ I almost put down Linda Lusardi from Page 3 but in the end went with the Pope. So guess who we were playing the day it was out on the streets? Rangers!

“Before the game the boys were laughing. ‘Suppose I’ll get pelters from their fans for that,’ I said. Then they read out my other answers: ‘Favourite colour - green; favourite drink – limeade; favourite holiday destination – Lisbon or Rome.’ I’m not too sure my sense of humour was appreciated by the away end!”

Thirteen years later McKinlay finally got to play for Celtic and a year after that, 1995, another fond wish became reality when at age of 30 he won his first Scotland cap. He was installed as one of Craig Brown’s dependables after that and starred at Euro 96.

I’m meeting McKinlay, 51, on the 20th anniversary of the Group A game with England – one of our greatest failures – and you’re reading about the man with the quietly deadly left peg on the 20th anniversary of the Switzerland match and our agonising exit from the tournament.

We’ll come to these encounters in a moment but first McKinlay’s debut, a vital Euro 96 qualifier against Greece, a Hampden date he almost missed.

“I’d more or less given up on ever playing for my country,” he says. “When I went to Hearts I wondered if I might get noticed but it never 
happened. Scotland had some good left-backs at that time, guys like Maurice Malpas and Davie Robertson. Then I moved to Celtic and even though folk always say you go straight into the Scotland side when you join the Old Firm I thought that was an urban myth.

“Anyway, I’d just come off a building site when the call came. I was building my house in Uddingston, changing straight into my overalls after training, and was going to let the phone ring because it was late and I was knackered. I’m glad I didn’t. It was my manager Tommy Burns telling me that Craig was short of players.

“Tommy said I should report to Troon after lunch the next day. I assumed I was needed to make up the numbers, nothing more. I stepped out of my motor at the hotel and Craig rushed up: ‘Here’s six tickets – you’re playing tonight.’

“That whole day was like being in a whirlwind. There was no time to be nervous. Maybe at 30 you shouldn’t be but I remember what somebody told me about international football, how you should just play your normal game and not try anything different, and that was good advice.”

Now he’s laughing, having remembered the scene in the Hampden loos pre-match. “If you’d wandered in there you’d have thought it bloody strange. I was in the middle cubicle, emptying my system by making myself sick, which was something I did before every game. On one side of me Boydy [Tom Boyd] was beating himself up, actually punching himself on the face, which was his 
routine, and on the other side Colin Calderwood was psyching himself up in a similar way.”

Brown picked McKinlay at wing-back, a role given him at Hearts as a consequence of manager Joe Jordan’s Italian experience, although the player’s first reaction had been: “Wing-whit?” With Boyd and John Collins completing a Celtic triangle against the Greeks he performed well, Scotland securing three points on the road to England. By the time the finals came round, esteemed sportswriter Allan Herron was hailing McKinlay as “the finest crosser of a ball in the Scottish game”.

If old-fashioned wingers used to perform this function, and invariably had more swagger about them, especially the Scots, then McKinlay was an altogether quieter presence out on the left, who got on with his job and did it very well. He starts out just as shy and retiring today in Frankie & Benny’s in Bishopbriggs, coy about discussing his current occupation or his personal life, though he warms up as games, incidents and special characters bring smiles of recognition. His reticence may be explained by the death, when he was at Hearts, of his son Jordan at the age of just nine months from a rare genetic disorder. The image of the boy he took from a family photo to have tattooed on his arm peeks out of his T-shirt. Unsurprisingly McKinlay doesn’t speak about a tragedy which almost caused him to give up football. All he will say is that everything he achieved after that was done in Jordan’s memory, with his son guiding him, which is a lovely tribute.

McKinlay wasn’t selected for Scotland’s first match of Euro 96 against Holland at Villa Park. “Then the night before the England game Craig called me into his room. I thought I was for the chop again but he said: ‘You’re playing tomorrow. Make sure you’re ready’. The Auld Enemy at Wembley, I was ready all right. The big walk from the tunnel that players all talked about, seeing our supporters right away. My dad was among them. He and I had been there together as fans for Home Internationals, saving up a fiver a week for the bus for two years. Now he was going to be cheering me.

“It was a roasting hot day and during the anthems I thought Stuart Pearce was going to explode. He was belting out God Save the Queen and looking like he wanted to murder all Scotsmen. But he was hooked at half-time. The occasion was too much even for an experienced guy like him.”

Scotland were putting the wind up England, with McKinlay a stealthy presence, popping over dangerous balls. “I had a couple of nice wee moments,” he says modestly, adding that Brown’s boys were a real team, good experience, no superstars, all playing for each other. But we all remember how the game unfolded: Alan Shearer scored, Gary McAllister had the chance to equalise but missed his penalty, England went straight down the other end and a beauty from Paul Gascoigne clinched it.

“That was gutting,” adds McKinlay, “because up until then we’d given a good account of ourselves. Before the penalty I noticed Shearer, [Paul] Ince and [Jamie] Redknapp – they looked worried. Gary had been practising his kicks, as had Ally [McCoist], and they’d both been slotting them. Ally said he had a dream he scored the winner from the spot but Gary was our first choice, only for the ball to bobble on his run-up and because it did he changed his mind and took a wallop. Uri Geller was backing England, masks of him were given away in a paper that day, and he reckoned he made the ball move. I don’t know but there wasn’t a breath of air that day. And as for Gazza’s goal it was obviously sensational, and unfortunate that Andy [Goram] got beaten at that moment because he’d killed us 
at Celtic with fantastic saves for 
Rangers all season long.”

The Swiss game was back at Villa Park where McKinlay slung over even more crosses – “I had that [Marc] 
Hottiger on toast” – but the Scots couldn’t add to McCoist’s strike. Would England do us a four-goal favour against Holland? Incredibly, it looked like they might until Patrick Kluivert’s late counter. Sheepishness is not a normal Dutch condition but it was that night, as they qualified from the group at our expense.

“We were devastated,” says McKinlay. “And to think some teams will progress at these Euros with just three points while we got four and missed out. We would have played France at Anfield next. With a great big army marching over the border I’d have really fancied our chances.”

Growing up in Glasgow, watching Celtic with his father and grandfather, McKinlay always wanted to be a footballer. Nothing else would do; indeed he doesn’t think anything else would have been possible. “I wasn’t the best at school, to be honest. In fact I probably just went for the milk and the dinners!” Dixie Deans scoring a hat-trick in the 1972 Scottish Cup final was the clincher: when could he start?

There was encouragement from a certain T. Burns. “Tommy called round our house when I was 12. He’d just broken into the Celtic team and had heard I was a wee player through his sister and my auntie being friends. I guessed the visitor was somebody special because my mum had made salmon sandwiches.”

And maybe McKinlay’s determination to succeed came aged 15 from his father, also Tommy, showing him what real work was about at the John Brown shipyard. “Dad was a welder. He got under this big hull as I watched. ‘This is what I do for eight hours, son, hammering away all day long. Go and try do something else with your life.’”

At 16 he was on the train to Dundee. “It was the 7.25 from Queen Street on a cold December morning and Dad was there to wave me off. ‘Don’t come back until you get in the first team,’ he said.” Half-excited, half-daunted, McKinlay would be well looked after on Tayside. “My landlady was Mrs Bruce of Broughty Ferry – Gordon Strachan had stayed there before and there was a photo of the blue-eyed boy on her mantelpiece. And the good old pros who took me in hand were guys like Cammy Fraser, big Bobby Glennie, Chic McLelland and Les Barr – still the funniest bloke in football.” McKinlay’s father never missed one of his games, at Dens Park or anywhere, even in the reserves, sometimes having to catch the mail-train back to Glasgow.

Think of McKinlay’s style: head always right down, in the early days under a fine mullet, and metronomic with those crosses. Early learning came on the pitch at Dens under the guidance of English coach Frank Upton. “He made us stand on the halfway line and ping hundreds of balls into the dugouts. In games I never looked up before crossing, just slung them in. Maybe that sounds quite random but, with me not being the fastest, I didn’t want to get blocked. If the strikers weren’t in the right area – tough!”

There was dramatic contrast between his Dens managers. Donald Mackay was “all nicey-nicey” whereas Archie Knox was a shouter and a thrower. “Once a crate of Merry Mate got flung across the dressing-room. Archie just blew the place up. One week he’d be lambasting me, saying I couldn’t use my right, head the ball or tackle, the next he was turning down £300,000 from Brian Clough for me. But he was great coach who really made me grow up.”

He looks back fondly on his Dens time, and was back visiting pals there only a few weeks ago, but Hearts were “a strange club to fit into”. There was a bit of history: “I was playing for Dundee when we stopped them winning the league [1986]. Crikey, I was the guy who made way for Albert Kidd [scorer of the two goals which broke the Jambos]. Was it that? I don’t think so but I had a hard time settling in there. They were a bit of a gang and I suppose I was the new guy come to take someone’s place. I was too long at Dundee and maybe it was up to me to make the effort. But at Dens we’d always made new guys feel welcome.”

He would come to enjoy being a Jambo and his time there wasn’t without humour – ‘Alex MacDonald once said: ‘Tosh, you did the work of two men out there – Laurel and Hardy’ – or success with Hearts enjoying a 22-match unbeaten run in the Edinburgh derby. “That went on so long even I managed to score.” Something of a derby specialist, he was also responsible for what many rate the best-ever goal in the Tayside version, which came in a seven-goal thriller. And then of course there was the 
Old Firm.

Burns, the salmon-sandwich mentor, enabled our man to “live the dream”. McKinlay will be eternally grateful and was devastated when the Celtic legend died. In that first season as a Celt, McKinlay had wanted to run out at Parkhead so he could glance up at section 6 where he used to stand with his father and grandfather, but the stadium was being redeveloped and Celtic were based at Hampden. Disappointment was tempered when he laid on the winning goal for Pierre Van Hooijdonk in the 1995 Scottish Cup final.

McKinlay played with great Celts, the Three Amigos, Lubo Moravcik and Henrik Larsson among them, but Burns rated him “pound for pound my best signing”. The manager’s team had flair but that wasn’t enough against Rangers who were piling up the titles. Even Celtic going a whole season only losing one game wasn’t enough. “Nine out of ten times we’d outplay them but they’d win.” McKinlay quips that he must have played against Paul Gascoigne on a dozen occasions but never met him once.

The Old Firm cauldron sometimes boiled over. There was a training-ground flare-up between McKinlay and Larsson with the latter being headbutted. “I was banished to 
Siberia for that. It obviously wasn’t the cleverest move of my career to belt one of Celtic’s greatest-ever players but most of the guys reckon that day galvanised the team and we went on to stop Rangers making it ten in a row.” McKinlay had fallen out of favour under Wim Jansen and earned a recall from Jozef Venglos only to be “bombed out” by John Barnes. Next stop, Switzerland, Grasshoppers, and Roy Hodgson.

“It was only a short-term contract but fascinating all the same. Roy speaks five languages and is a very clever man but I wish [tactically] he’d throw off the shackles. Maybe not just now [while managing England] right enough!”

They used to say Craig Brown should have been bolder but he got us to finals. Tosh McKinlay, a willing servant and something of a secret weapon, turning out for him 22 times – 23 if you count the three-second game in Estonia.

“When the ref blew the final whistle I actually jumped for joy. Coming off one of the Tartan Army grunted: ‘Aye, McKinlay, that’s the best you’ve ever played for Scotland’!”