The stadium in Budapest where the climatic football scenes in Escape to Victory were filmed was demolished four years ago.
Memories, however, were stirred yesterday as Alex McLeish returned to the city where he played in 1980, on the occasion of Scotland’s last visit. A well-known film buff, he laments not having stayed around longer following the 3-1 defeat by Hungary to join players such as Ipswich Town and Scotland midfielder John Wark help create a fondly remembered war-time classic.
The Scotland tour behind the Iron Curtain [they also played Poland] was arranged for the end of a season in which McLeish helped Aberdeen clinch the Scottish title for the first time in 25 years. He had some swagger about him and reckoned he could have mixed with Pele, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and an eclectic mix of hired footballers, including Wark, perfectly well.
“I met Warky and a few of the boys that were in it,” recalled McLeish. “Big Jock [Stein] had said to us: ‘If anyone wants to stay on and be extras...’ I always regret that film never had a ginger-heided Scotsman in it!”
“Apparently when they did the scene where Pele does an overhead kick, he did it in the first take,” he added. “But the American director shouted ‘brilliant, take two,’ and Pele was screaming at him ‘I’m not sure I can do that again’.”
Legendary Brazilians and perfectly executed overhead kicks are a long way from Scotland and a night when they were reckoned to have fluffed their lines against Costs Rica.
McLeish knows he is on a serious mission to restore some credibility on his return to Budapest following Friday’s 1-0 defeat. No amount of reminiscing can avoid the truth of the here and now, nor the need to start making forward strides – starting against Hungary tonight.
McLeish will not be permitted too many takes to get it right. In a way, the trip marks an escape for the manager, who, if not exactly already under-fire, might have been taken aback by the extent of the criticism meted out over the weekend. Possibly wisely, he said he steered clear of the reaction. But he is aware the negative feedback will only be doused by victory this evening at the Groupama stadium, just a couple of kilometres south from the ground where the final scenes in Escape to Victory were filmed at the recently renovated home of MTK Budapest.
“I have honestly not read the critiques,” he said. “I’ve only seen one or two things. I don’t get my knickers in a twist over things like that.
“I’m on a pathway and I feel I’m doing the right thing and I believe it’s the right thing to do and I’m sticking to that,” he added. “A win gets some of the negativity away. But I’m not focused on the negativity. I am thinking about the team and what they can do and the performance level they bring.”
He had no qualms about turning predecessor Gordon Strachan’s formula for success upside down and investing faith in several youthful, inexperienced debutants. “They had a defeat-free season [last season],” he said, with reference to Strachan’s unbeaten year in charge.
“It would have been nice to continue the unbeaten run. But I just felt I had to do it. It was in my bones to do what I did. I don’t regret it.”
With three of his starting XI from Costa Rica having not even travelled, McLeish is forced to make changes. He looks set to start with at least two more Celtic players than the zero included in Friday night’s starting XI.
Callum McGregor and Stuart Armstrong seem certain to start. With Grant Hanley having returned to Norwich City suffering from shin splints, Jack Hendry, another Celtic player, could feature at some point at centre-half. They will feel comfortable in the setting of Ferencvaros’ ground, with its banks of green seats.
A player for the big occasion, whose last two goals for Celtic were against Zenit St Petersburg and Bayern Munich, McGregor is keen to rubber stamp his emergence as an internationalist.
Refreshingly down-to-earth, despite his successes with Celtic, the midfielder put his humility down to solid working class background. He has no tattoos, no social media accounts and simply wants to do the best he can. Such an attitude helped him cope with the series of perceived snubs during Strachan’s spell in charge.
Despite a widespread clamour, he did not receive a call-up until the manager’s last squad of his reign. But he was left on the sidelines against Slovakia and Slovenia and finally made his debut for Scotland under Malky Mackay against the Netherlands in November.
“I come from a family that doesn’t believe in showing off what you’ve got, just a working-class family who instilled humility,” said McGregor.
“Every day in life, that was how my brother and I were brought up – when you do well, you have to be humble, that’s the important thing. So with that background I’ve never been very visual about these things. I try to do my talking on the pitch as much as possible.”
He forgoes the usual footballers’ trappings of tattoos and social media activity, as showcased by two of the younger members of the Scotland squad, Oli McBurnie and Jason Cummings. “I’ve never been very visual about these things,” said McGregor. “I try to do my talking on the pitch as much as possible.
“It’s like that at Celtic as well,” he added. “When you come through and you get some success, you have to be humble. If you get ahead of yourself too quickly you can be out the door, you’re not for a club like that.”