Mark McGhee: Best moment of career was goal against England

Mark McGhee (left) beats Peter Shilton to open the scoring for Scotland against England at Hampden in 1984. Picture: SNS
Mark McGhee (left) beats Peter Shilton to open the scoring for Scotland against England at Hampden in 1984. Picture: SNS
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No-one could accuse Mark McGhee of altering his opinion to suit the situation. Indeed, his honesty has got him into trouble on occasion, such as when he admitted Aberdeen were his second choice upon being unveiled as manager at Pittodrie after a summer spent being courted by Celtic.

He’s nothing if not consistent, admirably so. But it’s still a surprise to hear him repeat what he regards to be the crowning glory of a fine career.

Scotland assistant manager Mark McGhee says scoring against England was the highlight of his career. Picture: SNS

Scotland assistant manager Mark McGhee says scoring against England was the highlight of his career. Picture: SNS

Despite Cup-Winners’ Cup glory in Gothenburg and numerous other honours with Aberdeen, it isn’t any of those. Despite signing for and then winning the double with his boyhood heroes Celtic, it isn’t these thrills.

Despite blazing a trail when going from Scotland to Bundes­liga side SV Hamburg in 1984, there is something else he cherishes most. He is happy to distil his career down to just a few triumphant seconds in a dark blue shirt.

There’s no debate, he insists. It’s not even close. When it comes to the greatest moment of his career, scoring the opener against England at Hampden Park 32 years ago trumps all other achievements, every time.

“It surpasses anything I ever did by a million miles,” he says bluntly, just in case anyone is still in any doubt. “I never played in a World Cup or anything like that but to score against England, that was the pinnacle for me.”

It’s what he said when the draw for this World Cup qualifying group was made, containing as it did two meetings with England. Going back further, it’s what he said when he became the very proud assistant manager of Scotland. And it’s what he said the previous two times Scotland locked horns with England, before friendlies in 2013 and 2014.

But there’s a special resonance when he says it this time, because he knows there’s a possibility tomorrow’s vital clash with England could be both his and Gordon Strachan’s last stand with Scotland. It’s likely a defeat would spell the end of the friends’ reign in charge.

Since McGhee has left no-one in any doubt about how much it means to him to be involved with Scotland, it’s clear such an ignoble end would pack a considerable punch for him personally. No Scot, particularly one as patriotic as McGhee, wishes to have defeat at Wembley as their last, bitter memory.

But McGhee insists it is not about him, it’s about doing it for Strachan.

Most importantly of all, it’s about reigniting Scotland’s failing qualifying campaign.

“I’m not going to go there,” he said, when asked what defeat tomorrow might mean in terms of the management team’s immediate future.

“Whatever happens after the game will look after itself, good or bad. As a group we have to support the manager, play as well as we possibly can to give the manager encouragement and the platform to go on and win those four games next year and get us to the World Cup. That’s what Friday night is about.”

McGhee’s friendship with Strachan goes back a long way so there’s no surprise that his backing for the manager, essentially his boss, remains so unfailing. But there’s also the sense he owes him something after a gilded week in May in 1984, when the synergy between them was plain for all to see.

For Strachan not only provided McGhee with the cross from which he scored Aberdeen’s winning goal in a Scottish Cup final victory over Celtic, he was the one whose impish play in midfield set up his friend’s goal against England seven days later.

Strachan’s persistence saw him gather the ball and then send a deep cross into the penalty area, where McGhee found a yard of space away from Mick Duxbury to place a downward header beyond Peter Shilton for the opening goal in a 1-1 draw. It was the striker’s fourth and final cap.

“When Sir Alex Ferguson told me that Big Jock [Stein] had decided I was playing, it was just like literally a dream come true,” McGhee says now.

He’d been just a fan a few years earlier. Even budding footballers would make their way every second year to London, for the Wembley weekend. Strachan spent part of his honeymoon there in 1977. This was the famous win that precipitated a pitch invasion, a goalposts-wrecking, turf-filching swarm that included one ginger-haired future Scotland manager.

There’s a piece of lawn in Broughty Ferry that will forever be Wembley because Strachan, a Dundee player at the time, came back and planted the sod in his back garden.

McGhee was a part-time Morton player in these days, working during the day in an architects’ office. But he too took the opportunity to head down to London to support Scotland.

“I allowed my younger brother­ to go a bit further down the stand. But no, I wasn’t on the pitch,” he says. Strachan ­later claimed he was invited onto the pitch by a friendly policeman, who ­wearily sighed: “You might as well, sir, everyone else is.”

Everyone, that is, except the responsible McGhee and his younger brother, who he had been charged with chaperoning. Down on the pitch below, meanwhile, frolicked Strachan, who McGhee knew only by his burgeoning reputation as a midfielder. On what this says about the different personalities making up Scotland’s management team, McGhee was quick to quip: “He’s a ­hooligan, I’m not!”

A friendship forged in the glare of top-class football, it’s abundantly clear how close they are. It’s why McGhee intends to stand by Strachan’s side tomorrow at Wembley and keep his old pal out of any further trouble.