Mike Aitken on reporting on Scotland at the 1978 Argentina World Cup

Archie Gemmill celebrates his solo goal against Holland. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock
Archie Gemmill celebrates his solo goal against Holland. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock
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Like the ghost of Christmas Past, the spirit of Argentina in 1978 has been a presence for this journalist over a lifetime in sports-writing, a spectre just as elusive as the white robed figure who showed Scrooge the shadow of things. The events of the summer of 1978 have endured to the point where it’s easy to understand why Dickens’ old miser begged the spirit to show him no more.

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of Scotland’s extraordinary 3-2 victory over Holland in Mendoza, a game which delivered a rousingly bittersweet finale to a World Cup campaign like no other.

Last week, BBC TV marked that legacy with a documentary entitled “Argentina 78: A Love Story”. It was well made, particularly insightful on the cultural and social aspects of the story, and succeeded in transporting this viewer back in time.

The programme, in essence, was a love letter to the Scotland of 40 years ago. As for the footballing side of the story, I’d have suggested drama, comedy, farce, tragedy – even musical, if you count that brace of top ten singles, Rod Stewart’s ‘Ole Ola’ and Andy Cameron’s ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’ – as the theatrical tropes which combined to produce the pantomime of Scotland’s sojourn in South America.

The programme brilliantly captured a Kodachrome summer in a monochrome world. From AC/DC rocking in Scotland strips to Morecambe and Wise flogging lager in tartan tammies, the hullabaloo was something else. I recall travelling from Prestwick to Buenos Aires via New York wearing a ridiculous Umbro track suit which suggested reporters were part of the event. The Scotsman even took a snap of me boarding the plane.

One of the tabloids ran a competition for World Cup tickets fronted by Ally MacLeod’s wife, Faye, who promised to keep an eye on Ally. The players were featured in adverts for Polaroid cameras and Chrysler cars. And MacLeod was on the telly selling carpets dressed as a gaucho. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.

Although it was popular in the aftermath of that World Cup to view the Scottish press as supporters with typewriters, acting as cheerleaders when the country might have been better served by the scepticism of Woodward and Bernstein, this perspective overlooked how impressive Scotland were during the build-up to Argentina in 1976 and 1977.

Had the World Cup been staged in odd years rather than even, Ally’s outlandish prediction that Scotland would win a medal in Argentina might even have come true. Although calamity on an unprecedented scale beckoned in 1978, the previous year was about as good as it ever got to follow Scotland.

It was the summer of 1977 when the Scots were kings of British football and the tour of South America, which followed the Home Internationals, seemed to confirm MacLeod’s Scotland were ready for the challenges to come. When Scotland defeated European champions Czechoslovakia at Hampden and Wales at Anfield to book a place in the World Cup finals, the triumphant flowering of the national psyche was complete.

A year later, however, injuries to Gordon McQueen and Danny McGrain, the significant diminishment of both Bruce Rioch and Don Masson and the wave of expectation unleashed by MacLeod, took its toll on Scottish aspirations.

While alarm bells should have rung when Scotland played poorly during the Home Internationals prior to the World Cup – draws with Northern Ireland and Wales preceded defeat by England – these setbacks didn’t deter 30,000 Scots from attending an excruciating evening of hubris at Hampden to wish their heroes bon voyage.

Scotland were priced 9-1 with the bookies to win the World Cup and some actually thought they were worth a flutter. Perhaps they might have been if a manager of, say, Jock Stein’s experience had been in charge. Stein knew, for example, Rioch and Masson needed replacing by Graeme Souness and Archie Gemmill and would, of course, have made the trip to watch Peru before the finals. Had MacLeod spent a little more time on the detail of the day job then he might have come up with a plan to contain Teofilo Cubillas.

Instead, Ally lamented after the 3-1 defeat that Scotland’s fault lay in not marking Cubillas, an admission which my esteemed colleague, David Lacey, likened to a man falling from an aircraft and deciding, on second thoughts, he really should have worn a parachute.

After defeat by Peru, Scotland fell further and faster than even Alice down the rabbit hole. Willie Johnston was sent home for taking a banned substance and, if anything, the draw with Iran represented a more painful nadir than the opening loss. Off the field the tabloid news reporters filed what indignities they could find and Scotland’s name was mud both at home and around the world.

In the midst of this firestorm, it was hard to keep up. The world was a very different place in 1978. There were no mobile phones or computers and communicating from one side of the world to the other was both expensive and challenging. Match reports were dictated over the telephone to a copytaker and daily bulletins were typed out and dispatched by Telex. One of my pieces inadvertently went missing and ended up at the Scottish Gas Board who kindly sent it on to The Scotsman by taxi.

For those of us immersed in chronicling the rise and fall of MacLeod’s stewardship, the flight out of Cordoba, where the decrepit hotel in Alta Gracia and the team bus with the burnt out clutch were obvious metaphors for Scotland’s decline, was a godsend. In Mendoza, the Holland of Ruud Krol, Johnny Rep and Johan Neeskens awaited. Here, in a delightful wine-making town, lay not only a welcome change of scene, but also, a bewitching shot at redemption.

Finally, Ally more or less picked the right team, with a four man midfield of Gemmill, Souness, Rioch and Asa Hartford prompting Kenny Dalglish and Joe Jordan. It only took Souness five minutes to show why he should have been an ever present, setting up a chance which hit the bar. Tom Forsyth’s ‘goal’ was then wrongly flagged for offside. And a foul on Jordan didn’t earn the penalty it deserved.

I never fully understood why Sandy Jardine didn’t replace the injured McGrain in Argentina and that puzzlement was only underlined when Stuart Kennedy gave the ball away ten minutes before half-time and brought down Rensenbrink, who scored the penalty himself.

If the loss of the first goal felt like an injustice, Jordan set up Dalglish for a terrific equaliser and Gemmill was ice cool from the penalty spot after Souness had been fouled. What came next, of course, was a moment of cliff-hanging wonder.

Sitting in an open air press box, I remember Gemmill picking up a loose ball from Jansen after Dalglish had drifted to the right. Moving away from Krol, Archie shimmied past Poortvliet in the inside-right position, steadied himself in the box and scored with the sweetest caress of his left boot. A million replays later and the magic is still minted.

Before you could dare to dream, of course, Rep hammered a shot from long range and Scotland were out of the World Cup in spite of overcoming an outstanding Dutch side. That match was a deafening siren call of what might have been for a Scotland side with players able enough to have gone on to contest a medal in the knock-out matches rather than fly home burdened only with a badge of dishonour.

Forty years later, given Scotland’s merciless decline as an international football power, the scale of that missed opportunity in Argentina has never seemed more haunting.