Pat Nevin recalls the day Scotland spoiled Mexico’s party

Pat Nevin wasn't spooked by a near riot in the Azteca. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
Pat Nevin wasn't spooked by a near riot in the Azteca. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
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The official attendance given by Fifa was 86,582 – but informed local estimates of the crowd inside the Azteca Stadium on 8 June 1983 reckoned it was closer to 100,000.

Whatever the exact figure was, what wasn’t in dispute was that most of those inside the iconic venue were stunned and infuriated by what they witnessed.

Scotland spoiled their Mexican hosts’ party on that occasion, eliminating them from the World Youth Championship with a 1-0 win which sparked a dramatic reaction.

“To say the Mexican crowd was partisan is being polite,” recalls Pat Nevin, a member of that exceptional Scottish youth squad who had been crowned European champions in Finland the 
previous year.

“ ‘Damned threatening’ would have been the more appropriate description. It was a semi-riot near the end of the match. They were throwing bottles and bricks. They were not best pleased. That kind of extreme reaction, you wouldn’t really get anywhere else in world football.

“So to experience it at such a young age was actually a brilliant thing. I remember walking off the pitch feeling I wasn’t spooked by it. And if that didn’t spook me, nothing would in the rest of my football career.

“I went on to play in Scotland-England, Chelsea-Arsenal, Everton-Liverpool games. I was never fazed by any of them after coming through that game in Mexico. It was astonishing, hard to explain really.

“It’s certainly the biggest crowd I ever played in front of anywhere. It was just a wall and mass of people.”

Nevin played his part in the only goal of the game, scored by the now Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke, which took Scotland into the quarter-finals where they were edged out 1-0 by Poland.

“Memory plays tricks on you over the years,” he adds. “Like the Euros the previous year, the tournament was filmed but the pictures have never been seen again since.

“I think I took an inswinging corner from the left. Someone flicked it on at the near post and my memory is that it was John Philliben, but Ally Dick claims it was him! Steve Clarke came in at the back post and bundled it in.

“More memorable than the goal itself was the reaction in the crowd. Suddenly, you could hear the Scotland fans for the first time. There were only around 200 of them there but that was the first time I understood what would become the Tartan Army, the fans who would literally follow Scotland everywhere. I remember being really taken by that and felt fantastically proud to be Scottish that day.”

Winger Nevin was one of ten members of the 18-strong squad who went on to win full caps for Scotland, a remarkably high percentage.

“You could look through a lot of international youth teams down the years, not just Scottish ones, and struggle to find many players going on to play at full international level for their country,” he says.

Among those who did not graduate to the senior squad was Neale Cooper, who sadly passed away earlier this week, but his contribution to the success in Mexico was immense and he was named in Fifa’s Team of the Tournament. Paul McStay was the only other Scot to make it into the all-star 11.

“That’s when I first got to know Neale,” recalls Nevin. “He was a huge character. He came across as daft – daft, but certainly not stupid. It’s a curious thing that Scottish people can understand – you can be a big daftie but be clever at the same time! You needed people like him around during that trip. He helped keep everyone going during those times when boredom was an issue. He was also brilliant on the park. It was devastating to hear the news about him this week.”

Scotland’s quarter-final loss to the Poles was an anti-climactic end to the tournament for Andy Roxburgh’s squad, watched by fewer than 12,000 inside the Azteca.

“Sometimes you just have to own up to something you are almost embarrassed about. I don’t think we were devastated by losing to Poland that day,” says Nevin.

“It sounds a weird thing to say, but as a group of players we had been away for a long, long time. It was getting quite stressful and boring for a lot of the lads. Yes, we wanted to beat Poland and get to the semi-final. But we weren’t heartbroken by the defeat because we knew it meant we were going home. I think that’s the only time in my career I felt that way about losing a game.”