In the almost twenty years I have been in Madrid, rarely have I felt the presence of the ghosts of Scotland’s footballing past as much in the last month or so of this long, hot, summer, nor been so starkly reminded of just how much we have lost our way in the present.
Just a few weeks ago, Celtic came to town for their Europa League tie against Atletico Madrid, and as the press looked back at the last time the teams met in 1974, the name on everybody’s lips was Jimmy Johnstone.
I never saw Johnstone play (I’m slightly too young) though I wish I had. But I had never quite appreciated just how much he had installed himself in the local memory over here until the Celtic game. It would be safe to say that Jinky is still, by some margin, the best kent Scot after Johnny Walker to many Spaniards over a certain age, a player blessed with a quality as unforgettable as a stone in your shoe: el quiebro de Yonson, in Madrid parlance, Jinky’s jink, tae the rest o us.
Talking to Pepón, a close friend and an Atletico Madrid fan, I mentioned how arriving in the Spanish capital I couldn’t bring myself to support Atletico – the perennial underdog and a team easy enough to like by default after a glance at the neighbours to the north of the city – because of their ugly reputation. Back home in Scotland when I was growing up as a Hibs fan, Atletico were known as a team of spoilers, a team who carried out a job on Stein’s Celtic, violating natural justice and denying Jinky the big stage of another European Cup final he and Celtic’s total fitba deserved.
Pepón was just a wee boy back in 1974. He looked at me apologetically and said, “It was all we could do to stop him. And it meant so much to us.” Pepón told me how important it had been for Ateltico, from the working class south of the city, to overcome the odds and reach the European Cup final, outdoing for once their hated rivals, the establishment backed Real Madrid, as the dictator Franco’s fascist regime entered into its death throes with a spasm of violence borne in large part by the Madrid working class; and about the subsequent excitement and disappointment he felt as Atletico went on to throw away a lead in the last minute of the final and lose heavily in the replay to Bayern Munich.
A famous defeat was easy to relate to; but it seemed to me that forty years later, Stein’s Celtic and Jinky had won that night after all, for the abiding memory was of Johnstone. For a second, they loomed large, their shadows cast up from the past into the balmy Madrid night as we watched Celtic fans drift back into the centre of town after the game, their faces red from the sun earlier in the day, their expression bewildered and haunted after yet further confirmation of the seemingly inexorable decline of the Scottish game.
It didn’t used to be like this; heading down to Alicante for the game on Tuesday, I recalled those Scottish national football teams of the past, and most especially that magical night back in November 1984, when just 16, I saw Scotland do a demolition job on Spain in a World Cup qualifier at Hampden Park in which we won 3-1.
That Scotland team was another Stein incarnation, combining power, flair and enough skill to sweep a Spanish team aside which was decent enough to have lost the European Championship final to Michel Platini’s inspired France that summer. It was one of those magical Hampden nights, when the national stadium seemed wider than the Clyde, when the breadth, pace and power of Scotland’s play ran Spain ragged.
Standing at the Celtic End (as it was known then), I will never forget that famous Dalglish goal – how he controlled the ball, shielded it, shimmied and despatched it into the top corner in a flash; but as much as the goal itself, what stays with me was the look of absolute joy on King Kenny’s face after he scored it, a joy which ran through the crowd like a fever, spreading to the country at large.
With Thatcherism at its peak and the idea of a Scottish parliament pure sedition, the national team was a hub of our aspirations, – perhaps the most visible manifestation of who we were on the international stage. For Stein it would never have been enough to win any old way; nor would it for that Scotland team.
The Spanish take their football seriously enough to remember Scotland’s great teams of the past; our tradition is still considered by some of a certain age as one of which we can be proud. In his match report of Tuesday night’s game, El Pais journalist Luis Martin traced a direct - albeit diffuse - line of descendancy from Scotland’s footballing pedigree to the Spanish world champions who walked over us in Alicante Tuesday night:
“History says the Scots where the first to understand that football was a game of combination. One hundred years later, Barcelona perfected the idea, and then Spain joined the party.”
Madrid sports daily Marca had made the same point the day before the game, reminding readers that no team has ever beaten Spain as thoroughly at home as Scotland did back in 1963, when the “spectacular” Denis Law inspired us to inflict a record 2-6 defeat on the team which would go on to be crowned European champions the next year. Former Spanish player Adelardo said “they overran us… it was a dramatic night, a humiliation on a national scale.”
In another Marca article, Santiago Segurola, maybe Spain’s foremost sports journalist, hailed the tradition of the “passing game Scotland invented” and which they had lost owing to what Segurola described as an uncompetitive league, dominated by the two Glasgow teams.
The next day, the only words of praise Segurola had was for the magnificent Tartan Army, describing Scotland as “a lesser team, a far cry from their legendary earlier versions, the teams of Denis Law, Jim Slim Baxter (sic), Jimmy Johnstone, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness, a succession of stars running from the 1960’s up to the 1980’s. Then decadence. Scottish football continues there, to the despair of its faithful supporters. The Tartan Army did not let itself down in Alicante on Tuesday night. But once again, the team did.”
It’s almost as if the mass deskilling of the Scottish working class from the 1960’s to the end of Thatcherism saw its natural reflection on the fitba pitch, with our game – at all its different levels – reduced from a workshop of artisans, artists and great masters, to unskilled workers serving accountants, book-keepers and technocrats, the beautiful game reduced to a number crunching exercise, a calculation, a results-driven endeavour for the suits in the stand.
Not long ago, the people who ran football in Spain thought something similar. The 1998 World Cup in France was a watershed year, with Javier Clemente, Spain’s ultra cautious manager of the time, refusing to use Spain’s ball-players – like Pep Gaurdiola – preferring centre-half Nadal in midfield, famously saying, “You don’t win football matches playing tiqui-taque, (one touch football)”, pouring scorn on the call by people like Johan Cruyff for Spain’s emerging generation of midfielders to be given the chance to develop a passing game at the heart of the national team; the very same brand of football with which Spain conquered the world twelve years later.
Cruyff was right, and the surly Clemente was wrong as the Spanish press reminded him when Spain won the World Cup last year. Listen to Pep Guardiola and he refers again and again to Cruyff as the man who showed him the way, the playmaker of the Barcelona revolution which directly fed into the Spanish national team and accounts for so much of its success today. Cruyff is one of the architects of the joyful brand of football Spain play, almost as much as Vicente Del Bosque is.
The 1986 World Cup qualifying campaign, with King Kenny’s ode to joy as its motif, was traumatically soured by the loss of Jock Stein on that dramatic night in Cardiff. And it strikes me now, 25 years later, that maybe it was Stein who in that understated manner of his, showed us not only how to play the game, but also how to dream in football terms, how to believe in ourselves on a football park. And that with his passing we’ve forgotten how to do it, or are still fighting the trauma of his death in some obscure way. Which is just another way saying, maybe the absence at the heart of Scottish football bears the semblance of John Stein, and the decline of our game since his passing is no coincidence but is in some way connected. As if we’ve never really recovered from losing the Big Man.
Whatever the case, nobody needs an SFA inquiry to know that that we have never come close to replacing him as a figure in our game, as a statesman, manager, and inspiration. The Scottish game Stein forged wherever he went was just as much a brand as the Barcelona and the Spanish team is now – albeit one which did not quite scale the same heights. The amnesia which has settled on the Scottish football world sees lip-service paid to Stein’s attacking philosophy, but few dare to play the game he preached at any level of football, certainly not the international one.
For if there is one thing we can say with certainty after this recent campaign it is that we have been not been loyal to Jock Stein, we have not been faithful to the way he showed us how to play; how to win, but also how to lose. Is there any other word in the English language but betrayal for a campaign which saw a Scotland team line up without a single forward against its most immediate rival?
When exactly did we strike this bargain that we would give up on dreaming in order to be “competitive” – whatever that means after twenty years of failure? There may have been a need to steady the ship after Bertie Vogts, but arguably Scotland’s failure to secure a play-off place this time around is directly attributable to negative thinking, to losing matches before we’ve even played them, particularly against the mediocre Czech Republic.
Stein succeeded in convincing every team he ever managed that they were as good as the guys next door; the ability to conjure up self-belief in a group of players is an indispensable quality in any Scotland football manager, a pre-requisite for the job. It is hard to see how self-belief sits easily with the ultra-defensive tactics Scotland have approached their competitive matches over the last twenty years.
Surely two decades of failure is enough to conclude that the tendency to abandon our footballing tradition, the failure to protect our footballing legacy, is a mistake at the football level, the results level, and level of Scotland’s footballing identity. In concentrating on results so much more than play, we have surrendered something of ourselves, compromised what was romantic and quixotic in us, which was Scottish football at its best. We don’t have the players any more, some may say. We certainly won’t ever have them again if we don’t start trying to play football as we used to, I would argue.
Without eschewing modern tactics, we need a model from our very own football history to aspire to at all levels of the game, and in the long term, not just a way of getting to Brazil 2014 in the medium term.
It is a commonplace to say that Scottish football has become more about money, television and results; it is less common to acknowledge the sacrifice the change in footballing philosophy has inflicted on the national imagination, on our capacity for fantasía, and on the reputation of our national game abroad.
It’s not about singling out this or that manager, pundit or player. We are all partly to blame for it as fans, so avid for victory that have forgotten the magic of our footballing past, the high esteem it is held in, and the risk taking on the pitch it was built on.
The remedy to Scotland’s football malaise, if it has one, must surely lie there; in Stein and Jinky, in King Kenny’s joy, and a legacy which covered itself in glory the length and breadth of Europe. If we do not protect that legacy now and renew it by learning from its values and applying them on the pitch, it surely threatens to disappear forever.
Madrid, October 13th.