Congratulations to England, Wales, Ireland, but especially Northern Ireland for qualifying for the 2016 European Championships in France. I can remember the chaos and joy they brought to the 1986 World Cup when Billy Bingham was manager and the team included Pat Jennings and Norman Whiteside. The game on Friday included a goal by stand-in striker Josh Magennis which sent them through to a major tournament for the first time in 30 years. It’s kind of Roy of the Rivers stuff for Maggenis. When Cardiff City told the then teenager from County Down that he wasn’t going to cut it as a goalie, he was offered the chance to become a striker instead. Northern Ireland will bring the sort of random vitality and exuberance to the competition, and, I suspect a heap of fans.
But if the Northern Irish are happy after a thirty year absence, it’s been an astonishing 58 years since Wales have qualified. By the way for the trove of pundits declaring Scotland as ‘unlucky down the years’ (yes Chic Young I’m looking at you) let’s not mention ‘unlucky’ Scotland’s Joe Jordan handball incident in 1977. *
Even if Wales are a team that if you take out Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale are likely to crumple, they have actually gone and won their group.
So teams are defying expectations and pushing through to compete in major sporting competitions, something (according to the Times) Scotland have not managed to do now for 6,322 days.
We need to be careful we don’t make a habit of it. Ingrained learned-failure can be an awful lesson to learn. Not just do we have lowered-expectatons (‘Doe-a-deer’) but it’s a downwards slope with rankings and seedings diminishing as your groups get tougher and tougher. Jim Spence kicked-off a fantastic debate last week arguing that a lack of flair and joy, old-school ‘dinosaur’ coaching and ‘wide boy attitude was the root cause of the problem. His words struck true but there is more than that. We still have a game sponsored by McDonald’s – surely a truly terrible message to send out to young people – and – if you remember how Le Guen fared at Rangers when trying to initiate a nutritional diet for professional athletes you’ll realise that Scottish football is not immune to our woeful health record in wider society. Maybe that’s changed? That was 2006/7 and clubs – most notably Hearts – have taken diet and training to new levels.
But we need to change things more radically and have a long-term root-and-branch strategy for improvement. I don’t see anyone with the nous or balls to do any such thing. It took these clowns years to cobble together a sponsorship deal, then they coughed up Ladbroke’s paltry pennies. Our ‘national broadcaster’s’ coverage is pitiful and the national side’s reputation is now at a new low. There’s lots to be positive about Scottish football, I’m not in the ‘armageddon’ camp at all, but there seems to be a lack of (any) strategy going forward.
But if we are at risk of setting up a new national stereotype, as plucky losers and also-rans, so too are our neighbours to the south, who are on a very slow learning curve. While Scotland are in danger of suffering from lowered expectations, England are plagued by the opposite. As useful displacement to their Rugby World Cup humiliation, celebrating victory over Lithuania and the likes of San Marino and Estonia may be pleasing but it’s ultimately playing to a loop. England routinely qualify from a soft-touch group then pop-up at major tournaments untested and bloated with over-confidence and expectation. Like Charlie Brown tempted by Lucy, the media then goes into full spin / hype before the team crumbles under unguarded gargantuan national expectation. Thirty years of pain.
Our expectations are lower, and rightly, we just want to get to a competition to compete. Actually going through to the next round (as NI did in 1986) would be unthinkable.
- alright King Kenny’s goal made it all legit in the end