The Hard Little Professional

Most people remember exactly where they were when they heard that JFK had been assassinated in 1963 or when passenger airliners hit The World Trade Centre in 2001. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I saw Archie Gemmill score the third goal against Holland in the 1978 World Cup Finals in Argentina.

I have often asked myself the question “where did it all go wrong” and “was this the start of the slippery slope”.

40 years ago, next summer, I will be remembering the 1978 World Cup in Argentina (I guess we all will). This is the football tournament that Scotland will never forget and the one that has affected us ever since. It turned one of the best sides in Europe into shell shock victims and perennial losers.

Prior to the 1978 World Cup, Scotland had high hopes. We had qualified from a group that had included Czechoslovakia who had themselves won the 1976 European Championship. We had experienced a purple patch against England; beating them on several occasions leading up to the tournament and Rinus Michels, the Ajax legend and Dutch coach, had selected Scotland as “dark horses” for the event.

Things on the home front, however, were getting out of hand. Unfortunately, the Scotland Team and the whole country had started to believe the hype.

The squad were on TV advertising all sorts of garbage. Ally McLeod (the manager) was doing interviews with anyone who would listen to him. He told Jean Rook of The Daily Express that “we would come back with something”. Andy Cameron was in the charts with an excruciating ditty “Ally’s Tartan Army”. Oh it was dreadful. Scotland, as a nation, had set itself up for an almighty fall.

The first game started well for Scotland. Joe Jordan opened the scoring against Peru after seven minutes. Unfortunately for Scotland, Peru were one of the best teams in the world at the time and ended up beating Scotland 3-1. This was not a bad result. In hindsight, it is generally accepted, that The Peruvian FA were bribed 1 million USD to throw their match against Argentina and allow them into the final. Argentina went on to win the tournament.

Scotland were mauled in the press. On the one hand, I’m inclined to say they deserved it for all the pre match crowing. On the other hand, you don’t deserve that treatment if you’ve been beaten by a great side. Peru were a great side, it’s just that nobody really recognised that at the time.

The second game was a disaster. Scotland drew 1-1 against Iran and Don Masson missed a penalty. The unequivocal truth is that Scotland really only woke up after this match. The severity of their situation dawned on them and they realised there was a grave danger they would go down in infamy but, rather horribly, it was already too late. The country was up in arms.

When Scotland lined up against Holland, we had to win by three clear goals. I remember the evening with brutal clarity. Just before kick- off there was a knock on the door. It was my Irish uncle John who limped in with a broken leg. He told me that Scotland would go through if they beat Holland and scored three goals. Fine.

The match was tense for the first half an hour and then in 34 mins, Holland got a penalty which Rensenbrink converted. I thought that was it. Then in 44 mins, Dalglish stepped up and scored a cracker in the Holland penalty area. 1-1, half time.

After the break, it was Scotland’s turn for a penalty which Archie Gemmill scored and then in 68 minutes, the unthinkable happened. Scotland scored again, but this time it was one of the most sublime goals I have ever seen. Gemmill picked up the ball just outside the Holland penalty area. He slipped it past a sliding Wim Jansen and dribbled through the Holland defence before chipping it over the goalkeeper in to the far left corner of the net. I remember the commentator, David Coleman, saying that it had been a cracking goal from “this hard little professional”.

In my mind Scotland had done it. They had beaten Holland and scored three goals, just like my uncle had said they needed to do. It didn’t matter if Johnny Rep had scored a hopeful long distance effort, we had still won the match 3-2. Why then was nobody celebrating?

My uncle had failed to advise me that we had to beat Holland BY three clear goals. I remember going to my bed and bursting into tears. My mum came in and said “don’t worry, it’s only football”. Oh dear, thanks Mum!

When I finally dried my eyes, I realised that Scotland had gone out on goal difference in a group which had included the 1974 runners up and one of the best teams in the world. It wasn’t bad but because our preparation had been a pig’s ear, it will always be remembered as a disaster.

Ever since this tournament, Scotland has never been right. On the football field, we have never been as confident and although this can help sometimes in an individual encounter, it has, by and large, not stood us in good stead. We have become losers in our heads and we totally believe it.

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