England & Scotland Fight Over A Comb
At Wembley on Friday night, it was difficult to escape the feeling that we were all witnessing the act of two bald men fighting over a comb. England versus Scotland is the oldest international football match that there is, a cross-border rivalry that stretches back to the age of Queen Victoria and the very beginning of the white hot crucible that professional football would become over the following two decades. The Home Internationals tournament kept it alive as an annual international varsity match until the 1980s, and it even limped along after that tournament’s abolition in 1984, finally coming to a close in 1990. Since then, meetings have been few and far between, a European Championship match in 1996 that was perfect for five minute long YouTube highlights packages but which, on the day, was more heat than light, a two-legged European Championship play-off match which have Scotland the satisfaction of winning the last match between the two sides played at the old Wembley Stadium and England a win over two legs that would come to be spurned the following summer, and two friendly matches played a couple of years ago which, yes, you’d probably forgotten about as well.
On Friday night, there was something to play for, and the press did their part to try and build it all up. There was the obligatory photograph of somebody either dancing or falling over in a fountain at Trafalgar Square during the afternoon, and of Scottish supporters outside a branch of Iceland, pointing at the signage and laughing. Such scenes of comparative normality, however, really masked something of malaise that has been affecting both of these teams. The England team has been offering its supporters increasingly diminished returns over much of the last decade, if not longer, culminating in an elimination from last summer’s European Championships that might have been shocking had it not been so blackly amusing. Scotland, meanwhile, haven’t even been able to match these modest returns. They haven’t qualified for the finals of a major tournament in almost two decades, and the great players of the past – the likes of Kenny Dalglish, say, Jimmy Johnstone or Jim Baxter – feel increasingly like ghosts from a parallel universe.
There was a common enemy for those of that persuasion, of course. FIFA’s ban and the diplomatic table tennis that had constituted much of the build up to the match had been greeted with predictable hysteria in a country for which remembrance has become less a moment of solemnity than a two week long shouting match. The players wore black armbands with poppies on them, the crowd arranged themselves into a tableau of one, and an immaculate silence was observed. Will everybody have been left happy by this? Probably, but in an age of perpetual outrage there will probably be someone who’ll continue to find something to get angry about. It passed off peaceably, which is probably about as much as can be hoped for in these febrile times.
Once the football itself started, however, we were reminded of a few home truths that we might have preferred not to have been. England were sloppy and careless, playing, as ever, as though carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Scotland, playing in an unusual change kit that wasn’t so much pink as PPPPIIIIIIIIIIINNNKKKKKK, were simultaneously eye-bleedingly visible yet almost entirely anonymous. England won the match at a canter, taking the three headed chances that were given to them. There was no controversy. There were no stories for the ages. A moderate international team brushed aside a nominally inferior international team without a great deal of fuss. It was a normal day at the office for a fixture that so often in the past been anything but. Gordon Strachan’s position as the Scotland coach hangs by an even shorter thread than it was before the match, although the question of what else can be done with a resources at his disposal remains an open one. Gareth Southgate, meanwhile, continues to stake his claim to be given his chosen thankless task on a permanent basis without setting anything alight.
In many respects, then, this match was an entirely accurate window on the worlds of the England and Scotland international teams. In both cases, it likely remains the case that ripping everything up and starting again will bring the best chance of getting both to where they might aspire to be. Perhaps, though, this match may be interpreted as perfectly appropriate for one having been played in the latter stages of this of all years, an internecine, inward-looking tete-a-tete between two countries that are standing at a junction at the moment. There’s a return match to come at Hampden Park to come, of course, which may prove to be an opportunity for the schadenfreudetunity of possibly denting the oldest enemy’s chances of reaching the 2018 World Cup finals. Ultimately, though, that feeling lingers, that these are are two international teams that haven’t come to terms with the rigours of modern tournament football, and who seem destined to continue to apply sticking plasters to broken legs. England may have won this match and Scotland may have lost it. Both, however, have greater challenges ahead than each other, if they’re to get back to where they wish to be in the future.
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