As Bad As Things Got: Scotland At The Euros, 30th March 1983
By the end of the evening on the 13th October 1982, everything seemed set fair for Scotland. They’d never qualified for the finals of the European Championships before, but that summer in Spain they’d performed okay at World Cup – not well enough to get through the group stage, but at least they’d avoided the embarrassment of four years earlier in Argentina, following one of the greatest acts of pre-tournament hubris ever seen – while the supporters had behaved themselves, which was hardly a given, considering the atmosphere of the time.
The European Championship qualifying draw hadn’t been particularly kind to them. There was no ballast in their group, in which they were drawn against Belgium, Switzerland and East Germany, and with just six matches to play, only the , there was little room for error. None of this, however, felt like too much of a concern by the end of the first round of matches. At home against an East Germany team which signalled its ambition by starting the match with five sweepers, it took until eight minutes into the second half for Scotland to break through.
And when the goal did come there was an element of good luck about it. John Robertson received the ball on the right and crossed the ball back for John Wark, whose downward header was neither exceptionally well connected with or well placed, but the East German goalkeeper Bodo Rudwaleit fumbled the ball, which squeezed through his hands and in. Twenty minutes later, Robertson appeared on the other side of the pitch to cross for Paul Sturrock to glance a header in for 2-0.
Writing in the Glasgow Herald after the match, journalist Jim Reynolds described East Germany in less than glowing terms: “They were simply a disgrace for an international side, maybe thinking that as the SFA had only charged half price for the match they did not have to play.” With two tough away matches to follow it, though, it had been a good start against opponents who were ultimately hamstrung by their own lack of ambition.
Five weeks later, they travelled to Bern to play Switzerland. The Swiss team had never qualified for the finals of the Euros and hadn’t reached the finals of the World Cup since 1966, but those expecting a comfortable evening against the lowest seeded team in the group were in for a nasty surprise. After a goalless first 45 minutes, four minutes into the second a low shot across goal from an angled free-kick bounced out off the post and Claudio Sulser drove the ball in to give Switzerland the lead. Twelve minutes later, a corner from the right was flicked in by Andy Egli and that was that.
After an encouraging start, then, the Switzerland result had been something of a bolt from the blue, and manager Jock Stein shuffled his team around for the next match, a trip to Brussels to play Belgium ten days before Christmas. Despite the somewhat unfamiliar line-up, Scotland started strongly and took the lead after 13 minutes when Steve Archibald touched the ball inside for Kenny Dalglish to give them the lead. It didn’t last for long. Twelves minutes after the Scotland goal, Belgium levelled when goalkeeper Jim Leighton flapped at a Franky Vercauteren cross to the feet oof Erwin Verdenbergh, who stroked the ball into the empty goal.
Ten minutes from half-time, though, came a moment that would live long in the memory. Picking up a Graeme Souness pass on the right, Kenny Dalglish skipped into the edge of the Belgian penalty area and curled the ball into the top corner of the goal. Dalglish’s moment of brlliance ended up the BBC’s Goal of the Season for the 1982/83 season, the first time that this award had been made for a goal scored in an international match, but on the night it counted for little. Four minutes later, Francois Van Der Elst scored from the edge of the penalty area to bring Belgium level, and just after the hour had passed he repeated the trick to give the home side a 3-2 lead.
Still, though, there was a chance. With ten minutes to play, Graeme Souness skipped into the penalty area before being tripped by Walter Meeuws. Frank Gray stepped up to take the kick, only to see goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff beat the ball away. Had Scotland held onto their lead, they’d have finished the evening at the top of the group. With Belgium winning by three goals to two, they finished it in third place out of four, having played a game more than either of the teams above them.
By the halfway point in the qualifying group stage, then, Scotland’s hopes of making it to France were already hanging by a thread, but their next match at home against Switzerland at least gave them the opportunity to get themselves back on track. Or at least it would have done, had their defence not imploded again.
Andy Egli, who’d scored against them a few months earlier, flicked in a corner after fourteen minutes despite Scotland having five defenders and a goalkeeper within a yard of the goalline for it, and twelve minutes into their second half set piece defending against this team let Scotland down for the fourth time in two matches, when a free-kick from the right found Heinz Hermann completely unmarked at the far post, and his downward header beat Leighton.
Two goals in five minutes from John Wark and Charlie Nicholas pulled them level but the third goal that would have kept their slender chances alive wouldn’t some, and the match ended in 2-2 draw, leaving Scotland three points behind Belgium, having played a game more. On the same night, Belgium beat East Germany 2-1 in Berlin, and four weeks later in the reverse fixture they won by the same margin in Brussels to guarantee their place in the finals with two games to spare. A qualifying campaign that had started amid a reasonable amount of optimism had taken just eight months to completely disintegrate.
By the time the group resumed in October, the only enjoyment that Scottish fans could take from the 1984 European Championship qualifiers was a degree of schadenfreude at the fact that they weren’t likely to be the only British failures. Only 23,000 fans turned out for their match against Belgium, and the depressed turnout felt a little vindicated when, after just four minutes had been played, Jim Leighton palmed a shot onto the crossbar only for Franky Vercauteren to slide along the ground to score a most unusual diving header. Charlie Nicholas levelled for Scotland with fifteen minutes to play, but it was all academic by this time anyway.
By the time of ther final match, a trip to Berlin to play East Germany, Scotland had little to play for but pride. A deflected long range shot from Ronald Meer after 34 minutes gave East Germany the lead, and nine minutes later they doubled it with a header from Joachim Streich. A goal from Eamonn Bannon thirteen minutes from time pulled Scotland back into the match, but again a small amount of defensive profligacy had gone a long way. East Germany held on to win the match by two goals to one. A surprise win for Switzerland against Belgium – who’d already qualified, of course – a week earlier had left Scotland needing a win to avoid finishing bottom their group. Euro 84 remains the only time that Scotland have finished bottom of a qualifying group for either a World Cup or a European Championship.
So what went wrong, then? It could hardly be said that Scotland simply didn’t have the players. Consider, for example, the team that played against Switzerland in March 1983. Three of that team – Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen – would end the season winning the English First Division title by eleven points. A further five – Jim Leighton, Willie Miller, Peter Weir, Gordon Strachan and substitute Alex McLeish – would end the season by winning the European Cup Winners Cup for Aberdeen against Real Madrid in Gothenburg, and Richard Gough would end it by winning the Scottish Premier League with Dundee United. The remaining three – John Wark, Charlie Nicholas and Frank Gray – played for Ipswich Town, Celtic and Leeds United respectively.
One thing that really stands out from the team sheets is how few Celtic or Rangers players there are featured. These two clubs were in a relative trough at the time – between them they failed to win the Scottish league in 1983, 1984 and 1985; the only time there’s ever been three consecutive seasons during which they’ve failed to do so – and this is reflected in the fact that Jim Bett was the only Rangers player to feature at all throughout the entire qualifying campaign, while Celtic didn’t do much better themselves. Could this possibly have been a contributory factor? Correlation does not equal causation, of course, but it does seem like quite a coincidence that the only time that Scotland should finish bottom of a qualifying group should come in the middle of an unprecedented slump for its two biggest clubs.
Jock Stein stayed on as Scotland manager, but two years later celebrations turned to tragedy when, two and a half years later, he collapsed on the touchline towards the end of a World Cup qualifying match against Wales in Cardiff which had resulted in his team qualifying for the following year’s finals and died shortly afterwards. Stein had been in poor health for some time and this, combined with the pressures of his job, had led to him indicating that he would retire after the 1986 World Cup regardless of what happened.
Scotland would finally reach the finals of the European Championships in 1992 under Andy Roxburgh, and repeated the trick four years later when it was held in England, this time under Craig Brown. Brown would take Scotland to the 1998 World Cup finals in France two years this, but since then… nothing. Until now. This summer sees their return to the finals of a major tournament for the first time in 23 years, and with an away match against England, home matches against Croatia and the Czech Republic, and the possibility of qualifying in third place in the group, the chances of Scotland finally breaking their run of having made ten appearances in the finals of the Euros and the World Cup without havin once got through the first round.
Perhaps the lesson to be learned from all of this is that while individuals make a team, it is the team as a unit that either wins or loses matches. Scotland had remarkable playing resources in the 1970s and 1980s, but were unable to translate this into meaningful success. With pressure off – apart from that one particular match – and somewhat more modest resources at their disposal, who’s to say that Scotland won’t go further into an international tournament than they ever had before? It may seem improbable, but it probably also seemed improbable that they’d find a way of finishing bottom of their qualifying group for Euro 84, after they’d won the first of their qualification matches.