THERE was once an SNP slogan that declared: “Stop the world. We want to get on.” A similar feeling of standing on the sidelines creeps across the nation this international weekend. Some countries will be trying out formations for next summer in France. Others will be contesting play-offs to claim a place in Euro 2016. Scotland will be loitering without intent. Nae hope, nae chance, nae game.
However, play-offs once featured spectacularly in our fitba’ history. The most extraordinary took place on November 29, 1961. Scotland had finished on level points with Czechoslovakia in a qualifying group for the World Cup in Chile. A play-off was set up in the Heysel Stadium, Brussels, to decide who would complete the European contingent at the 1962 World Cup. The result may have been predictable for those of us who look towards Scotland matches with a gloom made valid by history. Scotland lost 4-2 after extra time. But it is still possible to look back on that match as a high point in our national history.
First there was the team. It read: Eddie Connachan; Alex Hamilton, Eric Caldow; Pat Crerand, Ian Ure, Jim Baxter; Ralph Brand, John White, Ian St John, Denis Law, Hugh Robertson. Second there was the match. Scotland twice led through St John but the Czechs equalised for the second time in the 82nd minute, forcing extra-time. The Czechs then scored two goals in the extra period. The match was watched by only 7000 spectators as these were the days when there was no official Tartan Army and the Scotland support considered Girvan a far-flung outpost.
The significance of the defeat was heavy. Scotland’s golden generation did not compete in a major tournament. Law was in his declining years when he made the World Cup in 1974, curiously by defeating the Czechs in qualifying.
But the most poignant reflection on the defeat by the Czechs in 1961 is that familiar one of ‘what might have been’. The Czechs went on to compete the World Cup final with Brazil. They finished second, as teams tended to do against the Brazilians. But they distinguished themselves as a technically proficient side with the wonderful Josef Masopust scoring the first goal in a final Brazil won 3-1.
Meanwhile, Scotland stood on the sidelines with Crerand, Baxter, White, St John and a generation of accomplished players condemned never to grace a major tournament. The quality of player in Scotland has changed. Unfortunately, the national characteristic of missing out on the finals of European Championships and World Cups has come back to cause yet more anguish.