The Scotland football team went to the World Cup finals in 1978 on a wave of jumped-up optimism and encouraged by a support that was delusional enough to believe they might bring home the trophy. There was even a Top 10 single* inspired by the misplaced triumphalism of the team’s manager, Ally McLeod. The musicians did a lot better than the footballers who, true to form, were knocked out in the first round.
Recently I read a newspaper article from the period by sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney who eloquently captured the often belligerent yet fragile assertiveness of the Scots, nowhere more manifest than in their enthusiasms for the national football team. He talked of Celtic chauvinism rooted in a historic sense of grievance and pointed out that the Scotland manager had hardly been alone in his predictions of glory:
• “The seeds of the small disaster are to be found in the natures of the people most devastated by it. As they approached the World Cup finals most Scottish supporters gave every indication of being happy to be on the march with Ally’s Army, of sharing the outrageous, patently unjustified optimism of Ally McLeod ...They believed him because they wanted to believe him, because he talked like one of them, indeed could contrive when utterly sober, to sound as the wildest of them might sound after a night on the liquid hyperbole.”
• “In the run up to the tournament to behave with no more caution, subtlety or concern for planning than a man getting ready to lead a bayonet charge, the fans echoed his [McLeod’s] war cries never bothering to wonder if the other contenders for the world title would be willing to stand still and be stabbed ... Eager to make aggressive declarations about themselves to the rest of humanity, the Scots had sent out their nearest thing to a gunboat.”
• “McLeod’s team was hopelessly ill equipped to carry the burden of emotional expression the Scots sought to load upon it. They were left with the realisation that something they believed to be a metaphor for their pride had all along been a metaphor for their desperation.”
These insightful words were written before the Holland game during which a brief window of possibility opened up once more when Archie Gemmill gloriously dribbled his way around the opposing defence and scored the most celebrated goal in the history of Scottish football. Maybe, just maybe, they might pull through. But no, the Dutch made sure it was only a fleeting hope before the humiliating journey home in disgrace.
Scotland had promised so much and delivered so little. I was 22 years old then and not particularly into football. But in the following two decades I would come to know all about that empty rhetoric and frustrated potential in my own context. Ally’s Tartan Army, as McIlvanney articulated so well, was the perfect metaphor, a metaphor for how it far too often feels to be a Scot.
* Ally’s Tartan Army, the hit record, was made by a production team around a Glasgow radio station. I didn’t know it at the time but soon I would become part of their crew and thus gain that all too illusive professional foothold in the recording industry. These guys had no more hits after that one novelty single but the record gave rise to a label for whom I produced many albums in the years to follow.
written 2012 after reading quotes on
Scottishness by Hugh McIlvanney from 1978