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The Joy of Six: Scotland World Cup qualifiers

From the 1950 World Cup where you couldn't give away a place, to last chance saloon ahead of Mexico 1970, Scotland's qualifiers have been eventful


1) Scotland 0-1 England

(British Home Championship/World Cup qualifier, April 1950)

The qualification process for the 1950 World Cup was an across-the-board farce, requiring only the addition of a frustrated housewife, a pair of loose-fitting trousers and a wardrobe to elevate the process into a viable stage venture. Syria travelled to Turkey, lost 7-0, and dispatched the toys from the pram in a parabolic frenzy, exiting stage right before a return leg could be played. Turkey automatically advanced to a second stage against Austria, who also withdrew, handing the Turks a free pass to the finals. At which point Turkey bailed out themselves, leaving Fifa to offer the spot to Portugal, who had already been knocked out by Spain. But the Portuguese decided they couldn't be bothered any more, and politely declined. Fifa's planned 16-team jamboree would be one participant short.

The plot was scarcely less ludicrous in south America, where Argentina showed no interest in reaching a finals in Brazil: relations between the two countries had soured after a couple of matches in 1946 and 1947 during which Argentinian legs were snapped like breadsticks while Brazilian jowls were vigorously biffed into red-raw ribbons by way of response. With Peru and Ecuador also throwing it in before a ball had been kicked, no matches whatsoever were required to ascertain the Conmebol contingent. Meanwhile in Asia, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines all sacked it off early doors, leaving India with a free run. But the prohibitive expense of getting to Brazil – coupled with a Fifa diktat insisting their barefooted team play in boots – meant the Indians too eventually opted out. Fifa were now down to 14 teams for their grand shebang.

But back in Europe, the best was yet to come. Fifa, very generously, had offered places to the top two finishers in the 1950 Home Championship. Given the state of Wales and Ireland at the time, this was effectively a formal invitation to England and Scotland. But the Scottish FA – confidence bolstered by a wholly unexpected victory at Wembley in 1949 in which Morton goalkeeper Jimmy Cowan single-handedly saw off Stan Mortensen, Jackie Milburn, Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews – haughtily announced that they would only accept the invite if they won the championship.

There was only ever one way this was going to pan out. Scotland trounced the Irish 8-2 in Belfast, then beat Wales at Hampden Park. The results meant the Scots had earned a berth in the 1950 World Cup, sure as they were of at least second place even if defeated by England in the last match at Hampden. Furthermore, a draw against England would be enough to ensure they had at least one hand on the championship trophy, because although England had scored more goals in seeing off Wales and Ireland themselves, nobody bothered with that sort of thing in those days.

Scotland were considered narrow favourites, even though they'd not beaten England at Hampden since 1937. The English were genuinely fearful of Rangers right-winger Willie Waddell, and unsure of getting any change from the Scottish defence, marshalled brilliantly by Willie Woodburn (later to be banned indefinitely for his occasional habit of sticking the nut on opposing players who offended his sensibilities). "If Bentley loses his colleagues in trying to elude the Scottish half-backs," previewed the Manchester Guardian, "Scotland should win narrowly."

Sure enough, it was Bentley who got clear of Woodburn to score the only goal on 63 minutes, although Willie Bauld of Hearts did manage to hit the bar. As, it would appear, did some of Scotland's supporters after the game. "Glasgow took the blow with fortitude," reported Donny Davies of this paper. "Long before the midnight excursion trains were due to leave, the assembly hall of the Central Station was in an uproar. Informal bottle parties reeled and staggered across the hall, bandying chaff, blending choruses, and generally fighting the battle all over again. The English trippers, secure in the knowledge that no amount of Celtic eloquence could scrub out the result … took refuge in compassion. What the Scottish selectors will do remains to be seen. Rumour had it that they had gone into hiding."

Scotland's captain, George Young of Rangers, begged the SFA to change their mind, and allow the team to travel to Rio. Despite – or perhaps as a result of – having England captain Billy Wright at his side also pleading Scotland's case, George Graham refused to budge. England travelled to Brazil alone, although look what happened there.

All of which left Fifa with a lop-sided tournament of 13 teams. Having already drawn the groups, they didn't bother restructuring the finals, and so two groups of four, one group of three, and a group of two fought for a place in a final pool of four which made little sense – yet produced the greatest denouement in the history of All Football. So a complete casserole of codswallop from beginning to end, and yet the 1950 World Cup remains, by some distance, the greatest World Cup of all time. For Brazil's next trick in two years' time? Fifa should just pick 13 names out of a hat and go with the flow. Whoops, there goes that tournament!

2) Scotland 4-2 Spain

(World Cup Uefa Group Nine, May 1957)

Still, perhaps Graham had done Scotland some sort of queer favour. The SFA wised up – well, OK, but it's all relative – and four years after that particular debacle they accepted an offer to compete in the 1954 tournament as a result of coming second in that year's home championship. They travelled to Switzerland, and had their arses skelped 7-0 by the world champions Uruguay, their manager, Andy Beattie, having packed his suitcase and fled after losing the first match against Austria.

However another tournament on, and here came proof that Scotland could compete with the big boys. This was their first proper qualification game, in a group outside a home championship, and it looked like a mismatch rather than a match. The Scots had never played Spain before, and you could have forgiven their players for Doing A Beattie before the game. The home side consisted of players from modest clubs such as Clyde, Charlton Athletic, Blackpool and Second Division Liverpool. Spain were packed to the gunnels with stars from Barcelona and Real Madrid, the latter recently having brought themselves to British attention with a televised win over Manchester United in the new European Cup. Their forward line featured Ladislao Kubala, Alfredo di Stéfano, Luis Suárez and Francisco Gento. Time to dip into the DC Thomson book of old-school exclamations: jings, crivvens, help ma boab.

But a confident Scotland – who had to do without Alex Parker of Falkirk, the full-back having taken ill as a result of jabs given to him by the army – started strongly. Jackie Mudie opened the scoring after 22 minutes, Scotland giving the Spanish woodwork a thorough examination. Sammy Baird of Rangers hit the post, forcing keeper Antoni Ramallets to clear for a corner. From the set piece, Mudie hit the crossbar, but then headed home the rebound. Kubala bundled home a scrappy equaliser four minutes later, but Scotland regained the lead just before half-time when Tommy Ring of Clyde was bullied by the not-so-wee Ferran Olivella of Barcelona; John Hewie smacked home the resulting penalty.

Spain upped their game, turning the screw with some "unceremonious tackling", according to the Guardian, but no little skill as well: Di Stefano released Suárez with a backheel for a second equaliser just after the restart. The Spanish attempted to assert their authority – Younger's hands were warmed by a stinger from Gento, Miguel González put the ball in the net from an offside position, and "the visitors again resorted to rough tackling" – but Mudie scored again on 70 minutes after Bobby Collins had ripped the Spanish back line apart, and the Blackpool striker completed his hat-trick with 10 minutes remaining, tiki-taka-ing in pretty triangles with Gordon Smith before securing the victory.

Spain would get their own back on Scotland a fortnight later, belting them 4-1 in Madrid, but their campaign had already been compromised by a draw with Switzerland. Scotland made no such mistake, beating the Swiss home and away, albeit in what would become their trademark nervous style, requiring a late offside goal at Hampden to make it to the finals at Spain's expense.

3) West Germany 3-2 Scotland

(World Cup Uefa Group Seven, October 1969)

This was last chance saloon time for the Scots, although they hadn't done too much wrong in their attempts to qualify for Mexico 70. Drawn in a group with Austria, Cyprus and the 1966 runners-up West Germany, Bobby Brown's side had beaten the Austrians at home thanks to goals from Denis Law and Billy Bremner, put 13 goals past Cyprus home and away, and salvaged a late draw against the Germans at Hampden through Bobby Murdoch. By the time Scotland travelled to Hamburg for the return fixture, West Germany had recorded wins in all their other games, beating both Austria and Cyprus twice. But this impressive record had been gained with a modicum of fortune: Gerd Müller had scored an 88th-minute winner at home against Austria, and a 90th-minute winner away in Cyprus. What it all meant was, Scotland – who were still required to play (and win) in Austria – had to avoid defeat against Germany in order to keep at least hope of a play-off alive.

"Scotland defied all the conventions of modern international football," reported the legendary David Lacey after a tumultuous defeat that is remembered now principally for Tommy Gemmell toe-punting Helmut Haller up the jacksie in the cartoon style, arguably the greatest foul in the history of association football. But the match was a classic in its own right, Scotland giving it a proper go against much-fancied opposition. They took the lead through Jimmy Johnstone after three minutes and, though Klaus Fichtel equalised just before half time, did not lose heart. They hit the bar twice before Müller did what he did on the hour, and then drew level themselves through Alan Gilzean. Bremner, Eddie Gray and Peter Cormack were all mentioned in Lacey's dispatch as "excelling in attack … switching the ball around effectively … Scottish chances came and went, and for every opening created by the Germans, the Scots would make three and waste two of them … these misses proved too costly."

Haller was to do for the Scots. It was his through ball that released Reinhard Libuda to convert the winner on 79 minutes, and his clip on Gemmell's heels in the dying minutes that caused the big man to lose the place completely and execute a divine swish of retribution. Gemmell was sent off, the Scots destined to sit out the World Cup yet again. As things panned out, a demoralised team lost their final match against Austria anyway, but it's often forgotten now just how close they came to knocking out one of the greatest international sides of all time. Mexico 70 would have been a poorer tournament without the goals of Müller, the bravery of Franz Beckenbauer, Germany's matches against England and Italy and all that. But what would you have given to see Gemmell get stuck in against Pelé, Tostão, Gérson et al?

4) Scotland 3-1 Czechoslovakia

(World Cup Uefa Group Seven, September 1977)

5) Wales 0-2 Scotland

(World Cup Uefa Group Seven, October 1977)

Scotland's most notorious appearance in a World Cup final was their ill-fated trip to Argentina in 1978, so it's appropriate that the qualifying campaign that got them there was one to match. Scotland had made it to the 1974 finals with a win at Hampden over Czechoslovakia in 1973, and really needed to repeat the trick four years later if they were to pip the Czechs and Wales to the 1978 event. Scotland had started the group slowly, losing 2-0 to the Czechs in Prague, Antonin Panenka scoring his first international goal since that penalty secured the European Nations Cup for his country four months earlier. The Scots then scraped past Wales, an own goal from Crystal Palace's Ian Evans deciding a poor match. With Wales having dispatched the Czechs 3-0 in Wrexham, Scotland really needed a similar result at Hampden, with an away fixture against Wales still to come.

The Czechs may have been reigning European champions, and had that two-goal win in Prague to remember, but they were at something of a disadvantage when their Hampden visit came around. Mainly because they had to travel to the match by rail, as a result of an air strike. The last leg of the journey, across Britain, was of course the most hellish, the team having to take an overnight train from London to Glasgow. Needless to say, there were no sleeping facilities. They arrived, not to put too fine a point on it, knackered.

Scotland took full advantage. "Playing aggressive, well coordinated football before an ecstatic Hampden Park crowd," reported our man Lacey, "Scotland shrugged off some early threatening gestures from Czechoslovakia and conquered them from the air in the loftiest fashion." Joe Jordan was the hero, nutting in a corner on 19 minutes, then clattering goalkeeper Pavol Michalik in a 50-50 aerial challenge to set up Asa Hartford for a tap-in. Events in the skies were truly conspiring to jigger the Czechs, and a spot of head tennis between Gordon McQueen and Sandy Jardine set up Kenny Dalglish for a third. Miroslav Gajdusek skelped in a late swerving drive, but the Scots held on without too much drama. "Bring on Wales," the crowd chanted, before going home to wonder exactly how far Scotland could go in Argentina.

They had to beat Wales first to guarantee their place, of course. Scotland were the hot favourites. They were the form horses, having won the 1977 Home Championship in some style – infamously busting up Wembley in the process – then played well on a summer tour to South America. And then the 3-1 win over the European champions. Wales, by comparison, had drawn 0-0 twice with Kuwait. Also, the Welsh FA had decided to stage the match at Anfield, eschewing home advantage in search of extra coin. The game effectively became another home match for the Scots, so many supporters travelled south to fill Liverpool's ground. "This was supposed to be Wales's home game," reported Lacey, "but the rueful look on the face of Terry Yorath, the Welsh captain, as he led his side out to noise that beat like fists on the eardrums said much."

Wales started slowly, with Scotland winning a series of early corners. The Scots were denied a penalty kick when Joey Jones handled – Lacey called it a "legitimate" claim – and could easily have had another as Kenny Dalglish claimed to have been felled in the area by David Jones. But their luck was not in. Yet. Wales came back into the match, and on the hour should have gone ahead as John Toshack went clear with only Alan Rough to beat. But the Partick Thistle keeper turned the Welsh striker's shot on to the bar, and the tide turned once again. With 12 minutes to go, Willie Johnston sent a ball into the Welsh area. David Jones went up to challenge a header with Jordan, who punched the ball away. The referee, however, was convinced it was Jones who had handled, and pointed to the spot. After a full and frank exchange of views between the official and several Welsh players, Don Masson coolly slotted the penalty away, and Scotland had one foot in the finals.

With five minutes to go, an unquestionably legal goal settled the argument, Dalglish heading a Martin Buchan centre home. Scotland were there, and Wales were out. "None of my players handled it," sighed Wales boss Mike Smith after the game. "There was a lot of different opinions in the dressing room about what happened." Jordan's take was that "as far as I know, the ball did not touch me, I did not feel it, and was surprised when the penalty was given". Ally MacLeod added: " I think we should have had a penalty earlier. You lose some, you win some." Sensible words from the Scotland manager. They would be in short supply over the following months, as he whipped the country up into an unfortunate lather.

6) Scotland 2-0 France

(World Cup Uefa Group Five, March 1989)

"Scotland always qualify," joked Billy Connolly during his critical high-water mark An Audience With Billy Connolly, as he tried to recall the year he had performed for the Scottish squad as they relaxed ahead of a World Cup. It was a quip that raised a laugh in the mid 1980s, when Scotland did exactly that, but it would get a different kind of giggle now. Scotland haven't troubled a major finals since reaching the 1998 World Cup, their sixth appearance in seven attempts, during which they'd also finally made the European Championship finals, not once but twice. Salad days, even if they never did too much when they eventually got there.

Unquestionably the side's greatest qualification victories in recent years came during the race for Euro 2008. They registered a surprise Hampden win over World Cup runners-up France, Gary Caldwell scrambling home, then won in Paris, James McFadden's long-range stunner silencing Thierry 'Tinytears' Henry, who had ungraciously issued some back-at-ours threats immediately after the final whistle at Hampden. Needless to say, France made it to the finals at Scotland's expense anyway, so Henry had the last laugh, but you've got to enjoy the good times when you can.

It wasn't the first time Scotland had bothered the French in qualifying, though. Back in 1989, Michel Platini's team were favourites to escape from a group also containing the Scots, Yugoslavia, Norway and Cyprus. Scotland weren't supposed to be a threat at all, struggling for form under Andy Roxburgh, the SFA window-cleaner (Connolly again). But while Roxburgh's side weren't a totally convincing proposition, they were grinding out results – a 2-1 win in Norway had been followed by a 1-1 draw at Hampden against much-fancied Yugoslavia – and were expected to win their third game in Cyprus.

They did that, but only just, going 2-1 down before Richard Gough scored twice, the second seven minutes into injury time. The close scrape seemed to galvanise Scotland as France came to town. "They could be skinned for skill," worried our man Patrick Glenn ahead of the game, noting an opposing teamsheet teeming with star names: Jean-Pierre Papin, Laurent Blanc, Patrick Battiston, Manuel Amoros, Franck Sauzée. But Scotland were up for the battle. After 29 bruising minutes, Maurice Johnson intercepted an Ally McCoist drive and guided the ball past Joël Bats. He added a second on 52 minutes, heading straight at – and through – the hapless Bats.

It was the decisive blow in the campaign. Scotland stumbled over the line, following up with a 2-1 struggle over Cyprus, defeats in Yugoslavia and France (who had by now called Didier Deschamps and Eric Cantona into the team) and a nervy 1-1 draw at home to Norway which saw them seal their place in Italy. Scotland had broken a world record – they had become the first country to successfully negotiate five successive qualification processes. Not bad for the window cleaner. But then, Scotland always qualify. Don't they?

Taken from the Guardian/Observer

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