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Glenn Gibbons: Wales in group a good omen for Scots

Published on Saturday 8 September 2012 00:00

COINCIDENCE and superstition are hardly the sturdiest foundations on which to build a nation’s hopes for World Cup success, but there is a gnawing, discomforting suspicion that, as things stand, they may represent Scotland’s best prospects in the qualifying series that kicks off at Hampden Park this afternoon.

In the way that sports people often repeat rituals with which they associate previous achievements, the Scots on this occasion have had the good sense to ensnare Wales in a generally daunting Group A that also features Belgium, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia.

This is no cheap shot at our Celtic cousins, but merely an allusion to gratifyingly successful historical events that offer, in the usual irrational way, the possibility of a modern-day repeat. Such an eventuality would take Craig Levein and his players – as well as troop carriers transporting the usual battalions of the expeditionary force – to Brazil in two years’ time.

It may, of course, prove to be of no significance whatsoever, but there is something portentous about the realisation that, on the two previous occasions on which the Scots and the Welsh have contested the same qualifying section, the former have made it to the big show.

Cynics will have nothing to do with the idea of past events having a direct impact on the affairs of the present, but most players and managers tend to be suckers for a good omen and there have certainly been more bizarre instances of placing faith in that beguiling concept long known to middle eastern mystics as kismet.

There was, for example, the celebrated and successful Scottish club manager whose Friday afternoon routine was to treat his long-suffering wife (spouses of managers are, by definition, wretched victims of their husbands’ obsession) to a nice meal in a downtown restaurant.

On the drive home one day, almost certainly pre-occupied by thoughts of the weekend match, he missed his exit from a large roundabout and had to make another complete lap to get back on the road. The following day, the team could do no wrong and won by a handsome margin. Every Friday for the rest of his lengthy career, the manager would follow the same route home, taking particular care to do two circuits of the roundabout.

Those who recall the two extraordinary qualifying series before the 1978 and 1986 renewals of the great tournament will readily recognise the principal differences between then and now, most especially in the matter of attitude and expectation among the Scots. In the first of the campaigns, Ally MacLeod’s squad were attempting to emulate their feted predecessors of four years earlier. Despite elimination at the end of the group phase – draws with Brazil and Yugoslavia, as well as victory over Zaire, proved frustratingly futile – the endeavours of Willie Ormond’s players in West Germany had brought the distinction of having been the only unbeaten team in the tournament.

In 1978, MacLeod’s insistence that his players not only could, but would, actually win the greatest prize in the game, would be perceived by the majority in the present time not as a tolerable, or even amusing, eccentricity, but as dangerous, fate-tempting and quite ridiculous bravado.

It also seems impossible now for any Scotland side to be tasked with qualifying from a group comprising a mere three teams. The Scots had only Wales and Czechoslovakia for company on the scramble for South America. The Czechs, however, deserved proper caution, and it was in this respect that a theory was born which, in modern times, would appear quite absurd.

In a conversation with Jock Stein (still at Celtic) in which we pondered the national team’s chances of another appearance at the World Cup, I suggested that, while the Scots would never travel to Wales considering any possibility other than a convincing victory (these truly were different times), the Czechs might regard the fixture as they would any chancy away match, presenting the kind of difficulty that would make a draw a good result.

It remains one of the most memorable moments of this ageing scribbler’s 46-year career that Stein, not normally given to massaging the ego of an upstart little ink merchant, should acknowledge that the proposition had merit and might even be a sound enough premise on which to place a bet on the Scots.

In the event, the Czechs played with such trepidation on their trip to the Principality that the Welsh administered a 3-0 thrashing. With the Scots vindicating their own haughtiness in the matter of lording it over their British neighbours with a 1-0 win at home and the famous 2-0 victory at Anfield, as well as the 3-1 dismissal of the Czechs at Hampden, the ultimate 2-0 loss in Prague became an irrelevance.

The route to Mexico eight years later would be not only much less convincing on the field of play, but disfigured by tragedy. The death of Stein near the end of the 1-1 draw in Cardiff that took the Scots into a play-off with Australia and, consequently, to another World Cup undoubtedly put a black border round the achievement.

Scotland’s failures in recent years, of course, means they have long since forfeited the right to the kind of presumptuousness in which they indulged three decades ago. In addition, Wales are unlikely to have anything close to the influence on the outcome of the group that made them so helpful in the past.

Any Scotland fan with an analytical cast to his mind would surely abhor the idea of requiring a helping hand from the supernatural, but, in a tough business, there are a lot less reliable ‘allies’ than miracles.

Taken from the Scotsman

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