A Trying Month for Scottish Sports Fans
By HARRY McGRATH
EDINBURGH – It has been a trying month for Scottish sports fans, rugby pun intended. As I write this, the Scottish team has positioned itself on the brink of elimination from the Rugby World Cup.
Earlier in the month, the national football team worked its way into a comparable situation as far as qualifying for the European Championships was concerned.
For some years now, Scottish national sports teams have been finding new and inventive ways to lose.
The rugby team dominated their game against Argentina, built a six point lead and gave up seven points with an Argentinean try and conversion eight minutes from the end.
Not content with that, stand off Dan Parks missed a drop goal in the final minute which would have ensured victory. Argentina’s backs were off-side but the referee didn’t notice.
The football team had referee issues too. Early in the month, a Czech attacker dived over a Scottish defender’s leg for a ninetieth minute penalty and a 2-2 draw at Hampden Park.
And still there was time for Scotland to have a penalty claim of its own turned down and the claimant booked for diving.
A draw isn’t a loss but for the football team the effect was much the same. They now have to beat world champions Spain away from home to have any chance of qualifying.
The rugby team on its parallel course has to defeat 2003 rugby world champions England by eight points to reach the semi finals. Neither consummation is impossible. The other part of the Scottish sport experience is that hope springs eternal.
The October football and rugby experiences (or perhaps “experience” as they felt identical) left me wondering when it was that watching Scotland’s teams became such a refined form of psychological torture.
Scots of a certain vintage sometimes trace the phenomenon back to 1961 when the football team lost 9-3 to England.
The final result makes it sound like a straightforward battering as could have been suffered by any national team.
But that overlooks the fact that Scotland came back from 3-0 down to 3-2 to provide the hope mentioned earlier and later gave up four goals in seven minutes to quash it completely.
Scotland’s goalie Frank Haffey subsequently provided the appropriate response by emigrating to Australia (though not the day after the game as Scottish football folklore would have it) and becoming a cabaret singer.
Another possible point of origin may have been the football World Cup in Argentina in 1978 when Scotland conspired to lose to Peru and draw with Iran before beating eventual finalists Holland and exiting the tournament on goal difference.
It wasn’t the last time the national team deployed goal difference to torture its supporters nor the last time a superb goal (Archie Gemmill’s winner against Holland) was scored in an ultimately futile cause.
And you don’t have to be a grey hair to have been in pain while watching Scottish teams. It’s a cross-generational experience. Rugby fans in their twenties remember the normally reliable full back Gavin Hastings missing a penalty from less than 20 metres in the World Cup semi final against England in 1991.
For those even younger than that, the 2007 European Championships qualifiers saw Scotland’s football team defeat France twice, score another spectacular goal (James McFadden in Paris) and still fail to qualify for the finals.
One interesting consequence of all of this has been the shifts in attitude by the Scottish fans and the team’s management.
Football’s Tartan Army, once the scourge of Europe and London in particular, now takes its lead from Kipling’s famous lines about meeting with Triumph and Disaster and treating those imposters just the same.
Some foot soldiers of my acquaintance see following the national team as being as much about visiting the great cities of Europe as it is about football.
Outrageous claims about winning the World Cup have given way to a form of managerial uber-caution as epitomised by the current manager’s decision to play the away game against the Czech Republic without a forward on the field.
In sport, however, there is always another chance and ours is 8:30 AM BST tomorrow when the rugby team lines up against England far away in Auckland, New Zealand. The augers are not good but with Scotland you can never be quite sure. It will be hard to follow Kipling’s dictum if they lose.
[POSTSCRIPT: Thanks to the forbearance of my editor Maura, I was able to delay the filing of this column until after the game.
I had hoped to provide a happy ending and negate everything that I had written above. Sadly, there some new verses but the song remains the same.
Early in the second half Scotland had the nine point lead it required to qualify for the quarter finals but eventually lost 16-12 and will be on the plane home.
I am going to have to adopt the now traditional fall back position and support Ireland. Meanwhile the football team is on its way to Lichtenstein and then Spain. The former are ranked 118 in the world, the latter are reigning European and World Champions. They couldn’t, could they?]