The ancient England v Scotland football fixture needs to be revived every now and then – if only as a dreadful warning against gloating.
Gloating is one of sport’s fiercest pleasures, but an England-Scotland game always reminds us that there is no more chastening experience than to be on the wrong end of a gloating.
England are in the perfect position for exactly that experience, after beating Scotland 3–0 last year in the first of their two World Cup qualifying games. A local derby, eh? Like Liverpool v Tranmere, or Chelsea v Brentford.
But hush. Football is better at taking you down a peg or two than any other sport in the calendar: the one sport in which a mad team effort so often overwhelms the smug superiority of the overdogs. No fixture shows that better than the oldest international of all, dating back to 1872: 113 matches, with England winning 48, Scotland 41 and 24 draws.
When England met Scotland in 1967, they were champions of the world. It’s just possible that this motivated the Scottish boys a touch: they won 3–2, and at Wembley to make it all the richer. But it works the other way, as well: ten years later Scotland were on a high.
They beat England at Wembley again, 2–1, and marched off to the World Cup in Argentina the following year – England didn’t qualify – believing that they would make a serious mark in a major tournament at last. The disasters that followed make up football’s classic epic failure.
Both sides were chastened at the European Championships of 1996, played in England. First England beat Scotland 2–0 with an unforgettable goal from Paul Gascoigne. England then beat the Netherlands 4–1 – and, to add to the joy of it, the goal they conceded made sure the Netherlands, rather than Scotland, went through to the next stage of the competition.
“I gloat! Hear me, I gloat!” as the boys sang in Kipling’s Stalky & Co. But England went out in the semi-finals – on penalties to Germany, as usual, and all their fine things turned to dust, as usual… to a backdrop of Scottish gloating.
England were their royal selves again when the two sides met in the play-offs for the Euros of 2000, and duly beat Scotland 2–0 in Glasgow. Scotland hit back furiously in the return leg at Wembley, and won: 1–0 wasn’t enough to qualify, but enough to puncture the English.
These days both teams are in decline. Scotland’s fall has been faster and steeper: England are currently ranked 14 and Scotland are, er, 59. Tee-hee – but if you’re English, hold the gloating right there. Scotland have another match against England in Glasgow and they won’t mind terribly much if the English team go home disappointed.
England are not so frightfully sure of themselves these days. In the modern Premier League, very few England players are cock-of-the-walk at their own clubs: this is a team of players accustomed to a comparatively humble place in the dominance hierarchy.
They’re ripe for the taking. All it requires is a team united in purpose, capable of putting together 90 minutes of demented inspiration in a mad, all-for-one, damn-the-English frenzy.
The upset victory is an inescapable fact of footballing life. It can be triggered by a wild partisan crowd, by a stirring individual performance, by chips on 11 shoulders, by the complacency of the opposition and perhaps, above all, by the remembrance of gloatings past.
Meanwhile, the rest of the footballing world will look on with weary amusement – and perhaps recall the way that the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges described the Falklands War… two bald men fighting over a comb.