In his book A matter of Life and Death: A History of Football in 100 Quotations (2015), The Telegraph’s columnist Jim White quotes former Scotland manager Ally MacLeod as saying: “You can mark down 25 June 1978 as the day Scottish football conquers the world.” As was later to be harshly proven, it didn’t quite turn out that way.

The tale of Scotland’s venture to South America for the World Cup finals has gone down in infamy, and if the epithet of ‘pantomime’ that many have sought to label the Tartan Army’s travails in Argentina with is appropriate, many would also be keen to cast MacLeod in the role of the piece’s villain.

Is that too harsh a judgement, though? Yes, there was massive hype, and yes, there was even bigger disappointment as the whole edifice came crumbling down, but is it right that the blame for the whole sorry episode should be laid at MacLeod’s door? Was he some buffoon-like character, full of bluster and blunder, or merely an innocent abroad, a patriot wrapped up in the hopes of a nation when Scottish football was at a high-water mark, promoted ahead of his ability, for who the fates turned their faces against at the moment of truth?

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Alistair Reid MacLeod was born on 26 February 1931, in the Clydebank area of Glasgow. His playing career began at the now defunct Third Lanark where he spent six years of fairly unspectacular left-wing play. His debut came in November 1949, and although the home game against Stirling Albion itself was fairly unremarkable, as the teams left the field at the end of the game, the wooden grandstand at Cathkin caught fire and the players had to race to the dressing rooms, retrieve their belongings and exit the stadium before the fire engines arrived to douse the blaze. Was this a portent for how MacLeod’s big moments in the game would always end up in flames?

After leaving Cathkin Park, MacLeod had a brief six-week stay in Paisley with St Mirren – it was not a move he had sought, but Third Lanark needed the £6,000 fee offered in exchange for MacLeod’s services – before travelling south to join Blackburn Rovers. It was whilst with the Lancashire club that he had his most-celebrated performance, but typical of MacLeod’s career of past – and to come – it was tainted by failure. A man of the match performance in the 1960 FA Cup final was only blighted by the fact that Rovers well beaten 3-0 by Wolverhampton Wanderers. It’s often said that Wembley is no place for losers. Any individual plaudits for MacLeod’s performances may well have been tainted by the veracity of that old axiom.

His time at Ewood Park would also see another failure drawn from the jaws of victory. MacLeod aligned himself alongside PFA boss Jimmy Hill in the endeavours to rid the game of the ‘maximum wage’ restriction on players’ earnings. Unfortunately, when the fight was won, although many of his teammates at Blackburn received a pay-rise, MacLeod was excluded from the reluctant largesse, and the row that brewed eventually saw him move back to Scotland with Hibernian. A move back to Third Lanark and then on to Ayr United followed before his unremarkable playing career was brought to an end in 1965.

The following year, MacLeod took the first steps into management, taking over the reins at his last club, Ayr United. Somerset Park seemed a comfortable home for him and success followed as he took Ayr into the top division as champions in his first year. The west coast club were on the rise, and MacLeod built his reputation on their success. In his nine years with the club, he built them into a solid side, once drawing a packed crowd of over 25,000 into Somerset Park to watch The Honest Men defeat the mighty Glasgow Rangers. He also led them to a Scottish League Cup semi-final and, just before he left, his work was recognised by the community when he was named as Ayr’s Citizen of the Year in 1975.

His next stop was Pittodrie to take over as manager of Aberdeen. It would be the finishing school that led him to the national manager’s job. There’s no doubt that MacLeod’s flamboyant oratory to his players and philosophy of open and attacking football was as big a hit on Scotland’s east coast, as it had been with Ayr, on the opposite side of the country.

When he arrived average crowds numbered just over 5,000, but his success raised that to over 20,000 as his team tore into the heart of the historical Old Firm dominance of Scottish football, once defeating Rangers by a thumping 5-1 scoreline. The Guardian lauded MacLeod as the “Pied Piper of the Scottish game” and such acclaim was always going to lead to envious glances from afar. Early in 1977, Newcastle United approached him to move south and take control at St James’ Park, but MacLeod declined. Had he eyes on a larger prize?

In May 1977 the Scottish FA decided to dispense with the services of Willie Ormond and turned to the obvious choice of Jock Stein, doyen of the Bhoys at Celtic. The old maestro turned the offer down though, committed to his Celtic team. After that there was only one viable alternative, and the FA contacted Aberdeen about installing Ally MacLeod as the manager of the country’s team and custodian of is football aspirations.

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Whilst some reports suggest there was hesitation, with MacLeod thinking that the chance may have come too early in a career still in its infancy with Aberdeen, it must have been flavoured with the fear that his stock as a club manager may never be this high again. Whatever the considerations, MacLeod took the job, and at his unveiling press conference, set a tone by grinning and tapping the side of his nose and declaring that, “Concorde has arrived!” Some may mischievously think that this set the tone for his tenure. When introducing himself to the squad for the first time, it’s been suggested that he simply said, “My name is Ally MacLeod, and I’m a winner.” Many would have been delighted if this had been an accurate tone setting, and early on, it seemed that it may have been.

Confidence was never a problem for MacLeod, or at least, a lack of it wasn’t. His first game in charge of the national team was a Home International fixture against Wales. Perhaps it was planned to build confidence in his players, or even to drain it away from his opponents, but to many, MacLeod’s comparison of his, and his opponent’s teams, was borderline insulting.

Before the game at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, despite Wales drawing players from the likes of Everton, Liverpool and Aston Villa, not to mention PSV Eindhoven, the Scottish manager announced that the only player he had heard of among his opponents’ selected eleven was Leighton James of Derby County. If it was intended to make the Welsh team appear deficient, to many it simply gave that appearance of MacLeod’s footballing knowledge and preparation, not to mention the common courtesy of respect.

MacLeod was always a figure drawing many defenders as well as accusers, however, and some would venture that the Wales team facing Scotland, containing entirely worthy, but perhaps less celebrated players the likes of Nick Deacy, Ian Evans and Peter Sayer, may be a little overshadowed by players such as Gordon McQueen, Archie Gemmill, Bruce Rioch and then incomparable Kenny Dalglish, facing them in Scotland blue.

There again however, thinking such things is one step, giving voice to them is a giant stride further. After a hard-fought 0-0 draw, a plainly still seething Welsh captain, Terry Yorath, declared through gritted teeth: “Perhaps he will know some of our names now and not be so ignorant.” It looked as if Welsh manager Mike Smith had been content to let MacLeod’s words comprise the entirety of his pre-match team talk.

Nevertheless, in their next game, Scotland comfortably defeated Northern Ireland at home, whilst England had won in Belfast and then lost at Wembley to a goal from the only Welsh player Ally MacLeod had heard of. It meant that after Wales had travelled to Northern Ireland and returned with a draw, a Scottish victory over the Auld Enemy would give MacLeod his first trophy just a couple of months after taking over.

Any thoughts that the pressure would lead to a tempering of the MacLeod bluster were quickly extinguished though, when he apparently jokingly said that, “I don’t dislike the English, I hate their guts!” A jocular remark with an impish wink of the eye is one thing, repeated in the expressionless tones of the press however, it looks anything but. North of the border, it played out well; south of it, somewhat less so.

At the end of the game however, with Scotland deservedly triumphant after goals from Dalglish, his shot squirming through Ray Clemence’s leg, and Gordon McQueen, outgunning a Mick Channon penalty, MacLeod’s words must have been ringing in Scottish ears as the Tartan Army invaded the field, tearing up pieces of the pitch as souvenirs and breaking one of the crossbars.

It wasn’t a great advert for a Tartan Army that would grow to have a much healthier reputation over time or for international football, and led many to question whether the annual fixture was worth the trouble involved. Whether MacLeod’s jovial comments inspired his team is one thing, whether it inflamed passions in his countrymen watching the game is an entirely different one.

Controversy aside, north of the border, Ally MacLeod was achieving heroic proportions of adulation. Landing the Home International Championship was a great fillip but his appointment had come on the back of Ormand’s faltering attempt to qualify Scotland for 1978 World Cup. This was the next task for MacLeod, but with the huge wave of optimism now forming, few expected failure. The nation was swept along with MacLeod’s optimism.

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Scotland had been drawn in a group with Wales and European champions Czechoslovakia. A poor performance in Prague had seen them tumble to a 2-0 defeat as goals from Antonín Panenka – he of the clipped penalty fame – and Ladislav Petráš put Scotland on the back foot. A scrappy 1-0 win in Glasgow, thanks to an Evans own goal, had done little to restore pride, and before their next game Willie Ormond had been ushered out and replaced by MacLeod. The simple task was to win both of their remaining games to assure qualification.

Fresh from their British Championships victory, Scotland faced the Czechs on 21 September in Glasgow. If beating England had been important for domestic consumption, this was now on a wider scale, and the Scots responded with a display full of passion, commitment and no little skill. Goals from Jordan, Hartford and Dalglish had the home team well clear, before Gajdůšek netted the most unimportant of consolations.

The whole qualification would rest on the final game against Wales. Win and there would be little the Welsh or Czechs could do to deny Scotland qualification. Lose, however, and it was all in the melting pot.

Despite it being a home fixture for Wales, crowd trouble in Cardiff during a match against Yugoslavia the previous year had meant that Cardiff’s Ninian park could not be used – ironically, no such sanction was applied against Scotland following the Wembley pitch invasion a few months ahead of the Wales fixture. Apparently opting for financial reward over home advantage, the Welsh FA had then decided that rather play the game at Wrexham’s smaller Racecourse Ground, the game should be moved to Anfield, where they were clearly hoping for a large chunk of Welsh support. It was a naive move. A full house did accrue, but for that night, Liverpool was part of Scotland as the Tartan Army temporarily annexed Merseyside.

It was the sort of game many would have expected. A domestic squabble – Wales still had memories of MacLeod’s disparaging remarks about their team – masquerading as a World Cup game. Chances were about as rare as any considered play, and with just under 15 minutes left to play, a draw seemed increasingly inevitable. With a home game to come against Wales, the Czechs were waiting to cash in.

Then, in the 78th minute, Asa Hartford hurled a long throw into the Wales area, heads and arms went up in a tangle and a hand was seen to flick on the ball – but whose hand was it? The Welsh players had little doubt and assumed a free-kick would be awarded to them.

French referee Robert Wurtz, however, took a different view and awarded a penalty. The Welsh team was incandescent with rage, with ‘keeper Dai Davies proclaiming: “It was obvious that it was Jordan who handled the ball.” Unsurprisingly, Scots take a different view, and despite replays appearing to show Jordan’s navy blue shirted arm reaching up to the ball, the striker still pleads his case. Even four short years ago, some 35 after the events, he still claimed: “It was a handball and Scotland got the decision – and rightly so.”

Whatever the case, Don Masson stepped up to convert the chance and a Kenny Dalglish goal five minutes before time stamped the passports. After the game, MacLeod was uncharacteristically phlegmatic: “All I know is that a hand punched the ball, and it’s up to the referee to make the decision,” he shrugged. “I think we should have had a penalty earlier. You lose some, you win some. I am just glad to have reached the finals.” Scotland were going to Argentina. They were on the road with Ally’s Army.

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And this is where it all got interesting. For a team that had admittedly won the British Championship – but to most people’s eyes had crept over the line to qualify through a disputed handball offence – things suddenly seemed transformed, and for a nation with only a minor pedigree on the global footballing stage, hopes became expectations, and expectations became requirements. ‘McHyperbole’ was primed to take full control.

In reality, there’s little doubt that this was a vintage Scotland squad. Things may have changed somewhat these days, but back in the late 1970s, there were few top English clubs that didn’t have a large Scottish contingent of star players. Throw in a few still plying their trade with Rangers and Aberdeen, and it was a squad that marked a real high point of Scottish footballing talent.

As well as the aforementioned Dalglish, McQueen, Hartford, Rioch and Masson, Graeme Souness was a dominant playmaker and Kenny Burns had been proclaimed as Footballer of the Year, and his teammate at Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, John Robertson, was vying for a wing position with West Bromwich Albion’s Willie Johnston. Up front, accompanying Jordan and Dalglish there were options such as Manchester United’s Lou Macari and the Aberdeen pair of Bobby Clark and Joe Harper.

Drawn in a group with last tournament’s runners-up Holland, although now shorn of the majestic Johan Cruyff, Peru and the makeweights of Iran, there was reason to hope – but perhaps not hype – although such thoughts were not limited to those north of Hadrian’s Wall “There can be little doubt that Scotland will be a force in Argentina,” The Guardian forecast at the time. “There is really no reason why they should not distinguish themselves in South America.”

As with so many things that look so crass across the prism of time, the Hampden park send-off as Scotland left for South America, actually finding someone to ‘fess up that it was their idea is a little difficult. Andrew MacLeod, the late manager’s son is keen to distance his father from the blame. Only 16 at the time, he declared that to blame his father would be unfair. It was certainly not his idea, MacLeod Jnr states: “If you ever watch the footage of him walking out at Hampden Park, he’s got his hands in his pockets, his head is bowed to one side. That is a man saying we are celebrating something before we’ve even done anything.”

As the open top bus circulates the stadium, before moving out to the airport, the ride from hope through expectation, then expectation and requirement, was now entering the realms of demand. There were dissenting voices, however. At least one of them should have been listened to, as it was emanating from the man the Scottish FA had initially wanted to lead the country.

Jock Stein had never been convinced that MacLeod was the right man for the job he himself had turned down – at least not at this time in his short career. He was quoted as saying that it was all well and good “turning handstands” at qualifying for Argentina when the English had fallen short for the second tournament in a row, but cautioned that “there’s a big world out there and the English aren’t the only people who live in it.” It was prescient counsel, but largely ignored.

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The game against Peru was to be the first test of Scottish optimism bumping up against the brick wall of reality. Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is just an express train on the way to collide with you. The game in Córdoba on 3 June 1978 was just three short weeks ahead of the day that Ally MacLeod had anointed for Scotland’s crowning “football conquerors of the world.”

It’s often said with international football that sometimes it’s more difficult to get out of a team then to get into it. By definition, national managers have a very truncated time with their players outside of tournaments, meaning that there’s often a bond with the tried and trusted members of a squad, and players are sometimes retained when better, younger options are available, merely because there’s a marked reluctance to change. It’s an inbuilt conservatism not unique to British international management, but certainly one that had been levelled against MacLeod as Scotland kicked-off their Argentine adventure.

When the teams were announced, the Scottish midfield engine room was manned by Bruce Rioch, a few months short of his 31st birthday, and Don Masson, just shy of his 32nd. It was a combination that had been identified by The Guardian’s David Lacey in an earlier match as a potential weakness: “When Rioch and Masson, neither of whom had played badly, to be fair, left the field together 15 minutes from the end, there was a strong feeling of symbolism in the change, hammer and sickle giving way to mallet and plane in the shape of Archie Gemmill and Graeme Souness. This pair, with the ever-consistent Asa Hartford, are surely better equipped now to give Scotland the variations of pace, the greater choice of angle and wider range of movements that will be needed in Argentina.”

The hot Argentine summer would bear out Lacey’s warning.

There were other warning signs as well. A few months ahead of the tournament getting underway, Peru had played a friendly against Argentina; surely an ideal opportunity for the Scotland manager to weigh up his opponents. The BBC were so sure of his attendance that they flew a film crew out to cover the event. It was a non-starter, however, and MacLeod was a no-show, citing an unavoidable clash of social engagements. If it smacked of a lack of diligent homework, such an accusation was to receive further support ahead of the game.

MacLeod had given a television interview citing the importance of Scottish full-back Martin Buchan keeping a firm grip on speedy Peruvian wide man Juan Carlos Oblitas. The problem was that Buchan was deployed on the left flank of Scotland’s defence, whilst Oblitas, a left winger, would be attacking from the opposite touchline. Of the teams in the group, Peru were ranked second and Scotland third. This was not a team that warranted such unconsidered attention. Those ignorant of the fact may well have nodded in agreement of the sage assessment. Those in the know would have begun to consider how all this was going to end.

As the game kicked-off, doubts seemed to be banished as an eager and progressive Scotland took control. With just under 20 minutes on the clock, Hartford swept a pass forward into the path of Bruce Rioch. The midfielder’s left foot shot was hit with typical force and although in goal Ramón Quiroga – later to be labelled ‘El Loco’ for his outside of the box, in more ways than one, antics – parried the ball, Joe Jordan was on hand to slide the ball into the net to give the Scots the lead.

All seemed fine, although as the half wore on the Peruvians were coming more into the game, their busy style hustling the Scots out of possession on a number of occasions. Then, just ahead of the break, José Velásquez tumbled to the ground after a tussle with Joe Jordan. A whistle appeared to be blown, but the referee then waved play on. The ball is moved into the Scottish penalty, and as the defenders hesitate, César Cueto fired the ball past Alan Rough to equalise.

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Ally MacLeod

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After the break, the game was much more even. If Scotland had imagined Peru were going to be a walkover, they were disavowed of such opinion now. In midfield Teófilo Cubillas was enjoying dominance and the pairing of Rioch and Masson was betraying the older legs that David Lacey had warned of. Nevertheless, Joe Jordan’s muscular presence upfront was still a danger, and just on the hour mark, it led to a chance for Scotland to retake the lead.

Kenny Burns had joined Jordan to present a twin spearhead to the Scotland attack, and when a ball was swung in by Donachie from the right flank, Jordan nodded down into Rioch’s path. His attempt to beat the defender was doomed to failure as he failed to control and the ball flew away and out of reach. Inexplicably though, as Ricoh’s momentum took him into the arena, the defender brought the Scot down, and the Swedish referee, Ulf Eriksson, awarded the penalty.

Don Masson had converted from 12 yards in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Anfield to bring Scotland to South America and now had a chance to restore their lead. Stepping up to the ball, he fired it to the goalkeeper’s right, but Quiroga had guessed correctly and saved comfortably. Perhaps, unlike MacLeod, he had done his homework. Masson placed the kick in precisely the same place as he had against Dai Davies at Anfield the previous year. The chance had gone.

Now the momentum was with Peru, and they moved forward with menace. Cubillas received the ball some 25 yards or so out, just left of the penalty arc, and, striking the ball with the outside of his right foot, gave Rough no chance as the ball few into the net high to his right. Now, perhaps too late, but having to chase the game, MacLeod removed Masson and Ricoh for the younger legs of Gemmill and Macari.

Just five minutes later, Oblitas – surprisingly to MacLeod perhaps – appeared in his usual left wing position to run onto a through pass. Scottish skipper Stuart Kennedy raced back to cover, but only succeeded in conceding a free-kick on the edge of the area. The permed head of Alan Rough peered over the wall he had constructed to defend the set piece, but Cubillas reprised his trick of a few minutes earlier and fired the ball home with an uncannily similar strike.

Peru had deservedly won. Their manager declared that he “would like to congratulate Scotland and Mr MacLeod on the team they presented to us.” Whilst in mitigation, MacLeod offered: “Our main fault lay in not marking Cubillas.” David Lacey drily commented that “much as a man might reflect, on falling out of an aircraft, that on second thoughts he should have worn a parachute.” Alan Rough was perhaps less prosaic, but just as telling: “The Peru side were better than any of us thought,” he concluded. The question was surely whether that should have been the case.

As if the deflation of the result was not bad enough, a further plunging of the dirk was to be added. After the game, Archie Gemmill was selected to supply a urine sample for the random drugs test. The little midfielder was so dehydrated though that he was unable to perform the required task and Willie Johnston was put forward in his stead, filling an unmarked tube as requested.

Later results would indicate a positive result for the banned substance Fencamfamin. Johnston protested that it had been taken inadvertently as part of a freely available medicine, Reactivan, dispensed as an over-the–counter treatment at pharmacists. Nevertheless, the sample was positive, and a hapless Johnston was sent home in shame, dogged by the press and media looking for the full story. He was later to lament: “I was in the best form of my life and had no need for artificial stimulants. And in any case the Peru match was the worst of my international career, so you could hardly say Reactivan was performance-enhancing.”

Even then, though, all was not lost. Now in tune with the realities of the competition, Scotland had an immediate opportunity to redeem themselves against the group minnows Iran. A win was surely there for the taking. Get the points and all could be back on track. Things like that simply didn’t happen for Ally MacLeod.

A mere four days later, and now shorn of the talents of the exiled Johnston, Scotland faced Iran in Córdoba. If the stadium had been the venue of the embarrassment against Peru, a thumping victory over Iran in the same arena would banish some of the squad’s embarrassment. Masson and Rioch were missing, with Gemmill and Macari retaining their positions, and John Robertson replacing Johnston on the left.

The first corner of the game brought the Nottingham Forest winger into the game as Dalglish played a short corner to him. Robertson advanced before whipping a devilish cross into the near post. Macari stabbed at the ball but it was bundled away, then Hartford fired in a shot that appeared to strike a white-shirted defender’s arm. A penalty would have been harsh, and totally against the way the fates had been running for MacLeod. Unsurprisingly, the Senegalese referee waved play on and the ball was bundled away after a scramble in the area. Many of the watching Scottish fans may well have thought that the tone for the game had been set, and sat back awaiting the expected onslaught of goals.

And then, as the saying goes, just when you least expected it, nothing happened. Scotland ploughed forward but the goal never came and, despite a dominance of possession, there was a nagging doubt that things weren’t going well. OK, it may not be a cricket score victory, but a victory, of almost any type, would do. That couldn’t be beyond a Scottish team full of so many talents, could it?

A quickly taken free-kick by Robertson on the edge of the Iran penalty area failed to beat the alert Hejazi in goal. Even ingenuity was coming up short. From the resulting Robertson corner a period of head tennis inside the penalty area ended with Dalglish nodding the ball goalwards, only for the goalkeeper to comfortably flick it over the bar. Worryingly as the game progressed, confidence appeared to be growing among the Iranians. Perhaps there was something more than a rear-guard action for them in the game.

Parvin hit a 25-yard free-kick just over the bar as Rough scrambled across goal. Djahani had a break in the Scottish area. The ball ran free to Faraki who almost played the ball past Rough and into the net. The Scottish goalkeeper got a touch on the ball though and it was hacked away. On the Scottish bench, MacLeod was wearing the look of a condemned man, but then fortune offered a crumb of comfort.

Just before the break Hartford played a ball forward, looking for a Joe Jordan run into the box. As the big striker closed on the ball, both Hejazi and defender Eskanderian decided that action was required and challenged. The resulting collision ended with the hapless Eskanderian slicing the ball beyond his goalkeeper and into the net. Hejazi cast the sort of glance at the defender that Peter Schmeichel would have been proud of. The defender, however, has little doubt where the blame for the goal should lie. He recalls: “There was a long ball and here comes Joe Jordan. My goalie said, ‘Leave it’. Mr Jordan pushed me into the goalie. I ended up scoring. I blame the ref.” Perhaps Jordan wasn’t entirely innocent either, but on the bench Ally MacLeod would have had about the same measure of sympathy that he had displayed for Wales at Anfield.

After the dubious handball decision against Wales, and now the accusation of a push by Jordan, perhaps the fates weren’t being overly harsh on Ally MacLeod; after all Scotland were ahead, but it had taken an own goal to put them there. Nevertheless, entering the break, MacLeod must have felt a small measure of confidence – plus a large measure of relief.

The second half began with renewed confidence from the Scottish players. Now in front, they could relax a little and allow their superior skills to bring a couple more goals to ease the path to victory. Dalglish fed the ball inside for Hartford to slip past a defender, but he dragged his right-foot shot wide of the near upright. Then came the moment.

On the hour mark, Iran were pushing forwards and a couple of hopeful crosses were swung into the Scotland penalty area, one of them evaded the defence and ran across to Iraj Danaeifard, closing into the area from the left. He controlled the ball before evading a weak challenge from Archie Gemmill and hit a cross-shot past a startled Alan Rough on his near post. The goalkeeper should surely have done much better given the acute angle involved.

As if punch drunk from the blow, it could immediately have got worse. A terrible piece of defensive organisation found Ghassempour running clear from the halfway line, through on Rough, and, but for an unfortunate poor piece of control, Scotland could well have been trailing. Ghassempour pushed the ball too far in front of him and Rough gratefully smothered.

As the game wore on, the Iranians inevitably tired and Scotland poured on the pressure. A corner from the right swung in by Gemmill found Jordan, and although the striker’s header appeared to have crossed the line before being hacked clear, the referee negated the need for any ‘was it, wasn’t it’ debate by awarding the a free-kick to the Iranians for pushing.

A free-kick from Gemmill found Jordan advancing to meet the ball, but he headed tamely wide. Next, from a similar position, Hartford floated a ball across. In came Jordan again with a powerful header – this time on target – but Hejazi plunged to his left to push the ball away. The ball was crossed back in and a weak defensive header found Hartford on the edge of the box. His drive was blocked, however, and the danger passed for the moment.

Lots of pressure followed, but no goals, and, as the clock tickled past 90 minutes, on the bench MacLeod buried his head in his hands in frustration. Surely, this wasn’t happening; surely not. But, yes it was. As the final whistle went, MacLeod climbed from the dugout and stood hands on hips, shaking his head. If he was mystified as to how this could have come to pass, he wasn’t alone. Years later Alan Rough reflected on the game: “Sometimes in football you play games and look back and say: ‘How did that happen?’ There are games that come up and hit you in the face. Nothing went right. It was disaster time.”

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Archie Gemmill

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It certainly felt that way to many Scots at home and those among Ally’s now-less-than totally loyal army. Chants of ‘We want our money back’ haunted the players as they left the field. On the subject of which, there were even rumours of arguments among the squad as to bonus payments, and who was due what according to playing time.

Back home, all the hopes and dreams inflated by spectacular hubris at the Hampden Park send off appeared now to be the stuff of outlandish fantasy as the squad, and particularly their manager, were lambasted mercilessly. Much as businesses rush to associate themselves with successful sporting teams, there’s an exodus of supposed friends and sponsors when things turn out the other way.

Car company Chrysler ended their association, taking their money and squad cars with them. “It was time to call a halt as the team just did not live up to the copywriters’ claims,” was the official line as the company reversed out of its commitments. A house brick was also thrown through a window at the Scottish FA headquarters. The person in question may have found the very item that the players had dropped in Argentina.

• • • •

All that remained was the final group game against the tournament runners-up from four years ago, Holland. Yes, of course it was true that this was an Oranje without the majestic Johan Cruyff, but with the likes of Ruud Krol, Arie Haan, Johan Neeskens and Rob Rensenbrink still in harness, and joined now by the flamboyant Johnny Rep, there was plenty of outstanding quality players.

Some were talking of just needing a three-goal margin of victory over the Dutch to still qualify. After all, against the same opponents the Scots had struggled with, the Dutch had only achieved a scrappy victory over Iran and a draw against Peru. Many others were talking of the need to lock such people up for their own safety. Ahead of the game, Hugh McIlvanney described MacLeod as being “the most grimly beleaguered manager even the Scots had known”. In Argentina, it must have felt that way for MacLeod as he sought an improbable way out of the morass of frustration and disappointment.

Although in the same article, the redoubtable McIlvanney had gone on to conclude that, “Scotland had every right to pessimism.” Perhaps there was a brief light of hope flickering from the adversity. Much as David Lacey had forecast, the midfield axis of Rioch and Masson had appeared a spent force, and stealing a line from Bob Dylan, MacLeod, considering his own prestige, may have concluded that, ‘when you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose”.

In his last competitive game, Liverpool’s combative midfielder Graeme Souness had created the winning goal in the European Cup final for Kenny Dalglish with an astute pass against Club Brugge at Wembley. Could he do the same in the dark blue of Scotland for his Anfield teammate? In a reshaped Scotland midfield now featuring the energetic promptings of Hartford, the tireless Gemmill alongside the experienced Rioch, and Souness, MacLeod rolled the dice to find out.

Perhaps now freed from the burden of expectation, Scotland tore into the Dutch with a vigour that would surely have brought better results had it been deployed against Peru and Iran. Less than five minutes had passed when a quickly taken free-kick released Souness to drive down the right wing before checking to consider his options. The Dutch defence had been drawn like moths to a light by the towering presence of Joe Jordan, and as he striker looked to occupy the far post, space was emptied in front of him.

Advancing from midfield and seeing the gap, Rioch raced into the area. Souness spotted the run and flighted a perfect cross to coincide with his teammate’s arrival in the box. Unmarked, he leapt and thudded a header goalwards. The ball crashed against the bar,before bouncing to safety, with Jan Jongbloed in the Dutch goal beaten. For many, it signalled a massively encouraging start to the game for the Scots, but on reflection Rioch should have put the ball in the net. Less than 100 seconds later, Scotland did just that.

As the Dutch defence advanced from a through ball, seeking to catch the Scottish strikers offside, Tom Forsyth, either showing a striker’s instinct or a defender’s naivety, stood stationary as the Dutch and Scottish players rushed past him out of the area. Forsyth, however, was onside and put the ball neatly into the net off the left-hand post. As he turned, the linesman’s flag went up, not against Forsyth, but rather to ping his colleague Stuart Kennedy, who had dawdled in getting back way out on the right flank. A long way out from the action, there was little chance of Kennedy affecting play, and in modern times the goal would surely have stood. This was 1978 though. This was Scotland and this was Ally MacLeod. Offside was the verdict and despite dominating the early play, Scotland still had nothing to show for their endeavours. Next time, though. Surely next time.

Maybe not. Only a further seven minutes had elapsed when Alan Rough, sporting a nifty line of blue cap adroitly but precariously balanced on his perm, punted a long ball downfield. Ruud Krol leapt to head the ball but only succeeded in flicking it on towards the Dutch goal. The ball was running well short of the Dutch goalkeeper. Rijsbergen appeared to have the advantage as he closed on the ball closely followed by a marauding Dalglish. As they neared the ball, the Liverpool a striker stuck out a foot to lift the ball over the advancing Jongbloed and into the net. As the goalkeeper looked back despairingly, Rijsbergen tumbled to the ground.

After the briefest off considerations, the referee decided that a tangle of legs had been down to a misdemeanour by Dalglish. The goal was chalked off and the Dutch awarded a free-kick. It was generous, but just epitomised the way things were running for MacLeod and his team. On another day they could have secured the three-goal margin they needed for the most unexpected of turn-ups. The game was still in its infancy, but already the Scots had put the ball in the net twice and struck the bar, but had not achieved any tangible reward.

A few brief minutes later and on that ‘other day’ Dalglish nearly bagged the Scots’ fourth. A neat piece of play from Gemmill and Rioch saw the striker striding forwards through a defence that, despite having the talent as of Krol, Suurbier, Rijsburgen, Haan and Poortvliet, appeared to have all the holding power of a colander, with a few extra holes, before firing a low shot just wide of the upright.

Who were these players masquerading as the Dutch Masters? Their unfamiliar white shirts were as pale a shade of the traditional orange as their performance was of Totaalvoetbal. The loss of the inspirational Cruyff seemed to have left them bereft of confidence. Just as surprisingly, who were these players pretending to be the deflated and clueless players of Scotland, who had been beaten by Peru and struggled to gain a draw against Iran? Dreams always end with an awakening, however, and often it’s a rude one. Much as it’s said to be darkest just before the dawn, in this case Scotland’s outlook was brightest before the darkness fell.

Fifteen minutes of Scotland dominance was going to lead into another brick wall.

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Read  |  The divine prophecy of Graeme Souness

• • • •

Pride cometh before a fall goes the old saying, and if Scotland’s play to date had restored some pride for the Tartan Army, the fall was coming. There was a warning that such profligacy of chances could have a cost when Rensenbrink and ven der Kerkhof almost scored for the Dutch.

A few minutes earlier Scotland had a half-hearted appeal for a spot kick ignored when Poortvliet appeared to bring Jordan down from behind. Erich Linemayr chose to award nothing and play continued. Just after the half hour mark, however, Stuart Kennedy was not to be so fortunate.

Rough played the ball out to the Scotland skipper, who exchanged passes with Souness before looking to turn inside and play the ball back to Rough. In a trice though, he was closed by Johnny Rep, who bundled him off the ball and raced clear into the penalty area. Kennedy chased back and lunged in to redeem his error. The Dutch striker tumbled in a clash of legs and Limemayr pointed to the spot. Was it a penalty? It’s certainly a debatable one, but this was how things ran for MacLeod. His team had run the Dutch ragged for the first part of the game, but just as their belief began to inflate, it was punctured. The Scots protested that Kennedy had won the ball, but the only thing the arguments achieved was the award of a yellow card for Archie Gemmill.

Robbie Rensenberink, the tremendously gifted Anderlecht forward, was a complex figure amongst Dutch players. Promoted by many as an heir to Cruyff’s abdicated throne, he had left Holland for the Belgian capital where his status, in what was considered a much less competitive league, was growing but often questioned about its authenticity. Nevertheless, he had netted two penalties in an earlier game against Iran, and his cool finish, low to the goalkeeper’s right, gave Rough little chance. It was a harsh blow; sitting on the bench, MacLeod blew out his cheeks in almost resignation.

If many had expected Scotland to tamely capitulate however, there was a surprise in store. Straight from the kick-of, the ball was moved forward, finding Manchester City full-back Willie Donnachy in space on the left. He crossed deep to Jordan, but the striker only got a glancing touch on the ball, speeding it on to Rioch advancing into the area from the right. The midfielder crashed in a powerful drive that had Jongbloed struggling to keep control of the ball, but in the resulting skirmish, the referee awarded the Dutch a free-kick. It served notice that there was life in Scotland yet, albeit perhaps a raging against their doom.

Just before the break, the rage became a storm as Souness lofted the ball towards Jordan. Dalglish, without a Dutch defender in sight, broke into the area in support. Jordan deftly headed the ball down to the Liverpool striker who fired high into the net as Jongbloed advanced. Scotland were level, and on the balance of play it was the very least they deserved.

The teams trudged to the dressing room at half time probably with very different demeanours than they had been in a few minutes earlier. Half the game was gone and Scotland still needed a further three goals but, put on another performance like the first half, get a share of the breaks, and anything could happen. Well, of course, the fates of football did, and they were never going to let MacLeod and his team have their way.

The second half was just two minutes old when a corner to Scotland on the right was played short to Dalglish, who advanced a few yards before clipping a cross to the far post. The ball was headed down and Souness controlled on the six-yard line. He was surely about to score when bundled over a few yards from goal by Wily van der Kerkhof. This time it was the turn of the Dutch players to complain, but to no avail. Linemayr stood ramrod straight on the spot with a posture illustrating that he would brook no argument.

In the game against Peru, Don Masson had missed from the spot and was not selected for this game. The onus fell on Archie Gemmill; if the little midfielder had any nerves, he didn’t betray them as he hit low and hard to Jongbloed’s left to put the Scots ahead. Could they do this, achieve one of the most improbable of salvations since Lazarus? Surely not. This was Holland.

After Gemmill had fired in his spot kick, he turned to run back to the halfway line, brushing aside the plaudits of his teammates and urging them back to get the game restarted. Scotland had scored twice in just over five minutes of playing time. They now had a full 43 minutes to get two more. There was belief now, and it would feed voraciously on glory shortly afterwards.

Less than ten minutes of that 43 had gone when Kenny Dalglish attempted to dribble into the Dutch area, but was rebuffed by three defenders. As the ball ran free Gemmill picked it up and skipped over a lunging challenge from Jansen. One of the iconic World Cup moments was being born.

Full of pugnacious poise, he then slipped inside a challenge from Ruud Krol. The move defeated the Dutch captain to such an extent that he was sent far enough away from the play as to need a ticket to get back into the stadium. The Scot jagged into the penalty area and, as Jan Poortvliet dived in to challenge Gemmill, slipped the ball past him. The mazy dribble had left three Dutchmen floundering on the floor. Gemmill made it four as Jongbloed plunged at him. He lifted the ball neatly over the goalkeeper and walked into the World Cup Hall of Fame.

As he turned away from goal, fist raised in triumph, this was all about the moment and the game. Any thoughts of immortality were for another day. The ball was nestling in the back of the net, and Scotland were in dreamland. It was all up for grabs now. Redemption beckoned for MacLeod.

If the realisation of having nothing to lose had released the shackles of fear and trepidation from Scotland, allowing them to breathe freely and give full vent to their talents, all of a sudden they now had an awful lot to lose. Now they were within touching distance of the most unlikely of victories.

A mere few seconds after the goal, a Dutch free-kick was played into the area, and as Kennedy stooped to head an interception he diverted the ball dangerously close to his own goal. It was time for deep breaths.

It may well have been the case that the Dutch had now come to realise that their defence, wobbly as it had been throughout the game, may not be capable of keeping the rampant Scots out for the rest of the game. Attack may be their best from of defence.

There were just under 20 minutes to play when Ruud Krol elegantly strode forward, the ball at his feet. The energetic Rep came short and exchanged passes with his skipper, before galloping past Krol once more. Shirt hanging loose, Krol moved the ball on Rep. Fatigue may have been setting in, but as Rep advanced towards the area, no Scot closed him down. It was clear the Ajax striker was lining up to shoot. At the last minute, Gemmill flung himself in with a forlorn effort to block. Too late! From 30 yards, the ball flew past Rough and into the top corner. Rep was later to admit that, “I just shut my eyes and hit out.”

• • • •

Graeme Souness in action against Holland

• • • •

As the striker ran back towards his relieved and celebrating teammates, he passed Hartford and Gemmill who, almost in synchrony, looked up the heavens and blew out their cheeks. There were still 18 minutes on the clock. But to all intents and purposes, the game was over. The fates had permitted the Scots a glance at what could have been before dashing it cruelly away.

The time between Gemmill’s moment of immortality and Rep’s riposte had been a mere six minutes. Half-a-dozen minutes to dream were all Scotland, Ally MacLeod and his now exhausted players were permitted. A Pyrrhic victory has probably rarely felt more like a defeat, but that was MacLeod’s fate. Holland had joined Zaire in an exclusive club of the countries that Scotland had beaten in World Cup finals at the time.

Afterwards, Alan Rough would comment: “We had a point to prove against Holland but I don’t remember any stirring speeches in the team before that match. We just went out and played the way we were capable of playing.”

Perhaps the transformation in form had little to do with any inspiration from MacLeod then, more a stinging pain of humiliation felt by the players. Whatever the case, Scotland, for all their Braveheart efforts, had been eliminated and it was time to face the music back home. Not the stirring skirl of the bagpipes they heard at the Hampden Park send off, but the discordant tones of fans who felt the pain of humiliation and disappointment.

Rough has troubled memories of the trip home: “We flew to Argentina in a big Jumbo, sitting in that bubble at the top of the plane. On the way home, we were all stuck up the back. The plane stopped off at Heathrow and I was sitting with my pals Derek [Johnstone] and Joe [Harper] and saw all these players getting off who never left a plane in London. They were obviously ducking out of landing in Glasgow. We had received the phone calls, there was to be a reception committee.”

The information was accurate and those leaving the plane at Heathrow weren’t expecting the reception to be a pleasant experience. As the plane landed at Glasgow airport and trundled to a halt, Rough recalls seeing angry fans on the tarmac: “God knows how they got there. I do not know if they were staff or baggage handlers or whatever. Ally is off the plane first and he waves to them in salute. We are under the seats shouting at him to look at the words on the banners.” MacLeod fronted up, even though it was clear that, to pinch a line from Shakespeare, they had, “come to bury (their own) Caesar, not to praise him.”

Sympathy and any grudging acknowledgement for the so-near-yet-so-far efforts against Holland – a team that would go on to lose out in the final to the hosts after extra-time – was certainly in short supply. ‘Home By The Back Door’ was the Daily Record’s banner headline. It summed up a media approach that focused not only on the failure of a talented squad, but also on the hype before the squad left, that led to vastly overblown expectations. And they laid the blame for that squarely at the door of Ally MacLeod.

Andrew MacLeod said that his father, “was basically left to carry the can when it all went wrong and he just had to deal with it.” He was convinced that the stress took a heavy toll on his father when he returned home from Argentina. “He got seriously ill the summer after the World Cup. He nearly died due to the illness that was brought on by the stress of Argentina. He suffered quite badly from it.”

MacLeod suffered venomous attacks from all quarters as many looked for a suitable scapegoat. The nation had woken up from a session of drinking in expectation, and perilously mixing it with an intoxication of glory. Now was the morning after and regret and bitterness had fed on the hangover. MacLeod himself summed up the zeitgeist: “With a bit of luck in the World Cup I might have been knighted,’ he said. ‘Now I’ll probably be beheaded.”

The reaction of the Scottish FA wasn’t quite that severe and MacLeod survived – head intact – to take control of Scotland’s first qualifier for Euro 80, a 3-2 defeat against Austria. As if the result had stirred black memories from South America, MacLeod decided it was time to leave and resigned as Scotland’s national team manager to head back to the comforts of Ayr, where there were pleasant reminders of success.

It was May 1979 and his tenure in charge had lasted a mere 500 days. But they were days packed with the highest of highs and the very lowest of lows. The whole gamut of football’s fickle emotions had been bestowed upon MacLeod, his team and their followers. The Scottish FA issued a statement saying: “Regardless of the depressing aspects of Mr MacLeod’s latter days in the Association’s employ, it would be quite unfair not to comment that he was largely responsible for kindling an enthusiasm for the Scottish team that far exceeded anything which had gone before. The Association benefited considerably from that enthusiasm and should not forget it.”

It may have been a fitting epitaph for MacLeod’s career in international management. Andrew MacLeod said that his father was an optimist, and always held a firm conviction that his teams would prevail. “He said before the World Cup, and it has often been misquoted, that he thought they were in with a chance of coming back with a medal,” the younger MacLeod related. “I wasn’t convinced he’d ever said we’d come back having won the thing. It was blown out of all proportion at the time.”

In his autobiography, The Ally MacLeod Story, published in 1979, MacLeod pondered on whether he had generated just too much excitement. “Had I raised the level of national optimism just too high?” It was an introspection that may have often occupied his thoughts, but one which was almost always hidden from public sight. In his book, he quickly returned to his more public persona, questioning whether “the Scottish fans (would) have tolerated anything less from me than whole-hearted conviction?” He did temper that though by adding: “I am a very good manager who just happened to have a few disastrous days, once upon a time, in Argentina.”

Ally MacLeod died in 2004, remaining a man who split opinion amongst football fans north of the border into two diametrically opposing camps. Was he a man who took a new Flower of Scotland footballing talent to Argentina and oversaw the nation’s dreams falling apart as hope slipped through his hapless fingers like so much sand, or was he an honest and endearing man, a patriot whom the fates chose to sneer at?

At the end of the day, simply put, 11 Scottish players, some of them the very brightest of lights of their generation, could not beat Iran. And Ally MacLeod wasn’t on the field at the time. There are many who would claim MacLeod made a catalogue of errors. Hanging onto a Don Masson who may have been past his best, especially with the burgeoning talent of Graeme Souness straining at the leash, is oft quoted as one of them. It is, however, difficult to accept that blame for the hype and the failure should all have been heaped onto his shoulders. During the game against Peru, and more so against Iran, MacLeod had the air of a Death Row inmate, a friendless soul and the loneliest man in the world, all rolled into one. This was not someone who didn’t care.

Alan Rough offers a summary of the tale that begins, ‘Once upon a time in Argentina …’ If one is looking for a balanced account of tale, perhaps this is it: “We made the World Cup finals and had a group record of losing one match, drawing another and then beating a great Holland team who were unlucky to lose in the final to the hosts. Would we take that now?” Most certainly.

By All Blue Daze. Follow @All_Blue_Daze