“Andy Who?” were the headlines that greeted the appointment of Scotland’s new national team manager in the summer of 1986. The tragic death of Jock Stein at the end of the World Cup decider with Wales had left the Scottish FA with a huge void to fill. Stein’s assistant, Alex Ferguson, stepped in to guide the squad through an energy-sapping Mexico World Cup that saw the Tartan Army exit at the group stages.
The ambitious Ferguson had set his mind on replacing Ron Atkinson at Old Trafford as Manchester United manager, with the target of stopping the juggernaut that their eternal enemy from down the M62, Liverpool, had become. The press bandied around names as the next full-time manager, with legends Billy McNeill and Jim McLean both linked to the role. One name who was ruled out of the running was Graeme Souness, who departed Italy to take over Rangers as player-manager in April.
McNeill was a big name – the captain of the Lisbon Lions – successful with Celtic and revered throughout the game. McLean’s autocratic style at Dundee United had gained him just as many fans as it had detractors. His prickly image and poor public relations with the press didn’t bode well for Ernie Walker, the secretary of the SFA tasked with finding the right man for the job.
Unbeknownst to the Scottish public, the man who would be given that role was already working within the SFA. Andy Roxburgh spent a 14-year playing career in the Scottish leagues, first coming to prominence playing for the Bellahouston Academy and Glasgow Schools. Following a goal for Scotland against England in a schoolboy international, he joined Queens Park in his home city of Glasgow where he won the Scottish Amateur Cup. He was a student of the game and became qualified as an SFA coach at the age of 25 before joining Falkirk, where he would forge a strike partnership with Alex Ferguson.
As his playing career reached its end, Roxburgh became a PE teacher before ultimately taking on the role of headmaster at Carlibar Primary School. He enjoyed academia and hoped to combine that with his love of football, so applied to join the ranks of the SFA. The now-former headmaster set up coaching courses at the SFA headquarters in Largs that saw managers from overseas arrive to pick his brains. Closer to home, however, some remained sceptical. Both Old Firm sides never sent any players or coaches to attend any of Roxburgh’s courses; Jock Stein in particular was underwhelmed with the prospect. Undeterred, the SFA named Roxburgh their first director of coaching.
Things would change when Roxburgh successfully completed the task of coaching Scotland’s under-18s to a European Championship victory in Finland, the country’s only piece of major international silverware at any level. Walter Smith was Roxburgh’s assistant as their youngsters overcame Albania and Turkey before facing the Netherlands in the final group game. The Dutch had Marco van Basten up front and the Scots were given little chance, yet a 1-1 draw saw them progress into the semi-finals. A 2-0 win over Poland sealed their final place where an emphatic 3-1 scoreline against Czechoslovakia secured the title.
Semi-final opponents Poland would gain revenge two years later in the world championship when a 1-0 quarter-final victory ended Scotland’s hopes of repeating the feat in front of 86,582 fans in Mexico’s Azteca. Roxburgh’s reputation was growing and his coaching courses proved as popular as ever, with many noting his natural ability to improve youngsters. Despite an aversion to encouraging his players and coaches to attend Roxburgh’s courses, Stein brought him in to analyse Scotland’s opponents at Spain 82.
Roxburgh’s achievements with the under-18s had obviously raised eyebrows amongst the Scottish footballing community. Stein visited Largs to attend a lecture the former headmaster was giving on the game. Impressed, he extended his stay and watched Roxburgh, who was one of the first in the domestic game to use video analysis, studying training sessions that he had recorded.
Whilst Stewart was the man tasked with finding Stein’s full-time replacement, he was backed by many others within Largs who felt Roxburgh’s coaching qualifications and achievements at youth level would translate to the senior team. This sort of appointment was unheard of in this era and the SFA should, in hindsight, be commended for their forward thinking for what was deemed a risky decision.
The public was sceptical; many fans had no idea of who he was or what he had done, a time when reputations were based on big names and achievements. The press was aware that Roxburgh’s uncle was part of the SFA hierarchy so there was a sense of nepotism within the ranks, although to the decision-makers, he had more than proved himself. As far as Roxburgh was concerned, perhaps naively, he had merely been asked to take on more responsibility.
Either way, 35,000 fans made their way to Hampden Park for his first game in the dugout, a Euro 88 qualifier with Bulgaria. The perceived dawn of a bright new era didn’t go to plan, a terrible game ending in a dull, goalless draw. The press conference after did nothing to enamour the reporters to Roxburgh as he went into painstaking detail about the game, much to their chagrin, something they would have to get used to. Roxburgh’s attention to detail was legendary. A key proponent of AGM (Aggregated Multiple Gains), he felt the best way of affecting the bigger picture was by focusing on the small details.
Hopes of an immediate impact from the new man were nowhere to be seen as one win from the first seven games resulted in a failure to qualify for the European Championship in Germany, the single victory coming against lowly Luxembourg. Looking ahead, expectations were also tempered for any hopes of making the next World Cup in Italy. Behind the scenes, however, Roxburgh continued with his plans even changing the before match anthem from ‘Scotland The Brave’ to ‘Flower of Scotland’. A close-knit, harmonious squad was paramount to him. The youth players hung to his every word, yet he would find seasoned professionals a completely different kettle of fish.
The qualifiers got off to a solid start with a 2-1 win in Norway followed by a 1-1 draw at home to Yugoslavia. With two of the next three games against lowly Cyprus they had put themselves in a strong position; maybe Roxburgh’s attention to detail had paid off after all. In his usual style of leaving nothing to chance, the manager sent assistant Craig Brown to Cyprus to watch their upcoming opponents. Brown was also a former teacher and, along with Roxburgh, represented a new breed of coaches that were rising through the ranks at Largs.
Cyprus had only won seven of their 105 matches but were unperturbed by Mo Johnston’s third goal of the qualifiers to fight back from 1-0 to go ahead 2-1. They sensed a huge upset on the cards and resorted to time wasting, much to Roxburgh’s frustration. Just after the hour mark, Richard Gough scored a deflected equaliser. Far from his manager’s biggest fan, Gough and Roxburgh had clashed repeatedly since his appointment. An integral part of the Rangers defence, Gough found himself out of position at right-back for the national team, yet his marauding displays proved him to be a key member of the side.
It was Gough who provided the injury-time winner, his head getting on the end of a Roy Aitken free-kick. Scotland now had five points from a possible six with Michel Platini’s France up next, visiting a wet and windy Hampden. A win for Scotland would leave them needing a mere four points from their remaining four games to seal a place at the World Cup finals.
Roxburgh’s usual textbook preparation was thrown into turmoil as an accident caused huge traffic delays, the Scottish team bus caught up in the middle of it all. The lack of preparation time proved to be a godsend as Scotland flew out of the traps at an unsuspecting France, Johnston again amongst the goals, scoring both in a 2-0 win. Cyprus were the next visitors to Hampden and were duly despatched 2-1 in a largely forgetful game. Nevertheless, Scotland were now top of the group and needed a point to secure qualification.
It was here where things got a bit sticky for the Scots. Consecutive defeats to Yugoslavia and France left everything riding on the final group game when Norway visited Hampden. A crowd of almost 64,000 crammed into the national stadium as Rangers striker Ally McCoist eased nerves by lobbing Erik Thorstvedt in the Norway goal to make it 1-0 just before half-time. With time running out, Erland Johnsen hit a speculative drive that eluded Jim Leighton. Scotland were hanging on but managed to secure the point they needed. The Tartan Army were soon booking flights to Italy for the following summer.
Qualification allowed Roxburgh to plan Scotland’s tournament preparation to the nth degree. They were based at the Bristol Hotel, on a hill in the Genoese Riviera town of Rapallo. It was in Genoa that Stein quizzed Roxburgh on whether he would ever like to manage the national team, the duo there to watch Souness at Sampdoria. The facilities were second to none and were in stark contrast to the cell-like rooms that the players endured during Mexico 86. Roxburgh took his squad out to the area and the local council were eager to help their guests by relaying numerous training pitches.
Not all went to plan, however, when the talismanic Davie Cooper withdrew from the squad through injury as Scotland were drawn with Brazil, Sweden and the relatively unknown debutants, Costa Rica.
The Central Americans were up first as Roxburgh’s micro-management again to came to the fore when he named his strike force. Despite the prolific domestic partnership of Johnston and McCoist at Rangers, he went against the grain when he dropped the latter, opting for the height of Alan McInally against the short Costa Rica defenders.
With 10,000 members of the Tartan Army in attendance, any hopes of an easy start to the tournament for the Scots disappeared. Costa Rica were more than comfortable on the ball, dangerman Juan Cayasso proving elusive to his markers, picking the ball up at will and driving his side forward. Gough and Aitken had chances and goals looked certain to follow, however Scotland suffered a hammer blow when the Rangers defender went off at half-time. Gough finally succumbed to a recurring toe injury that he had received numerous painkilling injections on.
McInally had been largely ineffective and Roxburgh’s decision to select the Bayern Munich man completely backfired four minutes after the restart when he gave the ball away cheaply. Héctor Marchena leapt on to the mistake and fed the ball into Claudio Jara, who neatly backheeled into the path of the emerging Cayasso to deftly chip past Leighton. McCoist entered the fray with Scotland desperate to get back into the game but as the full-time whistle went, their Italian adventure had got off to a nightmare start.
Roxburgh faced the press, spouting various statistics to convince them everything was under control. The fact of the matter was that the meticulous former headmaster had been out-thought by the counter-attacking Costa Ricans, masterminded by journeyman Bora Milutinović.
Eager to show his relaxed response to the defeat, Roxburgh allowed the players time to socialise after the game, figuring the last thing they needed was for them to be left at the hotel stewing over the result. In a recurring theme, the idea backfired as the ever-present press snapped Johnston and Jim Bett with a bevvy of females, popping champagne corks and drinking. The news was run back home under the headline “Mission Impossible”. A defeat to the so-called “easiest” team in the group left Scotland with a mountain to climb if they were to qualify through the group stages of a World Cup for the very first time.
Sweden had suffered a narrow defeat to a far from firing Brazil in their first World Cup game in 12 years, succumbing to counter-attacks in a similar way to Scotland. Manager Olle Nordin boasted the likes of Tomas Brolin, Anders Limpar, Jonas Thern and Glenn Hysén in his side, while Roxburgh shuffled his pack with Gough’s injury seeing Craig Levein step in to take his place. McInally, Bett and McStay also made way with Roxburgh banking on the pace of Gordon Durie and Robert Fleck to make the difference. Murdo MacLeod added some experience to the midfield.
Scotland stepped out of the tunnel with Roxburgh sporting a tartan scarf, perhaps as a symbol to the Tartan Army of their togetherness. An intimidated Sweden looked flustered from the kick-off with a fired-up Scotland snapping at their heels. MacLeod and Stuart McCall looked to control the midfield with Durie and Fleck’s pace causing problems immediately. It was McCall who gave Scotland the lead after 11 minutes, poking home from a Dave McPherson flick-on much to the fans’ delight.
Thern stung Leighton’s palms with a free-kick as Sweden desperately tried to save their tournament. All was going to plan for Scotland, though, and with ten minutes left they had a chance to put another nail in the Scandinavian coffin. Aitken cut into the penalty area and was nudged by the back-tracking defender. Noticing the contact, Paraguayan referee Carlos Maciel pointed to the spot. Aitken was the usual penalty taker, but the confident Johnston grabbed the ball and placed it on the spot before sending Tomas Ravelli the wrong way to make it 2-0. The Rangers striker grabbed his 14th goal in 35 appearances for the national team.
Harking back to the qualifying game with fellow Scandinavians Norway, Scotland found themselves holding on when Glenn Strömberg prodded home after Leighton hesitated following a Roland Nilsson long ball. Scotland had done enough, though; Roxburgh raised his scarf to the Tartan Army inside the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. Brazil had scuffled past Costa Rica 1-0 in Turin meaning Scotland’s fate was in their own hands: avoid defeat and qualification would be theirs.
With the final group game taking place at the newly-built Stadio Delle Alpi, Roxburgh opted against taking the squad back to the popular Rapallo base and chose one at the foot of the Alps. The much cooler base was 2,000 feet above sea level and left the players longing for their Alpine retreat from earlier in the tournament. Brazil, on the other hand, were experiencing a changing of the guard. Far from convincing in their opening two games, they were still technically good but lacked that spark of magic the retired Zico and Falcao had previously provided. Star striker Romário had been on the bench previously – having recovered from a broken leg earlier in the season – but got the nod start against Scotland.
Roxburgh had a selection dilemma again with Levein now injured. He shuffled McPherson inside and brought Stuart McKimmie in at right-back. Romário’s impact was evident as he forced Leighton into an early save before MacLeod’s head blocked a thunderous Branco effort, leaving the Borussia Dortmund midfielder unconscious. Romário was struggling for match fitness and made way for the more pragmatic Muller, with Scotland’s prospects growing as the game remained goalless entering its final quarter. They toiled away. their best chance falling to Aitken who saw a header cleared off the line by Branco.
As the clock ticked down to the final ten minutes, the game was still level and Scotland were heading through in second place. Defender Alemão advanced and drove a shot towards Leighton whose save spun away from his body leaving Careca and Gary Gillespie racing to the ball. They slid in, a cacophony of studs and clipping the ball, rolling wide of the goal with Leighton prone. There at the far post was substitute Muller, who tapped in from a yard out to give Brazil the lead.
With the full-time whistle moments away, Johnston had a chance to level, but his shot smashed off Cláudio Taffarel’s shoulder and on to the bar and over. The game was over – Scotland had fallen at the tournament’s first hurdle yet again.
Roxburgh’s tenure continued into Euro 92 as Scotland qualified for the first time, although a difficult group saw them finish third behind the Netherlands and Germany. A disastrous World Cup 94 campaign left Scotland with only four wins from ten including a humbling 5-0 defeat to Portugal which left them in fourth place and ended the consecutive qualifying run at five. Roxburgh resigned; his assistant Brown stepped into the role and helped Scotland qualify for the next two tournaments.
The forward-thinking appointment of Roxburgh was frowned upon at the time and was ultimately deemed a failure. His attention to detail and measured approach meant his teams were not the most adventurous at times, with his methods met with resistance by some of the senior players. His relationship with Gough never recovered, the former Rangers man claiming in his autobiography that Roxburgh took the advice of a taxi driver when naming his side for the Portugal debacle in 1993.
If the Roxburgh era had been successful, we could have witnessed a sea-change in managerial appointments throughout the game with more of an onus being put on coaching. Andy Roxburgh seemed to have the know-how but at times was left wanting in execution, delivery and man-management. Indeed, his seven years in charge left no real lasting legacy, with some viewing his appointment as a cheap option, showcasing the ineptitude of the SFA.
Just over 25 years since his dismissal, and with only two tournament appearances to their name, hopes now rest on the shoulders of Steve Clarke, who will need to harness the same ability he used to turn his Kilmarnock side from relegation fodder to European qualifiers in just 19 months.
By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met