INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
Richard Gordon’s latest book is a celebration of the closest a Scotland side has ever come to progressing from the first stage of a World Cup finals, when their team of superstars somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the dying seconds. Forty years on, it still hurts…
It has been 40 years since Scotland set off for West Germany in 1974 with high hopes of taking the competition by storm.
As the only one of the home nations involved in the World Cup, the Scots sent arguably the strongest squad they have ever selected for a major tournament, but despite the enthusiasm of the Tartan Army, things didn’t quite work out as they had hoped.
Scotland were the only side to return home undefeated from the competition that summer, and yet Willie Ormond’s men were eliminated at the first group stage on goal difference, cruelly losing out to Brazil and Yugoslavia teams they could well have beaten with better luck.
Now, 40 years on, Richard Gordon – author of Glory in Gothenburg – has returned to those days of hope and heartache with a comprehensively researched new book, Scotland 74: A World Cup Story. We caught up with him to discuss his latest work and the remarkable events he revisits within…
Richard, there is a World Cup fast approaching of course, but apart from the timeliness of this release, what were your other motivations for writing this book?
Well, my previous book – Glory in Gothenburg – came out last year to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Aberdeen’s European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph and, after we had got that book done and dusted, I was having a chat with my agent about what I might do next. I was thinking about other anniversaries and we kind of landed on the World Cup.
From Scotland’s point of view, 1974 was almost like a forgotten World Cup because there had been so much written about ’78 and how everything had gone horribly wrong in Argentina. After that, it almost became taken for granted that Scotland were going to qualify for the World Cup finals until the lean spell which we have been in since ’98.
So I went back and started looking at the 1974 squad and it became clear quite quickly that there was a story to be told there. It was an astonishing group of players, a lot of whom were playing in the English First Division, as it was at the time, with Leeds, Manchester United and others. Big, big names who would be recognised by young fans as well, like Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer and Joe Jordan, who was just coming through as a youngster at the time.
When I began to look into it, there were all sorts of little side stories, including the change of manager, when Tommy Docherty left to go to Manchester United, and a few controversies with Jimmy Johnstone. There was clearly enough there to be getting on with!
I decided to focus on Scotland at the World Cup, but also to draw in a few of the other issues surrounding the campaign and I have to say it was great fun doing the research. These were not only great players, but incredible characters as well.
Would it be fair to say that was the strongest squad that Scotland have ever taken to a major tournament?
I think so. Someone did suggest to me that the squad of ’78 might have been stronger, but I don’t think so. There were players at the highest level who didn’t get a look in – the likes of Gordon McQueen, Willie Donachie, Peter Cormack didn’t even get on the park during the three matches because the starting XI were all top-class players. I mean, Jimmy Johnstone played 23 for Scotland. These days he’d be on 120 caps.
So, for me, that is undoubtedly the best squad we have taken to a World Cup finals.
Were Scotland victims of playing Zaire first, because Yugoslavia and Brazil were able to rack up more goals against them and progress on goal difference at Scotland’s expense?
Yeah, and all the players have said that too. There is a chapter on that whole situation within it actually. Willie Ormond went down to watch Zaire win the Africa Cup of Nations and Ian Archer, a now-deceased journalist, went with him, so I was able to get a real flavour of the situation from his reports.
Willie was saying that Zaire were naive, hard-working and fit, but that we would beat them very comfortably. Then, as the World Cup came a little bit closer, those quotes became a little less strident, and I just wonder if the nerves kicked in.
All the players – and I’m talking about people like Bremner and Denis Law, who had done it all before – said that before the Zaire game was the most nervous they had ever been ahead of a football match. It suddenly dawned on them that this was Scotland and this was them making their first appearance at a World Cup finals. So it may have been that the nerves kind of gripped them a bit early on, because Zaire actually had a couple of chances early on, but Scotland got the two goals and, certainly from midway into the second half, Bremner was just calming everything down and it was obvious we were just keeping possession. We didn’t push forward to try and get more goals – and all of them had said that was a mistake. They just didn’t realise how important it was going to be to rack up the goals against Zaire and they did suffer because of it.
People understandably look back on this as a nearly-but-not-quite story, having missed out on qualification for the second stage on goal difference, but in actual fact Joe Jordan only found an equalising goal in the 88th minute of the final game against Yugoslavia. Were Scotland really as close as people make out?
You’re right to an extent because obviously if they hadn’t equalised, they’d have lost and gone out on a defeat, but what has helped to perpetuate the myth and the romance of the whole thing is that here were Scotland, who emerged from the World Cup finals as the only unbeaten team. Even West Germany, the eventual winners, lost to East Germany in the final game of the first group stage and Holland, of course, lost in the final. So everybody else lost at some point along the way and yet Scotland still managed to go out in the first stage.
You have obviously looked deep into the archives, but how much input did you receive from the players at that World Cup?
Well, of the squad of 22, five players have died, as has the manager Willie Ormond, while a few of the others have kind of dropped off the radar, which cut back those opportunities a little bit.
In the end, I interviewed eight of them for the book and I tried to get a cross-section of each of the different kinds of player in the squad. You’ve got Jimmy Stewart, who went as a young back-up goalie and didn’t play; John Blackley and Denis Law, who played in the first game; Martin Buchan, who played in the next two; Davie Hay, Danny McGrain, Joe Jordan and Peter Lorimer, who played in all three matches. So it was nice to get a cross section of people who were more, or less, involved.
Did they still feel the pain all these years later?
Yeah, they did. They absolutely did. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how a sense of regret can still linger four decades on? But it did, and most of it centre on the fact that they didn’t rack up more goals against Zaire.
They were also keen to get across the incredible unity that existed within the group, and that came partly because of the Largs rowing boat incident with Jimmy Johnstone sailing off to America in the middle of the British Home Championships before being rescued!
They obviously got a lot of stick for that, but all things are relative – if they did something like that these days, there would be eight-page pull-outs about it in all the papers. So, by comparison it was all pretty tame stuff, but they took it as intense criticism.
Then Johnstone and Bremner got involved in a minor incident in Oslo, after the last pre-World Cup friendly against Norway. Again, they were getting stick and the papers were saying that players should be sent home. So, there was a bit of a ‘cause’ for the group and I think that helped but they were also clearly a very strong group, who got on well together.
That came across from speaking to them, and also a sense of pride that they put up such a good performance at the World Cup Finals.
Well, they were the first Scotland squad to reach a World Cup finals since 1958, so that stands to reason…
We had qualified in 1954 and 1958 and been roundly embarrassed, picking up one point over the two tournaments, which had been a shambles for us.
So 1974 was the first time for a generation of both players and fans and I remember it as a kid, but going by the archive coverage as well, Scotland went World Cup crazy. The media – mainly newspapers at the time – were absolutely dominated by it, from every sort of angle they could find.
The other side to it all was that it was the first time that these players had been opened up to any kind of commercialism, and the SFA appointed a company to try and maximise the commercial value of the tournament. The players themselves were represented by a kind of agent – a businessman called Bob Bain, who was a larger than life kind of character who came in promising all sorts of riches. He actually caused a fair bit of disharmony because the players were promised all sorts and all he managed to get them each was the loan of a Vauxhall car for a year. They released an album called Scotland, Scotland and a single called ‘Easy, Easy’, which is just terrible! One of the players – I think it was Davie Hay – thought they might have made a few thousand pounds out of it, but Danny McGrain can’t remember getting anything at all.
There was also an argument about the boots – they were supposed to have a deal with adidas, but it fell through, so there was this scene ahead of the Zaire game where the players were actually sitting, unpicking the three stripes from their boots!
There was all sorts going on, but when it came to the games themselves, they still managed to focus and, other than not scoring enough against Zaire, put in three very good performances.
There is a foreword by Gordon Strachan. How old would he have been at the time and how did he recall the tournament?
Gordon was a young player with Dundee at the time and I think he would have been about 16 – so just as kid on his first professional contract. He said what made it exciting was that a few of the players at Dundee were in with a chance and made it into the preliminary squad, but only one of them actually went in the end – the goalkeeper, Thomson Allan.
So Gordon was not only excited about the World Cup as a fan, but also as a young player, because he was training every day with players who actually had a chance of making it into the squad. He said there was a real buzz in and around the club, quite apart from what the nation was feeling. It was a special World Cup for him to look back on.
Looking ahead, is there any chance of Scotland producing another squad of that calibre in the foreseeable future?
On the face of it, there is no reason why we shouldn’t, but it seems that it just doesn’t quite work that way anymore.
Essentially, what we have at the moment is a group of young players who have come through in the last couple of years and are all in the early stages of their career but have shown great promise. We have seen more Scottish players in the last few years competing at a good level and Gordon seems to have galvanised the national side, who are on a good run at the moment.
So there is a bit of hope, but it’s all tempered – we will never fall back into the attitude of the Ally MacLeod days when we were saying that we were going to win the World Cup. I think we are all a bit more level-headed about it now. When you have slipped in the rankings as we did – although we have moved back up a bit now – it means you are disadvantaged in draws and it becomes harder to qualify each time you fail.
Gordon made the point that, in 1974, Scotland essentially had a play-off against Czechoslovakia to reach the finals because Denmark – the other team in the group – were essentially an amateur team, who we beat home and away. When Czechoslovakia slipped up and drew in Denmark, it meant that Scotland had to win one game – at Hampden Park – against Czechoslovakia to qualify. Now you are talking about 10 games against teams from a continent with much more strength in depth.
It gets harder and harder, but there is more reason to be optimistic right now than there has been for the past decade or so.