Maybe Next Time
This blog was first written for Live Forever Football, a website dedicated to 90s football.
As difficult as it may be for younger readers to believe, there was once a time when it was just accepted that Scotland qualified for the World Cup. Germany in 1974, Argentina in 1978, Spain in 1982, Mexico in 1986 and Italy in 1990 had seen Scotland reach the finals before crashing out of the group stages for one reason or another.
We didn’t beat Zaire by enough. We underestimated Peru and Iran. David Narey annoyed Brazil. We couldn’t beat Uruguay despite a man advantage for almost the whole game. We underestimated Costa Rica.
“Maybe next time” was a phrase that referred to us getting through the group stages, not reaching the finals themselves. But by the mid-1990s, the Winds of Change were sweeping across the continent of Europe and would come to sting us like Scorpions at time progressed.
Ending our Euro 92 campaign on the high of hammering what was left of the Soviet Union was just the beginning for Scotland. The USSR had already been breaking up when the qualifying draw for World Cup 1994 had been made in December 1991, with the Baltic states appearing for the first time.
Indeed, over the two years between the draw being made and the qualification campaign being completed, several other changes would occur. Russia took the Soviet Union’s place in Group 5 following Euro 92, while Czechoslovakia’s break up at the start of 1993 resulted in Group 4 being completed with a team of representatives from both countries playing together in one team.
But Group 1, the group that Scotland were drawn into, was far simpler.
The draw had been reasonably kind. As second seeds, Scotland were always going to be paired with a difficult opponent, and this time around it was the previous World Cup hosts Italy. The third pot threw up Portugal, who had failed to qualify for Italia 90, while pot four saw a Swiss side that hadn’t qualified for anything in nearly three decades.
The other two spots in the group were made up of relative minnows Malta, and the newcomers of Estonia. With the top two teams from each group qualifying, finishing second behind Italy and joining them in the US in the summer of 1994 was the expectation. On paper, it seemed a realistic expectation.
Of course, football isn’t played on paper. And in Scotland’s case, it wasn’t even played on our regular grass.
A combination of the Taylor Report following the Hillsborough disaster and FIFA’s updated regulations meant that Hampden’s sloping terraces required upgrading to continue to host international qualifiers. The seats bolted into the west stand in 1991 weren’t enough to satisfy the various governing bodies, and so with Celtic Park suffering similar problems Scotland’s qualifiers were split between Ibrox in Glasgow and Pittodrie in Aberdeen.
The signs that this campaign weren’t going to go as planned were there even before day one.
September 1992 saw Scotland travel to Switzerland and fall behind after just two minutes to an Adrian Knup goal. Although Ally McCoist levelled things ten minutes later, the Swiss went on to score two more in the second half. But undoubtedly the most memorable aspect of this game was captain Richard Gough literally jumping up and catching the ball to prevent the Swiss running through on goal to score a fourth.
You’ll never see a more blatant red card than that, even if Gough did claim he did it because a water sprinkler had gone off. No you didn’t Richard, you were so out of the running you were paying to get back into the Wankdorf Stadium and you know it.
Not that it mattered. The game was done already and Gough was back in the Scotland line up for the first Ibrox match against Portugal the following month. At least this time Scotland were able to keep a clean sheet, although failing to get anything at the other end didn’t help the campaign and after two matches against our two main rivals for second spot we only had a single point to show for it.
Sadly, with the Swiss already having hammered Estonia and of course ourselves, they then went on to earn a 2-2 draw with Italy and had an impressive five points from a possible six. We were already up against it.
Before the end of 1992, Scotland would pick up a second point with a second consecutive 0-0 draw at Ibrox. At least this time it was to Italy, which at least meant we had as many points as the Italians did. Sadly that didn’t last long though with Italy winning away to Malta.
By the time the first game of 1993 had been played, with Portugal also winning away to Malta, Scotland were already looking like they were in trouble. Switzerland were top on 7 points, with Italy next on 4 points and Portugal on 3 points. Scotland’s 2 points didn’t seem too far adrift, but when you consider Portugal had played a game less and it was only two points for a win, suddenly we were needing a good run and a few favours.
A 3-0 win at home to Malta was a welcome if expected start to the year, and with Portugal losing at home to Italy a week later things were starting to look just a little better. With Italy then thumping Malta 6-1 at home in March they were clear at the top of the table on 8 points, but Switzerland still sat immediately behind them on seven points compared to Scotland on four.
At least until they drew 1-1 with Portugal at the end of March 1993. Our rivals for second spot taking a point off each other was probably as good as we could expect ahead of our next game against one of them. But by the time Scotland headed to Portugal, Switzerland were back on track and sitting on ten points after a 2-0 win over Malta. With Italy also on ten after a win over Estonia, it was already seeming clear than anything less than a win in Lisbon and Scotland could all but forget crossing the Atlantic.
What we got instead was absolutely hammered.
Rui Barros opened the scoring after just five minutes, and before we could get to half time just a goal down Jorge Cadete popped up to double the lead. Things only went from bad to worse as Paulo Futre, Barros and Cadete all scored in a five minute spell midway through the second half. The 5-0 scoreline was humiliating, and yet it still managed to flatter a Scotland team who were second best from start to finish.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Ally McCoist was stretchered off with a leg as broken as our dreams of a sixth consecutive World Cup finals.
This was the day we all knew Scotland weren’t going to the World Cup for the first time in over 20 years. But as if it wasn’t blatantly obvious already, the Swiss went and beat Italy just days later. With them on twelve, the Italians on ten, Portugal on six and Scotland on just four we’d be lucky to even come third.
And so it proved. A 3-0 win away to Estonia at least pulled us level with Portugal on six points again. Another 3-1 win at home to Estonia just a couple of weeks later put Scotland on eight points, but still two behind the Italians and four behind the Swiss. Portugal then joined us on eight points before the summer break after a 4-0 win at home to Malta.
Yes, Malta actually did better in Portugal than Scotland.
Of Scotland’s three remaining games, two were at home to Switzerland and away to Italy. Just the two teams we really needed to take points off to have any chance whatsoever. The Italians still had to host both us and Portugal, while Portugal actually had a game in hand but two of their four games were against Estonia. They couldn’t all drop points, could they?
“It’s still mathematically possible” is one of those phrases that always seems to be associated with the Scottish national team. From consulting the wallchart in Italia 90 to this point and beyond, it just seems to come up a lot as we cling to hope while our heads try to rationalise what our hearts are telling us.
It wasn’t solely reserved for Scots in 1993, but don’t worry we’ll come to that.
The final stages of qualifying began in September 1993 with Portugal winning away to Estonia to keep them in the hunt for a qualifying spot. Meanwhile, Scotland were preparing for the showdown at Pittodrie with Switzerland.
When John Collins opened the scoring by nutmegging goalkeeper Marco Pascolo, at the start of the second half, suddenly we looked like we might have half a chance of clawing our way back into the mix. But when Switzerland equalised from the penalty spot twenty minutes later after Bryan Gunn has wiped out Ciriaco Sforza, any lingering hope of qualifying pretty much disappeared.
Our disappointment was all but confirmed later that month when Italy beat Estonia and left us knowing that a win in both our remaining games was required with the addition and hope the other three could all somehow take the right points off each other to let us sneak in.
Portugal beating Switzerland 1-0 would have given us a small chance had it not been for the fact that on that same night we were facing Italy in Rome. We needed to win, we lost 3-1 and even our goal only pulled it back to 2-1 at that point in time.
There was no doubt now. Scotland were staying at home. The final group match against Malta in November 1993 was confirmed as a dead rubber and attention drifted elsewhere.
On the very same night that Scotland lost to Italy, England lost 2-0 to the Netherlands and Graham Taylor’s men were left hoping they could thump San Marino while also hoping that Poland did them a favour at home to the Netherlands.
It’s become somewhat commonplace for us Scots to see how the neighbours are getting on since we’re not going anywhere. While the drama of the semi final shootout in Italia 90 definitely had our interest, it’s only when San Marino scored the fastest ever goal many of us have seen before or since, almost ruining England’s goal chase in the process, that we truly seemed to embrace schadenfreude.
I say almost ruined England’s goal chase. Poland losing to the Netherlands meant it didn’t matter how many goals England scored they were staying at home with the rest of us. But had Poland won 1-0 that night, that quickfire San Marino goal really could have cost England.
Meanwhile, back in Group 1, with Portugal beating Estonia in November it meant there was still three teams in the hunt on that final night. Switzerland looked all but assured of their qualification as they faced Estonia, so it was all down to Portugal’s visit to Milan to face Italy to decide the final places. Portugal had to win, while Italy knew a draw would be enough to take them through. In the end, Dino Baggio’s goal was enough to give the Italians a 1-0 win over Portugal that ultimately meant they topped the group ahead of Switzerland who did indeed beat Estonia.
So how did the Swiss manage to overcome the odds? Well they had some real quality on the field in Stephane Chapuisat, but much of the praise was reserved for their English coach – a certain Mr Roy Hodgson. Whatever happened to him?
The Swiss would ultimately bow out in the second round, losing to Spain who themselves would lose to Italy in the quarter finals. Italy would go all the way to the final, becoming the first team to lose that final in a penalty shoot out.
That 0-0 draw against Brazil seemed a long, long way from another 0-0 draw that same Italian side had played out at Ibrox a little under two years earlier. For many, the final summed up USA 94 as a disappointing tournament. With no “home nation” representative there for the first time since they decided to join in after the second world war, it almost seemed distant to us.
Sure, there was some backing for the Republic of Ireland who did manage to qualify. Indeed, there was some jealousy when in their opening game they were able to beat the Italians 1-0 thanks to a goal from Glasgow-born Ray Houghton. In a unique quirk, all four teams in Ireland’s group finished on four points with the unlucky Norway missing out by virtue of a lack of goals scored.
Ireland’s second round game saw them take on the Netherlands, a game I actually watched in the Netherlands while on a school trip. Although I was backing the Irish that day, I was made to feel more than welcome. Partly due to the fact the Netherlands won 2-0 and partly due to the fact I wasn’t quite 13 years old by then.
Frustratingly and somewhat ironically, in an otherwise disappointing World Cup, I managed to miss the best game of the tournament coming back from the Netherlands as eventual winners Brazil saw off the Netherlands challenge by the odd goal in five. Indeed, Brazil had been pegged back from 2-0 to 2-2 and only got the winner ten minutes from full time.
Back in Scotland, those Winds of Change were being felt in the corridors of Hampden. Andy Roxburgh had stepped down on confirmation of Scotland’s non-qualification after the draw against Switzerland. His assistant, Craig Brown, took change for the end of the campaign and was confirmed as remaining in place for the campaign that would follow.
“Maybe next time” was now down to a new man. Although it would soon become a common mantra, for now it was still a realistic belief.