One Team in Tallinn
This blog was first written for Live Forever Football, a website dedicated to 90s football.
The summer of 1998 was a glorious one in my life. Celtic had stopped ten in a row in the May of that year, winning the league for the first time that I could remember – I couldn’t remember the centenary year – and in doing so they had saved the precious nine-in-a-row record set by Jock Stein. On top of that, I had just finished school. Forever. So when June 10th came around, I was free to spend the morning running around shops trying to buy the new Scotland top in time for our kick off that evening.
And I got it. I’ll never forget the odd button with a loop for a collar, a design never seen before or since.
But let’s go back to the start. The World Cup qualifying draw two and a half years earlier.
Thanks to the successful Euro 96 qualifying campaign, Scotland were in pot two. That mattered because with Yugoslavia now no longer an utter mess as far as the footballing world was concerned, UEFA was up to a full 50 member states. With France qualifying automatically as hosts, and FIFA deciding that UEFA would get 15 of the now expanded to 32 teams in the finals, that meant 49 teams playing for the other 14 spots.
Now, if you’re a sensible governing body, that should be really easy to plan. 49 teams, 14 places, that’s seven groups of seven teams with the top two qualifying from each, right?
Instead of something nice and simple, they had to over-complicate it like they always do. So rather than having seven groups, they opted for nine. But of course, nine doesn’t divide into 49 properly, so that meant there would be four groups of six teams and five groups of five teams. Having gone with nine groups, they now had to decide how to get 14 teams from that. How do you do that? Well, each group winner qualified automatically, leaving five places for nine runners-up. That doesn’t divide properly either of course, so they decided that the best runner-up would join the group winners in qualifying automatically with the other eight playing off in two-legged ties to decide the other four.
Hang on though, how do you decide who the best runner-up is if the groups are uneven? Well, you discount any results against the bottom team if you’re in a group of six, right? Well… yes, but UEFA also decided the team in fifth place didn’t matter either. Only the results against the teams in 1st, 3rd and 4th places would count for deciding best runner up.
Confused yet? I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
The draw was reasonably kind to Scotland. Of the nine possible seeds, we were paired with the eighth – Sweden – our old foes from Italia 90. The remainder of the draw threw up Austria from pot three, Latvia from pot four, Belarus from pot five and Estonia from pot six. Ten years previous, that would have been the USSR times three, but that just goes to show how much things changed in the 90s.
As we looked forward to Euro 96, Sweden had no such concerns and got their qualification campaign under way with a 5-1 thumping of Belarus in Stockholm in June 1996. Our opening match was a tricky affair, with a trip to Austria at the end of August. A goalless draw ensued, which wasn’t bad on paper when you consider that they would likely be our rivals for the top two spots. Sweden then beat Latvia 2-1 away from home the following day to give themselves full points from their opening two games.
October saw Scotland follow Sweden’s example with a 2-0 win in Latvia courtesy of goals from John Collins and Darren Jackson, but it was the unexpected win for Austria in Sweden a few days later that really put the cat among the pigeons.
Not that we noticed at the time, we were too busy taking part in an utter farce.
Scotland were due to play Estonia in Tallinn that same night, but when training in the stadium the night before it had become evident that the temporary floodlights that had been installed were insufficient. A protest was lodged with FIFA and the following morning, the day of the game, FIFA upheld the protest and decided to bring the kick off forward to the early afternoon. Estonia objected, claiming that they would lose out on television revenue, and decided they would continue to prepare as originally planned.
Which meant that when referee Miroslav Radoman set out to start the game at 1pm local time, only Scotland were out on the park. The entire match consisted of Radoman blowing his whistle, Billy Dodds kicking off to John Collins, and the Scotland captain for the day taking one touch before the referee blew to abandon the game. All the while, the Tartan Army in the stand had found good humour in the situation, chanting the now infamous “one team in Tallinn” song.
By the time the Estonians finally arrived at the stadium for the original kick off time, the Scotland team had packed up and left and even the Tartan Army had finished their own impromptu game on the pitch.
In the aftermath, FIFA’s match delegate confirmed that Scotland would be awarded a 3-0 win for Estonia’s refusal to show up at the allocated time. Indeed, when the Soviet Union had failed to turn up for a 1974 world cup qualifying playoff against Chile, the Chileans were given this very thing and qualified for that world cup.
What actually happened was UEFA’s president, Sweden’s Lennart Johansson, chaired a meeting in which FIFA ordered the match to be played at the neutral venue of the Stade Louis II stadium in Monaco instead. This was scheduled for February, having the knock on effect that Gary McAllister – who should have been suspended for the Estonia game – was now suspended for Scotland’s home game against… Sweden. Convenient!
Scotland’s first home game of the campaign found us on the road again. Hampden was undergoing another round of renovations, and so the game against Sweden took place at Ibrox, a day after Austria had beaten Latvia at home to go top of the group. But unlike the campaign four years earlier, Scotland actually managed to score at Ibrox against one of our rivals, and indeed John McGinlay’s early goal would turn out to be the only goal of the game. We didn’t need Gary McAllister after all. Nae luck Lennart.
That win put Scotland joint with Austria on seven points from three games, with the Swedes now languishing on six points from four games. Things were looking good….
Until that trip to Monaco.
Having originally thought that our game with Estonia would be a 3-0 walkover, the game itself finished goalless. Some would suggest it was Scotland who failed to turn up this time.
The end of March 1997 saw Scotland play a crucial double header. The first game took place at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock, and saw Scotland finally beat Estonia on the park. Tom Boyd with a goal midway through the first half, and a Janek Meet own goal just after the break. But it was the game at Celtic Park against Austria that would really see if Scotland had what it took to qualify.
And show it we did, with a goal in each half from Kevin Gallacher. Though we had played two more games than either Austria or Sweden by this point, we also had a seven and eight point lead over them respectively. It was a lead we’d need going into our trip to Sweden at the end of April.
With Austria winning 2-0 at home to Estonia, Scotland really could have done with getting something in Gothenburg that night. But just before half time, Kennet Andersson opened the scoring for the hosts, before adding a second just after the hour mark. Though Kevin Gallacher was able to pull a goal back with less than ten minutes remaining, Scotland slipped to a defeat which tightened up the group once more.
At the end of the 1996/97 season, Austria kept up their pace with a 3-1 win in Latvia, while Sweden almost let a 3-0 lead slip in Estonia but held on to win 3-2. Meanwhile, a solitary Gary McAllister penalty in Belarus just after half time ensured that despite only having two games remaining it was Scotland who were still in the driving seat.
August 1997 saw the group tighten up even further thanks to a 3-0 win for Austria in Estonia, while Sweden came from behind to beat Belarus 2-1 in Minsk. There was now only two points separating the three teams, and both Austria and Sweden still had a game in hand over Scotland.
But it would be against each other.
Just as they had in Stockholm, Austria beat Sweden 1-0 to leap frog Scotland at the top but also crucially leave Sweden stranded two points behind us with just two games remaining. The following day, Scotland went back top of the group with a 4-1 win over Belarus at Pittodrie, Aberdeen thanks to two goals each from Kevin Gallacher and David Hopkin. A few days later, Austria again went top with a 1-0 win in Belarus, while Sweden kept their hopes alive with a 1-0 win at home to Latvia.
Scotland’s qualification now came down to how we could do in our final game against Latvia at Celtic Park. Win in, and no matter what Sweden did at home to Estonia they couldn’t catch us. They already couldn’t catch Austria, so we were now their only hope. There was still a chance of finishing top if Austria lost at home to Belarus, but that looked unlikely.
But the runner up factor would also come into play. Latvia had already secured fourth spot in the group, so a win over them would not only secure at least second spot but also count towards deciding the best runner up.
Going into that final night of qualifying, Italy were in line for the best runner-up spot, although the likes of Croatia and Yugoslavia were actually also in the running but playing teams bottom of their group and therefore not counting towards the calculations. It was Scotland and Belgium who were really looking at this best runner up spot, with the Belgians hoping for us to slip up as well and let them in. But in the case of the Italians, they would either slip up or beat the team top of their group and send them tumbling into the runner up spot instead.
Their opponents in Rome that night? England, who only needed a draw to top the group and qualify themselves.
Back at Celtic Park, a goal from Kevin Gallacher just before half time put Scotland in the driving seat. But it was a nervy second half until Gordon Durie made the three points secure ten minutes from the end. With the win secured, Scotland could check the other results.
Austria topped the group thanks to a 4-0 win over Belarus. Sweden did indeed beat Estonia 1-0, but they were out due to our result. And as for Italy? England got the 0-0 draw they needed, consigning Italy to the place second best runner up of the nine. Who was best?
Scotland. We were going to France.
Italy and Belgium did indeed make it through the playoffs, with Croatia and Yugoslavia joining them too, and we could all look forward to seeing what the draw for the finals would throw up.
There is an odd pattern in Scotland’s world cup campaigns in that every other one seems to pair Scotland with Brazil. We drew with them in Germany in 1974, avoided them in Argentina in 1978, got hammered by them in 1982, avoided them again in Mexico 1986, and narrowly lost to them in Italy in 1990. Having not qualified for 1994, it was again time to face this in France. Sure enough, Scotland were drawn in group A along side the reigning champions.
But this time would be different. Scotland were allocated second spot in the group, which meant we would need to play Brazil in their opening match.
Before FIFA changed the rules and forced the champions to have to qualify along with everyone else, the traditional opening game of the world cup would see the reigning champions start their campaign to retain the title. France 98 would be no different, and so Scotland had just been put centre stage of one of the biggest shows on the planet.
Joining us in group A were fellow Europeans Norway who had topped their group ahead of Hungary – thumped 12-1 on aggregate by Yugoslavia in the playoffs – and Morocco who had easily topped their African qualifying group.
Which brings us back to June 10th.
Sitting there in my parents’ living room and wearing my brand new Scotland top, I was absolutely buzzing for things to get started and never prouder to be Scottish. The world’s eyes were on us, and this was going to be absolutely brilliant.
Of course, then reality hits.
For one thing, the opening ceremony dragged on as they always do. But when it was finally all over the two teams emerged. Brazil and Scotland. One of the most famous footballing nations in the world… and the reigning champions Brazil. As far as I was concerned, all tournaments should start like this.
Sadly, by the time I’d thought that, Scotland were already a goal down.
Cesar Sampaio had scored from a header and we were treated to music for a goal celebration for the first time. But as the game went on, things calmed down to the point that Scotland even put together a move that lead to Kevin Gallacher being dragged to the ground in the area by Sampaio. After the longest wait I could remember for any penalty, John Collins stepped up and levelled the game with confidence.
Half time in the opening game, Scotland were now holding their own. And as the game wore on we started to believe that maybe Scotland could do what so many others had done in the past and shock the holders. Remember Cameroon at Italia 90 winning 1-0 against Argentina? Or Bulgaria holding Italy in Mexico 86? Or Belgium winning 1-0 against Argentina in Spain 82?
Yeah, shame Germany had beaten Bolivia at USA 94 and screwed that pattern up.
With just quarter of an hour remaining, calamity struck and resulted in Jim Leighton’s save being pushed into the body of Tom Boyd and rebounding back into our own net. I’m not sure Boyd could get out of the way, and I’m not sure it would have made any difference anyway with a Brazilian lurking behind him to tap in the rebound, but forever more Boyd is remembered by many for that winner for Brazil.
That was a real kick in the chops for a guy who just a month earlier had lifted the Scottish Premier League trophy for Celtic for the first time in a decade. It’s okay though Tam, I forgive you.
Later that night, Morocco and Norway played out a memorable 2-2 draw. Memorable for its entertainment, but also memorable for the Norwegian goalscorers sounding like a cafe meal – Eggen, Chippo.
You can thanks Baddiel and Skinner for that one, their fantasy football show that was on throughout the tournament created a game out of joining names together. Cocu Kohler was a favourite of mine, while Rekdal Sellami would give you nightmares. Nothing ever quite matched Eggen Chippo though.
For our second group game, Scotland moved on to Bordeaux to face Norway. We needed not to lose, but ideally we needed a win if we wanted to progress from this group. There was no qualification from third place this time after all, so you had to finish top two or you were going home.
At half time in Bordeaux the game was goalless, but when the second half started with Norway almost immediately taking the lead through Havard Flo, we were heading out of the tournament with a game to spare. Fortunately, twenty minutes later, Craig Burley was able to awkwardly get on the end of a ball and chip it over the Norwegian goalkeeper and into the net.
The draw in that game wasn’t great, but at least we were still mathematically in with a chance of second place. Brazil had beaten Morocco 3-0 and ensured they had topped the group with a game to spare, so all we needed now was for Brazil to beat Norway as we beat Morocco and we would join them in the last sixteen.
Bordeaux, June 23rd, 1998. Scotland’s final group game in the World Cup. Having watched the first two games in my own house, I went round to a friend’s house to watch the final game unfold. A few of us were there, all fresh out of school and not yet ready for the big bad world to suck us in. Ahh, to be that young and free again.
Even before kick off the game was looking rather ridiculous with Craig Burley dying his hair blonde in some weird celebration of his goal in the previous game. This would become a thing at this world cup with the entire Romanian team doing likewise when they qualified top of Group G ahead of England.
But if the hair was bad, then the game itself kicked off and things got worse. Scotland were rotten, from start to finish. Salaheddine Bassir opened the scoring with a terrific half volley from an angle midway through the first half and it was well deserved. At half time we needed the team talk to end all team talks. But, just like the Norway game, what we actually got was Morocco scoring almost immediately after the break through Abdeljalil Hadda.
With Jim Leighton caught somewhere between coming off his line to narrow the angle and staying where he was, Hadda chipped the ball over him. Leighton actually got his hand to it, but all that caused was the ball to loop up and into the net as Leighton scrambled back in vain.
Any hope Scotland might have had of a miraculous turnaround then evaporated as Burley put in a stupid tackle from behind which had no chance of getting the ball and got himself sent off. No case of mistaken identity when your head looks like a lightbulb.
With five minutes remaining, Bassir scored again with the aid of a slight deflection off Colin Hendry and Scotland were left deservedly hammered and out of the World Cup.
It was a devastating performance. My friend who had hosted us was inconsolable. The rest of us just sat there in shock. Somewhere along the way it filtered through that Norway had actually come from behind to beat Brazil 2-1. The fact that it wouldn’t have mattered what we did against Morocco didn’t really matter, although I remember thinking that I actually felt sorry for the Moroccans. That surprise win for Norway meant they were going home too.
Scotland’s song for the World Cup that year had been entitled “Don’t Come Home Too Soon”, Del Amitri’s imaginative dig at how we always went out of the group stages. Yet here we were, once again, “on that stupid plane”.
Sadly, now Scotland can’t even get on the plane to go there in the first place. Eighteen years after this tourmanent, Craig Burley is still the last Scot to score at a major tournament. At the time of writing, Four World Cups and four European Championships have come and gone with Scotland failing to get to any of them. A generation of Scots haven’t even come close to feeling the pride of seeing Scotland on the big stage, before somehow contriving to make a mess of it when there.
But perhaps that’s the biggest cringe-worthy aspect of all. For all France 98 was somewhere between disappointing and humiliating, most of us would bite your arm off just to see Scotland do it all again now.