Ally MacLeod

Scotland's 1978 World Cup football manager
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The Independent Online

Alistair Reid MacLeod, football manager: born Glasgow 26 February 1931; married (two sons, one daughter); died Ayr 1 February 2004.

Ally MacLeod's name will for ever be associated with the débâcle that was Scotland's 1978 World Cup campaign, but his career amounted to far more than one dispiriting week in Argentina.

Before taking the Scotland manager's job, he had already transformed the previously unheralded Ayr United into a First Division force, and set Aberdeen on the road to glory. And it was his exuberant leadership that helped a talented collection of players reach the 1978 World Cup finals in such style that they were tipped as possible winners of the competition.

Even the doomed campaign which subsequently unravelled in such a hideous fashion was partially redeemed when Scotland beat Holland 3-2 in their last game. It was a bravura, though vain, attempt to qualify for the competition's later stages after disasters against Cuba [see correction] and Iran.

MacLeod was born on the south side of Glasgow in 1931, into a family that was fanatical about its football. Two uncles were professional players, and the small matter of an amputated limb failed to halt his father's amateur goalkeeping career. The proud son said: "My father lost his leg and played in goal for his team. That was my driving force."

MacLeod quickly showed enough ability to begin a career as a professional himself. As an outside-left he started his career at Third Lanark, with whom he won the Glasgow Charity Cup. After National Service MacLeod joined St Mirren, before moving to Blackburn Rovers in 1956. He won an FA Cup runners-up medal when Rovers lost the 1960 FA Cup Final 3-0 against Wolverhampton Wanderers.

In 1964 he signed for Ayr United, and two years later became manager of the club, and it was as a coach that he really made an impact on the game. Ayr United were a humble Second Division club with part-time players, but MacLeod took them up to the First Division, where his talents and outgoing character were given a national stage. He was hired by Aberdeen in 1975, and it was with the Dons that he captured his first major trophy, winning the League Cup final 2-1 after extra time against Celtic in 1977.

Shortly after that triumph he took over from Willie Ormond as Scotland manager, and quickly imbued the team with a belief that they could be a force in world football commensurate with their country's passion for the game. After an exciting qualifying battle with Wales and Czechoslovakia, MacLeod's team reached the World Cup finals on a night of high emotion at Anfield, when they beat the Welsh 2-0.

MacLeod's jaunty optimism over the team's chances in Argentina was seized on by a nation desperate for their team to do well. But by the time the side had reached South America, hopefulness had toppled over into hubris. They badly underestimated their first opponents, Cuba, even though they possessed a couple of world-class players and were far more familiar with the steamy conditions in Cordoba than Scotland. Scotland lost 3-1, and in the aftermath of the match the West Bromwich Albion winger Willie Johnston was sent home for a doping offence.

Their next game was against Iran, the supposed makeweights of Scotland's group, but MacLeod's side could do no better than draw 1-1. It was a disastrous result. Scotland fans in Cordoba, many of whom had quit jobs and sold possessions to support their team in South America, bayed for their money back, and the mood of the country was turning ugly. MacLeod had run out of luck. In the grounds of the team's hotel a little dog ran up to MacLeod, and the manager reached down to pat the stray. "This little fellow is my last friend in the world," he said mournfully. The dog bit him.

Much pride was restored in Scotland's third match, against the powerful Dutch. Scotland needed to win by three goals - a footballing miracle - to go through to the next round, and when Archie Gemmill weaved through the Dutch defence to score the greatest goal in Scotland's history, it looked possible. But, although MacLeod's team won 3-2, they were on their way home.

After one more game in charge of Scotland, MacLeod resigned, returning to club management with Ayr, and later Motherwell, Airdrie, Ayr United again and Queen of the South. He also ran a pub in Kilmarnock with his wife, Faye. After he retired, MacLeod settled in Ayrshire and played golf.

In a touching tribute from Scotland supporters, in 2003 a group representing the Tartan Army presented MacLeod with a crystal decanter at Hampden Park on the 25th anniversary of the ill-fated Argentina campaign, to recognise his services to Scottish football. The money for the gift was collected from supporters at Scotland home games. But, by then, MacLeod was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and could remember nothing of the events in Argentina.

Alex Murphy