Amicable enemies enhance the game

Graham Kelly
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The Independent Football

CLIP FROM a popular 1970s television programme: "Tragedy at Euston Station today; a Scottish football fan lost all his luggage when he dropped his bottle of whisky."

CLIP FROM a popular 1970s television programme: "Tragedy at Euston Station today; a Scottish football fan lost all his luggage when he dropped his bottle of whisky."

That gag of The Two Ronnies was fair comment when the Scots would embark on their biennial invasion on a Monday for the following Saturday's encounter at Wembley against the auld enemy.

However, some of the pronouncements following last week's Euro 2000 play-off draw, which dramatically pitched the two oldest international teams in competition for the first time since Euro 96, were equally crass. A Wembley spokesman admitted that complete segregation was virtually impossible. Indeed, segregation can often be difficult, but surely it is the new owners of Wembley Stadium, the Football Association, who should be outlining policy for the second leg? The first lesson of media relations is to speak with one voice.

A "senior police source" told a chief crime correspondent that it was the worst possible scenario because "both sets of fans hate each other with a passion, and we could have major problems." I hope this does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the chief crime reporter was determined to confirm his prejudice by saying that the games were stopped in the mid-Eighties after persistent trouble.

They were, in fact, discontinued in 1990 at the instigation of the then Scottish FA chief executive Ernie Walker, who didn't see any sense in the traditional rivals kicking lumps out of each other just before the World Cup Finals. The admirable Scot, Mr Hunter Davies, was wrong to impute in these pages (14 October) that England pulled out because they wanted to play foreign opposition. England and Scotland had together put paid to the increasingly irrelevant Home International Championship some years earlier.

Since that time, the Scottish fans have enhanced every tournament their team has qualified for, winning Uefa and Fifa awards along the way. In 1996, the atmosphere they brought to the European Championship finals ensured that all true English supporters were desperately sorry that Patrick Kluivert's consolation goal for the Netherlands against England at Wembley deprived Scotland of a place in the quarter-finals.

Travelling by train to Birmingham for the Scotland v Netherlands match I was intrigued to answer a call on my mobile phone from some Scots supporters with whom I had chatted earlier on the journey. I looked up to see them rolling in the aisles as they capitalised on how they had somehow secured my number. Subsequently, at Wembley, I negotiated long and hard with the Scots fans for the return of the Wembley crossbar, which they had appropriated after a famous victory in 1977.

For the early matches, the players had to meet their own travel expenses. And there was no fee. Perhaps the fact that England won only two of the first 16 meetings is down to the reluctance of English employers to allow our players time off!

Bell's Life reported that the first match, a goalless draw played on a greasy pitch at the West of Scotland Cricket Club in Glasgow on Saturday, 30 November 1872, was one of the jolliest, one of the most spirited and most pleasant matches that had ever been played. Spirited I'm sure, but jolly? Pleasant?

As the Scottish FA had not then been formed, the Scotland team was selected by, and comprised mainly players of, the noted amateur club Queen's Park, who had already taken part in the English Cup.

Perhaps some of the jollity had left football by the time Alf Ramsey gave his famous response to a reporter welcoming him to Scotland, "You must be joking." In Ramsey's time as manager, the England team would depart from their Troon hotel at noon for the trip to Hampden and the whole route would be lined with Scots fans shouting their own particular welcome! Crowds of 120,000 filled Hampden Park to the rafters for the England game at that time.

In truth, it was the Scots fans who made the match what it became: a truly great occasion. Just as they brought colour and passion to the staid Stade de France for their match against Brazil, which opened last year's World Cup Finals.

I attended a function in Glasgow to celebrate the 125th birthday of the Scottish Football Association a couple of years ago. Shortly after the first half hour I lost count of the number of references to the famous match of 1928, when Scotland's "Wembley Wizards" trounced England 5-1. Whenever I tried to introduce Wembley 1963 (9-3) into the conversation, my hosts seemed to go deaf all of a sudden.

Let's find a regular place for this fixture and use it to celebrate the beautiful and simple game in the best possible way. A lot has happened, in politics and in football, since 1990.