James Lawton: Flower of Scotland blooms again as McLeish takes game back to its roots

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Willie McIlvanney, the Scottish novelist and poet, knows as much about the dangers of hubris as anyone who ever hitched his dreams to events on a football field. He also knows the consequences of excessive celebration. One of his finely drawn characters, the Glasgow cop Laidlaw, was once said to have woken up with a rodeo going on in his head.

This fate could quite possibly engulf much of the city, and the land, next weekend when Scotland, having twice beaten the World Cup finalists France, take on the champions Italy at Hampden Park with the chance of qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since France in 1998. However, McIlvanney reports, if some very pretty horses are again racing and bucking in the national imagination, they are not out of control.

"In Scotland these days," he says, "there seems to be a need to be upbeat which is almost American, but this is not true of the football situation. Yes, there is optimism but not irrationally so. It's as if Scottish football has finally reached an age of enlightenment." McIlvanney's take on the measured optimism which has greeted the advance of Scotland, first under the knowing veteran Walter Smith, and now Alex McLeish, is particularly valuable because of a certain perspective he gained in Argentina in 1978.

Then, he could not avoid the conclusion that Scottish football was about as rational as a guy walking down Sauchiehall Street dressed up as the Queen of Sheba. Or indeed Ally McLeod, the Scottish team manager, a man who made Steve McClaren seem like the last word in football practicality. McLeod fuelled the celebrations that accompanied Scotland's qualification – and the failures of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, so extravagantly that one Scottish player (Gordon McQueen) turned to another, (Joe Jordan), and said, "Christ, what's going on."

It was a World Cup celebration at Hampden Park and a triumphant coach drive to the airport – not back from the airport, to the airport. McLeod told the crowd, "We can win the World Cup." Jordan recalls, "There were tens of thousands at the ground to see us off. We were put in a lorry and driven around the track. The noise was incredible when we stopped for a presentation. It was quite surreal – and then the drive to Prestwick airport was even more amazing. People were hanging out of their windows, crowding on to bridges over the dual carriageway."

Quite a number of the fans showed up at Scotland's training camp in Argentina; indeed,to McIlvanney's dismay, many of them crowded around the team when they were handed out their room keys.

When McQueen was handed his, a man in a tammy and a blue shirt shouted, "You won't be playing, big yin." McIlvanney recalls, "All you could think was, 'Oh dear, this doesn't look too good'. I'll never forget a security guy's expression when he surveyed the scene. His eyes were going round like fruit machines."

As well they might have done. McLeod's confidence splintered with a shattering defeat by Peru, a draw with Iran and the need to send Willie Johnston home after he failed a drugs test. When McLeod greeted a hostile press corps in the team compound, he looked around for some support, finally patting a dog in some desperation. The legend is that the dog snarled and bit him.

Naturally, the Scots produced a brilliant, forlorn gesture of defiance, beating the eventual finalists Holland 3-2 in a superb performance marked by an unforgettable goal by Archie Gemmill. There it seemed you had all of Scottish football, the folly, the uncontrolled and ultimately self-destructive passion – and the most haunting of football talent.

Four years earlier Jimmy Johnstone, the man who might have been engulfed by such frailties of nature but for the stewardship of Jock Stein, had made his own stab at defining the Scottish football genius for the self-inflicted wound.

After qualifying for the World Cup of 1974 in Germany, England having failed, the Scots gathered beside the Clyde at Largs. Again Jordan, who with Leeds United's Peter Lorimer had gone to his bed early and avoided the catastrophe, gives a poignant account of the onrush of chaos. "When we went down to the hotel lobby it was filled with people including police and when we pieced together the story it appeared the boys had got themselves relatively merry before walking home along the pebbled beach.

"Jimmy, who was always so full of high spirits, saw a rowing boat and clambered into it. One of the lads, I was told it was Sandy Jardine, the Rangers full-back, gave it a bit of a push and it slipped into the water.

"Unperturbed, Jimmy stood up in the boat and started to sing his version of 'Bonnie Scotland'. In mid-rendition he realised he was drifting towards the Irish Sea. Unfortunately, when he sat down to row himself back to the shore he lost the oars.

"For a while the boys were not aware of the crisis and carried on singing 'Bonnie Scotland'. When they realised he could do nothing, they stopped singing and called the coastguard. By the time they arrived he had disappeared over the horizon."

Johnstone survived and within days was tormenting England in a home international game, after which he gave an elaborate V-sign to the press box. He was aggrieved at what he considered "excessive criticism" – not least from his own wife. Back then, though, there was one way a Scottish football man could soothe his wounds, which accumulated still more when the team failed to make it beyond the group action despite the presence of such talent as Dalglish, Law, Bremner and the bench-warming Johnstone – drawing with Brazil and Yugoslavia and beating Zaire.

Part of the problem was that they played "keep-ball" against the outplayed Africans in a pool which was always going to be decided by goal difference. Yet Scottish football was at least a full blown tragedy then. Talent that would have been no less than mouth-watering in a framework of discipline and well developed tactics, at least confirmed the belief that if the nation lacked all else they had plenty of superior natural ability.

That would not be any part of an appraisal of McLeish's over-achievers today – but nor would any urge to patronise south of the border. The Scottish coach has no Rooney or Gerrard but if the midfield of Barry Ferguson, Scott Brown, Darren Fletcher and Lee McCulloch evokes few memories of Mackay or Souness or Bremner, they are part of a coherent team who are running and working together in a way that gives strength to the belief that Scotland, now ranked 13th in the world, have stepped away from a self-imposed wilderness.

After catastrophic TV contract negotiations, Scottish football was required to go back to some of its own roots. It means that Celtic and Rangers, who can no longer afford to pay £12m for someone like the Norwegian, Tore Andre Flo, are going into Europe, and producing creditable performances, with teams half-filled with native sons.

Says McIlvanney, "When men like Berti Vogts took over the national team and Paul Le Guen joined Rangers, there was the big hope that Scottish football might benefit from their experience. But it was apparent soon enough they had Scottish players operating in a foreign language. No one was around to supply a translation.

"It was as though they were trying to put rapiers among the claymores. Now McLeish and Smith have given the game back to the Scots, and I think the reaction to the success is being handled well. While everyone is insisting the Scottish fans, like everyone else, have to be upbeat, they are saying, 'Just let's thank God we're still alive."

It is a sentiment that is endorsed quite thunderously by Ian St John, who once, to his permanent regret, declared that he would not mind if he never played for his country again. He explained, "I wasn't rejecting Scotland, or the thrill of playing with men like John White, Dave Mackay, Jim Baxter, Paddy Crerand, Denis Law and all those other Scottish players who should have been given a proper foundation to beat the world.

"I was protesting that men with blazers were doing the jobs of professional football men. Men who seemed to think that the knowledge of such as Matt Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly had little or nothing to do with what we were about."

No doubt it will take more than one unlikely victory over the champions of the world to redress more than a fraction of the sins, indeed the madness, of the past, but nowhere more so than here in England, where qualification hangs so perilously slim, is there a greater need to raise a salute. Scottish football has made contact with some of the best of its past. So who can say, whatever happens at Hampden, it has no reason for at least one rodeo all of its own?