Brian Viner: Another chapter will be written in annals of sport's oldest enmity

The Last Word
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There are older international rivalries than England v Scotland.

Rome v Carthage was a grudge match long before the world had ever heard of David Sole and Will Carling, or even Jim Baxter and Jimmy Greaves, and Thermopylae was a battleground when Twickenham was a bog. As for Oslo Vikings against Wessex Saxons, that might sound like it belongs on a rugby tour schedule now, but there was a time when it involved 80 minutes plus extra time of rape and pillage.

In a sporting sense, however, England v Scotland represents the most venerable antagonism of all. Whatever unfolds at Eden Park today, the match is really nothing more than the latest, if admittedly more-than-usually significant manifestation of a rivalry that in more than a few sports is older than any other.

To start with rugby union, as topically we must, the game's first international fixture took place 140 years ago this year, on a Monday afternoon in Edinburgh in March 1871. It was 20-a-side, 50 minutes each half, and a formal scoring system hadn't yet been devised, but the Scots won by two tries and a conversion against a solitary English try. A certain Angus Buchanan opened the scoring for the home side with what would now be called a pushover try, although the English players, presaging 14 decades of what Bill McLaren called argy-bargy between the two nations, complained that first try should not have stood. The referee, Dr Hely Hutchinson Almond wasn't entirely sure either, and later admitted as much. But, he said, "when an umpire is in doubt, I think he is justified in deciding against the side which makes the most noise. They are probably in the wrong".

Dr Almond was the headmaster of Loretto School and doubtless above reproach, but this was the earliest indication of what we have already seen in the present World Cup, that it's a tricky business being an international rugby referee. Not that Bryce Lawrence, Wayne Barnes and Co would consider issuing a decision against the side protesting more noisily. Or would they? Very little is new under the oval sun.

Or the round sun, even though the England team that contested the first official international football match contained one Reginald de Courtenay Welch, almost certainly not a forebear of Wayne Mark Rooney. The match kicked off 18 months after the inaugural rugby international, at the West of Scotland Cricket Club in Partick, and finished goalless, which of course is less, much less, than can be said of the fixture at Wembley almost 90 years later.

Naturally, there have been humblings meted out to both sides down the decades, but none greater than that in April 1961 which finished with a scoreline far more redolent of rugby: England 9 Scotland 3. There is a myth that Frank Haffey, the hapless Scottish goalkeeper, emigrated to Australia the following day. In fact I'm assured that it was two years later, by which time he'd doubtless had quite enough of the gallows humour that surfaced when one Scotsman asked another the time, the standard reply being that it "was almost 10 past Haffey".

It was the Scots and the English too who contested the first international golf match, at Leith in 1682. The Duke of York, the future King James VII of Scotland (and II of England), teamed up against a couple of English nobles with a local called John Paterstone. The duke's clubs were carried by Andrew Dickson, history's first recorded caddie. What history doesn't record is who won that day. There will be no such dearth of information, even in the year 2340, about today's update, in Auckland, of international sport's oldest enmity.

Sight of rare beast Souness bucking the trend is a treat

The criticism from football men of the game's most infamous refusenik, Carlos Tevez, has over the course of the last few days frothed into a proper lather of righteous indignation. On the night, however, only Graeme Souness on Sky Sports had the balls not to equivocate, practically spitting contempt at the wretched little Argentine.

Increasingly, Souness is the very antithesis of the ex-pro who, no doubt worried about his reception at the next PFA dinner, offers only banalities in exchange for his broadcasting fee. And what makes the 58-year-old Scot a genuinely rare beast is that he talks about football precisely as he played it: uncompromisingly, sometimes belligerently, but also with elegance, fluency and vision. By doing so he bucks a curious trend in the studio and commentary box, where most ex-players seem to become the very opposite of what they were like in the arena. If it had been as entertaining to watch Geoff Boycott as it is to listen to him, Derek Randall might never have been my boyhood hero. Which makes me grateful that Randall didn't end up behind the microphone.

When knurr and spell was the pits...

A marvellous novel called Netherwood (Little Brown, £6.99) was published this week. Set in a pit village near Barnsley at the turn of the 20th century, it contains a wonderfully evocative description of the little-remembered Yorkshire game knurr and spell, which was hugely popular with miners and indeed with the author's father, who started work at the local colliery on his 14th birthday and provided much of the detail. I know all this because Jane Sanderson, whose debut novel Netherwood is, also happens to be my wife. But I'd like to think I'm plugging her book for solid sporting reasons, too.

Comments