For more than a century the England-Scotland fixture was more than a game. It was a staple of the British sporting calendar, similar in status to the Grand National, Wimbledon or the Lord’s Test match. Like these other events it was suffused with symbolism and had a cultural importance akin to, say, Burns Night or Trooping the Colour. When the teams meet tomorrow, it is not quite just another match, but the resonance of the contest has lost some of its impact.
The football fortunes of the two nations have diverged since the annual showdown between the two countries was ended 32 years ago. Back then, the future of the Scottish game looked much more secure than in England. The Heysel ban was still in force south of the border and the last yearly fixture in the 117-year series was played at Hampden Park six weeks after the Hillsborough disaster. Rangers had emerged as one of Europe’s big spending clubs and three England players in that 1989 match – Terry Butcher, Gary Stevens and Trevor Steven – had already moved to Ibrox. When the English top flight was raided by Italian clubs in the 1980s, Serie A was the most glamorous league in the world. Losing stars to Scotland was a different matter and a painful indication of the state of the game in the south.
The establishment of the Premier League would change this. Scotland grew to be England’s poor relation in club football and the same pattern emerged on the international stage. These days a dozen opponents would cause more anticipation and excitement among the Three Lions fanbase than the Scots.
The mood of the supporters on each side has developed, too. The biennial match at Wembley assumed a legendary status because of its importance in Scotland. In the 1970s tartan-clad hordes descended on London and filled the stadium. Their dress and flags signalled a strong identity. Banners urging the team to ‘Remember Bannockburn’ – a reference to Robert Bruce’s victory in a battle against Edward II’s invading army in 1314 – were proudly displayed.
Nationalism was not a strong political force in Scotland at the time – in the 1979 General Election just two SNP MPs were returned to Westminster and the party lost nine seats – but pantomime patriotism was a feature of the matches. Now, in a period when there are growing calls for a second independence referendum and Nicola Sturgeon is one of the most significant politicians in the UK, the Bannockburn invocations have largely disappeared except in the faux-traditional Flower of Scotland anthem.
As England and Scotland have drifted apart as nations in the past two decades, English supporters have been much more prone to embrace historical caricatures. Some dress as Crusaders, others chant “No Surrender to the IRA” and glory in the fate of German bombers in World War Two. Scottish crowds seem to have matured politically while the English have regressed. As football goes, so does life.
For the players, too, it is a much different experience to pre-89. The nations have met just seven times in more than three decades. The sense that this is one of international football’s ‘derbies’ has evaporated. The importation of Scots to the Premier League has dried up. Dressing rooms at the biggest clubs used to have a majority of English players with a significant Scottish minority. Team-mates hated to lose to their colleagues and the victors made sure defeats were not forgotten.
“There was lots of banter and winding each other up,” Kenny Dalglish said, recalling England-Scotland games. “You didn’t want to lose to your mates.” Dalglish missed the 1981 match between the two countries because Liverpool were preparing for the European Cup final against Real Madrid. Three of Anfield’s Scots would have taken part in the fixture and perhaps five of the squad might have represented England. The players watched the game in a bar and when Scotland won 1-0, “we took the roof off the place,” Dalglish said. The English contingent suffered. “Oh, we gave them some stick,” the Scotland legend recounts with glee.
In the cosmopolitan dressing-rooms of the Premier League there is no longer the same dynamic. Jordan Henderson and Andy Robertson are on opposing sides tomorrow and neither will give the other any quarter but an England-Scotland encounter is unlikely to have the same significance for players who were not born when the annual match between the nations was dropped.
For fans, too, it is very different. In the early years of football’s television age, live matches were a rare treat. The FA Cup final and England-Scotland were the highlight of the season for armchair fans. It is hard for the modern supporter, used to saturation coverage, to imagine how exotic it was to see 90 minutes of action on the small screen. England versus Scotland may seem humdrum now but it was once ‘appointment TV’ in the most exciting sense.
Even in the UK, many modern viewers will look forward with greater anticipation to other matches. The group F finale between Portugal and France next week will get the pulses of all but diehard Englishmen and Scots racing.
There are bigger games in the Euros but the oldest fixture in international football still has plenty going for it. On the pitch the battle will be as intense as ever. Gareth Southgate’s side look to be far superior but Steve Clarke’s men are desperate to get something at Wembley to keep their hopes of qualifying from group D alive.
Things may have changed but once the ball is kicked, one of the sport’s most ancient battles will be renewed. The ghosts of the past ensure this will never be just another game.
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