I’d long searched for an excuse to tell one of my more interesting footballing tales (most are mind-numbing) and Kenny McLean, god bless him, finally gave me one last November.
It was a faint, tenuous link, but good enough and the wonderful readers of MFW, whether liked it or not, they were going to hear it. Back in November, I used the guise of the international break to tell the story but for its re-run, I feel rather more justified in hanging it on tonight’s clash of the Auld Enemy.
Remember, today’s game only came about because of the Mayor’s exquisite fifth penalty in their penalty shootout win in Serbia. While David Marshall saving Serbia’s fifth and final penalty may also have had something to do with it, we all know it was really Kenny doing, which makes his absence, due to an injury picked up in the last few minutes of the season, a particularly harsh blow.
He is, however, making the best of a bad job with some excellent TV punditry for BBC Scotland; a very poor substitute for playing but a classy contribution nonetheless.
Anyway, my story…
To put it into some context, once upon a time there was a thing called the Home International Championships, (or Home Internationals) which, as it pretty much says on the tin, was a four-way mini-league between the home nations, latterly contested at the end of the season.
As is still the case with Rugby Union’s Six Nations, the Home Internationals were essentially an excuse for the three Celtic nations to settle a few old scores with the English and try and dish out some bloody noses by way of repayment for hundreds of years of historical neglect and repression.
Any game involving England tended to be feisty, both on and off the pitch, and Scottish wins, in particular, were celebrated with the gusto of victory at Bannockburn.
One of the most famous Wembley wins for the Scots was a 3-2 in 1967 from which they proclaimed themselves world champions (think about it), but more pertinent to my story is a 2-1 win for Scotland in 1977.
It wasn’t so much the Scotland win that made said afternoon so notable, but what happened after the final whistle. Even those not around in the late 1970s will probably be familiar with the images.
Our friends from north of the border celebrated in their own inimitable way, which involved invading the pitch, ripping up chunks of the Wembley turf, and climbing onto the goals to the point of breaking both crossbars.
If you’re still wondering…
While the tournament was an annual affair, home and away games were alternate, so it wasn’t until May 1979 that the Scots were due to return to London. The capital braced itself again.
This time around there was no natural cause for a pitch invasion – England won 3-1 – but a powderkeg atmosphere inside Wembley that afternoon produced 349 arrests, 144 further ejections from the ground and, even with fences to prevent a repeat pitch invasion, another smaller-scale Scottish excursion into Wembley’s open spaces.
Carnage followed in central London as thousands of well-lubricated fans went on the rampage, tube trains were halted when fans poured onto the tracks, and buses were vandalised. Far more troubling, however, were two resultant deaths; one following a drunken brawl and another when a man dived into an empty Trafalgar Square fountain.
As a result, when the 1981 fixture came along, the English FA deemed it too risky to permit an away presence inside Wembley and so imposed a blanket ban of the sale of tickets north of the border. The Scots were, as they later put it themselves, banned from Wembley.
Through the youth football team that my mate Carl and I were playing for at the time, my dad somehow managed to acquire four tickets for the game, safe in the knowledge this one should be trouble-free given Wembley would be free of invaders from the north.
At least that was the theory.
Oh how wrong we were. A misjudgement on an industrial scale.
I mean, we knew there would be Scottish fans in London, some of whom were already there and some of whom would make the pilgrimage regardless, and there were already rumours in the papers of 20,000 – 30,000 ticket-less fans heading south, but even that would be relatively small fry compared to the estimated 70,000 who were inside Wembley in 1977 and 1979.
And besides, given said history of violence, vandalism, and hooliganism associated with the fixture, London Transport (the TfL of the day) had opted to close the Jubilee and Metropolitan lines heading to Wembley from central London and most overground trains heading in the same direction.
(I was never sure how or why this was supposed to work given England fans also needed to get to the game, but I can only assume it was a belt and braces attempt to clamp down on any attempted incursions.)
As a result, in theory, tens of thousands of fans had to yomp or find other means of transport to make the ten-mile trek from central London to HA9.
The belt and braces approach also extended to the banning of alcohol sales and drinking on all trains from Scotland starting on the Wednesday (!), each train with its own police guard, with also the doubling of police patrols in the West End where many pubs and shops opted to close.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the first sign that all was not as the authorities had intended came as we approached north-west London by car – Carl’s dad David was the driver – searching for the type of street parking that just isn’t available today.
There were very few England flags on view but a good three hours before kick-off, the London Borough of Brent was ablaze with yellow and red Scotland Lion Rampant flags mixed with the odd blue and white of the Flag of Scotland.
Upon parking and leaving the car, the distant sound of Flower of Scotland filled the air along with a song none of us could recognise. The Scottish tilt made it obvious who was singing it, but from a distance it was unintelligible.
As we neared Wembley it became louder, the streets became fuller, and it became ever more obvious that the best attempts of the English authorities to thwart an invasion of north-west London had been futile.
There were still only a few England fans in plain sight, but what felt like thousands upon thousands of Scots.
To this day I’m unable to recall if the pubs around Wembley were closed – as they logically should have been – but the streets and areas surrounding the pubs were filled with those with pale skin who’d clearly partaken.
It was orderly though, but there were lots of twitchy police awaiting the worst. From memory, I don’t think their worst fears were realised, and while it was noisy and more than a little intimidating, I don’t recall any trouble.
And that song. It still echoed.
Finally, it became clear. To the old footballing standard, the tune of Guantanamera…
Yer cannae ban us fae Wembley,
Ban us fae Wembley,
Yer cannae ban us fae Wembley.
And they were right, at least from Wembley, the area. But surely this invasion was just an act of defiance and inside the stadium, there would only be a smattering of Scots among the home fans? I mean, literally, no tickets had been allocated to Scotland fans.
As we approached the stadium, the concrete steps that led up to each of the huge entrances of the old Wembley dripped with yellow and red; of navy and white; of blokes in kilts in comedy ginger wigs.
Like one massive, drunken Bay City Rollers tribute band.
A sight I’ve never forgotten.
At this point it became pretty clear that Wembley wasn’t going to be the English safe haven the suits had planned.
Both ends of Wembley were standing areas in 1981 and so we found a spot in the top half of the tunnel end just in front of a safety barrier (Dad logic – the barriers will protect the two skinny 15-year-olds from any crowd surge from behind) and looked around for the comfort of some English voices, shirts, and flags.
Like us, most had clearly decided discretion was the better part of valour and, in the circumstances, it was best not to appear overtly English.
As a result, the stadium rocked again to a Scottish tune, in particular, that bloody song that, by then, was ingrained in the psyche.
We agreed … they definitely cannae ban yous fae Wembley!
By the time kick-off arrived, it felt like another 70/30 split in favour of the Scots but the wise old head that is my dad tells me it was more like 40/60, albeit the English were, on the day, “very reserved”.
In 1981, there was no formal use of Flower of Scotland as the team’s anthem but it mattered not as it rang around Wembley on what felt like an almost permanent loop. Being in the midst of it laid bare what an emotive song it is if you’re Scottish – especially when playing against the Sassenachs.
And, as if the Scots in Wembley that day needed a reason to lift off its roof, good ol’ England did what they do best when the stakes are high.
They lost. 1-0.
A through-ball from Davie Provan. A faint clip of the heels by Bryan Robson on Steve Archibald. A penalty from John Robertson.
All played out before our very eyes at the Tunnel End.
That particular Wembley roar would have been audible in Thurso. All four of us were exuberantly embraced by celebrating Scots who appeared to care not one jot of our allegiances. And we weren’t about to reveal them.
On this occasion, the Wembley fences held firm and there was no pitch invasion; just 40,000-ish celebrating Scots in a crowd that was supposed to contain none.
And this time it was peaceful, at least from our experience. No post-match fighting, no vandalism, just lots of drinking, singing and celebrating.
In case you were wondering, David’s car was still in one piece when we eventually returned to it, but, despite the apparent lack of aggro, we were still a little relieved to return to the sanctity of it.
It still feels like yesterday. To think it was 40 years ago is ridiculous but David, sadly, is no longer with us.
When the Auld Enemies meet again in London tonight, Wembley will have a very different look and feel, and, in the main, in an already reduced crowd, the Scottish supporters will be confined to a contingent of 2.000 in their own corner of the stadium.
But they’ll make themselves heard and every time I hear the strains of Flower of Scotland, I’ll be transported back to that day in the spring of 1981. A song that stirs the emotions in a way God Save the Queen never can (in my humble view).
Whether there’ll be celebrating Scots on view at around 10:00pm tonight is another matter… but never write them off.
Perhaps we should be thankful, they don’t have a tricorne-wearing, rock-solid midfield general out there who knows how to despatch a pen. Maybe it’s best he’s safely tucked away in a TV studio.
While you’re here…
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