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Monday, 31 October 2011

What If? Scotland's 1960s

Jim Baxter becomes an 'unofficial World Champion'

Over to Magic Spongers' Rob MacDonald to lament the many and varied 'What Ifs' of Scotland's very own golden generation...

A famous anecdote about the Rangers midfielder Jim Baxter on international duty reads thus: As others bustled and clattered around the room he was, unusually, a study in concentration. He tapped the studs on the heel of his right boot idly, and exhaled slowly. The volume of the shouts, the barks, the back slapping increased. In the far corner, Denis Law was so flushed with intent it looked like he might explode. ‘Jim’, a voice said, over the cacophony of Celtic camaraderie. ‘Jim’, it said again. ‘You should warm up. It is England after all’.

Baxter lowered the pages of his Racing Post, and stretched his left leg out in front of him. He stretched his right leg,languid and disinterested. To the casual observer, the Racing Post exercise would have appeared the most strenuous of the three. He raised his eyes.

‘That’s me warmed up’.

This might have been big-game preparation capable of giving Sam Allardyce and the ProZone generation a heart attack, but back in April 1967 it inspired Scotland to end the then-World Champions’ unbeaten run of nigh on two years, and Baxter to stroll around Wembley like he owned the place for 90 minutes, finding time to (among other things) play keepy-uppy while wandering down the left wing.The World Champions dethroned, unofficially at least, leads one to speculate that nine months earlier, had it been Scotland qualifying from UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group Eight instead of Italy – who pipped them to top spot by two points – this particularly galling English defeat could have come in a World Cup semi-final.

The Italians famously crashed out of the 1966 finals at the hands of Pak Do-Ik and North Korea, the penultimate game of a group in which all the matches were staged at either Roker Park (Sunderland) or Ayresome Park (Middlesbrough). While a ferocious atmosphere engulfed the Azzuri, it’s hard to imagine that it would have favoured the Koreans quite so much if 18,000 Scots had mobilised to see their side so near the border, especially given that 30,000 pitched up at Wembley the following year.

Out the twice-winners went though, and on went North Korea to rub Scottish noses in it yet further by perfecting ‘glorious defeat’ before them and losing to Portugal in the quarters. Eusebio and company went on to lose to England in the semis and the rest, as they say, has been the founding principle of ill-conceived arrogance for what feels like 40 decades, rather than a mere 40 years.

Throughout the 60s – an era in which the home nations played each other every year – it was difficult to separate the English and the Scots. With the exception of a 9-3 humiliation at Wembley in 1961, Scotland were competitive throughout the decade. In fact, the ten games played from 1960-69 saw them win four, draw three and lose three. Matches were ferocious, with nearly 100,000 cramming into Wembley and crowds of nearly 135,000 packing Hampden to the rafters every other year. Away wins were rare and have since become classics – Scotland’s most famous in ‘67 was by three goals to two, though received wisdom suggests they could have had more; England won 4-3 at Hampden in the pre-World Cup championship of 1966 and the Scots gained revenge for the humiliation of ‘61 with a 10-man (with no subs, Eric Caldow – who broke his leg – couldn’t be replaced), 2-1 win at Wembley in 1963.

A decent side then, were Scotland. None other than Bobby Moore opined that the 1963 vintage was the best team the country had ever produced, including as it did not only Jim Baxter, but Dave Mackay, Ian St John, Denis Law and Willie Henderson.The class of 1967 also boasted Paddy Crerand and John Greig (and of course, Jimmy Johnstone, though he didn’t play at Wembley), but mystifyingly, the Scots failed to qualify for any major tournament that decade. It becomes an especially troubling notion for a Scotland fan when considering the fact that the period between these two famous Wembley victories – with the side arguably at its strongest – included the qualifying campaign for the World Cup in England.

The qualifiers proceeded in a fashion that has since become painfully familiar. Italy topped the group ahead of Scotland by just two points, beating them in the group’s final game in Naples – a game Jock Stein’s men had to win 12-0 if they were to progress on goal difference. A ridiculous margin, yes, particularly against a side that had only conceded three in its previous five games. You can almost hear Craig Levein saying "at least it's in our hands"... so near, yet so typically far.

This isn’t really worthy of a gripe. What is, though, is the fact that the Scots’ real undoing was defeat at home to Poland in October 1965, having already drawn in Warsaw and beaten Finland twice. Travelling to Naples needing only a point would have been an entirely different story given that the Azzuri had been beaten at Hampden only a month earlier. Most painful was being 1-0 up against Poland until the 85th minute, when two goals in quick succession whipped the wheels off quicker than you could say ‘I hope this doesn’t become habit’.

This five-point palm exploding heart technique of a result (Scotland laboured on, but they were done for) ended Scottish hopes and was compounded by what was rapidly becoming a very significant problem, namely raising their game only on certain occasions. While Bobby Moore may have remarked upon the quality of the Scots, he also felt it necessary to offer up a theory that no doubt really stuck in the craw:

“For so long their football was retarded by the belief that beating England was all that mattered. They used to drop numerous daft results against foreign teams because they never charged themselves up to play with the same heart as they did against England”.

Moore might have been onto something, but this is a charge that can’t only be levelled at the Scottish. They might have been fanatically obsessed with beating England, but they also suffered from a very British tradition at the time in which teams from Europe’s eastern reaches simply weren’t taken seriously.

The classic ‘raising of the game’ was indeed the issue – and a similar lack of inspiration can be traced right through to the modern national side: stirring performances against World Champions at Hampden undone by struggles against a below par Czech side, travails against Liechtenstein, defeat in Georgia and THAT miss against Norway*.

Failure to qualify for ’66 was the meat of failure between two slices of success for the Scots at Wembley. But the glorious victories, if in vain for all but domestic bragging rights, bookended a sequence of events that could also have been crucial to Scotland’s World Cup hopes.

Sir Alex Ferguson said that Jim Baxter’s performance at Wembley in ’67 ‘could have been set to music’. ‘Slim Jim’ also scored both goals in Scotland’s win in ’63 and no doubt a fit Baxter, such as the one who took to the field in their first qualifier in October ’64, would have walked into any of the country’s national sides before or since.

As it was, Baxter played in only two qualifying matches – that first 3-1 win at home to Finland and later, following a serious leg break in December ‘64, in the Hampden win over Italy as captain. Laid up injured for four months, Baxter found solace in drinking. Drinking a lot. His fitness suffered, as it would, and Rangers sold him to Sunderland in May 1965.

Doubtless one of Scotland’s greatest players, Baxter’s genius could well have guided his country to a World Cup in 1966. After all, with him ever present in ’62, they’d come perilously close, finishing joint top of their group before losing a playoff to the eventual tournament finalists, Czechoslovakia.

So rather than a single significant ‘What if?’ moment for Scotland at a time when their fiercest rivals flourished, the country can look back on a whole decade of them. What if they’d qualified in 1962? What if Poland hadn’t scored an 86th minute winner at Hampden? What if Baxter had stayed fit and England’s embarrassment on their own turf had come in a World Cup semi-final rather than a Home Nations Championship?

What if, indeed. It’s a question that has led the way in Scottish football for some time and shows little sign of abating.It’s little solace to know that it even affected one of the country’s greatest generations.


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