I Marched With Ally's Army

Last updated : 06 February 2004 By The Wee Prime Minister

The sad news of the death of former Scotland manager Ally McLeod will bring a wry smile to all those who have memories of 1978 and the World Cup in Argentina. Not since Flodden has Scotland been so confident about achieving glory on foreign soil. Unfortunately, just like Flodden, our hopes exceeded our talents and we were sent homewards to think again.


Whilst Argentina 78 was an unmitigated humiliation, most forcibly demonstrated by the tendency thereafter to describe the Scottish campaign by the first letters of the names of the countries who made up the group (Peru, Iran, Scotland and Holland), and emphasised in true Scottish tradition by an ultimately glorious but meaningless victory over the Dutch, looking back, Ally MacLeod achieved something unheard of ever since in uniting the entire country, and I mean the entire country, behind the national team.


In those now far off days, a substantial part of the Scotland support were Bears, and it's a sign of how far the SFA have disillusioned the Rangers support, that most of us now wouldn't open the curtains if the national team were playing on the back green. But in 1978 it was different. Ally McLeod created a belief that we were genuine contenders and that finishing in the tournament's top 3, if not actually winning the bloody thing, was a distinct possibility. It's no exaggeration to say that it seemed everyone in the country was the proud possessor of a plastic shopping bag declaring "we're on the march wae Ally's army".


Perhaps we Bluenoses had extra reason to look forward with confidence to the global summer tournament, following on as it did from Rangers magnificent achievement in recapturing a Treble, so precipitously lost the season before.


The farewell jamboree at Hampden saw myself (Rangers End, but of course) as one of the 30 odd thousand or so who turned up to wave at a bus driving round the track. Yes, deeply sad behaviour viewed from a 2004 perspective, but very much in tune with the feelings of the time. Talking of which, almost the entire male population (comb overs excepted) had fallen victim to the perm, quite possibly the worst "fashion crime" in recorded history. Sporting a barnet that was already akin to an Afro, I passed up on this latest trend, though at the time, it was celebrity and professional footballer driven and considered the height of fashion.


The event is often referred to now as "victory parade", seen as part of Ally's legendary talent akin to selling fridges to the Eskimos, but I think that there was as much a sense of the huge distance the squad was travelling (not to mention the fans, with tales of submarines being deployed, along with more traditional methods like hitch hiking, but on an epic scale) ,which prompted a genuine show of solidarity for the manager and players. We were not to know the scale of the disaster that awaited us.


 But of course, being Scots, when things began to go tits up (I still wince at my blasé, laid back, reaction to Joe Jordan's opener against Peru), they truly go tits up on an epic scale, and when the recriminations demanded a scapegoat, it wasn't too hard for the Scottish media, supplemented by English hacks piggy backing on Scotland's qualification (since as Andy Cameron memorably put it, "England didnae qualify!") to find one in the shape of the manager. If Masson had scored that penalty, would things have turned out differently? Who knows, but his miss was prescient of the ominous direction the campaign was heading.


So, MacLeod was at fault for not having watched Peru prior to facing them, the perplexing mystery to this day as to why Derek Johnstone wasn't selected still rankles, the players arguing over bonuses like so many mercenaries, the SFA suits managing to find the worst accommodation in all of Argentina, and Willie Johnston branded a drugs cheat and sent home in disgrace (though he hardly merited the excessive headlines the tabloids assigned to their front pages), the whole tartan edifice was teetering on the precipice, and then came Iran. The image of Ally McLeod, head in hands, during that shocker, is sadly how he will be most remembered.


Back in those days the Tartan Army had yet to evolve into the menagerie of mediocrity which masquerades as today's "support" and which revels in failure, and didn't the troops who'd made the hemispheric trek to South America let MacLeod and his players know the depth of what they viewed as a betrayal. This was a savage reaction for a humiliation that had been compounded by such illusory optimism, but was deserved nevertheless.


The football gods decreed that more fun could be had from presenting the Scots with the possibility of still qualifying for the second phase, by the unlikely scenario of beating the 1974 World Cup finalist's Holland by more than 3 goals. Game on, and the traditional Scots battle cry of "get intae thum", saw the troops rally round the forlorn MacLeod and his tattered squad. And didn't the gods get the spectacle they'd planned, as when the dream had all but been extinguished, Archie Gemmell offered the tantalising hope, and then some, that a miracle was about to be stunningly realised, before Johnny Rep cruelly restored us to our proper station in football. It's often forgotten that the Netherlands only lost two games in that World Cup, the final against Argentina and the other to Scotland-wa's like us indeed!


Not surprisingly, McLeod was only in charge for one more game after Argentina, and no doubt sensing that he'd never again be able to motivate his squad, or the fans, to anything approaching the heights he'd previously achieved, resigned to once more take over at Ayr United, the club that had first brought him to attention as a manager who had something to offer.


   While the national team have plunged to new depths of inadequacy since the summer of 1978, the events of that year will remain unequalled for the sheer scale of disappointment which will never be surpassed. Still, if the circumstances hadn't demanded it, would we have witnessed a goal scored in true cavalier tradition, that still has the power to excite nearly 26 years after it was scored?



One final thought.

Over 15 years ago or so, Rangers played a friendly around Christmas/New Year time down at Kilmarnock at short notice, so it was Central Station for a few of us to make the short journey into Ayrshire. As usual, the first thought after alighting from the train was "lets find a pub", and we soon found ourselves a welcoming hostelry. Once we'd got our bearings, on studying our surroundings we were surprised to see the walls covered in football memorabilia, many of the photos being of Scotland's time in Argentina. Nudging my mate, I whispered to him "who'd want to be reminded about that debacle?" (or words to that effect). Well, I didn't have to wait long for an answer, as the figure of mine host, Ally MacLeod, heaved into view.


He'd obviously learned to accept that Argentina was a momentous time in his life and since it was the thing that he'd principally be associated with, there was no point in hiding from it. Ultimately he may have carried the can as the Scotland manager, but he was let down badly by one of the most talented squads ever to leave these shores, and by of course the ever amateurish SFA blazers who are even today at the front when the plaudits are being handed out, but disappear quicker than snow off a dyke, when the awkward questions start being asked.


Ally MacLeod the ultimate Mr Motivator-we'll not see his like again.