England play Scotland on Wednesday in one of international football’s greatest rivalries. But, asks John Anderson, can the game match the intensity of some earlier encounters?
In 1872 at a cricket ground on the north bank of the Clyde, England and Scotland played out a goalless draw which invented international football and set in motion arguably its greatest rivalry.
One hundred and five years later I got my first taste of it as a teenager, in one of the most highly charged encounters of all the 110 matches between the two countries.
A school friend had won two tickets in a raffle and we were spewed out at Wembley Park from a tube train which was steeped in a haze of scotch and cigarettes.
The fabled Wembley Way had been transformed into a torrent of urine and empty beer cans, as fans from both sides of the border relieved themselves of pints and pints of ale which had been quaffed since the wee small hours. Sadly we hadn’t brought wellies.
Several Scotsmen did not make it to the stadium, keeling over in the shadow of the twin towers, unable to negotiate the final 100 yards of a 350-mile journey south.
The last 14 years have seen not a single bagpipe sounded at Wembley nor a St George’s cross waved defiantly at Hampden.
Those sober enough to make it through the turnstile crush turned Wembley tartan, and we stood in a Scotland-dominated section as the visiting hordes saw their side, which featured Kenny Dalglish, Bruce Rioch and Joe Jordan, beat the England of Kevin Keegan, Trevor Francis and Mick Channon by two goals to one.
To be fair, we were taunted rather than terrorised by the tartan army, but minutes before the final whistle we took the sensible option of saying our polite farewells.
This left us oblivious, until that evening’s news bulletins, of the subsequent pitch invasion which left the old stadium with crushed crossbars and its hallowed surface resembling a moto-cross circuit. Those were the days when the rivalry was tribal, the hatred mutual, and the cultural collisions brutal.
The annual fixture continued until 1989, since when there have only been three renewals of hostilities. Paul Gascoigne’s audacious goal and even cheekier celebration was the highlight of England’s Euro 96 win, and three years later the rather less effusive Paul Scholes was the hero as the English came through a Euro 2000 play-off, despite losing the subsequent home leg.
The last 14 years have seen not a single bagpipe sounded at Wembley nor a St George’s cross waved defiantly at Hampden, but now the fixture has been revived as the Football Association celebrates its 150th anniversary. The question is: do we – or even should we – really care?
England v Scotland 2013 pits one nation making rather a meal of qualifying for next year’s World Cup against another who, for the fourth time running, will not be part of football’s global showpiece.
This fixture (one hesitates to call it a friendly) singularly lacks the intensity and quality of, for example, the meeting in 1967 when Scotland won 3-2 at the scene of England’s World Cup triumph and declared themselves to be the de facto world champions.
No such scenario would be remotely thinkable nowadays. The quality of English and Scottish players has severely diminished, with both domestic leagues awash with foreign imports in recent years.
A packed Wembley will reverberate on Wednesday in a way that no other ‘friendly’ match could get close to.
England’s elite clubs have business models seemingly at a complete counterpart to the requirements of the national set-up, and the game in Scotland is in crisis with once-famous clubs teetering on the brink.
Rangers’ fall from grace sees them begin the season in the third tier while Hearts kicked off their SPL campaign with a 15-point deduction, having gone into administration. The situation is so bad that the Scotsman newspaper, no less, has suggested that their readers may be increasingly preoccupied more with matters south of the border than by their own domestic calendar.
New Scotland boss Gordon Strachan arrives with a journeyman squad of whom only five ply their trade in their native land, while England counterpart Roy Hodgson admits the match is not so much a must-win, high-intensity derby as a mere dress rehearsal for the far more meaningful qualifying fixtures against Moldova and Ukraine next month.
To the rest of the footballing world it might as well be Belgium against Latvia.
However, it is in the hearts and minds of the supporters that you do detect a genuine sense of occasion, with cross-border bragging rights up for grabs.
There is no doubt that a packed Wembley will reverberate on Wednesday in a way that no other “friendly” match could get close to. One just hopes that the bared-teeth, fists-clenched animosity has been consigned to history in the same way as Bannockburn or Culloden.
But even for the most ardent fans on either side of the divide, there must surely be the realisation that this match has a rather ceremonial feel, a slice of pageantry which evokes days gone by without seeking to emulate them. There is no doubt that for 90 minutes passions will be inflamed on and off the field in pursuit of glory.
In truth, though, to borrow the words of one famous Scotsman the occasion will be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
John Anderson is a football commentator and sports writer. Follow @GreatFaceRadio on Twitter