Saturday, 10 November 2007

The real Brit awards

First published in Sons View, 06 November 2007, Dumbarton -v- Forfar

When I was younger one of the highlights of the year was the Home International Championships – an annual opportunity for Scotland to assume their rightful place as the foremost football nation in Britain.

As I write this, there is a fresh wave of speculation about a revival of the contest between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some bunch of eager no-hopers south of the border.

Given the capacity of the English game and the interests of its global corporate investors to dominate any decision-making process, it’s no surprise that the major foot-dragging (bordering on straightforward opposition) seems to be coming from the English FA.

So, as most Sons fans will know, there is also speculation about a possible ‘Celtic Cup’ involving both jurisdictions in Ireland to make up the four.

The discussions have already been dragging on for five years or more, and they are unlikely to be resolved soon, unless someone shuts the door very firmly. Which, knowing my luck with ‘breaking stories’, may well have happened the day before you read this!

Apart from money, the chief obstacle, I guess, is the “too much football” argument. Sounds like a contradiction in terms to me! Though the threat of injury from overplaying at the top level isn’t, I admit, a frivolous issue – however much these guys get paid.

The main issue for England, of course, is that many of their players are caught up in post-season commercial activities and lucrative pre-season club tours of exotic places. And there’s the small matter of other international competitions and qualifiers for players from all nations.

All told, then, the odds look rather stacked against a revival of the ‘home’ tournament. But we can still dream, and many marketing people believe it could work commercially.

In the meantime, we have those memories of mammoth Scotland-England clashes; the pain and the glory; and of course the overlooked fact that, as a matter of record, we were champions of the world in 1967 – when we beat the ’66 Wembley titans 3-2.

(I have the T-shirt for that match. It winds up my London flatmate Jim Smith something rotten. And he wasn’t even born then. Ah, the power of truth.) *

Not all the memories are quite so sweet, of course. The one that sticks in my craw, and yours too, I’ll guess, was that Gazza goal in 1996. Not actually a Home International (they had ended by 1983-4), but the European Championships made it even more important.

As is so often the case with Scotland against England, things seemed to be going well just before they started to go really badly.

As it happens, I was watching the match in an adult education centre in the mists of Surrey. I’d neatly made sure that the charity workers I was teaching had a much-needed afternoon off (how thoughtful!), and I put my feet up in front of the telly with a lad from the kitchen – a Scot, thankfully.

It was 0-1 in the 79th minute and Scotland had won a penalty. This was it. The cheer from Bletchley could probably have been heard in Helensburgh. And then a kind of film car-crash slow motion effect took over…

The penalty was missed (I’ll spare the taker’s blushes), the ball ended up down the other end of the pitch, and Paul Gascoigne, the cheeky man-clown who is well remembered for his spell at Rangers, scored what even the most partisan Scot would have to admit was a magical goal. Which made it even more sickening.

Still, when these things go wrong, you think, there’s always next time. That was part of the allure of the Home Internationals. First, there’s the belief that you’ll beat England this year, for sure. And if not, you can still come out tournament winners.

And if that doesn’t work either, then the strategy is clearly to lure the Irish, Welsh and (especially) the English into a dangerous sense of false security… for next time.

Whether it could ever be quite the same, I doubt. The Home Internationals were at their height in what seemed like a more innocent age when commercialisation hadn’t reached the frenzy of today, and when the borders that we paid attention to were closer to home than those of a globalised environment.

But let’s be honest, there’s nothing like a Scotland-England clash. And even the revival of that alone every few years would be a fabulous gain. Not to mention a monumental challenge.


* In fairness to Jim, I should point out that he says: "No, it doesn't annoy me, Simon. It's just too stupid for words. As you know."

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