Scotland Euro 2012 hopes were dashed last night in Alicante as their valliant attempt to overcome a mesmerising Spain ended in 3-1 defeat. Twenty-seven years ago however in a similar qualification encounter the scoreline was the same but the victors had a more ginger, freckly look about them. Just short of 75,000 Scots jammed into Hampden Park to witness one of the finest performances from their boys in recent times.
A strange quirk of coincidence has made Spain the vanquished foe in some of the home nation’s most abiding memories. England fans fondly recall the quarter-final nerve-fest in ’96 at Wembley, where Seaman had a blinder and Pearce exorcised his demons in the ensuing penalty shoot-out. Northern Ireland has long burnished in legend their ’82 World Cup side who sunk the Spanish Armada with a Gerry Armstrong strike. Wales and Scotland meanwhile share the same era – indeed the same ’86 World Cup qualifying group – for some of their favourite sepia-tinged memories with Spain again playing the fall-guy on each occasion.
As soon as Group 7 was drawn it was immediately apparent that the Welsh and Scots would be involved in a straightforward duel for the runners-up spot in a bid to book their flight to Mexico. With only minnows Iceland and a resplendent Spanish side – who had narrowly missed out on their first-ever major trophy only months previous, succumbing to Platini and co at Euro 84 – in there amongst them it would take an optimistic fool to forecast any other eventuality.
Sure enough Spain ultimately topped the quartet while it was the tartan army who proceeded to a tricky play-off with Australia, beating the Welsh to the coveted second place on goal difference. The concluding fixture at Ninian Park between the two celtic tribes will be remembered for a late penalty drama and the awful sight of Jock Stein being carried to the changing rooms by policemen after suffering a fatal heart attack.
The Spanish team, that contained the scintillating Santillana and the imposing midfield unit of Barca’s Victor Munoz, didn’t have it easy however during the qualifying campaign. In fact they only squeaked through with a point to spare after suffering two defeats along the way, both on British soil.
Their Welsh stuffing came at the Racecourse Ground, a 3-0 reverse made even more remarkable by Mark Hughes’ flamboyant bicycle kick.
Five months earlier Scotland had shown them the way with a bravura 3-1 dismantling that owed commendably little to the passionate wall of sound from the Hampden Roar and the quick in-your-face tempo of the British game; the Scots simply out-footballed Spain throughout.
With nerves beginning to fray the stage was set for a hero. Or a bona fide genius.
Looking back now it’s easy to forget just how good a side they were. The centre-back pairing of McLeish and Willie Miller was carved from Aberdeen granite and so firmly established that Liverpool’s classy Alan Hansen – with his third European Cup medal still shiny-new in his trophy cabinet – was unable to break it up. His club colleague Souness bossed the midfield and his partner wasn’t too shabby either – Celtic’s young schemer Paul McStay who would go on to earn the nickname ‘the maestro’ in a career of intelligent passing and probing. Theirs was a perfect blend of silk and cartilage-snapping steel. Up front the incomparable Dalglish was a seasoned foil for the darting menace of 21-year old ‘Super’ Mo Johnston. Add two of the top flight’s best full-backs in Stevie Nicol and Arthur Albiston into the mix, not to mention the sumptuous deliveries of Davie Cooper and you have a side who shouldn’t ever be burdened with an inferiority complex no matter who they faced.
Scotland took the lead after half an hour through a typical act of poachery by Johnston. Just before the break he leapt to claim another after fine work by Jim Bett down the right. The Spaniards were stunned but to their credit they rediscovered their sleek passing groove and got themselves back into the game midway through the second half. With nerves beginning to fray the stage was set for a hero. Or a bona fide genius. As Spain at last found a foothold and began to dominate Dalglish put the result beyond their reach with a stunner in every sense. He made it look easy – and to him it probably was – but it was in every way as unforgettable and spectacular as Hughes’s effort later that season. A sensational, blistering statement of ambition draped in tartan.
Following a narrow victory over Australia a year later Scotland were off to the World Cup finals – Mexico, Maradona and that huge shadow on the pitch that looked like a spider – only to be drawn in the ‘group of death’ with West Germany, Uruguay and Denmark. While they failed to make their mark out there, disappointingly managing only a draw with the South Americans and a quick exit home, the stylish manner in which they qualified is what lingers in the memory. Particularly a magnificent display against a side now considered other-worldly but who back then regularly played a supporting role in some of British footballs most iconic moments.