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The Aberdeen World Cup Story

June 11, 2018 6:30 pm Author: RedMatchday Team


The World’s Greatest Sporting Event starts on Thursday.

The RedMatchday team looks back in detail at the Aberdeen and Scotland story at the World Cup.

The Early Years

In club football, it is widely accepted that the European Cup was founded in Paris away back in 1954 by a French newspaper. The World Cup was also first thought of in France, the brainchild of Jules Rimet, after whom the cup was named, and Henri Delaunay. It was they who were behind bringing the game to the world. Rimet was president of the French Football Federation for the first 30 years of its existence in 1919, Delaunay the French secretary from 1919 until his passing in 1956. They forged a respected partnership as their pioneering spirit brought football into a global perspective. Rimet was certainly a visionary and the ideal diplomat with strong powers of persuasion. Delaunay complimented that with a hard work ethic and boundless energy for the task ahead.

The very first meeting of FIFA took place in 1904; significantly there was no British interest. On these shores, an aloof attitude prevailed, an approach that would eventually haunt the British game years later.

Nevertheless, FIFA declared in their own blasé way that any future competitions would have to be organised by them. While they reserved that right, it was not put into practice until some 26 years later. In 1920 at a FIFA meeting in Antwerp during the Olympic Games, it was generally accepted that a football World Cup should be arranged and implemented.

Four years later, at the Paris Olympics, it moved a stage further as an impressive Uruguayan football side swept all aside to win the Olympic football tournament. In 1926, Delaunay proclaimed that football could no longer be held within the strict confines of the Olympic Games. With professionalism now growing, it was clear that the amateur status of the Olympics would mean that the world’s best players would be deprived of the showcase they deserved.

In 1930, that first World Cup was staged in Uruguay, the small South American nation awarded the tournament on the back of what they achieved on the field. A new stadium was built, the Centenary stadium in Montevideo, to mark the 100th year of Uruguayan independence. There was no shortage of problems leading up to the tournament, given that Britain was still outside of FIFA and showed no interest, while other European countries were reluctant to travel to South America, unsurprising as back then it would have meant a three-week voyage. Eventually, four European entrants were persuaded to take part including Romania and Belgium. The expected final between the two strongest sides, Argentina and hosts Uruguay, attracted a frenzied 100,000 crowd, the hosts winning an exciting match 3-2, initiating scenes of joy in the stadium.

The World Cup had arrived although not many on these shores would have realised it.

While Uruguay were making history, back home Benny Yorston was scoring goals for fun at Pittodrie, creating a club record 46 goals from 42 games. Only a year previously, Scotland played foreign opposition for the first time when they beat Norway 7-3 in Bergen, blissfully unaware of what was happening across Europe and the world as a new era began. Scotland and the rest of the home nations had adopted an insular approach for decades and were resistant to change, quite happy with what they had, although in England a superior attitude was to prove their undoing. Scotland beat the amateurs of Norway with relative ease, Aberdeen winger Alex Cheyne the most impressive, scoring a hat trick in the 7-3 win. Cheyne was still fresh from his heroics against the Auld Enemy at Hampden when he scored a remarkable late winner direct from a corner kick, a goal that, legend has it, started the famous ‘Hampden Roar’. Significantly, just before the World Cup in 1930, the Scots were facing France in Paris, where the World Cup was first proposed. While the French were preparing for the long haul to take part in the first finals, Scotland were happy to test the water against Continental opposition and a convincing Scotland win over the French suggested that they had more to offer on a global scale. With Scotland still not being embraced, nor indeed interested in joining the ranks of FIFA, any thoughts that the home nations would ever take part in a World Cup were a long way off. Aberdeen players Frank Hill and Alex Cheyne both played in the 2-0 win in Paris.

As the competition grew in popularity and stature in Italy 1934, it was significant that the Europeans came to the fore in Italy with Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria and Italy all making it through to the last four. The hosts beat Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the final after extra time.

Four years later, Europe was in political turmoil as the competition came to France. There was no sign of the talented Argentines, who were still sulking over the fact that they were passed over as hosts. Holders Italy survived an early scare to win the trophy for the second time in succession after a 4-2 win over Hungary in the Paris final.
In Scotland, the national team was virtually invincible and it can only be imagined how strong the Scots would have been against the competing nations on the world stage.
Through the year of 1938, Scotland remained undefeated in all of their matches against Czechoslovakia (5- 0), England (1-0), Holland (3-1), Ireland (2-0), Wales (3-2) and against the highly rated, emerging Hungary who were beaten 3-1 at Ibrox. The continued omission of the home nations from the World Cup baffled many but behind the scenes there was a lot of bitterness.

The impending World War II only compounded those problems and there was no desire from Scotland and England to play enemies on a sporting field. The home nations were also at loggerheads with FIFA, who were seen by the authorities in England as a self-appointed governing body with no jurisdiction over the country that ‘invented’ the game and brought it to the world.

It is an attitude that has hardly changed over the years.

This only worsened the estranged relationship between the home countries and the rest of the world. While it was clear that Scotland in particular were keen to take part in a World Cup, with no qualification criteria in place, they staunchly remained outside of a growing number of countries that were now eager to participate.

Post World War II

That situation finally resolved itself in the aftermath of the Second World War.

All four British associations joined FIFA in 1946 and were keen to take part in the 1950 tournament in Brazil. This had been scheduled for the 1942 competition but was held over due to the war in Europe. It seemed FIFA had bowed to the home nations (Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland) in many ways, a situation that would be unheard of these days for with the introduction of preliminary rounds, FIFA granted the top British sides a virtual bye into the finals when they stated that the winners and runners up in the Home Championships would go through to Brazil. This decision was seen as a huge comedown for FIFA as they recognised the ‘tradition and history of British football’.

So effectively the Home Championships of 1950 became a first ever World Cup qualifying section for the Scots. A 8-2 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast was followed by a comfortable 2-0 win over Wales at Hampden. On 15th April 1950 a crowd of 133,300 filled Hampden for the visit of the English. It took a goal from Bentley in the 63rd minute to consign the Scots to defeat and elimination from the World Cup, albeit by their own principals – Scotland stubbornly refused the open invite to take part in the finals. It seemed that the SFA looked upon failure as no route to success – they had stated that they would only go to Brazil as British champions and that stance was not changed despite FIFA waving the olive branch at the Scots. The Scotland side at that time reflected what was happening at Pittodrie with no Aberdeen players forcing their way in to the side, although Aberdeen born Willie Moir of Bolton fame was included. It was perhaps a blessing for Scotland that they did not take part. England had proved the better side in the Home Championships but they were to be humiliated in Brazil.

After an easy 2-0 win over Chile, the English were stunned by the United States and went down 1-0 to the complete ridicule of the press at home and abroad. Uruguay would go on to win the trophy, now called the Jules Rimet trophy.

The 50s and a first qualification

Four years later, Scotland did appear in the finals for the first time.

The qualification criteria was not changed but Scotland’s attitude had; they would now be happy to accept a place in the finals even if they did not secure the British Championship. Scotland went into the championships looking for their first win in over a year and perhaps that poor form had a lot to do with them relaxing their approach to qualification. An opening 3-1 win over the Irish was followed by a 3-3 draw at home to the Welsh. There was plenty of criticism of the Scottish players in the press, the pressure was on to produce. Again at Hampden, against England the Scots were sadly outclassed in a 4- 2 defeat although that was enough to finish second and go into their first World Cup Finals in Switzerland.

The sixteen qualifying teams were divided into four groups of four teams each. Each group contained two seeded teams and two unseeded teams. Only four matches were scheduled for each group, each pitting a seeded team against an unseeded team. A further unusual feature of the format was that the four group-winning teams were drawn against each other in the knockout stages to produce one finalist, and the four second-placed teams played against each other to produce the second finalist.

West Germany, who had been reinstated as full FIFA members only in 1950 and were unseeded, went on to beat Hungary 3-2 in the final.

Aberdeen Goalkeeper Fred Martin and 36 year old George Hamilton were included in a Scotland squad of 13 players – two of whom were goalkeepers. You were allowed to take 18 players but the SFA filed the plane with committee members and their wives.

Scotland lost 1-0 to Austria in their first game and manager Andy Beattie resigned. Beattie, who was born in Kintore and started his career at Inverurie Loco Works before moving to England, was furious with the organisation from the SFA as it had been a complete shambles from start to finish. For example the Scotland players had the wrong boots and strips – most other countries had lighter weight kits which were needed in the heat. Also the manager at that time had little say in the team selection anyway. It was decided by an SFA committee.

Beattie was replaced by the physio for the second game against Uruguay. The Scots were hammered 7-0 by the World Champions in one of their darkest hours. The defeat remains Scotland’s heaviest in a World Cup finals match.

The curator of the Scottish football museum at Hampden, Richard McBrearty recalls that fateful day:

“The 7-0 defeat was hugely embarrassing for Scottish football. All of a sudden the window to the world was open.

“Before 1954 there had been the attitude that the Home Internationals was the biggest tournament. Now the SFA and Scottish teams realised how far behind other nations we were and started to learn from them in terms of training, playing style and even what boots and kit to wear.

“We shouldn’t forget that Uruguay were the world champions and a very good team. Even with a full squad, the right kit, a manager and proper preparation Scotland would probably have lost – although not 7-0.”

Fred Martin can’t keep out Miguez as Uruguay score their sixth goal

Lesson’s had to be learned. And quickly.

The World Cup was a new venture and football was changing beyond what many on these shores believed possible.

Now Scotland realised how far behind other nations they were and started to learn from them in terms of training, playing style and what boots and kit to wear.
There had been warning signs, notably the marvellous Hungarian side that had taken England apart at Wembley and in Budapest. The insular air of invincibility was evaporating and the myth that the home nations were superior was well and truly blown away.

Aberdeen did their bit to boost Scottish fortunes in the days and months after the 1954 World Cup. Under Dave Halliday they won the League and League Cup in 1955 and on the back of that success there were promotions for some to the Scotland side. That was traditionally a difficult task as anyone parcelled up in an Aberdeen shirt was rarely favoured by the selectors but Aberdeen’s success was so worthy that their better players could no longer be ignored.

Although George Hamilton was in the twilight of a memorable career and Fred Martin would not recover from leaking seven goals against Uruguay and then England at Wembley, there were call-ups and caps for Paddy Buckley, Harry Yorston, Archie Glen and Graham Leggat.

By the time the 1958 World Cup came in Sweden, the Scots discovered that FIFA’s previous help in qualifying had all but disappeared as they were placed in a tough qualifying group with Spain and Switzerland.

The Spanish were not only looked upon as likely group winners but favourites to win the World Cup itself given the way Real Madrid had made the European Cup their own in its formative years. With five Real players in the Spanish team to face Scotland in the opening tie at Hampden, the Scots were facing the best in the world including Alfredo Di Stefano, later to fall to Aberdeen as Madrid manager in the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Scotland captain George Young was having none of it: “The Spaniards are described as the best in the world, and we are expected to go to Hampden feeling inferior. They are eleven players like us and we are as good as them, if no better.” Scotland stunned their illustrious opponents by deploying a passing game, while the heavy conditions were no place for Spanish artistry – an emphatic 4-2 win was no more than Scotland deserved, offering optimism for the games ahead, albeit without any Aberdeen influence. An impressive 2-1 win in Switzerland followed and after a win over West Germany in a Stuttgart friendly, it seemed that the Scotland rehabilitation was all but complete.

When Scotland won the return in Spain 3-2 they rubber-stamped their qualification for Sweden. The SFA announced that Matt Busby would be in charge of the team for the finals. While previous manager Andy Beattie had had little or no say in team selection, that was changed by Busby who would be part of the selection of the side and would have a role in how the team would be set out tactically. Aberdeenshire born Beattie enjoyed no such luxury but at last Scotland seemed to be waking up to what was happening beyond their shores and were showing willingness to embrace change. Busby was installed as manager and relished the task ahead: “I aim not only to have a team that is content to put up a reasonable show in Sweden, but one that will have the desire to win the global trophy.” While that may have chilling similarities with what Ally MacLeod said in 1978, at least there was some foundation for Busby’s bold comments. However fate was to deal him a cruel hand; while Scotland played the Scottish League in a trial match at Easter Road on 3rd February 1958, Matt Busby was in Belgrade with his Manchester United team for the 2nd leg of their European Cup quarter final. Two days later the flight back from Belgrade made a stop in Munich. In poor weather conditions the plane crashed attempting to take off. Twenty one people died instantly including seven United players.

Matt Busby was severely injured and went into a coma, his chances of survival no better than 50-50. He would recover eventually but it would be a lengthy process. On the back of the tragic events in Munich, Scotland continued their preparations without their manager. The SFA took the sensitive view that it would be inappropriate to find a replacement for Busby given that he was recovering from the crash. Nevertheless Busby had previously informed the selectors to take a look at a young 17 year old forward who was looking the part with Huddersfield; a young Aberdeen boy called Denis Law. Aberdeen had missed the opportunity to take Law to Pittodrie.

Unlike in 1954, the SFA announced that they would be taking their full quota of 22 players to the finals. However there was a real worry up front, compounded when Law damaged ankle ligaments and missed any chance of selection. Scotland had done their homework and knew that burly, physical front players would have no effect against the more slick and athletic European and world opponents.

While there had been no Aberdeen interest in the Scotland squad since 1956, it was to the north-east that Scotland turned in their search for genuine pace. Aberdeen had struggled to match their feats of the mid ‘50s but in Graham Leggat they had a player of genuine class. Leggat had been part of the successful side in 1955 as a youngster but he had now gained vital experience and was regarded as one of the top players in British football at that time. He had been in and out of the Scotland set up but his claims could be ignored no longer.

While Leggat was an automatic choice, on the left wing it was Lossiemouth born Stewart Imlach that the Scots turned to for Sweden. Imlach had been ‘discovered’ in the trial match at Easter Road some months earlier and the Nottingham Forest winger was to play his part in the finals.

As a side note – In 2005, Imlach’s son Gary, a sports journalist and presenter, was at the forefront of a popular campaign to have Imlach and others, such as Eddie Turnbull, retrospectively awarded caps. Prior to the 1970s, caps were only issued to those who appeared in matches against the other home countries, so Imlach never received a cap. The SFA bowed to the popular will in 2006 and officially capped all players affected by the previous rule.

Although they had no manager with them in Sweden the Scots were certainly far better prepared for the Finals as they set up their base in Eskilstuna in June 1958. The squad still had an inexperienced look about it and without Busby to look after them, there were frailties in the team, proven when Scotland went on to finish bottom of their group, but unlike 1954, they emerged with pride intact. After an opening 1-1 draw with Yugoslavia in Vasteras the Scots were unfortunate not to win the game, going down 3- 2 to Paraguay in their second match. The Scots were effectively ‘mugged’ by the Paraguayans who rode their luck for long periods, then a 2-1 defeat by surprise package France in their final game did not tell the true story.

Scotland football team 1958

Scotland had begun the litany of hard luck tales that pepper their international history.

They had played with a fire and passion that brought pride back to the country and collective sighs of relief from the bigger nations that survived the group stages. On reflection, the presence of Matt Busby was sorely missed. Reports of the Scotland players indulging in the lavish offerings at hand in their team hotel were not unfounded and players were seen up all hours enjoying the Swedish hospitality.

They lacked direction, a situation Busby would never have allowed.

For the record a young Pele inspired Brazil to the final and they beat host nation Sweden 5-2.

The Sixties and some near misses

Though the Finals in 1958 offered optimism for the future, there was no Scottish presence in the latter stages of the World Cup for another 16 years, until Germany 1974. It can be argued that the intervening years saw some of the greatest Scottish teams come and go and sadly some of our greatest ever players would never grace a World Cup. In qualifying for the 1962 competition, the Scots were drawn against Ireland and Czechoslovakia. Any optimism left from their 1958 showing had been swept away, culminating in a 9-3 defeat against England, the darkest hour in Scotland’s international history.

Matt Busby had taken over as manager in the aftermath of the 1958 championships but his health would not allow him to continue the dual Scotland and Manchester United roles. Andy Beattie stepped back into the breach but he to fell foul of the demands of club and international management and the Nottingham Forrest manager resigned his Scotland post for a second time. Ian McColl took over but and he had a lot less clout than his predecessors. At 34 he had barely finished his playing career and balanced running his garage business with the national team!

There was another crucial factor that had an effect on the national side. For years Scotland had managed to hold on to their better players due to the English League wage cap – the Aberdeen players were among the highest paid in British football but that situation changed dramatically when Johnny Haynes of Fulham became the first £100 a week footballer. By then, he was partnered by Graham Leggat who was incredibly allowed to leave Pittodrie for a paltry £16,000 after the 1958 World Cup Finals. The lifting of the wages cap in England meant that the floodgates were open to plunder Scotland’s finest and who could blame them as their basic wage would increase threefold with one signature and a move south?

While it was hardly the ideal preparation for a World Cup qualifying campaign the Scots looked to be on course for Chile after beating the Republic of Ireland 4-1 at Hampden and 3-0 in Dublin. Scotland then came crashing down to earth after a 4-0 defeat in Bratislava against a rampant Czech side. The return at Hampden was met with apprehension but in a classic match the Scots won 3-2. With no goal difference taken into account the Scots finished level on points with the Czechs and a third deciding game in Brussels would decide which country would make it to the Chile finals. Scotland had cheekily tried to get the game played at ‘neutral’ Wembley, but the Czechs were having none of it and the game went ahead in Belgium. Only 7,000 were at the game as Scotland fell in an ill-tempered match. The Czechs eventually won 4-2 after extra time but it was tough on Scotland forward Ian St John who twice put Scotland ahead in the second half.

Czechoslovakia went all the way to the final only to lose out to Brazil. Again you have to wonder how well Scotland would have done had they qualified?

There was no Aberdeen influence in the Scottish side in those days, reflecting the demise of Aberdeen on the domestic scene.

In 1966, the championships came to England and the general feeling was that Scotland would have a great chance if they could qualify. In a tough group that had seeded side Italy along with Finland and Poland, it was a big ask for the Scots. The team epitomised the positive Scottish traits – with the likes of Denis Law and Jim Baxter at their peak, on their day, the Scots could match any side in the world. Finland were the minnows in the group and so it proved but Scotland came unstuck against Poland at Hampden when a win would have set up the last two matches against Italy.

Instead, Scotland would have to beat the Italians at home and away. The first part was achieved when a marvellous John Greig goal with two minutes to go at Hampden set up a decider in Naples. By then Jock Stein had taken over as a manager in the true sense, but he was without the injured Law and Baxter for the Italian return match. It proved too much and the Scots went down 3-0 to eliminate them from the group and dreams of Wembley in the World Cup disappeared. In the Naples match, there were no Aberdeen players in the side, but former Don Charlie Cooke joined Rangers striker Jim Forrest who went on to play for the Dons in 1969.

The Scotland squad are put through their paces.

In typical Scottish style, a year later, Scotland beat the World Champions 3-2 at Wembley, the first side to do so, a result that remains a focal point of Scottish international folklore.

No sooner had Scotland became the unofficial ‘world champions’ than Celtic had won the European Cup in Lisbon, the first British side to do so. Not surprisingly the Scotland squad after that would lean heavily on Celtic players.

At Pittodrie there was the Dons’ own small revolution when 1958 World Cup stalwart Eddie Turnbull took over and began building an impressive Aberdeen side. Keeper Bobby Clark was drafted into the Scotland set up, as were Jimmy and Dave Smith who both won their first caps while at Pittodrie.

For the 1970 tournament, the Scots had to overcome a strong West German side. Austria and Cyprus were effectively knocked out of contention after the early games and it became clear that the two games against the Germans would be decisive. A tough 1-1 draw at Hampden on 16th April 1969 meant that the Scots would have to win in Germany, a feat not beyond them.

In Hamburg’s Volkspark Stadion, the Scots went through the emotional wringer and typically fell to a late goal in a 3-2 defeat. It was a cruel blow for Scotland who had deserved to win after dominating the game. Back home, several league matches were postponed and the game was beamed live back to this country by Scottish Television. The Finals in Mexico were as far off as ever, and with no Scottish presence in the latter stages for 16 years, there would have to be changes made.

The successful seventies?

Scotland’s Joe Jordan celebrates his goal with Billy Bremner (right) and Tommy Hutchison (left)

Those changes came in 1971 when Bobby Brown was replaced by Tommy Docherty as manager. Docherty was a veteran player of the first campaign in 1954 and had forged a career in management as one who stood for little nonsense from just about anyone.

It was a surprising choice by the SFA who knew they were employing someone with a controversial track record but the Doc would do it his way or not at all.
Scotland were given a great chance to make the finals in a group that included Czechoslovakia and Denmark. Aberdeen ‘keeper Bobby Clark on the back of some inspired form at Pittodrie was now the number one for his country. In the opening tie in Copenhagen against the Danes, Scotland eased through in a 4-1 win, a memorable night for Joe Harper who made his debut when he came on as a second half substitute. Harper duly weighed in with a debut international goal, scoring in the 80th minute.
Scotland went on to qualify for Germany after a memorable 2-1 win over Czechoslovakia at Hampden in September 1973. Joe Jordan’s goal celebration is one of the most iconic moments in Scottish football history.

Painful memories of a previous play-off defeat against the Czechs were wiped away on a sea of emotion before a reported 100,000 at the national stadium. While the Aberdeen influence had been as strong as it had been for many a year in the early qualification games under Docherty, by the time the finals came round there were none in the squad for Germany.

Docherty had jumped ship to take over as Manchester United manager, doubling his salary in the process. Scotland turned to Willie Ormond of Hibernian ‘Famous Five’ acclaim and he did not show any liking for any Aberdeen players. He did however have some world class players to call upon and hopes were high of a positive World Cup campaign, although their cause was not helped with the first of a nauseous tradition of the players recording a World Cup song, ‘Easy Easy’ being thrust upon an unsuspecting public. The build up had not been without incident, most famously captured by Jimmy Johnstone effectively getting lost at sea near their Largs centre after a night out on the Ayrshire coast.

Johnstone was slaughtered in the press but his ‘V’ sign aimed at the press box at Hampden after he had tormented the English defence in a 2-0 win epitomised the Scots’ style and approach.

Scotland continued their hard luck tale in Germany after they came back from the tournament undefeated yet eliminated after the group matches. It was effectively decided by the luck of the draw. On paper there was little to choose between Brazil, Yugoslavia and the Scots. It was the unknown quantity of African nation Zaire that held the key.
Scotland were to play them first and managed a comfortable 2-0 win. As both Yugoslavia and Brazil bettered that, it came down to games against each other.

Scotland drew with both Yugoslavia and then Brazil and were eliminated on goal difference, typically the only unbeaten side in the whole tournament. The great Billy Bremner missed a great chance against the Brazilians late on.

18/06/74 WORLD CUP 1974
Scotland’s skipper Billy Bremner (left) holds his head after he had beaten the Brazil keeper Leao (grounded) to the ball and then put the ball past the post, from inside the six yard box.

Again it was a case of what might have been? It was certainly the strongest Scotland squad ever assembled although sadly there was no Aberdeen players included.
West Germany won the World Cup on home soil despite losing a qualifying match in an historic meeting with East Germany. Scotland returned to a hero’s welcome but promises that the good times lay ahead were perhaps premature.

While there was no Aberdeen interest in the 1974 squad, by the time the next championships came round that had changed…

Never before, nor, thankfully, since has there been so much optimism in this country before a major championship as there was in 1978 before Argentina. The Scotland side had world-class players at their disposal with the likes of Dalglish and Souness in the side. The main reason for the wave of euphoria was the exuberance of manager Ally MacLeod and while Ally was not blameless, he was more aware of the dangers that lay ahead than he was given credit for. MacLeod cut his managerial teeth at Ayr United and then Aberdeen in 1976. He arrived at an ailing Aberdeen who had slumped to the lower reaches of the new Premier league under Jim Bonthrone but almost immediately, he changed the Dons’ fortunes with an infectious enthusiasm that had the original ‘Ally’s Army’ strictly in Aberdeen dress code. Evidence of his frailties went largely unnoticed however in his first season with Aberdeen.

After taking the Dons to a respectable league position on the back of a sequence of results that included back-to-back wins over the Old Firm, MacLeod’s Aberdeen slumped in the latter part of the season and only managed to escape a last day relegation with an emphatic 3-0 win over Hibernian. Conversely, only months after that flirtation with relegation, MacLeod took Aberdeen to League Cup success, keeping his promise to bring a trophy to Pittodrie in his first year in charge. He gained iconic status in Aberdeen and it was a huge disappointment when the SFA came calling in June 1977 to find a replacement for Scotland manager Willie Ormond who resigned his post on 6th May. MacLeod was not the first choice, Jock Stein the favoured option. However Stein had just taken Celtic to a league and cup double and there looked to be bright days ahead at Parkhead.

MacLeod, on the other hand, had managed to rile opposing clubs during his spell with the Dons. After winning the League Cup against Celtic, he claimed that Aberdeen would now be serious contenders for the treble. That claim brought a swift rebuke from the Celtic support when Aberdeen visited Parkhead on Boxing Day 1976, weeks after the League Cup Final; “Ally, Ally, Shut Your Mouth, Ally, Shut Your Mouth!” they bellowed from the Jungle.

The Aberdeen influence wasn’t apparent in World Cup qualification which ended with a memorable 2-0 win over Wales at Anfield. Although Joe Harper was on the bench that night, only Stuart Kennedy and Willie Miller had found favour with the national boss – Kennedy was especially unfortunate as he found himself in direct competition for a starting place with Old Firm pair Danny McGrain and Sandy Jardine, arguably Scotland’s two greatest full backs.

The Scottish World Cup Pool of 1978.

By the time the finals came round, Aberdeen under Billy McNeill had become a real force, and MacLeod, wary of perceived Aberdeen bias and fierce loyalty to his senior players, was justified in taking both Harper and Kennedy to Argentina. Bobby Clark was included as third keeper, but his primary role was as coach to Alan Rough and Jim Blyth. Ex Don Martin Buchan also made the disastrous trip to South America. 

There was no place for the outstanding Willie Miller, an astonishing decision given that Gordon McQueen had no chance of playing after injury. Miller was listed among the reserves that did not travel, along with Arthur Graham and Andy Gray.

Scotland were shamed in the finals.

Stuart Kennedy in action against Peru

After losing the opening tie 3-1 against Peru, there was no way back for the Scots. The general belief that MacLeod was ill prepared had some merit as he turned down the opportunity to watch Peru in action, settling for watching their 3-2 defeat against Argentina on television. “They are a good side and were unlucky against Argentina. They are very physical and they look dangerous going forward. They will have to be watched at set pieces,” was MacLeod’s reaction after the game, suggesting that he did know enough of the pitfalls ahead. That opening defeat was a hammer blow for Scotland and they never recovered. The base at Alta Gracia was another concern and reports of player unrest were rife. Matters came to a head when it was announced that winger Willie Johnston had failed a drug test and was found guilty of taking stimulants. The SFA immediately banned Johnston for life and sent him home in disgrace, heading off further repercussions from FIFA. With morale at an all-time low and MacLeod seemingly helpless to arrest the decline, Scotland fell into crisis after only managing a 1-1 draw against rank outsiders Iran in Cordoba.

Scotland then went out and defeated tournament favourites Holland 3-2 in their final game to bow out of the competition, the highlight a fine solo goal from Archie Gemmill.
The return journey was a sombre one, far removed from the optimistic squad that left three weeks earlier. Stuart Kennedy played in the games against Peru and Holland while Joe Harper’s involvement was a 15-minute spell against Iran as MacLeod made a last ditch attempt to rescue the tie.

Manager Ally MacLeod during the 1978 World Cup in Argentina

Jock Stein once said that not many managers survive a World Cup and MacLeod marked time before Stein took over. Whilst MacLeod has to take some of the blame, again a Scotland manager was badly let down by the SFA and in particular Ernie Walker. The organisation of the trip was no where near the levels in should have been and poor Ally was left to carry the can. One of the greatest motivators Scottish football has seen, he deserved so much better.

1980s – Aberdeen influences the national game


The two teams line up before the match to sing their national anthems

Aberdeen began to flourish on the domestic scene and that resurgence was reflected in the national side. In the opening tie for the World Cup in Spain, a superb Gordon Strachan goal against Sweden in Stockholm got the Scots off to a flier in October 1980.

Aberdeen were represented by Miller, McLeish as well as Strachan and these three played a vital role in Scotland’s successful campaign in a group that contained Northern Ireland, Sweden, Portugal and Israel. The build up to the finals was over shadowed by the war in the Falklands, with the talk at home was that it would be better if the home nations withdrew rather than face Argentina on the field. As the hostilities abated somewhat, the Scottish squad went to Spain with four Aberdeen players, including the emerging Jim Leighton. Also in the Scotland squad was Steve Archibald, a member of the successful Aberdeen side that took the title in 1980. A slightly interesting fact from the time – Archibald appeared twice in the same episode of Top of the Pops in 1982, firstly singing “We Have a Dream” with the Scotland World Cup squad starring B. A. Robertson and then alongside his Tottenham Hotspur teammates and Chas & Dave singing “Tottenham, Tottenham”.

Incredibly there were no Rangers players included in the 22, the party made up from Aberdeen (4), Celtic (2), Dundee Utd (2) and Partick Thistle (1) with 12 Anglos.
Scotland opened with a decent 5-2 win against New Zealand, although the two soft goals which were conceded ultimately proved crucial. That set up a clash against Brazil but a brilliant early Dave Narey goal did not count for anything as Brazil outclassed the Scots to win 4-1. The Brazilians were eventually knocked out by eventual winners Italy in a classic encounter. Many would argue that Brazil side was the greatest that never won a World Cup.

The final group game was in Malaga against the Soviet Union and, not unlike 1974, Scotland had to win to progress to the latter stages for the first time. Stein went with both Joe Jordan and Archibald in a positive line up but in another disappointing night, a 2- 2 draw saw them eliminated. Stein was disappointed but proud of his players: “Of course I am disappointed we have not qualified. If we had played that way in any other group we would have went through. We are proud of our side, of their attitude and tactical awareness.”

Gordon Strachan advances pursued by a Russian defender

Jim Leighton was in line for a game against the USSR after Alan Rough’s erratic displays but in the end Jock Stein stuck with the experienced stopper. Had he played, Jim would have had the honour and record of playing at four World Cup finals.

Qualifying for World Cup Finals had become a happy habit for Scotland, a magnificent achievement. On the domestic scene there was a new force in Scottish football.
Under Alex Ferguson, Aberdeen had developed into a side that was feared at home and abroad, commanding all the attention and headlines that were usually kept for the Old Firm. By the time the 1986 World Cup came round, Aberdeen had won 3 Premier League titles, 4 Scottish Cups, a League Cup and, their greatest achievement, the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983, going on to become the only Scottish side to win two European trophies by claiming the Super Cup in December 1983.

That success was reflected in the national side when a club record six Aberdeen players were in the Scotland side that played Northern Ireland in Belfast that month – it would have been a magnificent seven had Willie Miller not been forced to withdraw through injury.

The changes in the Scotland squad for the 1986 finals were remarkable with only Miller, McLeish, Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish surviving from those who played in Spain. The qualifying section reached a dramatic conclusion following a last group game that ended in sadness when manager Jock Stein tragically collapsed and later died after the Scotland game against Wales in Cardiff in September 1985. The 1-1 draw meant a playoff against Australia but any joy was forgotten as the squad was plunged into grief after Stein did not recover. The SFA were mindful of the nation’s mood but fortunately a ready made replacement was on hand as Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson had been assistant to Stein for the qualifiers.

Ferguson was entrusted to see the campaign through to its conclusion, doubling up his Aberdeen and Scotland duties. First of all, he had to negotiate a difficult two-leg play off against Australia. Scotland took a 2-0 lead with them for the return in Melbourne and stood firm against an Aussie onslaught to secure their passage to Mexico. With the Aberdeen defensive trio of Leighton, McLeish and Miller entrenched in the heart of the Scottish defence, it was a marvellous achievement and one that was honed from Aberdeen granite. Jim Bett also travelled as did assistant manager Archie Knox and kit man Teddt Scott.

Football World Cup 1986
Scotland football team before leaving for Mexico

While Scotland perhaps rode their luck in qualifying, that luck ran out when the draw was made for the finals, being placed in the toughest of groups along with West Germany, Uruguay and Denmark.

The crucial opener against Denmark ended in a 1-0 defeat, which put Scotland up against it when they faced West Germany in the searing heat of the Corregidora stadium in Queretaro. Scotland certainly made a real fight of it and were given real hope when a superb Gordon Strachan goal put them ahead. However the Germans came back at the Scots and another tale of what might have been emerged. Franz Beckenbauer was happy to see off Scotland and reflected on the good spirit the game was played, in sharp contrast to their opener against Uruguay:

“We knew that Scotland would be worthy opponents. Strachan is a great player and we had a lot of difficulty keeping him under control.”

The final match against Uruguay still offered the Scots the chance to progress despite losing their opening matches. In a bruising and nasty match, another draw when a win was needed sent the Scots home early once again despite playing against ten men for most of the game.

Ferguson was clearly upset after the match against a side that was brutal and cynical: “As a nation Uruguay seem to have no respect for anyone. That was a shambles out there. I know we are out of the World Cup but in a way I am glad to be going home as that is no way to play football.”

SFA chief Ernie Walker roundly condemned the South Americans: “We found ourselves on the field with cheats and cowards. We were associated with the scum of world football and if anyone thinks that had anything to do with football then it is news to me.”

It was certainly the end of an era for both Scotland and Aberdeen. Alex Ferguson moved to take over at Manchester United months after the Mexico finals and Scotland appointed staff coach Andy Roxburgh to the managers’ role with the national side.

1990s – two out of three ain’t bad?

To qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Scotland were placed in a tough group along with France, Yugoslavia, Norway and Cyprus. With two sides qualifying, there was little room for error. While Aberdeen had began to decline from the heady heights of the early ’80s there was still a massive presence in the national side from Pittodrie. Jim Leighton was amassing his record haul of caps and both defensive partners Alex McLeish and Willie Miller were still there. The Aberdeen contingent also included Jim Bett who was unlucky not to appear in the 1986 finals and Stewart McKimmie who had now belatedly forced his way into the side. Roxburgh remained loyal to his new breed of internationals and qualification came down to the last game at home to Norway. Scotland had to avoid defeat to clinch a runners up place and secure their passage to the finals. It proved to be the final game for Aberdeen captain and Scotland stalwart Willie Miller whose injury in that game effectively ended a glorious career for club and country. The Scots battled to a 1-1 draw, the point enough to edge out France who finished in third place. By the time the finals came round Jim Leighton had moved to Manchester United so the Aberdeen players on board the flight to Italy included McLeish, Bett and McKimmie.

SEASON 1989/1990

There was genuine optimism that they could at last qualify for the latter stages for the first time. Roxburgh had built a side that had lacked flair but was resolute and not easily beaten. In a chilling reminder of what happened against Peru in ’78, the Scots went down to Costa Rica in the opening tie, a humiliating defeat and one that they were never to fully recover from. Dons midfielder Bett was among the players who were axed for the second game against Sweden which was a must win for Scotland. A stirring and passionate side won 2-1 in Genoa to set up a last tie against Brazil. A draw would have been enough but a late lapse in concentration in defence allowed Muller to score the only goal that knocked the Scots out again in the group stages.

Roxburgh was disappointed after the defeat: “We lost because players were getting tired. Saturday’s game against Sweden had taken a lot out of us and when players get tired, mistakes happen.”

Aberdeen were also represented at the 1990 finals by Hans Gillhaus. The Dutch striker had just helped the Dons to win the Scottish Cup before appearing in Italy. Hans was involved in one of the one infamous games at a World Cup.

The match between West Germany and the Netherlands was held in Milan, and both sides featured several notable players from the two Milanese clubs (Germans Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann for Internazionale, and Dutchmen Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard for Milan). After 22 minutes Rudi Völler and Rijkaard were both dismissed after a number of incidents. As the players walked off the pitch together, Rijkaard spat on Völler for a second time. Early in the second half, Jürgen Klinsmann put the West Germans ahead and Andreas Brehme added a second with eight minutes left. A Ronald Koeman penalty for the Netherlands in the 89th minute narrowed the score to 2–1 and Gillhaus came off the bench but the Germans saw the game out to gain some revenge for their exit to the Dutch in the previous European Championship and would go on and win the World Cup.

For the 1994 Finals Roxburgh was given the remit to continue with the task in hand. Scotland never fully recovered from an opening qualifying defeat against Switzerland in Berne and fell short of the qualifying places in a group that was dominated by Italy and Switzerland – Portugal, Scotland, Malta and Estonia were well off the pace.
Pittodrie hosted the return game against the Swiss and a John Collins goal gave the Scots a 1-1 draw before a capacity Aberdeen crowd. By then the Scots chances had all but gone and the dream trip to the States was missed.

Aberdeen were again well represented with Eoin Jess, Scott Booth, Stewart McKimmie, Brian Irvine, Alex McLeish and Stephen Wright all playing a part in the qualifying matches.

Dons goalkeeper Theo Snelders would go to America with the Netherlands. Theo sat on the bench and watched his Dutch side reach the Quarter Finals before being eliminated 3-2 by Brazil. Holland were one of the favourites at Italia 90 and again in 94 had a squad capable of going all the way but they were not helped when Ruud Gullit fell out with manager Dick Advocaat and walked out on the squad during the half time interval when they played Scotland in a World Cup warm up game.
Bulgaria reached the semi-finals of USA96’ and left back Tsanko Tsvetanov and midfielder Iliyan Kiryakov would arrive at Pittodrie a short time afterwards.

The last occasion Scotland went to the World Cup Finals was in 1998 in France, qualifying after a 2-0 win over Latvia at Parkhead on 11th October 1997 and under the guidance of our own Craig Brown. Jim Leighton had returned to Pittodrie for a second spell and was nearing the end of a glorious international career, which had spanned four World Cups. Leighton remains the last Scotland keeper to appear in the Finals and produced some incredible performances to help Scotland qualify. Jim was the only Don to play against Brazil in Paris, a game that opened the 1998 Finals although Derek Whyte and Billy Dodds had played a part in the qualifying matches. Whyte did make the squad whilst former Don Scott Booth was preferred to Ally McCoist and Jackie McNamara would later play for Aberdeen.

Scotland eventually fell at the group stages again but there was no glorious failure on this occasion; after a tough 1-1 draw with Norway in Bordeaux, the Scots were outclassed against a slick Moroccan side in the final group match. Craig Brown deserves great credit for getting this Scotland side to a World Cup, still the last Scotland manager to do so.


The wilderness years

In 2002 Scotland finished a close third in a qualifying group behind the very impressive Croatians and an emerging Belgium side. In Korea and Japan neither of the two sides made it past the group stages though as South Korea and Turkey made the semi finals. Brazil beat Germany 2-0 in the final.

Aberdeen goalkeeper Peter Kjaer was part of the Denmark squad, serving as a back-up to Thomas Sørensen. Peter was unlucky not to win more than four caps for his country but his career coincided with one of the greatest keepers of all time, Peter Schmeichel.

To try and qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany Scotland appointed their first foreign coach as German Berti Vogts took over challenge of leading Scotland to a World Cup. But he only last two years before being replaced by Walter Smith. The Scots were again in third place but this time a long way behind Italy and Norway. Italy went on and won the World Cup on penalties, beating France in the final.

For the 2010 qualifying campaign Scotland again met Norway and Scotland would finish level on points with the Norwegians in second spot. Norway had the better goal difference and as runners-up, Norway were in contention for the UEFA play-off stage, but their record was the worst of all runners-up and so they were eliminated. The Netherlands easily won the group and in South Africa they reached the World Cup final but were edged out by Spain 1-0 after extra time.

Russell Anderson had really been the only Aberdeen player involved in the national team around this time.

The World Cup in 2014 was held in Brazil and again Scotland were a long way off qualifying. Scotland finished a distant fourth in their group which again saw Belgium and Croatia qualify. The Scots had actually beaten the Croatians home and away but had been very inconsistent in a tough group that also included Wales and Serbia.

The prospect of Scotland qualifying for the greatest show on earth in the near future looks as far away as ever and given the nation’s freefall down the FIFA rankings in recent years, the qualifying process has been made all the more difficult.

Still, let’s hope one day Scott McKenna, Graeme Shinnie and co get to play at the biggest sporting event on the planet.

Finally, although he is no longer an Aberdeen player, he was a registered Dons player when his country qualified and we all wish Kari Arnason and Iceland all the very best for their World Cup campaign in Russia. Once a Don, always a Don.



1954 Switzerland
George Hamilton
Fred Martin
1958 Sweden
Graham Leggat

1978 Argentina
Joe Harper
Bobby Clark
Stuart Kennedy
Willie Miller
1982 Spain
Jim Leighton
Willie Miller
Alex McLeish
Gordon Strachan

1986 Mexico
Willie Miller
Alex McLeish
Jim Bett
1990 Italy
Hans Gillhaus (The Netherlands)
Jim Bett
Alex McLeish
Stewart McKimmie

1994 The United States
Theo Snelders (The Netherlands)
1998 France
Jim Leighton
Derek Whyte
2002 South Korea & Japan
Peter Kjaer (Denmark)








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