Choccy’s Diary: Euros adventures with Scotland and tournament near misses

It struck me recently, when walking down a street in the centre of Edinburgh, just how much the last 15 months or so of lockdown have affected all of us.

Seeing something of a commotion just off Princes Street, I decided to investigate further, only to notice that some joker had glued a pound coin to the floor to the pavement.

Every few minutes or so a passer-by would bend down to pick up the coin only to find it fixed firmly to the footpath – much to the joy of those looking out a nearby office window who would greet their efforts with howls of laughter while banging on the glass.

It’s funny because I remember the maintenance man at Carrington doing exactly the same when I used to work there as a coach a number of years ago, fastening a few quid to the road that led to the players entrance.

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From the offices upstairs we could see almost every one of these highly paid stars stoop down to try and pocket the dosh while they thought nobody was looking, only to be left disappointed.

Such was the hilarity it caused that Fergie demanded that the money was removed immediately. “Get those coins up,” he ordered, though what he did with them and whether he still has them nobody knows.

When people ask me what I miss about football, I always tell them it’s that kind of banter. Not playing the game, but the day-to-day fun and camaraderie we all used to thrive on.

And seeing the fun and games on the streets of Scotland’s capital the other day, I think it’s something we’ve all been in need of after a difficult year.

Pipes and Dreams

Talking of getting back to normality, all being well, the 2020 European Championships will eventually be taking place this month, exactly a year after they were supposed to kick-off.

Apart from the odd cup final, a young Choccy growing up on the outskirts of Glasgow was somewhat starved of live football on the television – that is with the exception of major international tournaments of course.

In fact, my first experience of watching anything in colour was seeing Joe Jordan’s header against Czechoslovakia securing Scotland’s qualification for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany – a tournament we were eliminated from without losing a game.

So it’s no surprise that I, like many kids that age, grew up dreaming of playing for our country at Hampden Park one day, or anywhere for that matter.

This was something of a golden period for Scottish football as, following the disappointment of 1974, Ally MacLeod’s side made it to the World Cup finals four years later in Argentina.

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It was a tournament that captured the imagination of the Scottish people with many avid followers going to every extreme in order to follow the boys to the other side of the world for a competition that some actually thought they’d win.

For me personally then, it was something of a disappointment not to play for Scotland at a World Cup having missed out on selection for Mexico ‘86 and Italia ‘90.

I thought I might have had an outside chance in 1986 and I knew Jock Stein liked me for what I’d done in the under-21s, but his untimely death at Ninian Park in 1985 may well have put paid to any chance I had of making the plane.

Saying that, I was up against some stiff competition and despite a pretty impressive goalscoring record for Celtic, the plethora of attacking talent at the time, such as Charlie Nicholas, Davie Cooper and Frank McAvennie, ensured I stayed at home.

Strange really seeing as the man who took charge of that side following Jock’s sudden death would make me his first signing for the club when he took the reins at Manchester United 12 months later.

And despite being involved in every group game on the way to the World Cup in Italy four years after, I once again was left out, this time by Andy Roxburgh.

In fairness to Andy, he did call to let me know of his decision before it made the press, but that was the kind of man he was. It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do and is probably the most difficult part of being a manager.

Despite expecting to be involved I don’t recall being massively disappointed and have always been quite pragmatic when it comes to things like that as it’s all part of the game and you have to ask yourself why you are being left out and trust the manager’s decision.

Opportunity Rox

My chance on the international stage did eventually come when Andy Roxburgh included me in his squad for the 1992 European Championships in Sweden – an experience I’ll always treasure.

One thing I did think was a little bizarre when it came to the preparations for my first major tournament was that, despite the competition being held about 500 miles west of Scotland, we decided to travel some 3,000 miles in the opposite direction to play the USA in Canada.

Looking back though, it was a great trip in terms of bonding with my newfound teammates and there were plenty of characters in that squad to keep us entertained for the summer ahead in Scandinavia.

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But it was far from a jolly-up and, although we’d been drawn in the Group of Death with Holland, Germany and the CIS, which was formerly the USSR, I was full of optimism ahead of that competition.

Wherever I’d played in my club career, I always thought we’d win, even when the odds were stacked against us travelling to the likes of Aberdeen or Anfield – and it was no different on international duty.

That said, the likes of Ally McCoist and Andy Goram were the perpetual jokers while my old pal and recent guest on “Life With Brian: The Brian McClair Podcast,” Pat Nevin, would be my roommate for the duration of or stay in Sweden as we spent hours talking music and playing Nintendo Golf.

Me and Pat go back a long way and had become good friends playing for Scotland’s under-19 side, something which obviously wasn’t lost on Andy Roxburgh all those years ago, and it’s little details like deciding what players share a room together that a good manager will spot.

Funny really as during my time at Manchester United the gaffer would often put me in a room with a newcomer who could barely speak any English. Perhaps he thought I would make more sense to them than the likes of Bryan Robson or Gary Pallister.

Over the years I would spend many a night trying to entertain colleagues from the likes of Russia, Holland or the Czech Republic who had recently arrived at the club and must have wondered what they were getting themselves into. At least I had my pick of what we watched on TV.

Talking of which, a former roommate of mine, Andrei Kancheslkis took exception with me when – despite not being able to progress at Euro ‘92 after defeats to Holland and Germany in our first two games – we beat his CIS side 3-0 to prevent them going any further.

It was a game made all the more special for me due to the fact I scored my first and, to date, only goal for Scotland.

It wasn’t really the goal I’d dreamed of as a kid. That would have been Gordon McQueen’s header against England or, even better, Kenny Dalglish’s effort against his old pal Ray Clemmence which squeezed in through his legs against the Auld enemy at Hampden Park..

But they all count and to this day I stand by the fact that my shot was destined for the net from the moment it left my foot – the fact it ended up going into the opposite corner from where it was heading is neither here nor there.

Maybe he was upset at losing out on the huge win bonus his side had allegedly been offered but Andrei couldn’t understand that we would be so competitive despite not having anything to play for.

Perhaps that goes to show that, despite playing with me at United for a couple of seasons, how little he knew about my competitiveness.

Just ask my son Liam, who I would often beat at Pro Evolution soccer because I’d read the instruction manual and he hadn’t; enabling me to hit the right buttons and sprint past his players into the goal – at least I taught him to lose gracefully.

Of course, the pick of the games for me this summer is Scotland’s game with England at Wembley, a fixture I only had the privilege of playing in once and that was a dour 0-0 draw at Hampden Park in a Rous Cup tie back in 1987.

I had an absolute stinker that day in a fairly forgettable encounter and was eventually replaced by Charlie Nicholas, though I put that down to my mind being somewhat on other things, like the prospect of leaving Celtic and joining Manchester United – a move I would make just a few weeks later.

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, Scotland featuring in an international tournament is one of the few things that unites a country that can often seem quite divided.

The other, of course, is playing against England… so roll on June 18th!

Until next time,

Slainte

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