Desmond Kane

Scotland must avoid natural flirtation with farce

Desmond Kane

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There remain seminal moments in the lives of others that are
worth dusting down every so often for a nostalgic look back, especially in
times of extended hardship.

On the cusp of the 1-0 defeat to the Netherlands at Hampden
Park that saw Scotland tumble out of contention to reach the 2010 World Cup
finals, one was lucky enough to spend an evening in the company of the always personable
Lou Macari.

In discussing the natural peaks and troughs of a life in football that saw him
accumulate over 400 appearances as a mobile midfielder of some repute with Manchester United, Celtic and Scotland, there is little or no dispute that Lou remains a fervent patriot. 

How Scotland could do with a figure of Macari's calibre when
they face the Czech Republic in their Euro 2012 qualifying fixture on Saturday. This is a match that will either endorse the belief that Scotland possess a squad on the
rise, or could sound the Last Post on another campaign of failure. It is make or break time in every sense, but
Scotland's natural tendency to find themselves in such a tight spot is typical.  

Macari was punted as Celtic manager in 1994 for taking a
trip to the World Cup finals in the USA. The then Celtic owner Fergus McCann
argued otherwise, announcing the manager's dismissal by addressing him as "Luigi".
However farcical Macari's nine-month spell as the Glasgow club's manager ended, it was
nothing compared to the days he spent representing Scotland as a player. 

Macari was part of a squad that set sail for the Argentina
World Cup finals in 1978 that was peppered with starry names, including Kenny
Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Martin Buchan, Bruce Rioch and Joe Jordan. A squad full of winners were somehow left feeling like chumps when they washed up back in Scotland. The bruising of desolation after great expectation takes some time to heal in football. 

The mild-mannered manager Ally MacLeod aimed to bring back the
trophy only to visit the sort of calamity that few would have envisaged. "I'm
thinking over 30 years later, how did we ever go to a World Cup in South
America believing we could win it?," commented Macari.

"We got off the plane from Buenos Aries to Cordoba. First thing that happens when we
get off the plane at Cordoba is the bus breaks down. We stop the bus and put
the brakes on, and the TV cameras are there.

"The TV cameras are there with Trevor McDonald
reporting back for News at Ten saying that this is a 'bad start for Scotland
at this World Cup', taking images of the bus not moving up the hill. That
was just the start."

Scotland's trip to Argentina remains something to be
cherished 33 years on because it was so ridiculous. They had recorded a glorious soundtrack
fit for world champions - including the lyrics "we're on the march wi' Ally's
army...and we'll really shake them up, when we win the World Cup" - and embarked upon a lap of honour around
Hampden Park in an open-top bus before they left the country. 

Living in a hotel that was a converted stable, a couple of
Scotland players almost got shot up trying to access a casino through a hole in a fence that was flanked by armed
guards with machine guns. Partick Thistle's Alan Rough apparently uttered the line: "don't
shoot me, I'm the goalkeeper". The farce never concluded with some gun-toting South Americans.

The Rangers winger Willie Johnston was sent home for failing a drugs test for
unknowingly consuming a banned hay fever
supplement, while there were rumours of players visiting prostitutes during the
cursed two-week stay in South America. Macari remembers Tom Forsyth, the Rangers
defender, being mortified at breakfast one morning as he digested the newspaper
headlines from back home.

"Tom was an honest and genuine, big Scottish lad," says
Macari. "He comes down one morning and says "f*****g hell, you're no going
to believe what is in the f*****g Record today. My wife is f*****g pregnant. She is about to drop a
bairn and it's in the papers that I've been out with a prostitute."

In stifling heat, Scotland lost 3-1 to Peru before drawing
1-1 with Iran. In keeping with the somewhat senseless nature of Scottish football, they
beat a Netherlands side bound for the final 3-2 in their closing group match
with Archie Gemmell scoring his fabled slalom goal through a posse of Dutch
shirts.

Macari confesses MacLeod had other things on his mind. "It
got worse as the days went in. I remember Ally addressing us one day. He said: 'It is
getting worse, lads. That record we made before we left, they're now giving it
away in petrol stations back in Glasgow for nothing.' He was serious.

"All the facts about the hot conditions, tough teams
and arid pitches weren't fed to the Scottish public. All that was fed to the
Scottish public was that Scotland are away to a World Cup, and in a month's
time they are coming back with a trophy."

The cast changes over the years, as it always does in sport,
but Scotland's penchant for ridiculous occurrences is very much alive and
well. At times, it seems to be built into the DNA of the country's sporting
psyche.

Scotland's visit to Prague to tackle the Czech Republic 11
months ago was not far short of falling into the same bracket of shamefulness as
the botched campaign in Argentina.

Craig Levein's decision to send out a Scotland side in a
6-4-0 formation was the equivalent of sticking out 11 sitting ducks. Scotland
lost the match 1-0. The goal was coming all night long, and when it eventually
came, they could not even fall back on the tried and trusted Scottish line of
being unlucky losers.  

Like Ally MacLeod in Argentina, Levein has probably learned
more from the nature of that loss and the criticism that tailed his tactics to
last him a lifetime. Failure to clasp the draw they visited Prague for has left Scotland with little room to manoeuvre
as they seek to verify their claims for second place and a potential play-off place ahead
of the Czechs in Group I.

If one accepts Scotland are unlikely to be gifted any
presents from world champions Spain in their final match of the section in
Spain on October 11, maximum points must be gleaned from the home matches with
the Czech Republic on Saturday and Lithuania on Tuesday before the
penultimate match of the qualifying campaign in Liechtenstein on October 8.

It looks a manageable
task, but the negative tactics of a year ago will stalk Scotland if they fail
to down the visitors on Saturday.

Nine points from their next three games are required, or
Scotland will extend their absence from a major finals to 14 years by the time
Euro 2012 is played out in Poland and Ukraine.

Like Argentina in 1978, it is another seminal moment for a Scotland
team and its manager.

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