An article written by An Honest Man

Yes, this is The Celtic Underground website and no Ally McLeod was not a Celtic great however is impact on the psyche of our game cannot be overstated and with an impending decision on his investiture into the Hall of Fame imminent it is necessary for all to take off the rose tinted spectacles that history often provides and have a thorough review as to whether the undoubted impact of McLeod on our game was for good or ill.

Its June 82 and the venue is Malaga in Spain and despite it being late at night there’s still 30 degree heat.  Scotland venture onto the pitch in their 1982 World Cup opener against New Zealand and a banner is unfurled behind the goal, “Don’t worry lads, Ally MacLeod’s in Blackpool”.

Wind forward a couple of years and a well-known beer advert on the telly involved Robbie Coltrane playing a character called the Tartan Pimpernel.  His job was to rescue John McBain from jail – the goalkeeper whose crime was to let in 36 goals for Bon Accord against Arbroath.  As he is leading him out of prison the goalie turns round to the Pimpernel and says, “Hey they’ve got Ally MacLeod in there, any chance of saving him too ?!”.  Coltrane grimaces at the camera and replies, “I’ll pretend I never heard that !!”

In the aftermath of  the 78 World Cup and for the following two decades, there was no doubt who was significantly responsible for what can only be regarded as one if not the most dreadful experiences this country has ever had in a sporting sense.  Ally MacLeod brought a cringe to nearly every Scottish football fan, as we remembered, the songs, the adverts, the send off, the hype and ultimately the humiliation of a World Cup campaign that went horribly wrong.

But nearly 40 years after the calamities on Mendoza and Cordoba, a new narrative is being written.  Ally MacLeod wasn’t that bad.  He wasn’t responsible for the Hampden gathering before the flight to Argentina.  He never said we would win the World Cup.  It was the player’s fault and most amazingly, he should be in Scottish football’s Hall of Fame.

So had we got it wrong, immediately after tournament in Argentina.  Had we been too quick to judge MacLeod, were there others more culpable. and was our performance actually better than we initially thought.  In a word – NO !!  What we have seen over the past few years is a type of revisionism that even a Japanese World War II historian would call into question.

Ally MacLeod was up to his neck in the debacle that was Scotland’s fourth appearance in a World Cup Finals.  He may not have been solely to blame, there were others who did let him down and yes, those that ran the game in Scotland left him exposed.  None the less, at his disposal, Ally Macleod had – arguably – the most talented group of footballers this country had ever produced.  He took them to South America and spectacularly blew it.

His election to be amongst the games greats is yet again to be discussed in the next week.   Another attempt will be made to get him into the Hall of Fame.  Its time this debate was put to bed once and for all – Ally MacLeod should simply not be allowed near that particular institution.

The Hype
Looking back on it, at times it still seems unbelievable.  Songs proclaiming we were going to win the World Cup.  Commercials galore, dreams of who we would get in final.  Yes a nation did take leave of its senses.  And whose fault was that ?

Those who chose to defend Ally MacLeod say that he was not responsible for the grotesque Hampden send off immediately before the squad flew to the Pampas.  His supporters also claim that he never said, “We were going to win the World Cup.”

OK, so Hampden may not have been his idea – fair enough.  But if he was uncomfortable with it, why did he not stand up and say so.  Would a genuinely great Scottish manager such as Stein or Shankly have put up with that.  And talking of those managers, could you imagine their wives appearing in adverts for a national newspaper, offering the chance to win a trip to the World Cup, saying they might enter it too, just so they could keep their eye on their other half !!

With regards to whole 78 World Cup publicity machine, Ally MacLeod reveled in it and it insults those of us who remember the time to suggest otherwise.  Did he say that we would actually win the World Cup.  Not quite but almost as good as.  He did say that he expected Scotland to win a medal – in other words, at the very worst we would finish third. When asked by Trevor MacDonald what he would look to do after the World Cup, he said “Retain It “.  After losing the Home international Championships to England just before the World Cup, MacLeod insisted he wanted to win it back next year, “but it could be dwarfed by the World Cup !!”

You could write a whole chapter on some the ludicrous quotes and one liners that MacLeod came way with in the run up to the finals.  All talking up Scotland’s chances.  We are getting into the territory of semantics that would make Bill Clinton blush if you really want to argue that Ally wasn’t heavily involved in winding up the country to believe that we could actually win the trophy.

Build up on the Pitch

MacLeod’s win at Wembley in 77 against England is much celebrated – it sparked a pitch invasion which resulted in parts of the Wembley turf being on sale in Glasgow.  But it doesn’t tell the full story.  England were in disarray and as Andy Cameron was only too glad to point out, they hadn’t made it to the World Cup. Their manager Don Revie was on the point of quitting and that England team would have been vulnerable against any half decent opposition.


As for World Cup qualification, Scotland had come through a tough group that featured the then European champions Czechoslovakia.  But again that wasn’t the whole story.  We had certainly played well in the home games against both the Czechs and Wales.  However we were well beaten in Prague and when Wales moved their home game to Anfield, it made it seem like a home tie for Scotland. And the 2-0 scoreline totally flattered Scotland as the likes of Terry Yorath had taken a grip of the midfield for much of the game.  And you can’t forget that our first goal was the result of a ludicrous penalty award.

However any suggestion that those results and performances were anything less than outstanding was dismissed.  The immediate run up to the World Cup had seen us organise a friendly at home to Bulgaria which we won 2-1 and three home games against Northern Ireland, Wales and England, two of which we drew and the last one we lost.  Hardly an ideal set up  for games against Peru, Iran and Holland.  But then we are getting into the hopelessly amateurish preparations that the team had.

The Squad
Before we get to who actually went to Argentina, it worth remembering those who MacLeod felt were surplus to requirements in order to highlight the talent Scotland had available to them at that time.

Rather than take Alan Hansen who had just played and won a European Cup medal or Willie Young who was first choice centre half in a mean Arsenal defence, MacLeod chose to take an unfit Gordon McQueen (The manager astonishingly claimed that he would be fit for the latter stages of the competition – arrogance which can only be described as breathtaking)

Up front he selected Joe Harper, a player he worked with at Aberdeen.  Now Harper was a good club man but in an era when Scotland had an abundance of strikers, to have picked him ahead of say Andy Gray or Coventry’s Iain Wallace was just bizarre.  Wallace had scored in his Scotland debut against Bulgaria and would become of Britain’s early million pound strikers we he moved to Notts Forest.

But it was the omission of Andy Gray that is the most inexplicable.  At the time Gray was of the most prolific scorers in England.  Yes he did get sent off away in Czechoslovakia but his suspension had been completed and the idea that Joe Harper was a better player to have in your squad has never stood the test of time.   A recent book putting the case for Ally Macleod’s defence, claimed that Gray’s manager at Aston Villa – Ron Saunders – had said that Gray was unfit.  But that is totally contradicted by an interview that Andy Gray gave in 2009 when he said he felt was in good form at the time and that other managers who he had played against towards the end of the 77-78 season had informed MacLeod about how well he was playing.

MacLeod chose to pick the terribly off form Derby County duo of Don Masson and Bruce Rioch in midfield whilst ignoring John McGovern – the captain of the then English Champions completely.  Yes the duo had been good in the qualifying campaign that had finished 8 months previously, but they hadn’t kicked a ball that season for their club.  MacLeod believed that they would suddenly turn it around in Argentina.  How wrong could you be, and the fault line that was his blind loyalty to some players was there for all to see.

We took one left back to Argentina (Willie Donachie) and chose not to play him in the opener against Peru (a team noted for their use of wingers) instead preferring to play a centre half (Martin Buchan) in that position.  We could have taken Leeds United Frank Gray who would win a European Cup medal a few years later or Arthur Albiston who had just won an FA Cup winners medal with Manchester United.

But we did take arguably the best player in England at the time – Kenny Dalglish.  We took Graeme Souness who had also just won the European Cup with Liverpool. We had John Roberston, Kenny Burns and Archie Gemmell who were integral parts of the newly crowned English Champions Nottingham Forest.  Manchester United’s most important player at the time was the aforementioned Martin Buchan.  His team-mate Joe Jordan was also one of England’s most expensive players.  Derek Johnstone was in the form of his life and had scored more than 30 goals.  A Scotland manager today would kill to have such a choice.

The only area we were really short on talent was goalkeeper where Alan Rough and Jim Blyth were the best of a pretty ordinary bunch.

Whatever excuses can be made for what happened in Argentina, not having good enough players at his disposal is one not even MacLeod’s most ardent defenders can make.

The Preparations
Scotland’s HQ at Alta Gracia is of course now infamous.  By all accounts it was spartan, low quality rooms, the training pitch was poor and there was nothing to do for the players resulting in an outbreak of boredom.  Again MacLeod’s defenders insist it wasn’t his choice.  So what was ?  Why did he not tell the SFA what he wanted – why not give them a specification and say this is what we need.

What was blindingly obvious after the catastrophic performances against Peru and Iran was that little homework was done.  Those sticking up the manager say that he wasn’t given the money to go and watch the opposition but that he had watch videos of them – an argument which has only recently appeared – At the time of the World Cup MacLeod had claimed that he had more pressing matters in Scotland to attend to .  If the money story is true, one can only presume that there was something wrong with Ally’s VCR.

MacLeod had given a television interview in which he stressed the importance of Martin Buchan’s ability to keep flying winger Juan Carlos Oblitas in check for the Peru game.  Unfortunately for Ally and Scotland Oblitas was a left winger and he chose to play Buchan at left back.  After the match Buchan was reported to have said, “Who the f*** was that No.7 ?”.  Well that was Juan Munante – as any kid collecting Panini football stickers could have told him.  Peru didn’t just turn up all of a sudden with a new game plan.  They used the same players and formation that they had done in the run up to the competition.  Indeed a number of the Peruvians had played in the 1970 World Cup, eight years earlier.  Some players – such as Kenny Burns – have admitted that they took Peru too lightly and had never heard of their best player – Teofillo Cubillas.  A fairly shocking indictment of Ally MacLeod’s homework on the other teams  – or rather lack of.

As for Iran, the sheer misery of that performance – remember they got completely spanked in their other two games – was testimony to the complete failure of the manager to do his job properly.

Yes this was fine performance and thoroughly deserved win.  No doubting Archie Gemmell’s goal was a Hall of Famer.  But remember, the Dutch went into this game needing to lose by three clear goals to go out, so they were hardly going to be gung-ho.  However what that game brutally exposed is what happens when you pick players that are on form as opposed to one who aren’t.  Souness and Gemmell made a huge difference.  The weakest link on the day was at right back where MacLeod picked Stuart Kennedy – a player from his Aberdeen days – when an in form Sandy Jardine would have been much better.  (losing Danny McGrain to injury before the finals was a big loss, I’ll grant that)

Was it the players fault ?
Certainly MacLeod could not be held responsible for the likes of Willie Johnston failing a drugs test.  Blame for that must rest on the shoulders of the player in question.

But if you read what the players had to say about the manager he preferred to act like their pal or their mate.  A manager must know when to put an arm round a player and he must also know when to kick backsides.  The latter was clearly lacking in MacLeod’s armoury.

Most players have always given the impression that they felt sorry for MacLeod. One exception at least in public was Derek Johnstone – who has always made it clear that he fell out with MacLeod and didn’t get on with him.  As mentioned he had been in prolific form and one of the few bright spots in a miserable set of games before the World Cup were his headers against Wales and Northern Ireland – two of the best headed goals you will ever see.

Johnstone now faces claims by those who stick up for Ally MacLeod that he would only play for Scotland if he was picked at centre half and not at striker where he had such a good season with Rangers.  It’s a claim that Johnstone contradicted in his own biography and what evidence there is, backs the player up.  He was happy to play up front immediately prior to the World Cup and he would later play for Scotland again after the World Cup as an attacker.  I’m afraid the idea that a striker who had just scored 30+ goals in a season and had been voted Player of the Year, saying to a manager that he would only play in a World Cup if picked at Centre Half is stretching credibility to breaking point.

The Legacy
After the bravado that moved into buffoonery of 78, it was no surprise that ever since we have tried to calm things down and manage expectation far better when it comes to World Cup Finals. But there is line between, arrogance and a modesty that inhibits performance.   In 78 it was the former but ever since then it has been the latter.

Admittedly, Scotland managers have not had the quality of players available to them that MacLeod did and can point to at least two occasions where we got the most difficult group possible – MacLeod incidentally described his 78 World Cup group as the perfect draw.

But as one journalist described our 82 WC performance – we tip-toed into battle and tip-toed right back out again.  The benchmark of the 82, 86 and 90 campaigns seem to be one of lets not embarrass ourselves like we did in 78.  Of course Messrs Stein, Ferguson and Roxburgh deserve criticism for that.  But as a result of the 78 World Cup we have completely lost any swagger.  That doesn’t mean we take our opponents lightly but having self-confidence is a good thing.  Thanks to Ally MacLeod we have gone from one extreme to the other.

The Hall of Fame
Imagine a record producer who is given the chance to work with Gerry Rafferty, Jack Bruce and Alex Harvey at the same time but the end product is Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.  Would you give him a Grammy for getting them in the studio together ?  Of course not, so why on earth are we seriously considering putting Ally MacLeod into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame ?

The Hall of Fame should be about excellence and not mediocrity.  It should be highlighting those individuals whose achievements have done us proud.  Not a sympathy vote for a man who got it terribly wrong. SIr Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly, Sir Matt Busby, Jim MacLean – they are all outstanding Scottish managers who achievements are not up for debates.  Ally Macleod however was a man totally out of his depth who presided over a humiliation (much of which was his own making) that DID leave a scar on the game on this country.

It has become almost an annual thing to talk up Ally MacLeod getting into the Hall of Fame.  But ask yourself this. Would England entertain Graham Taylor.  Would France place Raymond Domenech up there with Michel Hildalgo or Aime Jacquet ?

We all know the answer so why in Scotland do a certain section to want to reward unmitigated failure with a respect it doesn’t deserve.  But all accounts Ally MacLeod was a pleasant person and yes those who ran the SFA and some of the players must take some of the responsibility for what happened.  But if there is an offence of crimes against Scottish sport, then Ally MacLeod is guilty as charged and any  attempt to pretend otherwise is fanciful.

The most offensive thing I heard from both him and his supporters is that he gave people “hope.’ A pathetic attempt to justify the hubris.  This is utter patronising drivel which is usually the preserve of politicians and their defenders who after promising great things have been exposed as nothing more than Rasputins.

Its worth remembering when asked if Scotland wouldn’t win the World Cup, who would, MacLeod replied “Hungary”.  Their campaign ironically was nearly as bad as ours albeit that their group was far harder.

If MacLeod is elected, we are saying that the Scotland’s 78 World Cup Campaign wasn’t that bad, the boasting and build up weren’t embarrassing, that the players we took to South America were distinctly average.  Well I didn’t imagine what I saw on my TV in 78.  A potentially great Scottish team, that should have qualified from its group with relative ease, ended up as one of the game’s biggest laughing stocks.  Therefore one of its main architects should not therefore be considered for ennoblement so to speak.

At this rate by 2030, I can imagine members of the business world in Scotland saying Fred Goodwin was just misunderstood !!.