“My name is Ally MacLeod, and I am a born winner!” And we all know how this story pans out.
Let’s cut the man some slack, though, for he wasn’t quite the congenital loser he’s usually painted as. True, the high-water mark of his playing career as a willowy, crowd-pleasing left winger - a man-of-the-match performance for Blackburn Rovers in the 1960 FA Cup final described as “magnificent” by the Guardian - earned him nothing more than personal plaudits and a runners-up medal after a comprehensive 3-0 defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers.
But there were notable achievements when he hung up his boots and clambered into the dugout. First, a couple of promotions with Ayr United, a club he very nearly took into Europe in the early 1970s. Then tangible success at last: a Scottish League Cup with Aberdeen in 1976, the club’s first triumph in the competition for two decades and only their second major trophy in an otherwise barren 20-year stretch. Dons’ supporters who still sing hosannas to Derek McInnes will know how good a League Cup can make you feel.
MacLeod did a fine job in his short time at Pittodrie. Not quite Fergusonesque, granted, but it’s hardly fair to measure ordinary humanfolk using that particular metric. He joined Aberdeen in November 1975 with a first-ever relegation for the club looming. MacLeod’s side avoided humiliation by the skin of their teeth, goal difference sending Dundee down instead. At which point the club’s fortunes turned round abruptly and spectacularly.
Aberdeen spent the next season on the fringes of the Premier Division title race, finishing third, a highly creditable outcome given what had gone before. Then there was that League Cup win, a perfect way to celebrate MacLeod's first anniversary in the granite city, and a personal triumph to boot: the Dons beat Celtic 2-1 after the manager took off Drew Jarvie, who had equalised Kenny Dalglish's opener in the first half, and replaced him with Davie Robb. No prizes for guessing who scored Aberdeen's winner. "There couldn't be a more likeable man in the game," purred the BBC's Archie Macpherson as MacLeod gambolled across the pitch after the final whistle, bear-hugging whoever happened to cross his path. "I have a suspicion that Mr MacLeod's ribs will be broken before the night is out."
With his team playing exciting, chest-cavity-bothering football - en route to that League Cup win, they had scintillatingly skelped the league champions, Rangers, 5-1 - average crowds at Pittodrie had shot up from 5,000 to 20,000. The Guardian described MacLeod as the "Pied Piper of the Scottish game". Newcastle United tried to tempt him south in February 1977 but MacLeod opted to stay put. Though not for long. Scotland parted company with Willie Ormond three months later and the once perennial first choice, Jock Stein, confirmed with the SFA that he would remain at Celtic, MacLeod was offered the national job. Concerned that the chance had arrived too early in his career, but fearing he would never be asked again, he seized the opportunity with both hands. "Concorde has arrived!" he announced with a grin at the big unveil, theatrically tapping the side of his aerodynamically designed nose.
The Jarvie-Robb switcheroo at the 1976 League Cup final was not representative of MacLeod’s managerial skillset. He was a talker, not a chalker, eschewing the tactics board in favour of flamboyant motivational speeches, which were delivered with both players and fans in mind. Mainly fans, actually, and his blustering approach to PR had mixed results from the get-go. Before his first match in charge of Scotland, a Home International against Wales at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, he announced to the press that, of a home XI which featured players from Everton, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Stoke City and PSV Eindhoven, he had heard only of Derby County’s Leighton James.
"Perhaps he will know some of our names now, and not be so ignorant," seethed the Welsh captain, Terry Yorath, of Coventry City, after his unfancied side held Scotland to a hard-fought 0-0 draw. MacLeod's mouth then got him into a wee bit of bother before Scotland's visit to Wembley, when he cracked the following gag: "I don't dislike the English, I hate their guts!" It was a deliberate joke, a pantomime rallying cry, and devoid of any genuine ill-feeling. But cheap cracks delivered with a twinkle in the eye read flat on the page, and understandably the bon mot played rather better in papers published north of the border than those sold down south.
But initial results more than made up for it. In between the Wales and England games, Northern Ireland were dispatched 3-0. Then at Wembley, England were claymored in a 2-1 victory more comprehensive than it sounds. Perhaps fuelled by MacLeod's air-punching exuberance on the touchline, the goalposts came crashing down. A gleeful MacLeod said that if he wasn't the manager, he would have travelled to London as a punter and been "down there on the pitch with the boys". ("He didn't say if he would have brought down his turf-cutting kit, as the others seem to have," quipped Frank Keating. )
Scotland, having proved themselves the dominant team in British football by landing the Home Championship, went off to South America for a summer tour. Results were mixed. Scotland went 3-0 up against Chile after 37 minutes in a match which saw them flop over the line 4-2. César Luis Menotti's Argentina were up next, and the Scots were the better team in a feisty match in Buenos Aires in which Willie Johnston was sent off for being thrown around like an old sock by Vicente Pernía. The winger left the pitch in tears over the injustice of it all, and later claimed he was approached that night by the striker Leopoldo Luque who told him that he was a "very good player . . . but be warned, do not return to Argentina for the World Cup because things will not be nice for you".
Next up was Brazil in Rio, which gave MacLeod another opportunity to showcase his showman. “Brazil are the number one team in the world,” he announced, “but we’re pretty good too. We’re looking forward to playing them on their own ground and beating them. I’ve told the lads this is a rehearsal for next year’s World Cup final.” Oh Ally! Sure enough, Scotland didn’t turn up, and were easily swatted aside, 2-0 in a nondescript affair.
Looking back, though optimism abounded at the time, MacLeod’s Scotland were already tottering unsteadily on the brow of the hill. If that preposterous day at Wembley wasn’t MacLeod’s signature success as Scotland boss, then is the 3-1 World Cup qualification win over the European champions, Czechoslovakia, at Hampden in September 1977 the one?
Admittedly the Czechs had misplaced their form since winning the Euros 15 months earlier, and their preparation for the game was disrupted when they were forced to travel to Glasgow from London by train after missing a connecting flight at Heathrow. But that shouldn't take away from a Scottish performance that David Lacey described as aggressive, well-coordinated, remorseless and hard to resist. Scotland wrapped up the group in Liverpool, the Welsh opting to play their home game at Anfield and going down 2-0. The match is remembered for an infamous penalty decision 12 minutes from time -was it Joe Jordan who handled Johnston's cross, or David Jones? - but few remember two other penalty shouts, a legitimate handball appeal in the area against Joey Jones, and a more questionable one when Jones upended Dalglish.
The luck probably evened itself out, though successfully floating that idea anywhere in Wales is a difficult proposition even to this day. “All I know is that a hand punched the ball, and it’s up to the referee to make the decision,” shrugged MacLeod. “I think we should have had a penalty earlier. You lose some, you win some. I am just glad to have reached the finals.”
The press had been in no two minds about Scotland’s chances at the World Cup. “There can be little doubt that Scotland will be a force in Argentina,” the Guardian reported after the Wales game. “There is really no reason why they should not distinguish themselves in South America.” Laugh it up, but this wasn’t a contrary view at the time. And so the hype machine went into overdrive. MacLeod starred in an advertisement for a carpet company, sat on a rug dressed as a pistol-wielding gaucho. His wife, Faye, was the face of a World Cup ticket competition run by the Daily Record and the Co-op.
"With a little bit of luck I'll soon be on my way to Argentina," she twinkled, "just to keep my eye on Ally!" The team gave the thumbs up to Chrysler cars - "If there were a World Cup for value, Avenger would win it!" - and Polaroid cameras. On billboards across the land, Joe Jordan's gappy smile was filled with teeth after drinking restorative Heineken, a popular non-isotonic hop-based sports beverage. The team were also offered money by the British American Tobacco Company to shill fags, a move which quickly descended into controversy and farce. ("Several of our players smoke, so it would be untruthful to back an anti-smoking campaign," explained MacLeod in response to criticism from Scottish health education executives, genuinely believing the baroque logic.) Rod Stewart and club comic Andy Cameron recorded celebratory top-10 singles, the execrable Ole Ola and the execrable Ally's Tartan Army. Everyone was in on the act. The battle fever was on.
Problem was, Scotland's form had taken something of a dip. 1978 began with an unconvincing 2-1 victory over Bulgaria, after which the Home Internationals proved something of a downer. A miserable 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland was followed by a farcical 1-1 draw against Wales, Willie Donachie throwing away victory by sweeping a backpass into an empty net, having declined to check the position of his keeper, Jim Blyth.
England then came to Hampden, and though Scotland were the better team, the visitors won thanks to a late goal, Steve Coppell converting a Peter Barnes cross, thus nicking off with Scotland's Home Championship title. "The worst player scored from a cross by the second worst," sniffed MacLeod as the Tartan Army gave their team a rapturous reception despite the result. The boss added that he was sad to be handing over the Home Championship trophy to England, but fully intended to wrest it back in 1979, although "it could be dwarfed by the World Cup". Oh Ally!
Scotland departed for Argentina in a manner which redefined hubris, sweeping out of Hampden in front of 30,000 delirious well-wishers, the sort of jamboree usually held when teams come back holding something tangible, metallic and shiny in their hands to boot. Stein, who harboured private doubts over MacLeod’s chops at the highest level, noted that it was all well and good “turning handstands” at qualifying for a World Cup that England had failed to reach, but “there’s a big world out there and the English aren’t the only people who live in it”.
And if Scotland had indeed been getting ahead of themselves with their fancy farewell, the final leg of the long journey to the 1978 World Cup should have given them pause. On the hill up to their hotel in Alta Gracia, the clutch on the old team bus burnt out and the clapped-out charabanc had to be nudged from behind along the final 200 yards by a friendly truck. Having already redefined hubris, MacLeod and his men were now inadvertently penning a new meaning to harbinger. Dr Johnson would have been proud.
Peru were first up. And there were two problems here. Firstly, it was abundantly clear that the Scottish midfield pairing of Don Masson and Bruce Rioch had shot their bolt. Lacey's analysis after the defeat by England hit the nail firmly on the head. "When Rioch and Masson, neither of whom had played badly, to be fair, left the field together 15 minutes from the end, there was a strong feeling of symbolism in the change, hammer and sickle giving way to mallet and plane in the shape of Archie Gemmill and Graeme Souness. This pair, with the ever-consistent Asa Hartford, are surely better equipped now to give Scotland the variations of pace, the greater choice of angle and wider range of movements that will be needed in Argentina." However, MacLeod opted to retain his old faithfuls for the opening match.
Perhaps more worryingly, MacLeod had given a television interview in which he stressed the importance of Martin Buchan's ability to keep a hold of flying winger Juan Carlos Oblitas. All well and good, except that Oblitas was a left-winger, and Buchan was being posted at left-back. A few months earlier, MacLeod had been conspicuous in his absence as the managers of several World Cup finalists visited Lima to watch the Peruvians play Argentina in a friendly. A BBC crew was there waiting to film his arrival, sure that the manager would have wanted to run the rule over potentially dangerous opponents. MacLeod didn't turn up, citing a must-attend social engagement. There was a strong sense that Ally had not finished his homework before going out to play.
Sure enough, after a slow start, Peru proved themselves the bosses of Scotland, Teófilo Cubillas conducting the orchestra, Rioch dancing to his tune. Even the Observer's television critic could see this wasn't a very clever state of affairs, though admittedly this was the brilliant Clive James we're talking about. James noted archly that the Peruvians had "revealed an ability to run faster with the ball than the Scots could run without it". Scotland's undressing inspired other utterances of tinder-dry brilliance. "I would like to congratulate Scotland and Mr MacLeod on the team they presented to us," deadpanned the Peru manager, Marcos Calderón, after his side's 3-1 win.
"Our main fault lay in not marking Cubillas," sighed MacLeod, which led Lacey to remark that the Scotland manager's observation was made "much as a man might reflect, on falling out of an aircraft, that on second thoughts he should have worn a parachute". Meanwhile an unnamed Dutch journalist, upon hearing that Kenny Burns was the current player of the year in England, spluttered: "You are pulling my trousers!"
Scotland, 9-1 dark horses to win the title, were suddenly 33-1 outsiders. There’s no need to forensically pore over what happened next. Johnston was sent home for taking pep pills, despite playing as though he was hooked on Mogadon; there were rows in the camp over bonus money; and the team drew 1-1 with Iran, completing a trifecta of wondrous dictionary rewrites, following up the hubris and harbinger updates with a free-jazz reinterpretation of nadir.
Back home, Chrysler withdrew their sponsorship. “It was time to call a halt as the team just did not live up to the copywriters’ claims,” smarmed a company spokesperson, his voice barely audible over the furious soaping and rinsing of hands. At least Chrysler hadn’t manufactured the team bus. A more trenchant statement was made by one punter who lobbed a brick through the window of the Scottish FA, presumably to bring symbolic attention to the architectural aperture through which Scotland’s dignity had long since departed.
And then came Holland.
Scotland had to beat the 1974 finalists by three clear goals if they were to clamber out of the hole they had dug for themselves and slip into the second round. Johan Cruyff might have gone, and the Oranje hadn't been that great against Iran and Peru themselves, unconvincingly beating the former, creating nothing in a draw with the latter. But a team boasting Ruud Krol, Johnny Rep, Johan Neeskens and Rob Rensenbrink were still the real deal. Scotland might have been relying on the fact that they had to click at some point, but then so were the Dutch. It didn't look promising. The Observer doyen Hugh McIlvanney noted that MacLeod was "the most grimly beleaguered manager even the Scots had known", and concluded that "Scotland had every right to pessimism".
There remained one hope. MacLeod had finally seen some bloody sense, and refashioned his midfield to contain Souness, who in his last competitive game had set up the winning goal in the European Cup final. MacLeod’s folly in not picking him in the first place was evident from the off, with Scotland wheeching out of the traps. After five minutes, Souness glided down the right wing, paused awhile to consider his options in that haughty manner which would become so familiar to Liverpool fans, and sand-wedged a cross into the centre. Rioch battered a header on to the crossbar. Unlucky? Naw, he should have scored.
Two minutes later, Scotland had the ball in the net, the Dutch stepping up for offside, Tom Forsyth staying put on the penalty spot and popping the ball off the left-hand post and in. The goal would stand today. Forsyth was onside, just, but Stuart Kennedy, miles out of the road on the right, was half a yard off. But this was 1978, a foreign country where linesmen are still called linesmen and do things very differently.
Another seven minutes had passed when Scotland had the ball in the Dutch net again. And for a second time, the goal was chalked off. Alan Rough, his baseball cap wedged atop a springy perm and threatening to skyrocket towards the evening sun at any given point, launched a long ball forward. Krol sent an uncertain header back towards his own box. Dalglish beat Wim Rijsbergen to it, stuck his right boot out, and guided past the advancing Jan Jongbloed. But Dalglish was adjudged to have clipped Rijsbergen's heels, another generous decision, so that was that. A minute later, Dalglish sent a low shot whistling just past the post. This was turning into a stunning Scottish performance. If your auntie had baws, and a' that, but these had been fine margins: on another day, Scotland could easily have been three or four goals to the good before 15 minutes had elapsed.
Predictably, then, it was Holland who would take the lead, and in highly farcical circumstances. The Scots had a decent spot-kick shout around the 20-minute mark, Jordan hacked from behind by Jan Poortvliet, but the big man had clearly used up all his penalty-box luck at Anfield, and it was karmic payback time. Instead it was the Dutch who opened the scoring from 12 yards. On 35 minutes, Rough rolled the ball out to right-back Kennedy, who froze on the spot - how Scotland missed the injured Danny McGrain in this tournament - and let Rensenbrink steal off towards the area. Kennedy finally thawed out, chasing back after the striker and bowling him over in the box. Rensenbrink got up and slotted the penalty kick away.
But something wondrous, and very strange, was about to happen. Scotland drew level on the stroke of half-time, Dalglish roofing a ludicrous no-backlift half-volley, then won a penalty through Souness two minutes after the restart, Gemmill threading his team into the lead. MacLeod’s men had 43 minutes to find the two goals they required to make the second round, and their collective determination and belief was best illustrated by Souness’s reaction upon being bundled over by Willy van der Kerkhof for the penalty: he sprung to his feet and, with a deadpan expression on his coupon, save for a slight quiver of the nostril as he exhaled with steely purpose, slowly raised his right arm into the air. Few declarations of intent have been made so calmly, so menacingly.
Holland were rocking, and Scotland would nearly make it. With their fans singing You'll Never Walk Alone - either to express their eternal love for their team, acknowledge the Liverpudlian influence of Scotland's two-goal comeback, or sympathise with a squad recently divested of the keys to their Chrysler Avengers - the national team was about to experience its greatest moment. Dalglish tried to diddle his way past Poortvliet and Wim Jansen down the right, and the ball broke to Gemmill. At which point the Nottingham Forest midfielder took six of the most famous touches in World Cup history. One: he took the ball away from Jansen. Two: he turned to face the goal. Three: he nudged the ball past Krol. Four: he entered the area past the hapless Poortvliet. Five: he set himself. Six: Mark Renton wouldn't feel this good again until he met Diane.
The greatest moment in Scottish football history. And the most bittersweet one, too. Seconds after the restart, Kennedy nearly planted a header into his own net while doing his best to make a royal balls of clearing a dangerous cross out for a corner. Scotland cleared the set piece but the tide refused to be dammed, and 202 seconds after Gemmill’s masterpiece, the old Dutch master Rep launched a 30-yard worldie into the top left. “I just shut my eyes and hit out,” admitted Rep later. There were still 18 minutes left, but it was all over. Forsyth missed a point-blank header in injury time, but it mattered not. Scotland had beaten arguably the best team at both the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals, but as usual they had fallen at the first hurdle. This was - never mind Wembley ‘77 or the Czechs - MacLeod’s signature match.
Scotland, who had left for Argentina amid a carnival atmosphere, came Home By The Back Door, as famously recorded by the Daily Record. “Ssh,” the paper whispered, camping it up for yuks alongside a picture of MacLeod’s low-slung forehead scraping the tarmac at Glasgow Airport, “you know who slips in quietly.” Some contrast to the arrival of Concorde. MacLeod lasted one more game as Scotland manager - a 3-2 defeat against Austria in the Euro 80 qualifiers - before resigning and returning to Ayr rather than taking up an offer from another old club, Blackburn Rovers. His days of flirting with serious success, however, were over. He died in 2004, seemingly fated to be forever the face of Scotland’s most chastening humiliation.
And yet there’s a sense that time will be extremely kind to MacLeod. As the years tick by, fewer generations remain who are old enough to remember the disappointment, disillusion and despair of 1978. To many, all that’s left are the jaunty tales of the daftest romp. Scotland didn’t win the World Cup when they had a smidgen of a chance, it’s true, and now probably never will. But while MacLeod ended up accidentally piloting Scotland into the gutter, at least he’d set the controls for the stars.
Laugh at the adverts and the hubristic pronouncements all you like, but thanks to his vaulting ambition, the Scots at least embarked on a journey, and will always be able to tell the story of one of the most jaw-droppingly memorable campaigns the World Cup has ever seen. A farcical implosion of nuclear intensity, yet one which climaxed in, just maybe, the greatest goal of all time. A remarkable and singular combination, and they couldn’t have done it like this without him. No World Cup, but only 18 managers in 84 years have won one, and how many of the unsuccessful others left an indelible mark on the memory quite like this? It’s not a bad consolation prize.
His name was Ally MacLeod. And, yes, he was a born winner. Ole ola!