There will always be England for a laugh

Funerals, as a rule, tend not to be chuckle-raising occasions but, by all accounts, if there hadn't been a giggle here and a …

Funerals, as a rule, tend not to be chuckle-raising occasions but, by all accounts, if there hadn't been a giggle here and a chortle there at Donald Dewar's service on Wednesday afternoon the man himself might have risen from his resting place and implored the assembled congregation to "lighten up, for God's sake".

Dewar was, of course, Scotland's First Minister but, much, much more impressively, he was, all through his lifetime, obsessed with football - proof, if it was needed, that he was a man of substance, class and no little refinement. His obsession was his passport through the Pearly Gates too, because, as we know, football is God's game.

"This was a man who could bore for Scotland on the relative merits of 3-5-2 versus 4-3-3 - and (not infrequently) did," Dewar's friend Ruth Wishart, a Scottish journalist, told the congregation. What a man. ("Bore", clearly, was a slip of the tongue by Wishart - she meant to say "thrill"). Better still, she recounted his, ahem, sombre mood the last time she was in his company.

"I last spoke to Donald on Saturday, October 7th. Tragic news had just reached us, that in the last international to be held at Wembley Germany had defeated England 10 in a World Cup Qualifying tie. He bore it bravely." Even Peter Mandelson laughed and, God help us, he hasn't much to laugh about these days.


I've always felt that Scots should be exempt from criticism from those who tuttut at the act of taking pleasure in English football's woes. After all, this is the nation that, over the years, has had to endure Ally McLeod, Alan Rough, Iran and Costa Rica, to name but four of their footballing catastrophes.

They deserve some light relief, not least because they've provided the English football-supporting public with so much themselves.

Some assume that so many Irish adopt Scotland as their second national football team because of our historical links but this, of course, isn't true at all. It's much more to do with the exquisite tragi-comic entertainment they have provided us with over the years - if English football folk gloat at this misfortune we simply say: "There but for the Grace of God go our lot." So, we've bonded beautifully.

When they've been poor they've been comically brutal (who could ever forget Alan McNally's string of open-goal misses against Costa Rica); when they've been good, well, they've been strangely sublime. Archie Gemmill's goal against Holland in 1978? That, I reckon, is Scotland's equivalent of Ginger McLoughlin's try against England at Twickenham - did he beat nine men or 10? Mmm, probably three, but what's the harm in adding another man with every passing year?

Gordon Strachan's cigar-smokin' goal against . . . mmm . . . West Germany? And, best of all, David Narey's stupendous thunderbolt against Brazil in 1982. Funny, Brazil actually won that game 4-1 but, because of Narey's beaut, the memory tells you it was a glorious Scottish victory.

(It's a bit like the time that San Marino bloke scored against England after a few seconds . . . the fact that England actually went on to win the game 7-1 seems a trifling, irrelevant detail).

Narey's goal was described at the time as a "toe-poke" by Jimmy Hill, a calumny that led to an 18-year (and still running) vendetta waged by the Tartan Army against our Jimmy - you might recall a large "Jimmy Hill is a Puff" banner at Lansdowne Road the last time the Scots visited. Well, that was part of the pay-back for his "toe-poke" comment. Eighteen years on.

And the very same Tartan Army is another reason why some us are smitten with Scotland's footballing fortunes. Who else would think to sing "Save the whales, save the whales, we're the famous Tartan Army and we're here to save the whales" during an away game against the Faroe Islands?

Or who else would celebrate an act of, em, loutish vandalism by singing "Wembley, Wembley, was the finest pitch in Europe till we took it all away" when their supporters dug it up many years back? And their managers? The greatest in history. Best of all? The former Partick Thistle boss John Lambie who once famously said, on being told his concussed striker did not know who he was, "that's great - tell him he's Pele and get him back on".

No wonder Donald Dewar was proud. My deepest, deepest regret, though, is that he didn't live to see the day that a - are you sitting comfortably up there, Donald - German was linked with the post of English national football manager. No kiddin' Donald, I tell thee the honest-to-God truth.

Berti Vogts is the man. Now, maybe in reality there's as much chance of Bertie Ahern getting the job but you have to admit: there's something faintly, uproariously, side-splittingly hilarious about a German's name even being mentioned in passing in relation to the post.

Better still would be if he got the job and conducted all his press conferences in his native tongue. That'd go down well with the boys from The Sun. Achtung, achtung, eh lads?

Bobby "we don't need a foreign manager - we gave the world the game, for God's sake" Charlton had nigh on spontaneously combusted on hearing that Arsene "yes that's true Bobby, but most of them play it better than you now" Wenger was being touted as the next England boss.

I didn't hear any reaction from Charlton on the Vogts story, but I tell you something, Donald, I bet you he didn't bear it bravely.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times