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Inside daring raid which saw ‘thieves’ nick battlefield saltire for France ’98

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THE last time Scotland kicked-off a major tournament Iain Emeron feared he was going to get his collar felt.

For Iain and his three fellow fans “borrowed” the giant saltire which flew over Bannockburn from the top of a 120ft high flagpole to take to the World Cup in France ’98.

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Tartan Army stalwart Iain Emerson with his Scotland memorabilia
Walter Smith with the boys and the Bannockburn flag

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Walter Smith with the boys and the Bannockburn flag
Matt chatted to Iain about his footie antics

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Matt chatted to Iain about his footie antics

And what started off like a good plan down the pub soon turned into a clandestine operation when the pals, later dubbed The Bannockburn Four, arrived at the site of the ancient battlefield under the cover of darkness for their audacious raid.

Iain, who launched the Famous Tartan Army Magazine in 2005, explains: “We were all so excited before the game we were just trying to think of something to do that would be an inspiration for the team.

“It started off as a pub joke and ended up being planned like a robbery. I had gone and did a recce beforehand then we went up at midnight.

“We also brought step ladders to get up the pole high enough to where the cables were attached.

“All of us were really nervous, then once the metal cable had been loosened it started making this terrible racket as we lowered it, with the cable twanging off the pole.

“It seemed to be echoing throughout the whole of Stirling. We were all panicking just waiting for someone to call the cops.”

Iain said they needed “nerves of steel” as they attached a replacement “flag” to the pole.

He says: “One of us had got an old pair of curtains from his mum’s attic. We wrote the words ‘Gone to France’ on it, just so the Bannockburn Centre knew it wasn’t stolen

“But we had to spend an age tying the curtains to the cable, then raising it up the pole again.

“That was definitely the worst bit as again it made so much noise. That really did take nerves of steel.”

A day later the foursome were left in a sweat when their daring stunt hit the headlines, including the front page of The Scottish Sun, less than a week before our opening match kicked off at the Stade de France in Paris.

Married Iain, who lives in Stirling, added: “I was s****ing it and just kept waiting for a chap at the door.

“I was basically sweating all the way to France thinking we were going to get nabbed at any minute.”

News of the flag’s liberation travelled, with Tartan Army fans all desperate to grab a photo with it — including a future national boss.

The flag stunt made the front page

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The flag stunt made the front page

Iain says: “The flag became really famous. Everywhere we went in France fans wanted to pose with the Bannockburn flag and sign it too.

“Walter Smith came up to us before the Brazil match and asked ‘Is that THE flag?.’ Everyone knew it was the Bannockburn flag.”

However, Iain and his gang of merry men still had to try to get into the stadium for the World Cup kick-off against Brazil — without tickets.

He says: “The currency was Francs back then so we put in about £30 worth each, wrapped it into a tight bundle so it looked like a lot more and basically thrust into it the hand of a steward as a bribe to let us in.

“A policeman then asked me what was in my sporran, but I just gave him a big hug, then ran past him into the stadium where we all scattered to the four winds. I ended up sitting with the Brazilian fans.”

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Iain then unfurled the flag at halftime shortly after John Collins had scored the equaliser. He said: “It was nearly the perfect crime, until Tom Boyd’s own goal of course meant we lost 2-1.

“But on the way out a fan gave me his ticket, so I now actually have a ticket for the game I bribed my way into.”

However, the group were paranoid they would lose the famous flag as the Tartan Army made its way from Paris to Bordeaux then Saint-Étienne before crashing out of the tournament at the group stages again.

The 61-year-old says: “What with all the drinking, we became really worried that we would lose it. So a different person every night was left with the responsibility of basically wrapping themselves in this flag to go to sleep in it.

“Every morning we’d wake up but always found someone tucked up in it somewhere.”

Back home The National Trust for Scotland, which operates the Bannockburn Visitors Centre, knew good publicity when they saw it and embraced their flag being on its unauthorised travels.

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Iain says: “We would send them postcards from the flag, saying ‘Having a great holiday, I’ve moved to Bordeaux now’. They actually used to have the postcards on display at the Bannockburn Centre so they really entered into the spirit of it all.”

The Bannockburn Four returned the saltire during another midnight raid along with another curtain “flag” with the word “merci”.
Sadly after France 98, Scotland failed to qualify for another major tournament for another 23 years.

And it was during a particularly spirit-crushing defeat, when we were hammered 6-0 by Netherlands in the second leg of the Euro 2004 qualifier, that Iain decided to launch his magazine. He says: “That was the lowest of all lows especially since we’d beaten them 1-0 at Hampden in the first leg.

“But hours after that we were all in Amsterdam and the Tartan Army started to slowly lift the spirits by singing then they started jumping in the water and all that.

“So I decided I wanted to do a magazine that made the players equally as important as the Tartan Army, with half the mag about players past and present and the other half about the fans.”

EUR VIEW

WE quiz Iain quickfire on his footie favourites and forecast:

Favourite Scotland player of all time? Denis Law

Favourite current Scotland player? John McGinn

Favourite Scotland manager? Jock Stein.

Best Scotland memory? Opening game of France ‘98.

Worst Scotland memory? Losing 6-0 to The Netherlands in Euro 2004 qualifier.

Prediction for Germany match: 2-1 Scotland.

Prediction for the group: Runners-up and we go through to the next round for the first time ever.

On his travels as an editor he got to meet Pele in New York who signed his Scotland shirt and Maradona in Glasgow in 2008 when the legend managed Argentina. He says with a smile: “After meeting two of the greatest players who ever lived I can die a happy man.”

So will Iain and Co be taking the Bannockburn saltire on a holiday to Germany for the Euros?

He says: “I’m afraid we’re all a lot older so there’s no way we could get up that flagpole now.

“And anyway, they’ve installed CCTV cameras at Bannockburn since our last stunt.”

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Pele signs the back of Iain's Scotland top

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Pele signs the back of Iain’s Scotland top

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