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Why were Scotland absent from early incarnations of the European Championships?

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The hot topics occupying Scottish football during the 1960s certainly had an element of deja vu about them. Peruse the newspapers of the day and you’ll find some common themes. They feel like old friends, such is their familiarity.  

There are machinations over Scottish football league reconstruction and the exact number of teams each division should comprise. There are also debates over super leagues (European and domestic).  

Something else which feels all too a la mode is the discovery that the Old Firm tail is very definitely wagging the rest of the Scottish game’s dog; there’s chatter about the sheer number of domestic matches and how it militates against Rangers and Celtic in European competition.  

It is a surprising discovery because to hear an old timer discuss the days of yore you’d think there was no such thing as concerns over player burnout. Yet so prevalent was the opinion that it had a very real impact on how the Scottish Football Association viewed participation in the first two editions of the European Nations Cup. 

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(Image: Herald Scotland)

Scotland was not alone in sticking two fingers up to the inaugural tournament. Each of the home countries opted to steer clear of it while the Netherlands, West Germany and Italy all stayed away because they had no appetite to add to their tight schedules with the 1962 World Cup looming on the horizon.  

The first finals, which were little more than a semi-final and final played over five days, were hosted in France. There had been controversy in the quarter-finals, played home and away over two legs, when Spain refused to travel to Moscow to face the USSR – the eventual winners – for political reasons. It was a slap in the face to the tournament organisers who had viewed the Nations Cup as a chance to unite the post-war continent through the medium of football. 

The absence of some heavyweight names had not helped the prestige of the tournament either and international football in the early 1960s was still a relatively niche enterprise. 

However, by the end of 1961 the tide was beginning to turn. Scotland became the odd-man out when each of the other home nations – and the Republic of Ireland, who would go on to reach the quarter-finals – all declared that they would attempt to qualify for the 1964 competition which was to be held in Spain.  

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The biggest game for Scotland remained the fixture against England and the prescriptive nature of the international game – often slotted into a handful of dates in the calendar and played on Saturday afternoons – meant that clashes with clubs were inevitable. 

There were some knowing editorials written in Scottish papers when England began to have problems with the scheduling of their two-legged fixture with France in 1962 and 1963. 

“The Scottish legislators, to their credit, foresaw these difficulties, and although their decision not to compete caused such comments as ‘short-sighted policy,’ ‘cutting ourselves off from top competition’ and ‘ostrich-like attitude,’ at the time, those behind the decision – a unanimous one between the Scottish Selection Committee and Executive Committee – must now be sitting back having a quiet laugh to themselves,” read one. 

The author continued in a similar vein, quoting then Scottish League chairman Wilson Terris as saying: “We are dealing with club players and the clubs themselves have to be fully considered.” 

Two long-standing issues come into play here: one concerns the SFA’s antipathy towards selecting ‘Anglos’ (those players based in English football) and its apparent bias towards Rangers players, a strongly-held belief among those at provincial clubs who felt inferior players often stood in their way to a place in the national team. 

Whether that second claim was true or not, the league’s structure and the numerous cups on offer meant that Rangers, who provided the bulk of the national team, were often playing in excess of 60 games per season. 

The SFA’s myopia on this front was not ignored by the commentators of the day with The Scotsman’s Jack Harkness, observing that the association’s “crazy” rule book “should have been thrown into the Clyde years ago”, wrote:  

“Continental football has left Scotland way behind. And it’s because of our adherence to outdated ideas that we are getting the success – or non-success – that we deserve. The SFA decided Scotland should not send a team to the European Nations Championship, a tournament which ranks second only to the World Cup, because ‘our clubs already have too many commitments on their plates’. 

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“Sure they have. Because the season is cluttered up with games that don’t mean a thing, and we are burdened with a League set-up which is rapidly degenerating into farce. There is only one way to learn how to beat the Continentals and that’s the hard way. By experience. Yet we turn down the chance of this experience because our programme is choked with twopence ha’penny games that don’t matter a damn. Will we never learn?” 

Enter Hugh McIlvanney who noted archly that: “A more sympathetic view might be taken of that situation if there were not a strong suspicion that the leading clubs have a marked reluctance to improve it.  

“In every way Rangers have the heaviest load, but it is equally true that they could have the biggest say in bringing about the required changes. Celtic may not be in such extreme difficulties but they still suffer under the system. And, similarly, they too could exert a considerable influence in favour of reform. But the persuasive voices of Ibrox and Parkhead seem, to the public at any rate, to have been strangely silent on this vital issue.” 

Age-old complaints about structural inefficiencies aside, it is interesting to note another of Scottish football’s hardy perennials on show: the crippling inferiority complex in the SFA’s decision not to enter either edition of the competition because it might mean fielding a team without Rangers and/or Celtic players in it. It is certainly worth contemplating what a Scotland team shorn of those players might have achieved. 

Given that Hearts won the Scottish First Division in 1960, Dundee in 1962 and Kilmarnock in 1965 it would have been conceivable for Scotland to have put out sides strong enough to compete in those first tournaments in 1960 and 1964. It should also be noted that a degree of political expediency was at play here and there likely would have been a public outcry had certain domestic players been omitted from the Scotland squad.  

Theoretically the Scotland management could also have chosen a talented team containing strong performers from English sides such as Tommy Lawrence, Dave Mackay, Billy Bremner, Denis Law, Ian St John and Ron Yeats but there was a sniffiness both within the SFA and among supporters towards ‘Anglos’. It was not the only barrier to the inclusion of English-based Scots in any putative Scotland squad: the managers of their clubs would regularly discourage their star players from making themselves available, often citing an injury. 

And so, whether by old-fashioned conventionalism, something more corrosive or a mixture of both, the SFA took the decision not to enter. 

As the Edinburgh Evening News noted: “Having failed to get into the finals of the World Cup, the Nations Cup would appear to be a sound way in which to blood young players in the Continental game. In England, with their vast number of teams, it is easier to get a side – that is part of Scotland’s argument. But what about Wales, Ireland and Eire? Like Scotland their choice is somewhat curtailed but they manage to enter?” Underlining that statement is the observation that ‘Eire’ reached the quarter-finals of the Nations Cup three years later. 

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When Scotland did finally opt to put forward a team to attempt to qualify for the 1968 tournament it was amid a backdrop of concern that reaching the finals would be a shoo-in for World Cup winners England since it was decided by UEFA that the results from the 1966-67 and 1967-68 British Championships would serve as a qualifying group for the ’68 finals in Italy. 

Harry Cavan, the Irish Football Association president, said: “Let’s face it – if this thing continues as it is, it is a free ticket for England [to qualify each year].” Cavan also addressed a theme shared by his Scottish and Welsh counterparts noting that his association would be taking a tougher line with clubs that refused to release players for international matches. 

“We intend to make our voice heard and expose those clubs which refuse to co-operate,” he said. “We are already paying compensation to clubs if there is a fall in attendances as the result of a match being rearranged because of international calls on players.” 

Cavan’s predictions about England proved to be astute. In an outcome that would foreshadow future qualification attempts, Scotland missed out by a point from Sir Alf Ramsay’s side despite a memorable victory in the sun at Wembley in 1967.  

Four years later, UEFA finally decreed that qualification would run along the lines we are much more familiar with today. Scotland were subsequently drawn in a group alongside Denmark, Romania and Spain but while the Scots would win all of their home games, they lost each of their away matches and finished third in the group.  

The 1976 campaign would result in a near miss. Scotland needed a two-goal victory from their final qualification match against Romania to secure a play-off berth but, despite taking a 1-0 lead through Bruce Rioch, they could only manage a 1-1 draw.  

It would take another 12 years for a Scottish presence to be felt at a European Championship finals but that was in the form of Castlemilk’s Ray Houghton who represented the Republic of Ireland, by now old hands at attempting to qualify, who reached the finals in West Germany in 1988. Four years later, Scotland would eventually replicate the feat; 34 years after turning down an invitation to enter the qualification process for that very first tournament in 1960. 

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