Euro 96: Scotland the brave

It's 15 years since Euro 96, and here's more from FourFourTwo's contemporary coverage. Thanks to England's demolition of the Dutch, Scotland were in the last eight for 16 minutes – and Olivia Blair was with the Tartan Army at Villa Park

How typical of the theatrical nature of football, with all its plots and sub-plots. The massed ranks of the Tartan Army on the 5.18pm from Birmingham New Street to Villa Park had been clapping their hands because they hated the English; at 8.47pm they were clapping because they loved the English – only to be forced to revert to type because of the splayed legs of an English goalkeeper and the deftness of a Dutch touch.

If football was merely fiction, not a matter of life and death, then Villa Park on 17 June was the stage for a blockbuster. There was irony that Scotland’s fate should as usual lie elsewhere, this time in the hands of an Auld Enemy who had so comprehensively slain them at Wembley; and drama too, the ebb and flow of the game dictated by the events unfolding 100 miles to the south, leaving those watching elated, and finally deflated, in that cruel manner that is so unique to football.

To recap: Scotland, having drawn 0-0 with Holland and lost 2-0 to England, were playing their third (and what most expected to be their final) game of Euro 96. They needed to win 2-0 against Switzerland and hope that the English would beat the Dutch 3-0 in order for both the home nations to go through to the quarter-finals. Possible, yes; likely, no, given that the Scots hadn’t got beyond the first-round stage of any finals in nine attempts.

"We will continue to play with great industry against the Swiss and just see what happens," Craig Brown had said after the defeat by England, ever cautious, ever canny. Some of the players were blunter in their optimism. Goalkeeper Andy Goram, later to make his third world-class save in as many matchers when he clawed away a header from Kubilay Turkyilmaz (left free when Colin Hendry turned centre-forward in a frantic last 10 minutes), said: "Two-nil? Nae bother, I’m playing up front." Goram had been scoring from swerving 12-yard free-kicks in training, but desperate as Scotland were to end their goal drought, he didn’t get to take any set-pieces.

Training, the day before the Swiss game

No, the better solution was for Brown to play his trump card. Ally McCoist had found few scraps to feed on during the 24 minutes he’d been given against England, but according to Brown the 33-year-old striker had been "training like a beast all week". He still needed three bites of the cherry, however, Swiss keeper Marco Pascolo flailing out a hand and a left leg to deny the Rangers striker two certain goals within the first six minutes.

It was typical McCoist that he made amends eight minutes before half-time with the hardest chance of the lot, playing a give-and-go with Gary McAllister and striking a sweet, rising right-foot shot from 22 yards past Pascolo, to register Scotland’s first championship-finals goal in exactly four years. If it was emotional to watch McCoist racing straight into the arms of Brown, imagine what Brown himself thought. "I suddenly found myself out on the touchline," he said later, "but I don’t really know how I got there."

"C'm'ere Brownie ya big gorgeous..."

Talk about Bravehearts. Goram was commanding, Hendry majestic, McAllister and John Collins so assured in midfield, passing their way out of trouble in neat triangles, Tosh McKinlay and Tommy Boyd marauding down the left, McCoist and Gordon Durie so focused. In particular, man of the match Stuart McCall stood out, tackling tiressly, the epitome of Scotland’s spirit and organisation.

And the Tartan Army, fervent as ever, played an even bigger than customary role. "Get intae them" and "All we are saying is give us a goal" they roared as the news filtered through of England’s first goal against the Dutch. And then, as the second, third and fourth goals went in at Wembley, the crescendo from the terraces told the story. 'We knew from the punters’ reactions that we were through at one point," admitted Goram.

Can it possibly be true...?

For 16 magic, mind-boggling minutes, so they were. And just before Patrick Kluivert slipped the ball through David Seaman’s legs to send Scotland homewards to think again, the prospect of meeting France at Anfield in the second quarter-final crossed thousands of minds. Then it was gone again as quickly as it had come. It had been too good to be true. 

As the players did their lap of honour, McAllister in tears, the sobering thought occurred that a team which scores just one goal in four-and-a-half hours of football can't really expect to succeed. But that’s what’s so uncanny about Scotland. They did succeed, in lifting the tournament because they lifted themselves: a team lacking the stars of the past, but with enough spirit to more than make up for it.

Coisty waves farewell

If you’d have been in Stratford in the wee hours of the next morning you’d have seen the same spirit still very much in evidence. Or heard it, anyway. Long after the players had been debriefed and awarded their caps, the strains of Flower of Scotland echoed from The Old Tramway pub – and the noise wasn’t coming from the Tartan Army. There was sadness, but still hope. "Och, it was terrible," said Durie as the players packed their bags to catch the 12.30pm flight back to Glasgow the next day, "but we’ll be back". McCoist was even more upbeat: "We’ll be back and we’ll be world-beaters."

Last out of their Stratford hotel, but by no means least, was manager Brown, to whom total respect is due: his quiet dignity inspired players and fans alike. "Mind now, nothing fancy son," Bob Shankly had said to a certain young midfielder when Bill’s brother was Dundee manager in the early 1960s. Brown obviously heeded the advice. But Scotland still delighted us.

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