Playing for Scotland against England is a lifelong memory. Playing for Scotland against England and winning, and shackling David Beckham in the process, is a highlight to eclipse all others.
Ask Callum Davidson. The St Johnstone coach is newly elected to Gordon Strachan’s international staff but can speak from a position of authority on affairs with the Auld Enemy. He is adamant there is nothing to fear at Hampden Park on Saturday.
Davidson eyeballed Beckham, Paul Scholes and the rest at Wembley in 1999 as Don Hutchison’s header gave Scotland a 1-0 victory. A 2-0 loss in Glasgow four days previously meant defeat on aggregate for Craig Brown’s side, leaving England to progress from the Euro 2000 play-off.
Davidson recalls the best game of his life and ultimately a bitter-sweet aftertaste. Then a Blackburn Rovers left-back, he missed the first leg of the play-off through injury but was a standout in the return in London.
“Back in 1999, we had quite a few defenders in our team. Craig Brown would get slated for that but we were hard to beat. We took our chance and we were good on the ball,” said Davidson, now 40 and taking Tony Docherty’s place on the Scotland coaching staff.
“I was up against Beckham and it was good fun. You just deal with him. Neil McCann in front of me made my life a bit easier because he worked quite hard for me. There was no banter because you’re pretty focused. What I learned most was trying to deal with your nervous energy. Controlling that helps you perform at the top level.
“It’s probably the best game I’ve played in, probably the most enjoyable. I had a slight hamstring strain and didn’t make the first game. I remember the crowd at Hampden when we were driving in on the bus. I just remember so many people there with flags waving. It was the first time we’d played England in a wee while so it was pretty special. It’s a special game.
“It was a bitter-sweet moment at Wembley. We played really well against them and Christian [Daily] had a header in the second half which went straight at [David] Seaman from ten yards. If that had gone either way, it could’ve been glorious. It was more about dealing with the big game. The Scottish fans were singing throughout the whole game down there.”
Having lost 3-0 to England at Wembley last November, Davidson insists Scotland must take a cautious mindset this time. “International football is different from club football. You need to retain possession and probe away. You can’t be gung-ho and attack all the time. It’s about a balance. Be strong at the back and build from there. When you get chances, you have to take them.
“England are in a better position because they have more points than us. There has to be a balanced attitude because if you just attack, top-class players will cut you open. That’s how international football is different.”
Scotland find themselves underdogs again this time round but it’s a status they are well used to. “We are good when we’re underdogs. It’s England’s game to lose,” said Davidson. “They expect to win, everybody down there expects them to win. As a coach, seeing our boys’ commitment and attitude to training is spot-on. There are a lot of good football players in that group and a lot of them have been successful this year. There is a positive frame of mind and we go into the game needing a result. There’s only one way to look at it.”
Davidson’s commitment is clear when he reveals how he cut short his family holiday in Portugal to meet up with Scotland on Sunday night.
“I got a phonecall from Gordon towards the end of the season asking if I would join up with the squad and I was delighted to be asked. It was a pretty easy answer. It was a bit of a bolt from the blue. It’s nice to be recommended. This is the early stages of my coaching career so it’s great to be asked along for such a big game.
“My wife is still on holiday in Portugal, I had to fly home early. We’d planned it so I had to book an Easyjet flight back, stuck next to some stag dos. My wife was absolutely delighted for me. My two girls are 14 and 11. One of them was upset that I was away. The other one was delighted. It was: ‘See you later, dad.’
“I’m back early because St Johnstone start training again on Sunday so it didn’t make any difference to our summer. We’ve got European games and these are the games you look back on. You have to remember them as a player. I want to be involved in them as a coach.”
Perhaps he was brought in as a potential lucky charm for Scotland. As well as one win from one game against England, Davidson’s overall international playing record is impressive. He was capped 19 times between 1998 and 2009, winning 11 matches, drawing four and losing four.
“It’s not a bad record. You look back and I wish I had more caps. I had a lot of injuries towards the end of my career which didn’t really help me on the international scene. To be honest, I look back and don’t really remember league games. I remember playing for Scotland, playing in Europe and cup finals. You have to enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy the England-Scotland game when I played in it because I was so hyped up for it. Looking back, it was one of the highlights.”
Not everything sticks in the mind, though. “I can’t remember the dressing-room after we beat England. I remember trudging off the pitch and the next thing I can recall is hailing a cab with Christian outside Wembley. Our wives were down there so we had to hail a cab back to the hotel.”
He managed to do so in relative anonymity. Scotland’s current squad won’t be able to blend into the background if they dispense with England on Saturday night. Success breeds success, and in that respect Strachan will rely heavily on the trophy-laden Celtic core within his squad.
“Scotland has a club atmosphere. Everyone gets on and they all know each other. The six Celtic players have had a phenomenal season so their confidence will be sky-high. It’s an important part of the squad,” explained Davidson.
“You want success in your squad and Scotland have that at the moment. Scott Brown ticks every box. It’s great he’s back. You want players to work hard, pay attention and enjoy themselves to get the best out of what they’ve got. He does all of that.
“We have a quiet belief amongst ourselves. England are a top team who always do really well in qualification. It’s going to be a really tough game. It’s strange playing them at the end of a season in June but history has shown you can get results.”