Wembley holds no fear for Scotland coach Andy Watson, a man who enjoyed euphoric victories at both the old and new incarnations of England’s spiritual home. Scotland’s underdog status for Friday’s colossal World Cup qualifier is something Watson relishes.
The 57-year-old attended the infamous 1977 England-Scotland match which saw the Wembley goalposts hauled down by the delirious Tartan Army after a 2-1 Scotland win. He didn’t invade the pitch – “I would’ve got my a**e skelped, I was a good boy” – but revelled in an unexpected triumph on enemy territory.
Professionally, Watson can also recall dancing around the new Wembley technical area with close friend Alex McLeish after the pair guided Birmingham City to an unlikely English League Cup final victory over Arsenal in 2011.
He now works alongside Gordon Strachan and Mark McGhee as part of the national team coaching staff. Watson acknowledges England are favourites on Friday night but experience tells him that Wembley can be an endearing place for the underdog.
“I went as a fan in 1977 when the whole of Scotland was supposedly there and the goalposts disappeared,” said the Aberdonian. “I was at that one and was also at the 1996 [European Championship] game when we missed a penalty and Gascoigne scored. I was down there with Mark and Gordon and our families.
“I remember in 1977 it was a long way down on the special train from Aberdeen. They were wheeling trollies of drink on and then using the same trolly to wheel people off.
“The game was surreal as I was just a young man, a boy really. To watch that victory was fantastic, that whole ambience and feeling of being there.
“Looking back, you realise it was special and want to be part of that again. Should we win it will be a great three points for us as a nation, to be back in the mix most importantly.
“You talk about underdogs but I went to Wembley with Birmingham City when we won the League Cup against Arsenal. We came away with a result from that final. You have got to believe in yourself and your group has got to believe that the underdog can win.”
Of course, being unfancied in a match is nothing new to Scotland teams through the years. You get the impression Scottish players can sometimes perform best in such a scenario. The pressure rests mostly on England’s shoulders this time as interim manager Gareth Southgate bids to land the job permanently.
“England have a pool of players that they can select from at clubs with European experience,” continued Watson. “The one thing we know we have in abundance is heart and commitment. We have our share of players who have European experience and certainly have players with international experience. We will have to draw on that.
“We know we are going to be underdogs in the game but, in the not so distant past, we have produced a couple of good results. Against Croatia, for example, they were expected to win and we produced a good result against Poland and the Republic of Ireland. Somewhere along the line we need to produce a big result and there is none better than the English game.
“It is about can we pull our sleeves up an extra inch, can we go that extra bit? England have fantastic individual players but the game is not won and lost on paper. There is a pressure on them to try and perform and win.
“England are the home side so there is an onus on them. We have got a game plan that we will try to adhere to and hopefully on the day we will have enough performances to get us the result.”
Scotland will set up to contain England first and foremost and then attempt to cause problems going forward on the counter-attack. Full-backs are likely to play a key part and will be asked to support attacks at pace. Hearts’ Callum Paterson will start at right-back and enjoy the chance to venture forward. Strachan has a key decision to make over Lee Wallace or Stephen Kingsley on the left, though. Hull City’s Andy Robertson and Celtic’s Kieran Tierney are both precluded by injury.
“If it is Lee or if it is Stephen, there is an opportunity,” said Watson. “Whichever player steps into the breach is a good player that is stepping in. It is not an untried player, it is somebody we have faith and belief in as we do them all.”
Watson had spells with both Hearts and Hibs during his playing career and was part of Aberdeen’s 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup-winning squad. He knows what it is like to wait for an opening in a team in order to make an impression – which is the situation Wallace and Kingsley have found themselves in for some time.
“I played all my football career looking for injuries and suspensions so I know exactly how that is. Injuries create opportunities. All you ask as a player is an opportunity. If given that opportunity, just be ready to take it.
“They are here because they are good players so they are here to be chosen and selected. Fingers crossed they can put on a show and performance we are all proud of.”
Regardless of the result, Watson does not believe Scotland’s 2018 World Cup campaign will end in London. They go into the match sitting fourth in Group F after drawing with Lithuania at Hampden and losing 3-0 in Slovakia last month. England lead the section but are just three points better off than the Scots.
Many see Friday night as a must-win game for Strachan’s side. Watson doesn’t. “It would be nice to come away with something, there is no denying that. If we can get a point it would keep us in the mix,” he stressed. “Should we nurture a win that would be fantastic. If we lose, are we out of it completely? No, we are not.”
Much is made of the supposed gap between Scottish and English leagues and the difference in standard. Only days ago, the St Johnstone midfielder Danny Swanson opined that most people in England consider Scotland a pub league – something he learned during three years south of the Border with Peterborough United and Coventry City.
“It is difficult to say what the actual gap is,” said Watson, coyly. “The fact is a lot of their players are in the top sides at the minute and have been playing European football. However, many players have come up to Scotland and thought it would be a walk in the park and it hasn’t been proven that way for them.
“It is important that on any given day we can compete against anybody, and we have to prove we can. This is a one-off game. Now let’s go out there and show what we are made of.”