How Scotland won the Euros to make history 40 years ago today
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In the Finnish Capital of Helsinki, coaches Andy Roxburgh and Walter Smith guided Scotland to the European Under-18 Championship title with a 3-1 victory over Czechoslovakia in front of 2,500 people. It remains the only major international tournament won by a Scottish side, yet it is rarely spoken about.
There hasn’t been an official reunion and players from that youth squad have met up just once since that famous triumph on May 30, 1982. Memories remain strong, thankfully.
Messages from the great Jock Stein, Albanians defecating in the showers, Pat Nevin’s curious disappearance: The stories behind ten days when Scotland ruled Europe deserve to be told.
Merely reaching tournaments is considered an achievement at any level these days but in the early 1980s Roxburgh and Smith had the young Scots believing they could conquer the Continent.
In Group D, they beat Albania and Turkey before drawing with Netherlands to reach the semi-finals. A 2-0 defeat of Poland preceded a comfortable final triumph against the Czechs, John Philliben, Nevin and Gary Mackay scoring.
Scotland was a nation brimming with young talent at the time. Six of the stronger Under-18s didn’t make it to Finland due to club commitments with Aberdeen and Rangers in the Scottish Cup final – Neale Cooper, Eric Black and Bryan Gunn from Pittodrie, Dave McPherson, Kenny Black and Billy Davies from Ibrox.
Those who did travel fairly seized their opportunity. “Most of us had decent boys’ club and school success so there was maybe an expectation of winning,” says Mackay, who went on to play 737 times for Hearts.
“Then you remember guys like [Marco] Van Basten played for the Dutch. You sit back now, 40 years later, and it has never been repeated.” Mackay, Nevin, Dave Bowman, Paul McStay and Jim McInally would all win senior caps after playing in the 1982 finals. Roxburgh and Smith would both later manage the senior national team.
“You achieved something never done before or since so there is pride,” adds Mackay. “A lot of guys in that Under-18 group went on to have decent professional careers. I still have my medal in the house. I didn’t get any others so it would always get pride of place.”
Perhaps the Scottish FA should have the 1982 youth squad on the Hampden pitch this Wednesday to commemorate their success four decades on. Alternatively, get them on Scotland HQ live to share some anecdotes.
UEFA organised shared dormitories in Finland for the four nations in each section. With Albanians emptying both bladders and bowels in the communal shower area, Scotland’s base was a dangerous place.
“We were ignorant to things,” admits Mackay. “Andy and Wattie told us to watch for our own personal hygiene. The Albanians used the hole in the middle of the communal shower area for doing the toilet – from both ends. It showed you how fortunate we were and how backwards other countries were 40 years ago. Some things you never forget.
“Then you’ve got Pat. We did think he was weird and he’s spoken about this himself. All of us had only ever played football and Pat was the same, but his family pushed him to make sure he had an education.
“He used to disappear. We’d go on walks at night, play pool or table tennis and he was nowhere to be seen. The only time you saw Pat was for training, meals and games. This was him studying for his qualifications. It certainly didn’t stop him performing on the pitch.”
Others were slightly more gallus. To a man, the squad possessed enough talent to suggest a prosperous future for Scotland at international level.
Bowman was Mackay’s team-mate from primary school in Edinburgh and they ended up together at Hearts with goalkeeper Ian Westwater. All three were products of Salvesen Boys Club.
“Jim Dobbin and Brian Rice represented Whitburn so we all knew each other from various games and tournaments,” says Mackay. “The plaudits would go to Andy Roxburgh, Walter Smith and wee John Watson, the physio, for building a camaraderie.
“We had talented players, though. Pat moved from Clyde to Chelsea and then on to Everton. Ally Dick played for Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax. Not a bad CV, that. Paul McStay was an absolute standout and went on to be a great Celtic captain.”
So what of Mackay’s story? Hearts fans of a certain vintage know him as a combative central midfielder. Back in 1982, he was a false nine before anybody knew what a false nine was.
“I didn’t start the tournament but I came on and scored in the first game,” he recalls. “Andy Roxburgh said to me afterwards: ‘You’ll be starting the next match. Anybody who scores is always picked next time.’ That gave me confidence.
“I played as a deep-lying centre-forward. Pat and Ally were inside forwards on either side. The goal in the final was decent enough because it came after the Czechs scored to make it 2-1. I chested the ball and hit it quite sweetly across the goalie from 20 yards with my right foot.
“Andy told us before kick-off that Jock Stein had sent across a good luck message. The senior international side had lost to England the day before, so Andy and Wattie explained what an opportunity we had. The papers would all be negative so that was part of the motivational speech. We knew we could make headlines and cheer the nation up.”
They duly did. Forty years on, they deserve some headlines again.