Although my advancing years just about permit me to have a vague recall of referee Jack Taylor awarding Holland a first-minute penalty in the 1974 World Cup Final, the first World Cup I can really remember in entirety is the 1978 Argentine bonanza.

As I approached my tenth birthday, I took the opportunity to immerse myself in the gala of world football and watched practically every match. Particular personal highlights of the tournament include watching referee Clive Thomas disallowing a last-second Brazil winner against Sweden and Argentina more than somewhat ‘enjoying’ home advantage by way of questionable refereeing decisions throughout the tournament.

England, of course, was conspicuous by their absence having failed to qualify for the second tournament in succession just a dozen years after actually winning the thing. Never mind, though. Scotland had qualified and all us English folk could get behind them and cheer them onto glory.


Well, the fact that Scotland’s 1978 World Cup odyssey lasted precisely nine days seems somewhat incongruous with the amount of copy print it has produced in the four decades plus since. That a campaign that yielded so much hype, if not actual potential for success, could provoke such disarray and abject humiliation before, incredibly, partial redemption is perhaps a story for our times.

In qualification, Scotland found themselves in a not particularly arduous group containing only themselves, Czechoslovakia and Wales. Thus they faced only four matches and after contriving to lose the opener 2-0 in Prague, a single goal victory over Wales at Hampden Park got the Scots off the mark.

Wales then beat Czechoslovakia 3-0 in their next game to leave the group finely balanced at the half-way stage with all three sides possessing two points following a win and a defeat apiece. On a passionate September evening in 1977, Scotland overcame Czechoslovakia by three goals to one to practically eliminate the Czechs and to set up a cracker against Wales on October 12 in their last game. Even with today’s footy predictions, it was looking good for the Scots.

A draw would be sufficient to clinch qualification, while a defeat would open the door for the Welsh to qualify courtesy of grabbing a point in their final game away to Czechoslovakia. Due to the interest in the game, the Welsh FA decided to move the game away from Wales to nearby Anfield. 

So it came to pass by 50,850 paying spectators came to bear witness to a match that has gone down in both Welsh and Scottish folklore.

Needing to win but seemingly overawed a little by both the occasion and the size of the Scottish support in what was ostensibly a home game, Wales found chances hard to come by. Scotland were probably the better side over the first 78 minutes of the game, having at least two good penalty shouts turned down and looking reasonably comfortable in their efforts to secure the needed point.

With a dozen or so minutes remaining a long throw from Willie Johnstone (more on him later) was delivered deep into the Wales penalty area. Two men, Joe Jordon of Scotland and Dave Jones of Wales, leapt for the ball. Each of them focused on the ball and each of them raised a hand as they jumped. The ball struck one of the upraised arms and 50,000 people appealed simultaneously. The referee, Robert Würtz of France, seemed to be the only person in the ground absolutely convinced of who had handled the ball and pointed to the spot.

Forty-two years later and still the arguments rage as to the identity of the culprit. Not that Scotland captain, Don Masson, cared at that point in time as he duly sent Wales ‘keeper Dai Davies the wrong way from the spot to put Scotland on the road to Argentina. A second goal scored by Kenny Dalglish a couple of minutes from time was purely academic, and Scotland were through while Wales were out.

With Ally MacLeod, the charismatic former Aberdeen manager, in charge of Scotland now had eight months to get used to the idea of going to the World Cup and to prepare for it. 

Confidence was high in the Scotland camp as the tournament approached. Sky-high, in fact, and nowhere more so than wherever the vicinity of MacLeod happened to be at the time.

Some of the more memorable pearls of wisdom emanating from the Scotland boss at this time included the following quote: “You can mark down 25 June 1978 as the day Scottish football conquers the world”. When Scotland played Brazil in a friendly before the tournament, MacLeod remarked: “I’ve told the lads this is a rehearsal for the World Cup final.”

Buoyed by a national fervour, the weeks and months leading up to Scotland’s departure for South America were heady ones. Sponsorship deals with everything from Heineken to Chrysler were set up and two World Cup records were released. Both records were truly execrable yet both made the top ten. Scottish comedian Andy Cameron peaked at number six with ‘Ally’s Army’, while professional Scotsman, the London born-and-bred former Arsenal supporter, Rod Stewart, captured the number four spot with ‘Ole Ola (Mulher Brasileira)’.

So it was on this springboard of optimism that Scotland set out for Argentina. Placed in Pot 3 for seeding, Scotland received what appeared to be a favourable draw as they lined up alongside Holland, Peru and Iran in Group 4 with the top two sides progressing to the next group stage.

Although Scotland were expected to qualify with relative ease, form going into the tournament had actually not been exactly sterling. A disappointing Home International series had seen Scotland relinquish the Britsih Championship following a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of England.

Concerns over MacLeod’s preferred midfield choice of Don Masson and Bruce Rioch were being voiced, with many pressing for the alternative pairing of Graeme Souness and Archie Gemmell in their stead. Both Gemmell and Souness had enjoyed club success in the season just completed, with Gemmell winning the league and League Cup with Nottingham Forest and Souness the European Cup three months after joining Liverpool. Conversely, Rioch and Masson had appeared together in a struggling Derby County side.

Nevertheless, MacLeod started with the players that had secured qualification and so the Scotland line-up that took the field against was Peru on 3 June 1978 was: Alan Rough, Martin Buchan, Stuart Kennedy, Tom Forsyth, Kenny Burns, Bruce Rioch , Don Masson, Asa Hartford, Willie Johnston, Kenny Dalglish, and Joe Jordan.

With less than a quarter of an hour gone Scotland and MacLeod’s confidence and optimism seemed well-justified as Jordon opened the scoring and Scotland appeared to be on their way. 75 minutes later the mood and entire outlook of the estimated 20,000 travelling Scots had shifted entirely. Rather than go on to win comprehensively as the early sparring had indicated, the Scots had actually capitulated to the tune of three unanswered Peru goals, two of which were scored by Peru talisman Teófilo Cubillas. 

Our main fault lay in not marking Cubillas,” was MacLeod’s sage opinion in his post-match press conference.

When Scotland took to the field for their second group match against Iran four days later, they did so with a largely changed side. Three of the eleven that started against Peru found themselves out of the side for purely footballing reasons, while two, Masson and, most infamously Willie Johnstone, were destined never to play for Scotland again due to a scandal that threatened to engulf Scottish football.

Upon the final whistle of Scotland’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Peru, two players, Kenny Dalglish and Archie Gemmill, had been selected at random for the obligatory drug testing. While Dalglish’s results came back clear, Gemmill was said to be too dehydrated to provide a sample and so Willie Johnstone was allowed to take his place

Traces of the banned substance Reactivan were found in Johnstone’s sample and he was immediately banned from the rest of the tournament and subsequently from international football for life. Johnstone protested his innocence, stating that he took the drug to treat hay fever and that he had not knowingly cheated.

Masson, for his part and reasons never made clear, then falsely claimed to have taken the same medication as Johnstone. Perhaps he was trying to show support for a colleague, but Masson’s actions made it impossible for MacLeod to pick him for the rest of the competition.

The second group game against Iran, therefore, was do-or-die for the Scots. A win would at least open up the door to qualification once again, while anything else would practically spell a death knell for their chances of progression.

Once again Scotland went ahead, this time through an own goal, and once again they found themselves pegged back by their less than illustrious opponents. At least Scotland managed to avoid defeat this time, but the 1-1 draw left them needing a miracle from their last game against the fancied Holland.

Scotland needed to beat the Cruyff-less Holland by three clear goals and despite the spectre of Souness lining up for his first taste of World Cup action alongside Gemmill in midfield, the prognosis wasn’t good.

90 minutes later the Scottish side left the field with their heads held high and their collective dignity at least partially restored. A stirring performance had seen one of the best sides in the tournament defeated 3-2 and at one point early in the second half, the impossible had looked distinctly on.

Falling behind to an early Holland goal, Scotland played with freedom and abandon and a Kenny Dalglish equaliser sent the sides in level at half-time. Two second-half strikes from Archie Gemmill, one a penalty and the other THAT goal, left Scotland in dreamland needing just one more goal with more than 20 minutes still to play.

Unfortunately, a long-range effort from Johhny Rep just two minutes after Gemmill’s second took the wind out of Scotland’s sails and the match petered out with no further additions to the scoreline.

Thus it was that Scotland exited the tournament at the first stage following a campaign that has lived long in the halls of infamy. 

MacLeod lasted just a solitary match into the 1979-79 season before being replaced by the legendary Jock Stein. Scotland then went onto to qualify for the next three World Cup tournaments and four out of the next five, exiting at the first stage each time.