The (timeless) Class of '04-'07
Updated: May 15
Standing on the platform with my scarf and top on, strangers became brothers and sisters through nods and smiles, saltires and songs. It took turns being howlin', dreich and baltic, but our spirits were never warmer that November day. Basking in the pride of our national team, even the Celtic and Rangers pubs at either side of my familiar Glaswegian station wore one colour, as their respective heroes would in an hour's time.
This was more than a feel-good factor, there was something almost tangible, palpable even, in the air, and it was there to be had. In getting off the train, walking to the underground and joining the clamour outside the pub, I made many more friends and convened with some older as my then-girlfriend-now-wife, future brother-in-law and best-man joined the buzz.
We couldn't get tickets but I had shared in this joy earlier in the campaign, hanging outside the same brother-in-law's M-Reg Mondeo's sunroof whilst he drove from the same pub into Sauchiehall St., greeted by the crowds directing traffic in celebration of a certain McFadden goal. Or again, against Lithuania at Hampden, which was the first time I can remember thinking, even when conceding a dubious penalty ('won' by Hearts' diving Mikoliunas); we'll win this, we'll breathe the ball in from behind the goal... and we did, two of them; 3-1. Next, Shevchenko's Ukraine were similarly and emphatically dispatched by the same scoreline. Now, entering the Hogshead on Woodlands Road, you couldn't breathe, or rather you breathed as one.
This is the iceberg tip of why ideas lead to zeitgeists which stimulate revolutions. There was a fervour of positivity I have only experienced once or twice in my lifetime, nevertheless, it is the reason I'm a Scotland fan and the promise of it happening again beckons me on. By all accounts, we had no right to be here, on the verge of qualification for the European Championships at the expense of our opponents at Hampden that day, the World Champions, Italy. With second-placed France playing the Faroe Islands, this was winner takes all.
This is the story of what made that the last great Scotland team and the men that put them together behind the scenes.
See on the bus that day when we were going to Hampden, when we were playing Italy, we actually thought we're going [to win], that's how far we had came as a group, we actually felt 'we're turning up to win'.
- Kris Boyd, Lockdown Tactics, May 2020
October 2004. Berti Vogts reign as Scotland manager had come to an abrupt end following an abject start to World Cup Qualifying. Scotland sat second-bottom of Group 5, a point ahead of Moldova. Berti's last match saw the same eastern-European hosts score after 28 minutes with Steven Thompson grabbing an equaliser to spare any further blushes. The German's experiment had resulted in an incredible 40 (FORTY) players being awarded caps. There was no settled first XI because there was a new team each game. Familiar relationships, group identity and the winning mentality which that breeds, were as far as they ever had been from a Scotland team. Only 4 years on from Craig Brown's last hurrah, a terrifically bitter-sweet win at Wembley, when David Seaman's save from Christian Dailly's header was again a cause for teenage-tears (see also McAllister and Durie at Euro '96), Scotland are now seemingly destitute, incapable of providing for themselves, and as far from hope as I can recall. So how on earth did (mostly) the same group of players transform into the busload of brethren ready to beat the World Champions just 3 years later?
Hope against hope was found in the emergence of a talented group of young players, typified by Manchester United's Darren Fletcher. The energetic midfielder was the only player to have a current, first-hand working relationship with the SFA's preferred candidate for Berti's successor, the then Manchester United Assistant Manager.
The closest, and best I've felt [as a Scotland player], was under Walter Smith.
- Darren Fletcher, ibid
Fletcher was a huge boyhood Celtic fan, and it wasn't just from training sessions at Carrington that he was familiar with Smith. If the moustachio'd Arsenal goalkeeper was responsible for my tears as a youth, Fletcher's were most likely issued by the ex-Rangers manager, whose sides routinely weathered the storm of an ever-improving Celtic to win time and again. They were masters at it. Who then could have predicted Smith's first stroke of genius, and possibly his best, setting the tone for the resurgence that followed; the appointment of his assistants, Ally McCoist and Tommy Burns. Once combative opponents on the pitch, Burns and McCoist weren't just ex-Old Firm players, they were icons. McCoist is Rangers' record goalscorer and Burns is treasured more dearly as a player, manager and person than any before or since at Parkhead. This was the 'Rangers man' and the 'Celtic man' uniting under one flag, and boy was it powerful.
Its strength was made immediate by how crazy it might've appeared a decade earlier. When Fletcher was attending Celtic games in the 90s, who was in charge of that wonderfully free-flowing brand of football in Parkhead? Who bore the brunt of those heartbreaking losses, galvanised a broken team, and went again? Who won their first cup in six years, restored belief and attracted international-class players such as Cadete, Di Canio and van Hooijdonk, transforming them into Celtic players along the way?
Tommy Burns had spearheaded Celtic's charge to stop Smith's winning machine, ultimately unsuccessfully, and with Fergus McCann as chairman, this came at a cost. Now, as the assistant to the outgoing Berti Vogts, he must have been expecting a similar 'thank-you for your services' this time on behalf of his old foe, except it never came.
What followed is cause not only for optimism but for hope, that things can really change for the better in our game. It is Burns, McCoist and Smith's friendship, and subsequent results, that provides a reason for celebration that should be marked in the calendar of all Scots.
Why? Well, what else do we have to fight with but positive thought and action? The enemy is insular, fearful and parochial tribalism, dressed-up in the language of religiosity and tradition, breeding confused identities that find an outlet via ill-educated tongues, and fists, of bile and hatred.
If this beast is ever to be swallowed up in the victory of something purer and higher, then the image of McCoist and Smith in tears whilst carrying their friend's coffin into the chapel, will not be far away.
As a grown man, as a human, the unbridled joy and depth of sorrow I felt when researching this piece is okay. If A\M is about mindset and growth, then you'd best know also that that encompasses the fullness of human emotion as well. It's the joy of having known and experienced something far higher than yourself - made possible in this instance by three friends doing their job for their country.
It is really the most simple of human experiences - the softness of friendship across the sharpest of boundaries, lived out publicly, and genuinely, for even the most partisan to see, and it brought along first a squad of players, and then a nation. Yet it is also the heartbreak of having that unmade, of losing one of those friends, a key strand of the cord, someone who few of us knew personally, but many loved and admired deeply from afar.
Danny McGrain, Ally McCoist, Pat Bonner (unseen), George McCluskey, Peter Grant, Walter Smith
If my kids ask me why I'm tearing up writing, maybe I'll just show them this picture and tell them about Tommy, Ally and Walter, and the hope that they brought for the briefest of times that showed us what is possible as a nation. These are happy and sad tears mingling together because life is sometimes beautifully sad, and because real man cry. Now, however, it's back to the source of that unification, it's back to the football.
When Walter came in he basically decided [to stop] giving fouls in training, and I know it was definitely for Ronaldo. The boys were flying into each other. Ronnie was getting lumps kick out of him... Ronaldo, for two weeks, was going bananas, 'Who is this Scottish guy!? What is this!?'... honestly its amazing how quickly Ronnie started moving the ball... and then he started scoring more goals... Great management. You talk about Alex Ferguson, Walter Smith is right there alongside him... he had a massive impact at Man Utd... all the lads still speak highly of him.
- Darren Fletcher on Walter Smith's training sessions at Man Utd.
Scotland were getting a manager who wasn't scared of confrontation. Although you might not see him credited by CR7 in his autobiography, Darren Fletcher was under no allusions why the Portuguese would initially change his game and become the goalscoring wonder we know today, with Gary Neville also testifying to this method. These world-class players witnessed Smith extract something unique via primitive means, but the very means needed for the young, not yet world-class, winger to grow.
Man-management, the mark of a great manager. What is it we at A\M know about growth? It takes time and is often painful, and the bruises on Ronaldo's shins prove the literal qualities of this assertion. If Smith isn't referenced personally by the five-time Ballon D'or winner, then he is at least a footnote by the publishers.
Smith's methods may have seemed agricultural here; but did they work? He saw in Ronaldo a player who needed to move the ball quicker in order that he might develop as a player, becoming more effective, and contributing to the team winning more games. He is, after all, a self-styled pragmatist whose great strength over the years has been to transform the mindset of a team by pinpointingg a way to win, often at the cost of attacking football, or superfluous stepovers. See also: his recurring approach to playing Burns' Celtic at Celtic Park, or Rangers' remarkable run to the 2008 UEFA Cup Final.
Smith knew this when he entered Hampden for the first time, looking back on Burns' strength as a coach as a chief reason for his appointment.
I liked that about Tommy, that regardless of the pressure... he set his team out to go forward and try and win the game... I'm a bit more pragmatic and I thought that that would be a good partnership for us to have going into the National Team.
- Walter Smith, in Faithful Through and Through
Burns and Smith would be the older heads whose tactical understandings did indeed fuse together, eventually creating the team that would end a group containing Ukraine, Italy and France with a goal difference of +9. We might've conceded a goal a game on average, but we scored double that, and some of them were absolute beauties.
In fact, I can't recall a Scotland team who scored so many consistently beautiful goals as under Smith, Burns and... who's that other one? Oh aye, McCoist, he certainly knew where the net was for club and country, now I get it. Though it wasn't just McCoist's striking expertise which contributed to our ability to score more goals, it was the ease of relationship that he and Burns shared.
The camaraderie between [Tommy] and Ally McCoist was fantastic in the Scotland squad when Walter was manager, they played off each other brilliantly.
- Darren Fletcher, ibid
Walter would be giving his team-talk, and [Tommy] was always very funny... but when it came to game-time he had a different face, Coisty as well, they would come in and it was serious. We were at a hotel, going through the team... and over in the corner you could just see Tommy's shoulders starting to go, he had fell asleep during Walter's teamtalk. Walter just shook his head [saying] 'what can I do?'
- Gary Caldwell, ibid
We were in Milan, to play Italy and we were training at the San Siro, so... Tam and myself thought it would be a good idea to go down early and set-up before the boys came down, so I thought we're trainiing at 5, we'll go down about 430 to set up, so a car came to pick us up and I'm thinking the driver's taking his time... so we get there about ten to five... as we look in there's boys kicking the balls about, so Tam turns to me and says 'Aw Coisty ya beauty! The Italians are here, we'll get ten minutes watching them', and I looked again and said, 'Tam, I've got bad news for you. That's not the Italians. That's us.'
- Ally McCoist, ibid
Just great to have about the place, always cracking jokes. You'd always get the same shouts in training, 'ho you, we've got guys who can do that', 'this could be our last trip', they were always the same shouts but they were always funny.
- James McFadden, ibid
Similar stories are endless. Whenever players have been asked to reflect on that period, they all immediately wear the same buoyant expression - as though their childish love of the game had been hit by a reflex hammer. You can see it as sure as I felt it at that train station platform. There is something there, and in large part, whatever mindset was instilled, it was built upon the relationship that Burns and McCoist had with the players.
Smith's first game was against Italy in the San Siro. It was a disciplined performance ultimately undone by two moments of dead-ball genius from Andrea Pirlo. A clean sheet win over Moldova followed at Hampden before a draw at Belarus and then crucially, a home draw with Italy at Hampden in a tremendously assured performance. Kenny Miller's goal in this game ranks as one of the greatest I've seen Scotland score, capping off a flowing passing move perfectly with a running glancing header past a statuesque Buffon.
This goal demonstrated something of the mindset the players were adopting in the camp - a willingness to believe they were good enough to beat the best, trust in their abilities to play their own game and express themselves with enjoyment. A Miller brace and excellent team performance in the away win over Norway tempted us into thinking qualification was a real possibility, epitomising the fact that change was happening fast. Just as momentum was building, the frailties of the team were exposed however in a home loss to Belarus, effectively ending hopes of World Cup qualification.
If this should have crushed spirits and reminded us of 'our lot in life', no one told the management or players. They scored what surely must be the three best goals a Scotland team has scored in a single game as they routed Slovenia 3-0 away, goalscorers; Fletcher, Mcfadden and Hartley. A young team ending a qualification campaign with three goals and smiles upon their faces, does that sound familiar?
'Does it mean much to Scotland? You bet it does.' 'Who said this was meaningless?'
- Paul Mitchell & Ian McCall, BBC Commentary
For anything to mean something, context is everything. This was a dead rubber. We shouldn't have been this excited. The external context was indeed meaningless, neither team could qualify. Internally, however, this was perhaps the most important result in Smith's reign, as it propelled a new Scotland to greater heights than any of us could imagine. Slovenia had reached the World Cup quarter-finals only a few years earlier.
Watching the highlights you can see the bench sharing breath as they roar forward in celebration of each goal - with McCoist leading the exuberant charge each time amidst hugs, handshakes and high-fives. The backroom team as united as the first XI, celebrating the hard work of the training pitch. Listening to Pat Nevin and Gordon Smith's analysis, much is attributed to the training sessions.
We look good and pretty solid all the way through. Everyone knows what they have to do... [Slovenia] want to play through the middle, Walter Smith knows that... they go out and close when it's on... I really do think Walter Smith is seeing this.
- Half-time studio analysis
He was seeing it Pat, we all were. The Tartan Army were delirious when the second and third went in, and we couldn't wait for it to continue, for continue, it did.
France were the best team in the world, but when Vieira led out Henry, Trezeguet and Makelele on the 7th of October 2006, they were playing the group leaders - and this Scotland team were not there to make up the numbers.
Scotland win the first corner of the match... Probably our best chance to score a goal, from a set play... got to have good delivery... Hartley with the delivery... Scotland going up, the head in! Gary Caldwell the man coming forward.
- First-half commentary
Sure, Henry hit the post with terrifically bending free-kick. Trezeguet had an overhead kick disallowed. Ribery hit the byline and delivered cross after cross. Vieira had a goal chalked off for offside (correctly), however, Scotland had shown their threat and dug in. Half-time.
Another corner... the dark blues putting the pressure on. Hartley in, Weir comes up, chance! GOAL! Scotland have scored! And its Gary Caldwell!... Hampden erupts! Scotland are ahead against the best team in the world!
- Second-half commentary
Ecstasy. Sheer ecstasy. However, most surprisingly, we didn't just hold on, we went again and again. Gary Teale worked the ball beautifully with Hartley on the left only to see his shot saved before Ferguson put the excellent Hearts midfielder through whose tired legs couldn't take the ball in his stride. The noise, and heat, and passion that Hampden generated in that closing half-hour that October afternoon was as concrete as the ground on which the unused seating was bolted.
It was almost a collective living organism.
Every substitute made impacted upon performance, with Garry O'Connor running the channels and working a chance to chip Coupet. Every instruction given was heeded. Every breath shared. But whose was the calmest head in the house? I think that was split three ways, but one got more credit than most.
Thank-you Walter Smith
- Ian McCall, on behalf of everyone, Full-time.
When you look at it, France... haven't lost many goals in recent games, but three out of the five that they have lost have been from set-plays so thought we might get something there.
- Walter Smith, post-match interview
Everyone enjoys now meeting up... Training is excellent... it's a great squad to be involved in and you see that when it goes out on the park.
- Barry Ferguson, post-match interview
Scotland took advantage of one of the few chances they created. They were very brave, had a great team spirit, and in the end got rewarded.
- Arsène Wenger, post-match interview
What do you read from these interviews? With Smith, you see the reason behind the delirium. This result was worked upon, it was no accident, no coincidence. Remember what we established from the outset? He finds a way to win with what he has available to him. Besides the disallowed goals, Craig Gordon had very little to do.
This was a tactical masterclass built upon something extraordinary, something that Ferguson, the Rangers captain, reveals; 'everyone enjoys meeting up', 'training is excellent', 'it's a great squad to be involved in'. You can feel the swell of familial commitment and attachment in these short soundbites, it is something unseen which is revealed through performance. A mentality. A mindset. If there were ever an example of there being 'no I in team', then maybe this is it.
Scotland's performance that day transcended luck, wasn't chance and evaded sentimentality. 'Tactics and work-rate were added, but it was built from the ground up on one thing; spirit. Wenger's analysis captured this. They were brave, they had spirit, and in the end, they were rewarded.
To play with bravery is something you don't often associate with Smith, but you do with Burns. Bravery to play attacking football without measure is irresponsible, but bravery to play and attack to your strengths is admirable. Burns and Smith brought these philosophies perfectly under Scotland, but the spark which brought the belief that individual magic could and would happen was instilled by Ally McCoist.
Jock Brown once said of McCoist, 'He's done it! The man with the golden touch!', seconds after he had come off the bench to score an overhead-kick winner against Hibs in the Cup Final, the stuff dreams were made of. McCoist had a penchant for the romantic in a Scotland top too; scoring the crucial goal against Norway at Hampden to take Roxburgh's boys to Italia '90, the only goal from the bench in a 1-0 win against Greece on our way to Euro '96, and our only goal (but what a goal) in the same tournament. It's easy to forget that he was far more than a cheeky chappy, McCoist was a striker of European quality when at the top of his game, and he loved to wear the dark blue of Scotland.
You wonder how this rubbed off on James Mcfadden, who became the talisman under Smith's successor, Alex McLeish. The outlandish was not only possible but happened often if you had the strength to try it, and we all know what happened that evening in Paris.
For that is where we must end. If you feel I've been unnecessarily harsh in omitting Big Eck's contribution, well, in his own words, he 'kept it going', and that's for another day. At A\M we try to dig up the roots and expose those hidden things, intersecting underneath the surface - the groundwork. The initial surgery required could have appeared laborious, thankless even, like shovelling something unpleasant uphill. Yet these three friends embraced it with humour, and as the squad looked on at their hard work and love for one another, they could do nought else but join in. Positivity is like that.
Whenever Scottish football seems in the doldrums, remember this period. If you've smiled, laughed, cried or even felt something warm inside whilst reading of these men, then embrace it, don't dismiss it. It can happen again, it will happen again, and you don't want to miss out.
People like Tommy don't die. They don't die, because Tommy will always be remembered by people who loved him... I don't think we'll ever forget Tommy Burns.
- Danny McGrain, ibid
Tommy Burns... maintained that people who were different from him, or who failed to see his point of view, were not wrong, just exactly that, different. He loved his family, his faith, his football, and [we] were blessed to have him.
- Closing voiceover, Faithful Through and Through