In Gareth Southgate’s meetings with the England players this week, there have naturally been no emotional appeals to nationalism, or real mention of what a fixture with Scotland represents. It’s all been very cool. That’s probably just as well. Most of the players aren’t too concerned with the history of the fixture, let alone the current themes surrounding Scottish independence that are supposed to have added a new emotion to the rivalry.
When the English squad were asked whether they knew the name of Paul Gascoigne’s famous 1996 celebration this week, more than a few looked on blankly. Most of Scotland would meanwhile rather forget the “Dentist’s chair”.
This of course isn’t to harrumph about modern players being ignorant of their history. It isn’t arrogance, either. It is the opposite. It is to accept the current reality.
“I think the younger generations probably have a different view on those old rivalries,” Southgate acknowledged before the game.
The truth is that the oldest international fixture in football is just another classic tradition eroded by the modern game. Most of the memories come from well before the players’ time, from competitions that no longer exist in the Home Championship and Rous Cup. The 1980s - or pretty much any decade you want to pick until 1990 - had more meetings between the two countries than we’ve seen in the last 31 years. If you discount those old tournaments and exhibitions, England and Scotland have actually only had five truly competitive matches in their history. Friday’s fixture will be the sixth. The first was 1996.
It is little wonder that it is just another fixture to most players.
In that, it’s almost like the modern FA Cup. The players want to win it and will enjoy being involved, but they don’t care about it as much as their predecessors, and have far bigger concerns.
That framing shouldn’t go too far, though. Southgate admitted there is an “additional factor”. Like Steve Clarke, he also recognised how much many of the supporters will want victory.
It is a certain privilege to take part in this game. Some of them, like Declan Rice and a lot of the Scots, fully recognise this. They will take their place in a distinctive part of football history, a lineage that is only available to players from these two countries.
That’s a rich history, too, going back through Paul Scholes, Gascoigne, the crossbar at Wembley, Jim Baxter playing keepie uppie, Jimmy Greaves scoring a hat-trick in a 9-3, and right back to the early days of the sport when Scotland were the world power that didn’t just dominate the fixture but influenced the very way the game was played.
It really was a different world. The modern football world means it’s virtually impossible for a country of just over 5.5million people to be world powers, not when countries like England - and France and Germany - essentially industrialise talent production. Group opponents Croatia - who Scotland play next - have gone closer than anyone, but the limits of that were seen last week. England just looked a level above.
That context is also why this fixture shouldn’t be reduced to some kind of be-all-and-end-all for Scotland.
Sure, it is true that it means more for them. That is always generally always the case for the smaller nation in any shared history. You only have to look at England’s friendlies against Ireland and Wales at the end of last year.
But this is about much more than Scotland getting a result off their oldest rivals, and all that history. It is about their future in these European Championships.
A defeat could be fatal, the identity of the team that beat them only adding to the pain rather than defining it on its own.
Scotland feel they haven’t done justice to themselves so far. They don’t want this Euros to add to the history of the tournament failure, where they are mocked rather than “respected”.
It is probably why there was more relevance to Andy Robertson’s words on exactly that than any appeals to history.
“I think we’re probably respected more now because we’ve qualified for a tournament but we’re still not as respected as much as we would all like,” the Liverpool left-back said. “A chance to play against England is a chance to show people that doubt Scottish football what we can do.”
That reflects a few things playing on the minds of the Scottish players, not least the perception of English “arrogance”. Those around Southgate’s squad insist it just isn’t the case but the general way bigger teams talk - or get talked about, not least in articles like this - does play into the idea that victory is expected, that superiority assumed.
Gareth Southgate in England training
(AFP via Getty Images)
It could have a tangible effect on the night since some of the Scottish players are looking to latch onto any loose words so as to add that extra edge to their own game.
It is also why Southgate was so keen to play it all down, and show his own appreciation of the history. He talked about being on the pitch for that 1996 game, and how a good Scottish team have been unfairly dismissed since then because of the result. A tone was certainly struck.
“I’ve never felt I’ve been involved with an England team that didn’t respect Scotland and didn’t appreciate how difficult the games were going to be,” he said. “Certainly to talk about the team now, that’s not how they are. They know the quality of players they’re playing against. They’re obviously teammates with some of those players, so they know exactly what they’re capable of. I think, these players, they do have a level of humility that is really important. We pride ourselves on it. We have got to have confidence.
“We can’t be shrinking violets going into an experience like this one, so we’ve got to be prepared and not undersell the event. But also we don’t want to overplay that in the minds of the players. We want them in the performance state where they’re focused, where they’re ready for the challenge, but also that we go and play. We have to go and play. That’s the key to starting the game.”
A few locks still have to be turned. Both managers have some decisions to make. As with the match as a whole, they are bigger for Clarke. He came under criticism for some of his calls, not least the omission of Che Adams. He will surely return to make Scotland more dangerous, as will Kieran Tierney. Southgate made particular mention of the Arsenal wing-back’s link-ups with Andy Robertson, and the danger of overloading England.
The left side may well see the biggest change for his own team, too. It is anticipated that Luke Shaw will come in for Kieran Trippier, although neither Jack Grealish nor Harry Maguire is expected to start. Southgate thinks it’s too early for the centre-half, and that the attack is working well enough right now without Grealish.
The omission of the Aston Villa playmaker may yet raise more emotions for English supporters than playing Scotland. That could be heard at Wembley on Sunday. That in turn may rile the Scots.
It isn’t really arrogance, though. It’s just the modern game for a historic fixture. This one - for both sides - is really about their futures in this tournament.