It’s hard to convey now, in our splintered multi-platform age, just how inescapably, grotesquely enormous an event England v Scotland was in 1996. A quick browse through the daily newspapers on the morning of that game offers just a taste of the hope, fear, giddy expectation and casual jingoism that greeted the first tournament meeting between international football’s oldest rivals.
Among the wall-to-wall coverage, references to “Jocks”, “kilts” and “sporrans” are rife. The Mirror commissioned an article from the comedian Bernard Manning in which he served up such gems as “I think Scottish people are great, even if they’re a bit tight”. The Sun printed a selection of “your good luck faxes to our boys”, and urged England to “give the Scots a beating they’ll never forget”. Meanwhile the Guardian’s ever-solemn front page displayed a horde of Scottish fans descending on London, highlighting the potential for violence.
It meant something different back then, which is not to say it means nothing now. But as Harry Kane and Andrew Robertson lead their teams out on Friday night at Wembley – a venue that Uri Geller will very much not be circling in a helicopter – there is a sense that old enmities and old hysterias may no longer be strictly necessary here. And above all that this game between England and Scotland – two neighbouring nations whose relationship has shaped so much of the sport – should be remembered above all as a sporting contest rather than a generation-defining cultural event.
Partly, of course, this is down to the Covid-impelled strictures in place at Wembley, under which the stadium will be at an airy one-quarter capacity. Partly, you feel, it is down to the gulf in quality between the two nations – 40 places in the world rankings – that will almost certainly mean Steve Clarke’s Scotland sitting behind the ball in an attempt to soak up pressure. But partly, too, it is a sense that for all their shared heritage and intertwined histories, England and Scotland have simply drifted apart over the years: socially, culturally and in football terms too.
The truth is that for all the various confected minor controversies that have surfaced this week – fuelled largely by the media and nationalist politicians – any real large-scale footballing animosity between these two nations exists primarily in the form of nostalgia. By and large – and to perhaps a greater extent than has been true for almost a century – England doesn’t really care about Scotland any more. And increasingly, the reverse is also true.
When Robertson declared this week that Scotland were “not as respected” by England fans as he would like, he was speaking more to a deficit of attention than esteem. The days when many English football fans instinctively kept one eye on club football north of the border – even if it was only through their Pools coupons – are long gone. So, too, the days when Scottish fans invested a significant portion of their national pride on their annual Home Championship meeting with the English.
English football, for its part, has largely weaned itself off its traditional dependence on Scottish labour. There are now more German and Spanish than Scottish coaches in the top two divisions. Of the roughly two dozen Scottish players in the Premier League, only around seven or eight are genuinely indispensable to their clubs. Meanwhile the examples of Jordan Holsgrove at Celta Vigo, Aaron Hickey at Bologna and Liam Morrison and Barry Hepburn at Bayern Munich demonstrate there are alternative career paths for young Scottish players to simply migrating across the border.
Two conjoined nations, each looking the other way. And in one sense, this is a direct effect of the political evolution of the two nations since the Scottish National Party first won power from Labour at Holyrood in 2007. Whereas football once served as a handy sublimation of Anglo-Scottish relations, a largely harmless canvas upon which to express historical tribal differences, now these battles are being fought for real.
Over the past couple of years, successive nationalist governments in England and Scotland have engaged in a sort of gruesome, mutually antagonistic pact, fully aware that each perfectly serves the other’s purposes. For the SNP, resistance to “Tory Westminster rule” remains the defining note of their offering. The Conservatives, for their part, have been perfectly content to weaponise anti-Scottish sentiment in England for electoral gain, most notably in the 2015 general election. More animus and more grandstanding inevitably lie further down the line. A second referendum, a constitutional crisis, secession: who really knows? But set against all this, perhaps you begin to appreciate how the midfield battle between Kalvin Phillips and John McGinn might begin to pale a little in comparison.
And certainly you suspect that England’s best chance of winning on Friday night lies in turning the volume down rather than turning it up, stripping out layers of meaning rather than lashing them on, treating this as business rather than personal. This is a tournament game at Wembley with qualification for the last 16 of the European Championship at stake. Any further motivation should be entirely unnecessary.
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For Scotland this is very much last-chance territory. Following their credible and yet calamitous 2-0 defeat against the Czech Republic on Monday, a draw would just about keep them afloat before a decisive final game against Croatia (against whom they have never lost). So the emphasis will be on squeezing the spaces between their back three (likely to become five without the ball), inviting England to overcommit, testing the back four with crosses, keeping 11 men on the pitch at all costs.
Naturally history and muscle-memory drew the eye to this fixture as soon as the draw was made. Doubtless it will be an occasion to savour, a mass broadcasting event on both sides of the border (naturally with separate commentary teams), perhaps even a great game. But you suspect it will only be truly memorable if Scotland win.