As international football’s granite-hewn founding stone, England–Scotland is a sporting fixture imbued with history. And that history, as John McGinn noted earlier this week, is not entirely one-sided. “When you look at the record between us, I was surprised at how tight the results were,” he said. “The English media would have you believe the gap is huge. It’s up to us tomorrow to prove that wrong.”
McGinn’s right. On the surface, Scotland’s 41 wins is not far off England’s 48. On top of 25 draws, that is a respectable enough record. From a Scottish perspective, it’s not exactly Bannockburn but it’s not bad either. We are talking about the game’s oldest rivalry, though, and it is fair to say those 41 Scottish victories are not evenly distributed over the course of the past 149 years.
Only 12 of Scotland’s wins have come since the end of the Second World War. 18 of them pre-date the outbreak of the first. 13 of them came not in the last century, but the century before that. There has been one - just one - since the end of their annual meetings in the Home Championship and Rous Cup in 1989. Even that 1-0 win at Wembley in a play-off to reach Euro 2000 was technically a defeat. Scotland lost 2-1 on aggregate.
That is all a roundabout way of saying that Scottish victories in this fixture this side of peace in Europe are rare. Wins at Wembley are rarer still. Before 1999, there was 1981 and a 1-0 victory which left Scotland top of the Home Championship standings. Unfortunately, due to concerns over the Troubles in Northern Ireland, that competition could not be completed and an official winner was never declared.
The last Wembley victory of any significance, then, is the most famous in modern memory: 1977, or ‘the one with the broken crossbar’ and the scenes of hooliganism which precipitated the Home Championship’s demise. “Give us an assembly and we’ll give back your Wembley” was one of the chants from those Scots on the pitch at the spiritual home of English football that day and serves as a reminder of how much has changed in the intervening years.
This fixture is no longer an annual event, with only four meetings this millennium, and that is partly why it no longer has quite the same historical and political edge. Absence has made the heart grow fonder, in a sense, or has at least brought a close to regular hostilities. Football is also no longer one of the only avenues open for the expression of Scottish identity. Beating England in their own backyard is not its ultimate goal.
Make no mistake, though. This is still important. It is Scottish football’s biggest occasion in a generation and there is still some of that old edge too, as Andy Robertson’s remarks from earlier in the week suggested. “We’re still not as respected as much as we would all like,” the Scotland captain said, not speaking about England directly, but not exactly excluding them from his analysis either. “A chance to play against England is a chance to show people that doubt Scottish football what we can do.”
England are aware of that. There have only been respectful remarks about the depth and breadth of Scotland’s talent coming out of St George’s Park this week. A few in the squad, like Harry Kane for example, remember the last meeting in 2017 and scrambling around to save a 2-2 draw at Hampden Park. Gareth Southgate admitted to still having nightmares about Leigh Griffiths’ pair of late free-kicks which put Scotland on the brink of a famous win.
And while there are several English-born players within Scotland’s ranks, they still understand the significance of this fixture. Che Adams is only a recent convert but has quickly settled in. Scott McTominay, grew up in Lancaster to develop a mild but unmistakably northern English accent, turned down England and chose to represent the country of his father Frank, from Helensburgh, instead.
McTominay said yesterday that Scotland are “going there to win” but the format of this tournament means any kind of result would be positive and could set-up a ‘play-off’ in the final game against Croatia. Scotland have to be smart. “Most definitely don’t lose the game. That’s first and foremost. We have to get a result,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. For us, that’s the sole focus of the group at the minute.”
The return of Kieran Tierney is a significant boost. Steve Clarke confirmed at his pre-match press conference that the Arsenal left-back - a left-sided centre-half for his country - is ready. “It is good news for Kieran, good news for us and good news for the Scottish supporters,” Clarke said. “Hopefully we can back all that up with a good result. He has trained fully the last two days. He is available for the whole game.”
Tierney and McTominay are part of a group of players in Clarke’s squad who were not even alive at the time of the last meeting at a major tournament and Paul Gascoigne’s wonderful goal at Euro 96. Then, there was still a hangover from those Home Championships, the annual animosity and regular Scottish disappointment. Perhaps the distance between those days and this Scotland squad is no bad thing. It may give them a better chance of writing their own history.