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Scotland beat England but Home Championships voided in 1981

It was a day that meant the world to one man, but in the end counted for little to an entire nation.

Thirty nine years ago today, Willie Miller had his defining moment in a Scotland shirt. With just a handful of caps to his name, he stepped into a three-lioned den of Wembley and emerged with a Home Championship victory and a growing reputation.

It was the game that the former Aberdeen captain insists put him on the international map. But due to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the pole position it gave Scotland in the table was wiped out when the tournament was abandoned for the only time outside of a World War.

Though Scotland had completed all of their games and were in a strong position after beating England, the English and Welsh FAs declined to travel to Belfast for their away ties, rendering the competition null and void.

Here, Miller tells BBC Scotland of that day at Wembley…

Must-do trip & enormous dressing rooms – the build up

The British Home Championship was contested annually between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Despite an opening loss to Wales in 1981, confidence within the Scotland camp was renewed with a 2-0 victory against Northern Ireland at Hampden. Stein’s men travelled to Wembley to face England in good spirits.

I spent most of the 70s trying to get some international recognition. My first cap was in 1975, then I got another in 1978. It was a bit of a challenge trying to get yourself noticed and I used to complain a bit to [club manager] Sir Alex Ferguson about it.

It was a big game. The thing about Wembley in those days was that it was mostly Scotland fans that were there. Where they got the tickets from, who knows. That meant it wasn’t that intimidating on the pitch. It was more a feeling of responsibility because the fans were there to celebrate a victory, not go away with their tails between their legs.

It was an intimidating arena, the towers and the scale of the tunnel where the bus dropped you off. The dressing rooms were enormous, you could almost have another game in them. But I had been trying to get myself on to a stage like this and prove that I was good enough.

Tommy Burns in action for Scotland against Northern Ireland at Hampden

‘Watch Trevor Francis, he’s quick’ – the game

The conditions were very hot, and the pitch was soft, which zapped your strength. We were coming up against some of the best players in Europe at the time but, while it was a difficult game, it was comfortable at the same time.

We defended for most of the game. The first half it was Tony Woodcock and Peter Withe up front for England. “You take Withe and I’ll take Woodcock,” I said to Alex McLeish. It was as simple as that. The fact they had a tall striker and a more nimble striker suited us. But they changed it at half-time – Woodcock went off and Trevor Francis came on.

I remember Jock Stein sent on the physio to give me some information. “You need to watch Trevor Francis, he’s really quick,” he said. I already knew that! I knew I had to play a bit deeper, but I handled both of them and Big Alex took care of Withe particularly well.

Steve Archibald was brought down in the box during the second-half and it was definitely a penalty. I had no fear that John Robertson was going to miss – he was such a calm character – and then it was just a case of hanging on. We did that pretty comfortably.

Night at Stringfellows – the celebrations

We decided to stay in London and make a weekend of it. We got on the tube with the Tartan Army and then went out to Stringfellows, which was a very posh nightclub at the time. We had a couple of bottles of champagne and savoured the win.

A big part of being accepted was that game in 1981, because it put you on a major stage. It got you in front of an English audience. I think that allows the Scottish press and fans to accept you a bit better, because you can go and take on the best of England at the time.

England’s Trevor Francis is shut down by Willie Miller at Wembley

Alex McLeish and I have spoken about the commentary and pre-match build-up to that win – I’m sure it was Lawrie McMenemy as a pundit and he hadn’t a clue who we were. It was quite astonishing that there was no recognition of what we were beginning to achieve in Scotland.

Even the Scottish press dismissed you at the time, but that game changed everything. We changed our lives pretty considerably from the point of view of being recognised as international players.

It’s like a performer doing the north of England clubs then getting a chance at the London Palladium and then everybody knows you. You go from obscurity to being on that big stage.

It was the first time since 1938 that Scotland had gone to Wembley and kept a clean sheet. And it was the most important international I played, because it allowed me to go on and play in two World Cups and win 65 caps.

It was one of the major turning points in my career. The Scots invaded England and came away with a victory, so you have to make sure you savour that one.


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