Former Celt Tommy Docherty had replaced Bobby Brown as Scotland manager by the time the qualification phase commenced for the 1974 World Cup Finals, to be held in West Germany, with a tricky tie in Copenhagen in the autumn of ‘72.
A near-post header from Celtic striker Lou Macari put the white-shirted Scots ahead after 18 minutes, with future Bhoy Jimmy Bone doubling the lead two minutes later, forcing the ball home after a George Graham shot was blocked. A perfect free-kick from Finn Laudrup, father of Michael and Brian, brought the Danes back into the game on the half-hour, however, late goals from Joe Harper and Willie Morgan sealed an impressive win for Scotland, with substitute Kenny Dalglish replacing his Parkhead team-mate Macari late on.
Kenny would take centre-stage in the return game with the Danes, at Hampden in November, scoring from close-range after two minutes, Leeds winger Peter Lorimer adding a clincher 45 seconds into the second-half, before being sent off in the closing stages, following a tussle with Danish Player of the Year, Per Rontved, who also walked.
Scotland being Scotland, things were clearly going too well, and so the following month brought the obligatory crisis, as the Doc, having restored the feel-good factor, then left to join Manchester United. His replacement was much lower-key, with former Famous Five member Willie Ormond getting the nod, following a successful spell with St Johnstone.
A veteran of the abysmal Swiss campaign of 1954, his Scotland managerial debut was possibly even worse, a 5-0 defeat at a frozen Hampden by England in February 1973, in a match to celebrate the centenary of the SFA. The following year’s World Cup Finals in Germany seemed a remote prospect in the snow of the old South ‘schoolboy’ Enclosure that night, my one and only match in that area, as years of waiting to go to a game against the Auld Enemy ended in tears.
Nevertheless, with maximum points secured prior to a double-header with the third team in the group, favourites Czechoslovakia, the Scots were in a great position to qualify, the Czech’s dropped point in Copenhagen in May meaning that only two points were required from those games to ensure Scotland’s first participation at that level in sixteen long years.
Thus, it was with great excitement that I stood at the top of the Celtic end at Hampden in late September, with my brother and 96,000 others, to witness the critical game with the Czechs. Five Celts were in the starting eleven, reflecting the quality throughout Jock’s current team.
Goalkeeper Ally Hunter, signed earlier that year from Kilmarnock and fast-establishing a reputation as our best stopper since Ronnie Simpson, lined up behind legend Danny McGrain and 72/73 Player of the Year George Connelly, making his only competitive full international appearance, in defence. The Quiet Assassin, Davie Hay, in his last season at Parkhead, was in midfield, whilst Denis Law, the King, was partnered by his heir-apparent Dalglish up front.
There was a real sickener for Scotland, and for Hunter in particular, on the half-hour, when a speculative cross-shot from Nehoda squirmed from his grasp into the corner of the net. On this night of all nights, this would be a costly error for Ally, as the hero of Wembley that May quickly became the villain. Sadly, he would never be quite the same – or capped – again.
Just before half-time, Manchester United centre-half Jim Holton headed an equaliser from a corner and suddenly it was ‘game on’ again for Scotland.
Like the troubled genius Connelly, Big Jim, neither six foot two or blue-eyed despite the song, was at the height of his football career in 1973, having trained as a teenager with Celtic before making his way to Old Trafford via Shrewsbury and West Brom.
The following year would see relegation then a leg-break, with spells at Sunderland, Coventry and the USA then bringing his senior spell to a close. He tragically suffered a heart attack at the wheel of his car in 1993, passing away aged just 42.
Another Anglo-Scot would make his name that night for the right reasons, young substitute Joe Jordan replacing Kenny on the hour then scoring with a diving header within ten minutes. The Leeds striker’s goal was enough to secure the points required, October’s return match in Bratislava, where an early Nehoda penalty was the only goal, rendered instantly irrelevant.
The run-up to the Finals was exciting for Scotland fans, as a generation witnessed the World Cup preparations for the first time. Roary Superscot merchandise flew off the shelf, with the thigh patch on my brushed-denim jeans a particular low point of my fashion career. It was Easy and Yabba-dabba-doo as the commercial men moved in, exploiting the growing feeling of nationalist pride against the backdrop of a successful team, and the players became stars.
That feeling was heightened after a 2-0 victory over England at a rainy Hampden in May, a first in seven years. Jimmy Johnstone was at his fabulous best that day, tormenting the English defence from start to finish. His signal to the Press Box at full-time spoke a thousand words, reflecting his view of the coverage following the infamous Largs boating incident a few days earlier. However, there would be repercussions in Germany the following month, as the man voted Celtic’s greatest-ever player missed out on an appearance on the biggest stage of all.
Scotland were drawn in Group 2, against holders Brazil, the winners of the play-off between Spain and Yugoslavia and African unknowns Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Slavs then beat Spain in a February decider in Frankfurt, to set up an opening match with Brazil in the same stadium, whilst Scotland would face Zaire in Dortmund the next day.
Three Celts, McGrain, Hay and Dalglish, started in the Westfalenstadion, with Leeds’ Peter Lorimer preferred to Jinky on the right flank. It was Lorimer who opened the scoring with a trademark volley on the half-hour and when Joe Jordan added a second within ten minutes, the Zaire goalkeeper fumbling a soft header for a ridiculous goal at any level, we awaited the onslaught. Incredibly, however, Scotland decided to protect that lead in the second half, a decision which would ultimately prove disastrous.
Four days later it was Scotland’s turn to face the Brazilians in Frankfurt, with the Celtic trio retaining their places for the crunch match. Davie Hay excelled and was one of several Scots to go close on the night, none more so than captain Bremner, who watched as his shot trundled agonisingly past the post with keeper Leao beaten, as the game finished goalless.
Yugoslavia had matched that result on the opening day and had then scored nine without reply against hapless Zaire. This meant that a draw against Scotland in the final game would be enough for them to progress, whilst that result would eliminate the Scots unless Brazil failed to score three against the group whipping-boys.
So, in essence, it was must-win in Frankfurt on 22 June, McGrain, Hay and Dalglish again representing the Hoops against the powerful Slavs. In a tight, tense match, the only scoring came in the last ten minutes, substitute Karasi heading Yugoslavia in front, before Jordan drilled home a late equaliser, following great work from Hutchison on the left.
It would be close but no cigar for Scotland, becoming the first side ever to be eliminated from the World Cup Finals unbeaten, as Zaire goalkeeper Mwamba suffered another howler, conceding a late and decisive third to Brazil at his near post. My abiding memory of that game is one of the all-time classics, the referee whistling to allow a Brazilian free-kick to be taken, only to watch in amazement as a Zaire defender sprints from the wall to launch the ball into the crowd. The subsequent yellow card seemed a tad harsh for the protagonist of such a hilarious moment.
Brazil and Yugoslavia, therefore, took their places in the second stage groups, where they would lose to eventual finalists Holland and West Germany respectively. The Dutch side, considered by many to be the finest in the tournament and featuring future Celtic manager Wim Jansen, went ahead in the first minute of the Munich final, through a Neeskens penalty, before conceding two first half goals, as the German hosts won their second World Cup.
For some of the Celts involved in this journey, it had been a bitter-sweet period. Goalkeeper Ally Hunter had won then lost both his club and international place over the course of 73/74, Denis Connaghan and David Harvey taking the gloves, as his career trajectory plummeted.
Danny McGrain had emerged from serious injury, a fractured skull at Brockville in 1972, to become one of the best full-backs in the world, on the right for Celtic and left for Scotland. He would soon be diagnosed as diabetic, again beating that to become an all-time Celtic great.
George Connelly, following the season of his life, had entered into a contractual dispute with Celtic in late 1973, resolving that early the following year before breaking his ankle against Basel in the European Cup quarter-final in March. His close friend David Hay, was also having issues with the club, playing his last game in the Scottish Cup Final against Dundee United, as the Double was secured in May 1974. Following his performances at the Finals, he was in big demand down south and was transferred to Chelsea for a club-record fee of £225,000 in July, a move which had a negative impact on George.
Neither Celt would play international football again, Hay suffering a serious eye injury and George’s personal issues seeing his premature retiral from the senior game, a truly sad end for such a tremendous talent.
Winger Jimmy Johnstone did make two further appearances for Scotland, in late 1974, before the curtain fell too on his international career. He was released by Celtic the following year.
Lou Macari had been the first of the Quality Street Gang to follow the money trail south, when he joined Tommy Docherty at Manchester United in January 1973 in a £200,000 deal. He then failed to make the final squad the following year, before regaining his Scotland spot in 1975.
The great striking hope for Celtic and Scotland was now Kenny Dalglish. Having scored the goal at Brockville to secure ‘the’ Nine-in-a row, the Parkhead pin-up was now a ‘must-pick’ for both club and country, a record-breaking career in full flow.