*This article first appeared in The Herald on 09/07/18*
By Alan Roden
World Cup ’98, the opening match: Brazil v Scotland.
I sat my final exam at college in the morning before heading to a pub where happy hour pints were just £1.
There were Saltires hanging above the bar, and a raucous crowd that erupted in cheers when John Collins scored a penalty to level the game against the eventual champions.
The pub was in York; the audience was largely English.
Growing up in northern England, it never occurred to me not to support Scotland, or any of the home nations. Why wouldn’t I?
Unless we were playing each other, of course.
I am a passionate England fan; it was Italia ’90 that hooked me. I couldn’t watch the Egypt game live so I recorded it on VHS and watched it in full when I got home. I watched the Cameroon quarter final – the last time England won at that level before Saturday – on a black-and-white TV in my aunt’s farmhouse, and was allowed to stay up late to watch the West Germany semi-final on a tiny TV in my bedroom, before crying myself to sleep.
The first poster on my bedroom wall was of Gary Lineker; I’ll never forget watching Gazza play against Sweden at Elland Road in the Umbro tournament in 1995; I had to be picked up off the floor outside a Corfu bar in 1998 because I was inconsolable when Argentina knocked us out on penalties in the knockout stages.
Then, perhaps unwisely for such a diehard England fan, I moved to Scotland.
England’s next tournament game was in Euro 2000, against Portugal. I watched it in a bar in Edinburgh and it was my first real experience of the Anyone But England (ABE) phenomenon.
When Portugal came back from 2-0 down to win the game, the cheers and cries of ‘sunny Portugal, we’ll support you ever more’ were deafening.
For someone who grew up in England, yet always supported Scotland, it stunned me. I simply wasn’t prepared for the animosity. I was bitter and upset.
But that was then; this is now. Nearly two decades on, I get it, and I revel in it. It’s a footballing rivalry and it’s a healthy one. I even felt comfortable enough to watch last year’s Scotland v England game in the home end at Hampden.
I watched England’s World Cup game against Panama in an Edinburgh bar. There were fans in England tops bellowing out ‘It’s Coming Home’, while others cheered Panama’s consolation goal as if it had been scored by Leigh Griffiths himself. It was a cracking atmosphere, with no hint of tension.
Traditionally, of course, it’s the ABE crowd which has more fun. Like the time Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany was disallowed and we went on to lose 4-1. Or the time Portugal knocked us out on penalties. Correction: times, plural.
The pain of defeat has hurt over the years, but boy is this tournament is making up for it.
Every two years the same debate takes place: should Scots support the Auld Enemy?
There are those who insist Scots should back England, arguing that to do otherwise is embarrassing. I’m not one of them – it makes victory even sweeter for us.
There are those – mainly politicians – who pick another team for spurious reasons. The correct choice for politicians whose nation is not playing is that they’re not supporting anyone, precisely because their nation is not playing.
And there are those who watch every England game in the hope of a humiliating defeat for the Three Lions.
This contingent is smaller than in previous years, and some put that down to the humility of Gareth Southgate and his young squad. Yet perhaps a bigger reason is we now have a generation of Scotland fans who have never known qualification for a major tournament, making rooting for England’s opponents all the more futile.
In the binary world of post-indyref Scotland, where everyone is forced to be a Unionist or a Nationalist, it is inevitable that politics poisons the football debate.
In a newspaper column last week, the pro-independence columnist Lesley Riddoch wrote: “As Scotland finds its new place in the North Atlantic and the league of small, energy-rich European states, our age-old enmity with England will become utterly irrelevant.”
Completely failing to understand that the enmity is to do with a footballing rivalry, not the constitution, does she actually think independence involves sawing along the border and allowing Scotland to float off in the direction of Iceland?
She added: “One day, football and the constitutional question in Scotland will be equally disconnected.”
It always has been, Lesley, and it’s only fanatical nationalists who make it otherwise.
Among real fans, there is no link between constitutional preference and support or otherwise for England. Some of the most vociferous ABE backers I know are diehard Tories.
It is perfectly acceptable to want Scotland to be part of the UK and to want England to be crushed on the football pitch. It’s also perfectly acceptable to want Scotland to leave the UK and to want England to win on the football pitch.
Or any combination of the above: there are no strict rules.
You don’t get much more passionate about independence than the SNP’s former Westminster leader Angus Robertson, who tweeted this week: “Absolutely delighted for England, all English fans, friends and relations. Congratulations.”
Oh how the SNP misses him in the Commons.
It’s hard to imagine Angus would have resorted to such petty antics as his successor Ian Blackford and colleagues did last week, when they repeatedly dawdled through the voting lobby and ensured English MPs and Commons staff missed the Colombia game.
A healthy rivalry should not involve sabotage. Just imagine if Scotland had qualified for the tournament and English MPs pulled the same stunt during a crunch match.
So it’s the semi-final against Croatia on Wednesday. Nearly three decades since the last time England reached this stage. Just like Gazza in Turin, it’ll probably end in tears.
But maybe, just maybe, Southgate’s men really are going to bring football home. After all those penalty defeats, all the failures of the ‘golden generation’, all the crushed dreams, what absolute joy that will bring me – and what pain it will bring for so many Scotland fans.
I absolutely can’t wait.