Congratulations to the Republic of Ireland on qualifying for the finals of Euro 2016. Whilst our failure to qualify still hurts big style I think it would be churlish not to be pleased for our ‘celtic cousins’. If truth be told, I’m also pleased that our other near-neighbours England, Northern Ireland and Wales have also qualified although come next summer their departure for France will probably serve to increase the pain for supporters of Cinderella Scotland. Maybe I’m just a masochist at heart.
Anyway back to the ROI and whilst France 2016 will be their third Euros, Scotland did of course have a significant role to play in their first success as a qualification group rival for the 1988 European Championships in West Germany. Other group rivals included Belgium, Luxembourg and Bulgaria.
The group matches commenced in September 1986 when Andy Roxburgh’s Scotland drew 0-0 with the Bulgarians at Hampden and Jack Charlton’s Ireland drew 2-2 with Belgium in Brussels thanks to a last minute penalty from Liam Brady. The following month Ireland and Scotland played out a goal-less draw at Lansdowne Road, Dublin. The most-capped Scotland player that day was Gordon Strachan with his 39th international appearance whilst Roy Aitken was the captain. The Wednesday match kicked off at 3.30pm – floodlighting may have been an issue.
In November Scotland got their first victory, a 3-0 win over Luxembourg at Hampden thanks to a Davie Cooper brace plus one from Mo Johnston. Into 1987 and it all went horribly wrong at Hampden in February when a headed goal by Mark Lawrenson [Yes, really] gave the Irish a priceless two points. Incidently, his Anfield team-mate, Alan Hansen, won his 26th and final Scottish cap that evening. Worse was to follow however on April fools day when Scotland got their usual doing in Belgium, 4-1 at Anderlecht’s Constant Van den Stock Stadion with Nico Claesen getting a hat-trick. Ireland meanwhile lost in Bulgaria and drew at home with Belgium.Then in October 1987 something strange happened- Scotland beat Belgium, 2-0 with goals from Ally McCoist and Paul McStay and debut caps for Gary Gillespie and Derek Whyte. Apparently, even Hercule Poirot was baffled by it all. More incredulity was to follow however.Ireland finished their campaign with three victories – beating Luxembourg twice and Bulgaria at home but Bulgaria were still in pole position and required only a draw at home to Scotland in their final game to pip the Irish on goal difference and qualify. And so to Sofia in November 1987 and against all the odds, Scotland win 1-0 when Gary MacKay winning his first cap, as a replacement for Paul McStay, netted in the 87th minute. Cue ‘Bedlam’ in Dublin, Cork, Limerick etc.
After drawing 0-0 away to Luxembourg [Luxembourg’s only point of the campaign], Scotland finished in fourth place but only two points behind Ireland. If only we had beaten the Irish at Hampden, if only, if only, if only,,,,,,