Was 1966 the last great British sporting moment? Andy Murray apart?
Sunday Mail, June 12th 2016
‘They think it’s all over. It is now.’ These are some of the most famous words ever in the history of British sporting commentary.
The fiftieth anniversary of 1966 is upon us. When England beat West Germany 4-2 at Wembley and became football World Cup champions. It is a long time ago, but as the European Championships kick off, with everyone taking part from the UK bar Scotland, the memories and myths of that triumph still linger.
1966 is obviously for English fans a time to savour and celebrate. It has always been much more complex for Scottish fans, and seen as a cross that has to be borne for many. One retort over the years used to be: ‘they never stop going on about it’, but that has become less true with the passing of the years.
Go back to the summer of 1966. In many respects it was then a very British triumph. The mascot of the games was British, not English. The union flag flew at games, not the St. George’s Cross.
Many Scots were appalled at the time. There is the apocryphal story of the Scots football legend Denis Law on the day of the final taking himself off to play a round of golf so he wouldn’t see the game, only for someone to ruin his day, by telling him the result at the 19th hole.
Other Scots celebrated, and others ignored it, football less saturating society. ‘The Scotsman’ and ‘Herald’ after the game didn’t even carry the result on their front pages, the former’s front cover trumpeting the news that the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh was changing its theatre policy as its top story.
This was for some more than an English triumph. How did the reaction of many Scots and parts of the Tartan Army, of seeing English arrogance, reach such proportions?
One explanation is that Britain changed in the years after 1966. It became more fragmented and divided. Scotland became more aware and assertive. Britishness has declined. But something else was at work in the realm of sport and culture.
Maybe more than England winning the World Cup annoying Scots, the reaction of England in the years hence, as champions and former champions, is what really grated with lots of Scots.
England did win and in the years after did go on about it a fair bit. Why wouldn’t they? Imagine in some fantasy universe far away that a Scotland football team won the World Cup. Would we ever stop going on about? Part of our nation never would. Indeed, it could be argued such a triumph would contribute to us being a very different kind of nation – more confident, less defined by what we think of the English, and what we think they think about us.
Particularly galling to many Scots was the visible expectation of success which being World Champions gave the English. It made them think they were superior; which they actually were in the narrow sense of sporting achievement.
English decline came quickly. They were knocked out of the 1970 World Cup by West Germany, and then worse, in the qualifiers for the 1974 World Cup they failed to make the finals, being thwarted by a Polish team who held England to a draw at Wembley, which caused English angst and anger. Brian Clough, famously, lashed out at the Polish goalkeeper, calling him a ‘clown’.
All of this gave further justification to some Scots saying they can’t stop going on about it. After suffering so many footballing reverses, we couldn’t make common cause, and say, we hear that you are hurting with disappointment, join the club!
Instead, some choose the path of Anyone But England. It is understandable, but small-minded. Because of what we perceived as English over-bearing, it was seen as permissible to be so petty and prejudiced.
I have a hope. Scotland has changed in so many ways for the better. I would like to live in these isles able to support a generous, confident English football team. At the moment, I don’t support the Anyone But England brigade, but nor can I bring myself to automatically support England.
A big jump apart from Scotland again qualifying for future World Cups and European Championships, would be to stop seeing some of the world through the eyes of opposing England. Maybe that in itself is enough.
As for 1966. Isn’t it time us Scots got over it? Stopped going on about the third goal that never was? And just let go? They did win the World Cup a long time ago, just like there were the Lisbon Lions and Barcelona Bears in the distant past.