I played for Scotland

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Scotland’s comprehensive victory over England in the Calcutta Cup last weekend prompted these reminiscences of a Tartan Army veteran and piper:

By Alasdair Roberts

This all started quarter of a century ago.  We were a Dons*-minded group calling ourselves the Aberdeen Convivial Society for home and away exchanges of entertainment. With the 1982 World Cup happening in Spain, the Tartan Army had yet to reach full strength but we decided to go as a squadron. Songs were concocted. Firing the imagination, there was a special song rendered ahead of time by the players: “I have a dream, and dreams come true. Oh Bonnie Scotland, I’ll play for you.”

The tune was good, and voice-over added appeal: “It’s a penalty! They’re handing the ball to me …!” As a height-challenged supporter who had gloried in the goals of Joey Harper, my hero was Gordon Strachan. A drawing put together with very little skill featured the player, the song and pipers near the pitch. One of our team turned it into T-shirts, but a simpler banner we took to Spain worked better. Before we left home, Scotland beat New Zealand 5-2, a record in World Cups. Next, Brazil.

My idea was to counter the Brazilian samba bands that played jaunty music when the maestros had the ball and dirges when it fell to the other side. But there we were in Seville and I struck up.  Maybe I was a pioneer, although the idea was ludicrous, really – bagpipes can hardly be heard in a football crowd. Scotland went ahead with David Narey’s ‘toe poke’ and we were still level at half-time.

When a third goal went in against us, Strachan – whom the Spaniards called him Naranjito, ‘the little orange’ (which was alright by me who used to be called Ginger) – gave way to Kenny Dalglish. By the time Falcao scored Brazil’s fourth I was out of sorts as well as puff.

The author with the rest of the lads in Spain in 1982 for the World Cup.

The pre-arranged price for Seville had left a hole in my budget, so while others played golf on the Costa del Sol I went to Malaga and bought tickets at the ground. Our artist put this on record. We had to beat the USSR to go forward and I played in the sunshine till someone stopped the drones.  Aberdeen’s Willie Miller clashed with Alan Hansen, causing the opposition’s first goal, and Gordon Strachan was substituted … again! Jock Stein’s judgement was in question. A late Graeme Souness equaliser was not enough to keep us in Spain.

Italia ‘90 began with a shock 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica (no shock nowadays) but we flew out anyway for the Sweden game at Genoa. There was a ban on selling alcohol to Scots but the linguist of our group managed to get unlabelled ‘aqua minerale’ with the pre-match meal. At the ground I was refreshed enough to play in front of Swedish supporters, on my knees when Mo Johnston scored a penalty. Scotland won 2-1, and afterwards their sporting fans offered the hand of friendship; one had only a stump. These things stay in the mind.

A difference with waiters over the anti-fascist song Bandiera Rossa ended all prospect of drink before the Brazil game in Turin. I didn’t play, Scotland lost. It turned out to be the team’s last game at the World Cup.

The author serenading the locals.

The 1992 European Championships in Sweden offered fresh hope. Our linguist had spent a year there so there was hospitality. The first match was at Gothenburg where, nine years before, Aberdeen FC had won the Cup-Winners’ Cup. The ‘Gothenberg Greats’ included eight Scottish caps – Leighton, Kennedy, McLeish, Miller, Simpson, Strachan, McGhee, Black – and we were playing the Netherlands at the same ground. Trying to make a difference, I got as close to pitch-side as a high fence would allow but my Mist Covered Mountains failed to stop Ruud Gullit’s forays. It was a narrow one-goal defeat, but then we lost again to newly united Germany at Norrköping.

The same venue saw Scotland take on the former Soviet Union: Russia now headed a Commonwealth of Independent States, from USSR to CIS. Still concerned about not being heard, I surmised that sound might be picked up at the goals. On a wet floodlit night, as those watching television told us later, I halted the commentary of Archie McPherson: “The piper has got very close to the microphone.” Pat Nevin was brought down in the box and they handed the ball to Gary McAlister who scored from the spot. Result: 3-0. But that was the last time Scotland competed in an international football tournament.

The author rallies the troops.

Lots of us follow rugby as well, and that was my sport as a schoolboy. In the year 2000, Italy was admitted to the Six Nations Championship and were due to play Scotland in Rome. Italy had just emerged from a very bad World Cup and Scotland was the reigning Five Nations champion team. With the latest hero, Gregor Townsend, master-minding play from fly half, what could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong was Gregor’s opposite number, Diego Dominguez, an experienced Argentinian international. He had an Italian grandmother and switched to help with what is very much Italy’s second version of football.

That day at the Stadio Flaminio outside Rome, he helped the Azzurri to a 34-20 win, kicking six penalties, one conversion and an astonishing three drop-goals – 29 points in all. The Scots forwards could not fail to hear my tunes as they contested scrums, line-outs, rucks and mauls, all to no avail. After the full-time whistle a kilted mourner said, “If they played as well as you they’d have won.” I gave our departing supporters Flowers of the Forest. My old Pipe Major, still a commanding figure, issued a reprimand:  “That’s only supposed to be played at gravesides.”

They say it’s the hope that kills you. Even when the chance of one more trip to Rome came up through my daughter, Lisa, I was cautious. Gregor Townsend is now manager of the nation’s rugby team, but an exciting victory over England for the Calcutta Cup in 2018 came between poor performances in Cardiff and Dublin. People were saying Scotland couldn’t win away from Murrayfield. They might not even win against Italy who usually came last. As a compromise, and since the tickets were paid for, I thought I’d go to the match but not play at the Stadio Olimpico. Bagpipes as cabin luggage?  Maybe a hymn tune at the Vatican.

Diego Dominguez.

There was no shortage of pipers at the Piazza del Popolo, and a motley band with one drummer led the Tartan Army to the ground. This doubled as the Walk for Doddie – publicity for the former Scotland forward’s campaign to raise awareness of Multiple Sclerosis. We crossed the Tiber and turned right for what is usually the shared ground of Roma and Lazio, the city’s rival football teams.  Statues of larger-than-life classical athletes dominated the approach. My pipes were still in the bag.

Things did not go Scotland’s way in the opening 40 minutes. There were errors in attack and defence and Italy produced skilful handling to show they are more than a heavy pack for scrums and mauls. Fly half, Tommaso Allan who, at a younger age level had played for Scotland, played a significant part.  For all the tartan on display, it was the roar of “Italia!” that dominated.

At our hotel there was a self-styled ‘rugby virgin’ whose big match experience was that of Glasgow’s Old Firm. He praised a great atmosphere and the fact that there was no need to segregate the fans. The Azzurri had a small band near us (hardly Brazilian strength) but although I could see a piper holding his set no sound of the national instrument reached my ears.

Alasdair Roberts awaits the second half.

The teams went off for oranges and encouragement with the score at 17-12.  The way things had been going, with desperate defence against Italian attacks, it was a relief to be down by ‘only five’.  Time for action. With seated spectators there’s always a concern about blocking someone’s view, but half time is for stretching legs. Flower of Scotland got me going, and when the teams came back out I was ready to respond to the ebb and flow of play.

Scotland were playing away from our end.  There was never going to be the hushed silence purists look for when conversion kicks are attempted. Desperate times called for desperate measures. When Tommaso Allan lined up five minutes from time for a penalty to put Italy ahead I tried my dullest slow air. He kicked it all the same.

Then at the other end, in the second last minute of the game, Scotland were awarded a penalty. Reliable Greg Laidlaw had already missed one kick at the posts but he held his nerve. The ball went over the bar. Scotland grew stronger through the second half and won at the end.  I never doubted the team.

There was lots of milling about after, particularly near big screens that showed the St Patrick’s Day triumph of Ireland over England for the Grand Slam – all five other nations beaten. Having been silenced by police in St Peter’s Square, I found myself brought down to earth by stewards for holding on to a barrier in order to see the Twickenham match.

The programme for the 2018 Italy v Scotland international rugby match.

Afterwards a knowledgeable Scot persuaded me to provide a sample of ceòl mòr, or pibroch, and women danced to faster tunes. There was a request spot in the restaurant where Lisa had ended our outing with pasta.

We headed off to the Metro, and I was scratching my head over something missing when our waiter ran down the Piazza della Repubblica escalator wearing my bonnet. Of course, I tell people I won the match for Scotland. With all these years of failing to do so, I surely deserve some credit.


* ‘The Dons’ is the nickname of Aberdeen Football Club.