Fergie’s big trip to Mex­ico 86

In 1986, Alex Fer­gu­son led Scot­land to a World Cup with what many be­lieved was their best-ever side. Things didn’t quite go to plan, and the global game got its first blast of the hairdryer

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It’s al­most a foot­note on the CV of Alex Fer­gu­son. An of­ten-for­got­ten, ‘Did that re­ally hap­pen?’ pas­sage, span­ning his fi­nal days con­vert­ing Aberdeen from Old Firm up­set­ters into Real Madrid van­quish­ers and the bor­der-cross­ing to Manch­ester United, to cre­ate an em­pire as pow­er­ful as any the English game has known. Wedged in be­tween, Fergie took Scot­land to the 1986 World Cup fi­nals.

That sum­mer’s front and back pages may have been dom­i­nated by a cer­tain Diego Maradona and his ‘Hand of God’, but Mex­ico was also where an English foot­ball au­di­ence got their first close-up of the man who would be king.

The pre­vi­ous year, at the 1985 FA Cup Fi­nal be­tween Manch­ester United and Ever­ton where he had been a guest of United’s ex-aberdeen stal­wart Gor­don Stra­chan, Fer­gu­son was po­litely asked if he was Stra­chan’s dad. Such was his pro­file down south.

How­ever, few were left in any doubt about who he was fol­low­ing Scot­land’s event­ful World Cup cam­paign. Fergie’s re­mark­able rant in the af­ter­math of an X-rated showdown with Uruguay, and the Tar­tan Army’s elim­i­na­tion, pro­vided spec­ta­tors with an in­trigu­ing snap­shot of the fu­ture.

It was grimly ironic, given the tragic events sur­round­ing the Scots’ pas­sage to Mex­ico, that the draw placed them in a ‘Group of Death’ with West Ger­many, Copa Amer­ica cham­pi­ons Uruguay and dark horses Den­mark; a youth­ful blend of fine, fluid at­tack­ing tal­ent.

The death of Jock Stein, who suf­fered a heart at­tack af­ter the tense 1-1 draw with Wales at Ninian Park that clinched a play-off spot, opened the door for his part-time as­sis­tant Fer­gu­son. Such was Stein’s value as a men­tor, the younger man called him a “one-man univer­sity”.

Stein’s feats, win­ning the Scot­tish Cup with an un­fan­cied Dun­fermline in 1961 be­fore tast­ing 1967 Euro­pean Cup glory as Celtic boss, matched Fer­gu­son’s own hopes and dreams.

It had been Stein, in­vited to travel to the 1983 Euro­pean Cup Win­ners’ Cup Fi­nal with Aberdeen, who en­cour­aged Fer­gu­son to take a gift for Real Madrid man­ager Al­fredo Di Ste­fano. “Give him a bot­tle of John­nie Walker Black La­bel as soon as you get to the ground – he’ll not ex­pect it,” he ad­vised. A sharp bit of psy­chol­ogy, Stein be­lieved it would charm and ul­ti­mately dis­arm Fergie’s op­po­site num­ber in Swe­den.

Aberdeen tri­umphed 2-1 af­ter ex­tra time thanks to sub­sti­tute John He­witt. “Di Ste­fano was taken aback,” re­called Fer­gu­son. “It gave me grav­i­tas, hav­ing worked with him [Stein].”

To Fer­gu­son fell the harrowing job of in­form­ing Scot­land’s play­ers and Stein’s fam­ily that his pre­de­ces­sor had passed away in Cardiff.

While con­tin­u­ing to work at Aberdeen as co-man­ager with Archie Knox, Fergie steered Scot­land through their play-off against Aus­tralia, win­ning 2-0.

His squad for the fi­nals was met with raised eye­brows. Miss­ing was Liver­pool de­fender Alan Hansen, whose fre­quent ab­sence from friendlies and last-minute with­drawal from the Wales match had led Stein to ques­tion his com­mit­ment.

Fergie’s favoured pair­ing of Aberdeen de­fend­ers Wil­lie Miller and Alex Mcleish, coupled with the imag­ined re­ac­tion of Hansen at only be­ing third-choice, was enough to ex­clude him.

Also ab­sent was Kenny Dal­glish, who is pop­u­larly thought to have pulled out af­ter tak­ing um­brage at the ax­ing of his Liver­pool ally, although the 35-year-old ac­tu­ally re­quired knee surgery.

Those who made the cut were much vaunted. Skip­per Graeme Souness had said it was the “best-pre­pared” squad the Scots had ever sent to a World Cup, and a look through the list – Stra­chan, Char­lie Nicholas, Richard Gough, Steve Archibald and Frank Mcaven­nie among them – re­veals no short­age of tal­ent at Fer­gu­son’s dis­posal.

Andy Roxburgh, Craig Brown, Wal­ter Smith and Knox – three of whom would sub­se­quently man­age the side – made up Fergie’s coach­ing staff. The mood in the camp was good. Fer­gu­son took part in the squad’s of­fi­cial World Cup song, Big Trip to Mex­ico, and the play­ers were even con­fi­dent enough to put cling film over the toi­let seat in Fer­gu­son’s cabin – a jape ap­pre­ci­ated as such.

Scot­land, bil­leted in the shanty town of Neza­hual­coy­otl, be­gan their Group E cam­paign with a nar­row 1-0 de­feat to Den­mark. Preben Elk­jaer’s shot crept in off a post af­ter Wil­lie Miller was un­able to clear. Stra­chan, the pick of the bunch against the Danes, put the Scots ahead against West Ger­many, but Rudi Völler quickly equalised in Quere­taro and they went down once again, 2-1.

De­spite two de­feats, qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the second phase was still on if Scot­land could beat Uruguay. With the Ger­mans and Danes through, the Group of Death had now be­come a case of who blinked first. The South Amer­i­cans had al­ready shown ag­gres­sion aplenty.

Lucky to es­cape with only a cou­ple of book­ings in a draw with West Ger­many, af­ter which they were given a warn­ing from FIFA, Uruguay were re­duced to 10 men against Den­mark in a 6-1 maul­ing.

Fer­gu­son, rarely seen with­out his sun hat (left), opted not to play 33-year-old cap­tain Souness. He feared that his age and weight-loss – he had shed a stone in the heat and hu­mid­ity be­fore a ball was kicked – could spell trou­ble. Souey didn’t even make the bench.

The game be­gan with a bang. Just 48 sec­onds in, Stra­chan was up­ended from be­hind by Jose Batista’s ugly chal­lenge. French ref­eree Joel Quin­iou wasted no time in whip­ping out his red card – the 56-second dis­missal is still the quick­est at a World Cup fi­nals.

“I wouldn’t have a clue what that guy looked like to this day,” said Stra­chan. “I’ve never seen his face, at any point in the game, and by the time I’d got back up, he’d been sent off.”

The tone soon set, what fol­lowed was a mas­ter­class of cyn­i­cism and tech­ni­cal ef­fi­cacy from Uruguay.

“If there was a corner, they would be pulling your hair,” said goal­keeper Jim Leighton. “Pulling your pri­vates and that kind of stuff. Spit­ting on you.”

The Scots huffed and puffed but were un­able to break the Uruguayans down. The save of the game even came from Leighton, fist­ing away Wil­mar Cabr­era’s close-range header. A 0-0 draw meant Scot­land were out.

Fer­gu­son, who had spo­ken about the dig­nity needed on the night of Stein’s death, could not con­tain his fury af­ter the game. With echoes of Alf Ram­sey’s “an­i­mals” tirade af­ter Eng­land’s 1966 quarter-fi­nal clash with Ar­gentina (see FFT 286), he used his post-match press con­fer­ence to slam La Ce­leste.

“It’s a sham­bles,” raged Fergie. “It is not just a part of foot­ball, it’s the whole bloody at­ti­tude of the na­tion. They’ve got no re­spect for peo­ple’s dig­nity. It’s a dis­grace what they did, and turns the game into a com­plete farce.

He con­tin­ued: “You’d never think that in a com­pe­ti­tion such as the World Cup, with all that talk of a FIFA clam­p­down [on ill dis­ci­pline], that one team would be able to over­power the whole sys­tem.”

And he still wasn’t done. Per­haps with a nod to Stein’s pass­ing and the Hey­sel tragedy of ’85, the Glaswe­gian warmed to his theme.

“Af­ter what hap­pened to­day, and the trau­mas that have hap­pened to world foot­ball in the last year – I tell you, I’m glad to go home, be­lieve me, be­cause it’s no part of foot­ball, as we have been ac­cept­ing it for years and years.”

His part­ing shot? “It’s not my prob­lem any longer. It’s FIFA’S prob­lem. It will be Ar­gentina’s prob­lem on Mon­day.”

FIFA hit Uruguay with a 25,000 Swiss franc fine and sent coach Omar Bor­ras to the stands for the last-16 showdown with Ar­gentina, af­ter he la­belled ref­eree Quin­iou “a mur­derer”.

Where the truth ac­tu­ally lay be­tween Scot­land’s tooth­less­ness – one goal and just seven shots on tar­get across three games – and Uruguay’s spoil­ing tac­tics is a mat­ter for de­bate.

Brian Glanville, vet­eran scribe of many a World Cup, called the Scots “du­bi­ously re­con­structed, tech­ni­cally mal­adroit and tac­ti­cally in­ept in com­par­i­son”.

While Stra­chan, ever the philoso­pher, and now Scot­land’s most-recent for­mer man­ager, plumped for hon­esty.

“We were just not good enough – has any­body ever thought about that?” he won­dered. “Ev­ery­body goes look­ing for an­swers but some­times you’re just s**t.”

Viewed from three decades’ dis­tance, per­haps one of the most sig­nif­i­cant and his­tor­i­cal as­pects of Mex­ico 86 was the in­tro­duc­tion of Fergie to a wider world. This was the first sight­ing on the grand stage of a gaffer able to dodge crit­i­cism by turn­ing the heat onto his op­po­nents. A man­ager whose cast-iron self-be­lief in­stead made some­one else the story, his ca­pac­ity for bru­tally with­er­ing barbs and, let’s face it, sus­tained pas­sion­ate bril­liance, chang­ing English foot­ball.

Scot­land made no waves in Mex­ico but the tide soon turned for Alex Fer­gu­son. By Novem­ber 1986, he was Manch­ester United man­ager. And we all know how that panned out.

FERGIE’S RE­MARK­ABLE RANT AF­TER THE X-RATED BAT­TLE WITH URUGUAY PROVED AN IN­TRIGU­ING SNAP­SHOT OF THE FU­TURE

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