Sporting heroes who lay waste to Wee Man syndrome
THREE decades ago one of the smallest players on the pitch put Scotland ahead against the mighty West Germany at the World Cup in Mexico.
There was no sweeter goal all tournament. Floating into the penalty box, the number seven took a beautifully threaded pass and, with his first touch, dinked the ball into the far corner of the net.
The architect of this moment of genius was Gordon Strachan – all 5ft 6in of him – and his celebration is almost as fondly remembered as the goal itself. Racing towards an advertising hoarding, he looked for a terrifying moment as if he might try to hurdle it. A nation covered its eyes. For it came up to his middle.
Mercifully he recalculated in the nick of time, slammed on the brakes and settled for draping a stubby, peely-wally leg over the hoarding.
Yup, the grin seemed to say, I may be a wee guy, the suntan may need a little work, but you’d better believe I can play football.
Our story moves to the year 2017, Strachan has become the coach of the national team he once played for and the grin has long since disappeared. For the fifth time in a row, our boys have failed to qualify for the World Cup finals – a fact that cost Strachan his job yesterday – and, not unreasonably, viewers at home want to know why this keeps happening.
‘Technically we’re fine,’ explains the now ex-coach. ‘But our guys have to work harder to get on the ball than bigger lads at six foot three. Genetically we are behind.
‘We couldn’t combat their height and strength at set plays,’ he adds. ‘Genetically, we have to work at things. It is a problem for us.’
Can it be true? Are localised deficiencies in the very building blocks of life stopping our blameless plucksters from getting into international football tournaments?
If so, no wonder the lads are hurting in the dressing room after giving it 110 per cent. Why, the story of their sporting failure was written into their DNA codes from the start.
More importantly, if Strachan is right, what else have our rotten genes ruined for us? Are they the reason for all those lost battles – Flodden, Culloden, Falkirk? Is this why the international caricature of the Scotsman is the pipsqueak in a kilt and See You Jimmy wig that isn’t a wig?
It is, isn’t it? It’s those damned, putrid, inferior genes holding us back in life. And the key thing to remember is it’s not our fault. We, as Scots, are hapless victims of a microbiological conspiracy, a cruel trick of nature against which no mere football coach can strike a meaningful blow.
Unless you count this attempt: ‘Maybe we get big women and men together and see what we can do,’ ventures the dejected Strachan.
Happily, he is talking bunk – a conclusion hinted at by his own brilliant strike against West Germany in 1986 and proved by the man of the tournament that year, 5ft 5in Argentinian Diego Maradona who lifted the trophy.
No, it is not our genes which prevent Scots from achieving their goals. It is the national inferiority complex. It is the small nation syndrome which nags at a people’s psyche, telling them losing is all right because they represent a land with less than a tenth of the population of England.
We live in a country which well understands that the big money and crowds in football are elsewhere and that few of our players would get games for the richest teams. In short, we know our place, we’re prepared to lose and we have our excuses at the ready.
Yet this inferiority complex is a self-inflicted condition, one which many Scots have proved is entirely optional.
Some of those are national heroes. Six-time gold medal winner Chris Hoy is one of the most successful Olympians of all time. If at all he remembered his place as he rode to victory in three consecutive Games, he was remembering that that place was on the podium in gold medal position.
Similarly, Andy Murray does not win Wimbledon by remembering that he is from a nation with a long tradition of being rubbish at tennis.
He wins it by ignoring the statistical improbability of a Scotsman lifting the trophy, by dedicating every ounce of energy and passion and selfbelief he can muster to outplaying the very best people in the game.
If you are serious about victory in any sport replete with astonishing talent, those are the minimum requirements.
Bull-headed obstinacy was the magic ingredient that propelled Murray to the top of the world rankings. Quite rightly, he refused to believe he did not belong there. Why should he believe it? What greater claim did a Swiss have, or a Spaniard, or a Serb, to the title of best player in the world? Why not a Scot? I doubt whether a Scottish football team has ever run on to any pitch with anything approaching that mentality.
Even the first tournament I remember, Scotland’s humiliation at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, was an exercise in collective self-deceit. Manager Ally MacLeod may have had Scotland’s under-10s believing they were going to win the tournament; he evidently did not manage to convince a single one of his players.
Strange how other small countries manage it. The Netherlands may not have qualified for Russia 2018 but were among the best international teams in Europe for a generation or more.
New Zealand has a smaller population than Scotland but it is rare that any nation of any size beats the All Blacks at rugby. And not once in the history of the sport has Scotland beaten them.
Could it be a genetic thing – the simple fact that they build rugby players bigger over there? Not a bit of it. The Scottish team is packed with man-mountains, talented ones too.
The reason New Zealand players triumph with such monotonous consistency over similarly proportioned ones from every other country is simply that they believe they should do. Small nation or not, they have themselves convinced they are the best.
It would be encouraging to think that, in sport as well as in every other walk of life, most Scots do not fall for the hokum that their Scottishness is holding them back.
Quite the opposite. Our nation gave the world some of its most influential figures. From this insignificant geological outpost sprang Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, engineering giant James Watt, economist Adam Smith and industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Most credit a Scot with having invented the telephone – and another one for giving us television.
We produced perhaps the greatest sprint cyclist the world has seen and a tennis player who can live on court with three of the most remarkable talents ever to grace the sport.
Hell, even the President of the US of A is half-Scottish. And no one does self-belief like that one.
We can win, us Scots. Our genes are fine. Davids beat Goliaths all the time.
Doubts over any of the above merely pave the route to further disappointment.