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GLASGOW – After more than two decades on the sidelines of football, one of the game’s most famous fan groups finally has the chance to cheer on their team again.
The tartan army is back.
His reputation precedes him. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Scotland was a regular participant in major football competitions, as were its tartan fans. Exuberant, happy and thirsty, the Tartan Army became a tourist attraction in its own right, a traveling horde of glee that stood out in a culture where fans were all too often known for leaving a trail of blood and broken glass.
“They love us,” said Alan Paterson, a retired school teacher, of the cities and countries he visited in his post-team years. “We’re going to be spending a lot of money and they know we’re not going to cause a lot of trouble.”
The problem is that after the 1998 World Cup in France, the bagpipes stopped playing. Scotland’s football record turned into a series of disappointments and near misses. But this week the Scots are finally back on the big stage after a 23-year absence.
On Monday they will open the month-long European Championship with a game against the Czech Republic in Glasgow. But it is the second game against England in London that arouses the most emotions in the Tartan Army.
There’s a patch of lawn somewhere in Paterson’s yard that has been growing for more than 44 years. Paterson isn’t entirely sure where it is right now, but he remembers exactly where he was when he acquired it.
Paterson, now 66, was among the thousands of Scottish football fans who flocked to the field after her team outclassed England in 1977 during what was then a biennial pilgrimage to Wembley Stadium for a clash between Scotland and the Auld Enemy.
Paterson wasn’t the only one carrying home the booty of that famous victory. Buses and cars going north after the game were laden with turf. The then 19-year-old Hamish husband remembers a group walking with parts of the goal posts on Wembley Way, the famous thoroughfare that leads to England’s National Stadium. Images of Scottish fans’ invasion of the Wembley pitch that day are etched into British football folklore.
“They are really divided on appreciating the delight of the Scottish fans but not wanting the floor to be ripped apart like this,” said John Motson, the BBC commentator that day, as the bar hit one of the goals under the weight of the Fans collapsed.
“There was a lot of drunkenness and a lot of young guys falling around,” said Paterson. “Things got a little out of hand.”
While there was little violence, the pictures worried officers at home. Hooliganism had made its way into England in the 1980s and 1990s; open battles with football fans became the order of the day; and nations attracted to England would regularly brace themselves for violence. Within a few years, Scottish fans opted for the opposite path, said the game veterans of the time.
Tam Coyle, a veteran of 100+ games overseas since 1985, recalled fans starting a chant with lyrics that included the words, “We are the famous tartan army, not the English hooligans.” And Richard McBrearty, curator of the Scottish Football Museum in Glasgow, said the rivalry with England was so deep that even the Scots’ reputation for good behavior was due to it.
“The Scottish fans wanted to isolate themselves,” he said. “They were going to say, ‘Look at us, we’re better than the English.'”
By the 1980s, Scotland’s fans had become an attraction in their own right. The Tartan Army was a traveling circus – decked out in kilts, hats, and tartans – considered a welcome curiosity in the cities visited and a source of easy profits for the hotels and bars that kept fans busy until closing time.
Even dealing with the law is fondly remembered. Paterson recalled buying brandy for the cops who were idling in a car before a game against Sweden at the 1990 World Cup. A year earlier, he said, he was in Paris for a qualifying match when a Scottish fan emerged from the back of a police car to great cheers after exchanging clothes with a gendarme.
When police were required, they were often provided by the fans themselves. “You take pride in being good,” said Paterson.
Low expectations created a good mood. Much of this can be attributed to the famous failure of the high-profile Scotland team who traveled to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, only to be eliminated after just two games, including a draw with Iran.
“There was almost a change in the ethos of supporting the team for many Scotland fans,” said McBrearty, the curator. “Of course they wanted to watch the team and they wanted them to play well, but it was decided that they should go out and enjoy the experience first and foremost.”
When the 1998 World Cup was held in France, the popularity and worldwide reputation of the Tartan Army had far surpassed that of its team. With Scotland knocked out of the tournament and bottoming out in the first round group, the Tartan Army returned home with a polished reputation. FIFA named them the tournament’s best fan group and the city of Bordeaux placed a full-page ad in Scotland’s favorite newspaper.
“Come back soon,” the ad said. “We already miss you.”
But there would be no comeback. For whom Scotland’s succession to championship events has been a backdrop to their lives, fans like Paterson, Coyle and Husband have waited more than two decades for their team to come to another major tournament. For younger fans like Gordon Sheach, 32, the wait was just as excruciating.
Scotland’s presence at the 1998 World Cup, Sheach said, was a transformative experience as he fell in love with football and his national team. It was also the moment he decided to join the Tartan Army in a tournament.
But his chance never came. As he grew from boy to adolescent to man, Scotland persistently found – insane – new and painful ways to fail. “I think it almost got to the point where you emotionally separated Scotland from the big finals,” said Sheach.
But even in those years of failure, Scotland’s traveling army remained on the rise. It would show up near and far in friendly and qualifying matches, in outposts like Lithuania and Kazakhstan. A charity affiliated with Scottish fans, the Tartan Army Sunshine Appeal, makes donations to children in every country where Scotland plays a game. There have been 83 consecutive donations since 2003 totaling more than $ 200,000, according to the charity’s secretary, Clark Gillies.
But when Scotland finally ended its exile, its fans were absent and forced to watch from home because of the coronavirus pandemic. The team held their supporters in suspense until the last ball was shot on penalties against Serbia in Belgrade.
The stadium was empty, but the country was spellbound. Paterson said he slipped out of his house on the pitch black November night. He couldn’t watch.
Goalkeeper David Marshall’s penalty sparked celebration in homes across the country, and the emotional interview that followed with midfielder Ryan Christie moved many to tears.
“I’m gone,” Christie said as he choked. “It’s been a terrible year for the whole nation, for everyone. We knew that when we got into the picture we could give something to this country and I hope everyone at home has a party tonight.
“Because we deserve it. We’ve been through so many years – we know, you know, everyone knows. “
Scotland and the Tartan Army are back in big time now. Sheach, who was last a boy, hopes that Scotland’s participation in the European Championship this summer will have the same effect that his appearance at a World Cup had on him 23 years ago.
“This summer will be a tremendously inspiring moment for a generation of fans who are getting to see Scotland for the first time at a tournament,” he said.