When Scotland grabbed a late equaliser against Wales in September 1985, it appeared as though their World Cup hopes were well and truly alive. But then, suddenly, legendary manager Jock Stein collapsed on the touchline. Valiant efforts were made to save Stein’s life but they were sadly unsuccessful; Scotland’s dreams were in tatters.
Scotland needed a hero to step in and lead the nation to Mexico. Alex Ferguson, who at that time had been Stein’s assistant for the national team as well as the manager of Aberdeen, agreed to step in on a temporary basis to try and secure Scotland’s World Cup qualification.
Fortunately for Ferguson, Scotland’s 1986 World Cup qualification squad was not too shabby, and certainly better than the team they have now. Steve Archibald and Graeme Souness were just two of the names on a team made up from stars from the likes of Barcelona, Dundee United and Aberdeen, clubs that were all successful in Europe.
One star who never made Fergie’s World Cup squad was Celtic forward Mo Johnston. In the build-up to their crucial play-off against Australia, Johnston was caught on a late-night bender and subsequently faced the infamous “hairdryer” treatment.
Ferguson was able to coach Scotland into the World Cup with a 2-0 aggregate win over the Aussies. Sadly, having to travel to Australia would have a knock-on effect on his side as the Scottish Premier League then faced a backlog of fixture congestion, leaving many potential starters feeling fatigued by the end of the season.
Scotland boss Sir Alex Ferguson in conversation with former Israel manager Yosef Mirmovitch (Tel Aviv, 1986) pic.twitter.com/pLOIAX1c2C
— PictureThis Scotland (@74frankfurt) December 27, 2015
It also created several political spats between the Scottish FA and the clubs in regard to selection for friendlies. The tipping point for Ferguson was when Celtic refused to let three of their players play in a friendly against Holland as this would mean four games in a week, including a crucial tie against Motherwell. Ferguson decided that he could not put up with the bureaucracy of international management and announced after the 0-0 draw in Eindhoven that he didn’t wish to be considered for the job permanently.
Facing Scotland in the tournament was the dreaded “Group of Death”. The Scots were drawn alongside Euro 84 semi-finalists Denmark, Uruguay, and one of the favourites in West Germany. Whilst the withdrawal of Kenny Dalglish from the squad due to a knee injury was a huge blow, Ferguson still had high hopes of reaching the knockout stages.
Sir Alex Ferguson at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico as interim Scotland manager. pic.twitter.com/5XK7l9xET7
— Michael H (@MikeH1964) February 21, 2016
Against Denmark in their opening game, Ferguson had a claim to feel aggrieved after the Scots had Roy Aitken goal wrongly disallowed on their way to a 1-0 defeat. The reality though is that scoreline flattered Fergie’s side who were outclassed and should have lost by more than the single goal.
The second game against the Germans was always going to be tough, but Gordon Strachan gave Scotland a shock early lead. West Germany soon equalised, and then took the lead in the second half thanks to Rudi Voller. Despite Scotland’s best efforts, they couldn’t find a second goal and thus lost their second game in a row. They were on the brink of elimination unless they could beat Uruguay.
Scotland’s chances weren’t helped by the fact that Ferguson had fallen out with Frank McAvennie, a prolific striker scoring bags of goals for West Ham in the First Division. McAvennie was not picked for any of the group games, and Graeme Souness joined him on the bench for the decider against Uruguay.
“I know why I got the heave from the team and the bench. I’d questioned the manager’s judgement and paid the price by being dropped. If there was one match where you wanted Souey in the trenches beside you it was against them. Souey was the only superstar we had.”
In that final group game, Scotland’s chances were boosted when Uruguay went down to 10 men in just the first minute after a horrendous challenge by Jose Batista. However, what followed was one of the most disgraceful games in World Cup history as Uruguay kicked and pushed the Scots around whilst referee Joel Quiniou refused to hand out a second red card in fear of the Uruguayan intimidation.
All of this meant that the game finished 0-0 and Scotland were eliminated from the World Cup at the group stage. It was a hugely missed opportunity for a national squad that arguably has never been as strong since.
Alex Ferguson left Scotland after the World Cup and never returned to international management again. His style of management was perhaps unsuited to the strange nature of international football and potentially came too soon for a man who really reached world-class status after his magnificent spell at Manchester United in the 1990s and 2000s.