Scotland began 1986 still reeling from the death of legendary manager Jock Stein who had died tragically in September 1985 after a 1-1 draw against Wales in Cardiff. It was left to his assistant and Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson to guide Scotland to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico via a Play Off against Australia. A 2-0 win at Hampden in the 1st leg thanks to goals from Davie Cooper and Frank McAvennie was followed by a goal less draw in Australia thanks to the superb goalkeeping of Jim Leighton. Scotland had qualified for their fourth World Cup in a row and were the last team to qualify for Mexico. In the World Cup draw Scotland were drawn against Denmark, West Germany and South American Champions Uruguay in Group E which was dubbed ‘The Group of Death’.
In January 1986 Scotland embarked on a series of four friendlies in which Alex Ferguson hoped to finalise his squad for the World Cup. Their first game was a friendly against Israel in Tel Aviv. David Narey was recalled to partner Willie Miller in defence with Graeme Sharp forming an exciting looking strike force Charlie Nicholas in attack. Eamonn Bannon having a fine season at Dundee United also came into the team. Scotland in their lemon yellow away kit put on a decent display. Willie Miller had a goal disallowed for offside but in the 59th minute Celtic’s Paul McStay fired home the only goal to give Scotland a 1-0 victory.
On the 26th of March 1986 Scotland faced Romania in a friendly at Hampden Park. The Eastern Europeans would provide tough opposition as they had only narrowly failed to qualify for the World Cup themselves finishing just behind England and Northern Ireland. The game was historic as it was Kenny Dalglish’s 100th appearance for Scotland and he was given a special silver cap by Franz Beckenbauer before the game.
Kenny was captain for the night with the Hampden crowd singing his name and willing him to score the goal that would make him Scotland’s record goal scorer. He went close to his 31st goal for his country but was denied by the Romanian goalkeeper. Star man Gheorghe Hagi was well marshalled by the Scotland defence as Andy Goram made his first start in goal and in their best display under Alex Ferguson the Scots ran out 3-0 winners. A superb chip by Gordon Strachan was followed by strikes by Richard Gough and Roy Aitken. It was a morale boosting victory and gave the Scots confidence before their next game.
On the 23rd April Scotland faced England at Wembley. It was a midweek game for the Rous Cup but crowd was down to 68,000. Alan Rough came in for the injured Jim Leighton to win his 52nd and final cap and he was aiming to be the first Scotland goalkeeper to win three times at Wembley. A new strike force of Charlie Nicholas and David Speedie were upfront but the Scots midfield of Captain Souness, Aitken, Nicol and Bannon lacked creativity. Scotland began confidently and forced a series of corners and freekicks. In the 27th minute England took the lead after Terry Butcher headed home a freekick. Scotland almost equalised a few minutes later but Graeme Souness was denied by a superb save by Peter Shilton. England increased their lead when Rough parried a Kenny Sansom shot and Glenn Hoddle headed in the rebound. England lead 2-0 at half time. At the start of the second half Ferguson moved Richard Gough into midfield behind the strikers with Nicol moving to right back and Aitken to the right of midfield. Scotland fought their way back into the game and in the 57th minute they were given a lifeline after Terry Butcher hacked down Charlie Nicholas and Scotland were awarded a penalty. The Arsenal man injured his shoulder and was replaced by Chelsea winger Pat Nevin. Captain Graeme Souness fired past Peter Shilton to make it 2-1. Scotland had plenty of time to equalise and send the game to a penalty shoot out if the scores were level at full time. Roy Aitken had an weak effort saved by Shilton and David Speedie headed over in the last minute but Scotland created very little. Terry Butcher was outstanding and hardly gave the strikers a kick. At the other Willie Miller and Alex McLeish dominated Mark Hateley and Trevor Francis and Rough hardly had a save to make. England held on and their 2-1 win gave them the Rous Cup for the first time. It was the Scotland’s first defeat in eight games and their lack of firepower was a major concern for Alex Ferguson.
1986 Graeme Souness scores a penalty against England at Wembley in the Rous Cup
One week later Scotland faced Holland in Eindhoven for their final warm up game before the World Cup. Robert Connor and Rangers striker Ally McCoist made their debuts. Paul Sturrock came back into the side after a two year absence and Jim Bett made a notable return. Andy Goram kept a clean sheet in an encouraging Scotland display. McCoist went close to scoring as did Alex McLeish with a late header. Davie Cooper was a constant threat and Alex Ferguson could be satisfied with another clean sheet.
Scotland suffered a major blow when Kenny Dalglish was ruled out of the World Cup after he required an operation after playing for Liverpool in the FA Cup Final. Liverpool beat Everton to clinch the League and Cup Double for the first time in their history. Steve Archibald the Barcelona striker was his replacement but he had not scored for Scotland since the 1982 World Cup and had an injury plagued season. Many eyebrows were raised in the press when Alan Hansen was not named in the World Cup squad, but in truth it was not that much of a surprise. He had not played in any of the qualifying games and made just one substitute appearance. David Narey was selected instead and his ability to play across the defence and even in midfield made him invaluable.
In the seven games played under Alex Ferguson Scotland had kept six clean sheets a remarkable record. The Aberdeen trio of Jim Leighton, Willie Miller and Alex McLeish formed a rock at the back and with Captain Graeme Souness in front of them, Scotland would be very hard to beat in Mexico. However Scotland had only scored seven goals in the seven games and it was not clear where the goals were going to come from in the World Cup. Ferguson selected the outstanding winger Davie Cooper and Charlie Nicholas, Graeme Sharp, Frank McAvennie, Steve Archibald and Paul Sturrock as his strikers for Mexico. Sharp and McAvennie were in great form having scored over 50 goals in the English First Division. Sturrock had not featured in any of the qualifiers and many were surprised that SPL top scorer Ally McCoist and Celtic striker Mo Johnston, Scotland’s top scorer in qualifying were omitted. Mo had been in poor form though and incurred his manager’s wrath for his off field antics in Australia before the World Cup Play Off.
Scotland travelled to the United States to acclimatise for the heat and altitude in Mexico. They had a pre World Cup night out with Rod Stewart after watching his concert in LA. Scotland beat Santa Fe 3-0 in a warm up game in New Mexico as Alex Ferguson finalised his team before Scotland’s opening game against Denmark. Coaches Walter Smith and Craig Brown joined him in Mexico to make an experienced backroom team.
1986 World Cup Scotland line up to face Denmark in their opening game in Neza
On the 4th June 1986 Scotland faced Denmark in their opening Group E fixture. The Danes were Euro 1984 Semi Finalists and were dark horses to win the World Cup. Their star man was Michael Laudrup but with deadly striker Preben Elkjaer, Soren Lerby, Jesper Olsen and Frank Arnesen too, they would provide a formidable test for the Scots. Alex Ferguson caused a surprise by naming Steve Nicol at left back with Maurice Malpas playing on the left side of midfield. Gordon Strachan was expected to be the Scotland’s greatest threat and with Charlie Nicholas looking very sharp in training Ferguson was confident Scotland could take something from the game. The Danes started well and Laudrup fired over as his runs caused problems for the Scots defence. Richard Gough had a great chance to give Scotland the lead but he shot over and Charlie Nicholas was blocked inside the penalty area just as he was about to shoot. Willie Miller was excellent in defence and the game was 0-0 at half time. At the start of the second half the Danes pushed forward and Graeme Souness seemed out of sorts in midfield. In the 57th Denmark took the lead. Preben Elkjaer ran at Willie Miller and after a fortunate bounce fired past Jim Leighton. It meant Scotland had to force the game and Frank McAvennie came on in the 61st minute to try and get an equaliser. Roy Aitken had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, Strachan almost scored from a tight angle and McAvennie fired over with an overhead kick. Scotland ended the match with ten men after Charlie Nicholas was brutally hacked down and the Scots had used their two substitutes. Denmark held on to record a 1-0 victory. The result was harsh on Scotland as on the balance of play they could have drawn the game. Alex Ferguson stated that he was pleased with the performance and that the players would go into their next game with confidence after holding their own with the Danes for long periods.
On the 8th June Scotland faced West Germany in Queretaro. The Germans had drawn 1-1 with Uruguay in their opening game and manager Franz Beckenbauer had targeted the Scotland game as key to their chances of qualifying from Group E. They were in fine form after beating Italy, Brazil and Holland prior to the World Cup. Alex Ferguson was forced to make changes. Alex McLeish was out with a stomach bug replaced by Dundee United’s David Narey. With Charlie Nicholas also out Steve Archibald came in as the Scots opted for a 4-5-1 formation with Archibald the sole striker. West Germany raced out of the blocks and almost scored twice in the opening five minutes as Leighton made a fine save from Voller and the Germans hit the post from the resulting corner. Then against the run of play Scotland took the lead. Gordon Strachan latched onto Roy Aitken’s pass and fired past Harold Schumacher via a deflection by the German defender Augenthaler. The image of Strachan pretending to mount the advertising boards became famous and Scotland had a vital opening goal. In the heat and altitude it was a vital advantage but they were unable to hold their lead and just five minutes later West Germany equalised through Rudi Voller after Souness had been beaten in midfield. Willie Miller winning his 50th cap was badly caught out on the halfway line as Voller raced clean through but Leighton made a brilliant save to deny him just before half time. At the break Scotland were holding Germans 1-1. At the start of the second half Klaus Allofs fired West Germany ahead after the ball broke off David Narey. Scotland now had to chase the game and the Germans superior power and fitness saw them dominate the rest of the game, with only fine saves by Jim Leighton keeping them in the game. Scotland almost drew level after substitute Frank McAvennie had a shot blocked in the penalty area. Alex Ferguson sent on Davie Cooper as a last throw of the dice and his great run and cross was met by Richard Gough, but his flying header flew over the bar a few minutes before the end. The game finished in a 2-1 victory for West Germany. In truth the Germans were the better side but Scotland had not been disgraced. Captain Graeme Souness had another poor game and later he would claim that he lost one stone in weight in the heat and altitude.
1986 World Cup Gordon Strachan celebrates scoring against West Germany
1986 World Cup Scotland line up to face Uruguay in Neza
On Friday 13th of June 1986 Scotland faced Uruguay in their final game. The game was expected to be a dead rubber, but Denmark’s 6-1 thrashing of the South Americans meant that Scotland could qualify as one of the best placed third teams if they won the game. There was a shock before the game when Graeme Souness was dropped and not even named on the bench. Paul McStay replaced him with Arthur Albiston in for Maurice Malpas at left back. Jim Bett was once again overlooked while David Narey kept his place ahead of the fit again Alex McLeish. Alex Ferguson turned to Graeme Sharp for his first start hoping his power and ability in the air would cause the Uruguayans problems. Paul Sturrock returned upfront with Frank McAvennie dropped from the bench.
There was an unbelievable start to the game. Gordon Strachan was brutally hacked down from behind by Batista in the first minute and French referee Joel Quiniou produced a red card. It was the fastest sending off in World Cup history and meant Scotland would play virtually the whole game against ten men. Uruguay had only needed a draw before the game to qualify themselves and a man down there were in no mood to give anything away. They kicked everything that moved and the referee struggled to keep control of the game. It was a game crying out for Grame Souness who would have rallied his troops and stood up to the Uruguayans. Paul McStay had a very poor game and the constant fouls stopped Scotland from getting any rhythm. Scotland should have taken the lead but Steve Nicol mishit a shot with the goal gaping and the Uruguay keeper Alavez scrambled the ball clear. The game was goal less at half time. The Uruguay forward Enzo Francescoli was superb upfront on his own, providing a constant threat to the Scotland defence. The South Americans almost took the lead but a brilliant save by Leighton kept out a Cabrera header. In the 70th minute Ferguson made a bold double substitution sending on Davie Cooper and Charlie Nicholas for Nicol and Sturrock. Uruguay defended comfortably and a late long range effort from David Narey which flew over was Scotland’s only attempt in the second half. Strachan was starved of service and Aitken and McStay created nothing in midfield. Despite forcing several corners and free kicks Sharp and Sturrock were anonymous up front. It was one of the worst ever Scotland performances in a World Cup on a par with Iran 1978 and at full time Uruguay celebrated the 0-0 draw which saw them qualify ahead of Scotland. Alex Ferguson resigned straight after the game and SFA Secretary Ernie Walker angrily stated: “we found ourselves on the field with cheats and cowards and we were associated with the scum of world football”. Uruguay were fined by FIFA and warned about their future conduct and they lost 1-0 to Argentina in the last 16.
The 1986 World Cup was another missed opportunity for Scotland and even today it is still inexplicable how Scotland could not take advantage of an extra man for the full game against Uruguay. They had only scored one goal in three games. It was the tenth and last game of Alex Ferguson’s tenure as Scotland manager. They had kept six clean sheets but only won three of the ten games, a very poor record especially considering the quality of player he had to choose from. Andy Roxburgh became the new Scotland manager with task of taking Scotland to the 1990 World Cup in Italy.