MAURICE MALPAS has recalled how the memory of Jock Stein inspired Scotland to reach Mexico 86 following a night of deafening din and uninhibited emotion at Hampden Park.
In different circumstances, the current national team would be to days away from their biggest match in 22 years. Israel would have been dispatched in Glasgow and only the victors of Norway’s tie against Serbia stand between Steve Clarke’s charges and Euro 2020.
Instead, the devastating spread of the coronavirus has rightly put that qualification bid on the back-burner for the moment – and it remains 35 years since Scotland’s last successful playoff bid for a major finals.
Australia were the visitors to Hampden on 20 November, 1985 for a fixture played in the lingering shadow of tragedy. Little more than two months had elapsed since the death of Stein following a heart attack at Ninian Park, Cardiff.
Stein passed away in the immediate aftermath of the 1-1 draw with Wales which teed up the Aussie encounter and, during an intense build-up, the sorrow was still raw and the Scotland squad were united in their desire to do the ‘friendly giant’ justice.
“The game was tinged in sadness because big Jock had passed away – but, make no mistake, it was his team that was going to the World Cup,” said Dundee United legend Malpas.
“Fergie [Sir Alex Ferguson] came in at an important team to guide us there but it was Jock’s team.
“There was a feeling of ‘we can’t fall at the final hurdle’. Jock Stein was the type of manager that players loved playing for and we wanted to get over the line for him. He was a friendly giant – albeit he was ferocious if you got on the wrong side of him!
“He had given an opportunity to a lot of younger boys who hadn’t been to Spain ’82, including myself, and we were desperate to repay him.
“A World Cup playoff will always be high-profile, but it was especially intense; we knew it would be an occasion filled with passion and emotion.
“The message was: let’s get out there, get the punters behind us and make this place properly riotous. When the team is doing well on a night like that at Hampden, you just get swept along. It’s the crest of a wave.”
With a squad made up of relative unknowns plying their trade with the likes of Sydney City, Heidelberg United and, in the case of right-back Alan Davidson, no club at all, Scotland were expected to swat Australia aside.
Instead, it took 53 minutes for the late, great Davie Cooper to break the deadlock with a fine curling free-kick. Frank McAvennie, winning his first cap, doubled the advantage with a delightful dink six minutes later.
However, Scotland couldn’t dust off their sombreros until they had navigated the second leg in Melbourne a fortnight later and, as far as away days go, Malpas had never experienced anything like it.
“We’d been to Europe with United, but this was the other side of the world,” smiled Malpas. “It may as well have been another planet.
“Wee Jim [McLean, United manager] was paranoid about what state I’d come back in and, right enough, the jet lag was awful.
“The question was ‘how are you going to cope with the time difference?’ and the majority of us didn’t have a scooby.
“The first training session I had was on the Sunday and I felt like I was running about with a set of divers’ boot on.
“I had a fuzzy head, couldn’t get to sleep, I was up at the crack of dawn. It took until the Tuesday before I even felt my legs.”
Quite the statement given the match took place on the Thursday at the Olympic Park and, in front of 32,000 fans, Malpas readily admits Scotland were out of sorts. In place of attacking inspiration, dogged determination was required to escape with a goalless draw. Job done.
“The only thing you were thinking was ‘don’t cause a mistake, don’t throw this away’,” he recalled. “It was pure relief when the full-time whistle went.”
However, it turned out McLean was right to be worried about what state Malpas would be in when he was back on Scottish soil.
He added: “When I got back to Dundee United I said to him ‘I’ve left my legs in Australia!’
“I was on cloud nine, I was going to a World Cup – but I was hopeless in training for about a week. I couldn’t adjust to the time difference.
“I kept asking my wife if she fancied a cup of coffee at 3 a.m..”