Retroscarf - Euro '92
Scotland have a lot to thank Nasko Sirakov for.
While the Bulgarian might not be as well-known as he should be to a generation of Scotland supporters, it was his goal that effectively clinched qualification for us Scots way back in November 1991. After 8 qualifying matches, Scotland had one foot firmly in Sweden for the following summer’s European Championships.
There was only one small problem, however, having to agonisingly watch Romania play Bulgaria in the final match knowing that if the Romanians won by two or more goals then they would be making the trip to Sweden, not Scotland. This is where Sirakov enters the picture, with the Romanians holding a slender goal advantage; he enters Scottish footballing folklore from the most unlikely of places by scoring the equaliser. There was nothing the Romanians could do and the final score was 1-1. Scotland had qualified (a phrase that isn’t uttered as often as it used to)!
There is a glowing contrast between Scotland’s records at the World Cup and European Championships. Eight World Cups qualified for compared to just the two Euro’s signifies just how difficult it was to remain consistent throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80’s, where it was often just the one nation from a qualifying group making the final stages.
Football was on the forefront of change in 1992, with the newly rebranded Premier League and Champions League leading the charge. The game was being swallowed slowly but surely, by the vast sums of money that were exchanging hands. From new TV deals to more expensive players, football was evolving faster than many had anticipated.
Euro ‘92 would be set against a backdrop of major political upheaval within the continent. With Yugoslavia having to withdraw due to the United Nations sanctions imposed on them as a direct consequence of the Yugoslav wars and the disintegration of the Soviet Union before the tournament which led to the team playing under the name CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). This was also to be the first major competition that a reunified Germany would compete in. All of these interweaving subplots combined to make it a championship that would live long in the memory.
With esteemed European heavyweights such as Italy and Spain having to watch from home showed just how tough it was to qualify in the days of an eight team European Championships. If the Scotland team were in a euphoric mood after gaining a place at the finals, then the draw surely would have brought them crashing back down to earth. We were drawn in group B alongside Germany (the current World Champions), the Netherlands (who were the holders of the European crown) and CIS. Facing one out of either Germany or the Netherlands would have been enough trouble, but two? It was going to take a gargantuan effort to make the semi-finals.
The opening match took place in Gothenburg against the Netherlands. With a team featuring Van Basten, Guillit and Koeman, they were looking to carry on their legacy which had achieved European glory four years ago in Germany. Rinus Michels remained in charge and they were classed as one of the favourites for the title and with the golden generation of talent they possessed, you had to be mad to disagree.
For all of the hype surrounding the great Dutch side, it was Scotland who started the strongest out of the two teams, with a strong core of the squad, featuring four of the current Rangers team which had won the domestic double, the team was in good shape. Scotland created a flurry of chances over the course of the first hour; McPherson just missed the target whereas chances dropped to Gough and Gallacher, who both failed to take advantage.
Chances come few and far between against such a talented team and Scotland was left to regret not taking at least one chance. As the match went on, the mood was if the Netherlands managed to get a sniff of an opportunity then they would snatch it with glee. The inevitable finally happened on the 77th minute. Gullit fired a cross into the box which was headed back across the box by Van Basten and Rijkaard managed to flick it on but it should have been cleared by either Gough or Malpas. Bergkamp was lurking and the ball fell to him instead of a body in dark blue and he slotted the ball past Goram.
The Dutch had effectively nicked the win, it was a typical smash and grab, one big chance and they took it but that’s what separates the great from the good. Scotland could be buoyed by their opening performance however, playing the defending champions off the pitch for large spells. Due to the nature of the fixtures, there was no respite as the Scots played Germany in their second fixture just three days later.
Again, similar to the match against the Dutch, chances came and went to no avail, both McPherson and Gough wasted ample opportunities to open the scoring before McAllister missed a further two chances. A strong sense of déjà vu was occurring as the Germans soaked up this early pressure and had their first meaningful attack, in which Karl-Heinz Riedle scored from.
The opening few minutes of the second half basically killed off any hope Scotland had of progressing further into the tournament, Steffan Effenberg swung a cross in which took a massive deflection of Malpas and it was suddenly 2-0 to the Germans. There were no further goals and despite two encouraging performances against the best Europe had to offer, it was beautiful failure again, for us plucky Scots.
These two results rendered our final group game against the CIS meaningless, at least in a Scottish sense as the CIS still had a good chance to progress into the semi-finals. What happened next is typical Scotland romanticism, play well and agonisingly lose when it matters most, then turn on the style when all hope is lost.
The 3-0 victory gave us our first win at European Championship finals, with McStay, McAllister and McClair all scoring to score and impressive win. The Germans must have appreciated this result as they were defeated by the Dutch in the other match, meaning they edged through to the semi-finals by the finest of margins.
This wasn’t a tournament that ended well for Scotland, however the plaudits were there for the squad in terms of how they acquitted themselves against the might of the Netherlands and Germany, with a little bit more luck it might have been us marching through to the next round as opposed to the aforementioned heavyweights.
The competition ended with the greatest of surprises as Denmark went on to defeat Germany in the final to achieve a momentous 2-0 win, made all the more impressive by the fact they had only entered the competition after Yugoslavia withdrew and found themselves rushing home from beaches and holidays to take part.
In an alternative world, it might have been Scotland lifting the trophy and not Denmark and that’s the beauty that surrounds sport and life, miracles do happen!
Editor: My thanks to Ross Kilvington for writing this excellent retrospective on Scotland's journey at Euro '92. You can follow Ross on Twitter - be sure to keep an eye out for his upcoming book on Scotland at the '98 World Cup.
You can learn more about Scotland's adventures in Sweden by watching this excellent documentary courtesy of the Scottish FA.