The world’s oldest international fixture has never felt more alive. On Friday night in Euro 2020 Group D, England face Scotland at Wembley, the 115th edition of a rivalry dating back to 1872.
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Gareth Southgate’s side have the luxury of home advantage and the comfort created by victory in their first game against Croatia. They have designs on winning Euro 2020, while Scotland are more concerned about prolonging their stay at a first major finals in 23 years. Following Monday’s 2-0 defeat to the Czech Republic, the Scots will be on the brink of going out if they lose at arguably the one venue it would hurt more than any other.
It is a contest both for the ages and for the here and now, with long-standing passions fuelled by England’s desire to maintain the status quo and Scotland seeking fresh validation, the sporting context mirroring political tensions within the United Kingdom.
Friday’s encounter will go a long way to shaping the football destiny of these two sides this summer: neighbours on a collision course that originally proved the catalyst for international football as we know it.
The English Football Association took a team to Partick in the first official international on Nov. 30, 1872. It finished 0-0, but the fixture would become an annual event, with Scotland winning nine of the first 13 meetings, including some hefty scorelines of 7-2, 6-1 and 5-1.
In 1937, 149,415 people crowded into Hampden Park — then the biggest attendance ever at a football stadium — to see Scotland win 3-1. A year after England won their only World Cup in 1966, Scotland beat England 3-2 at Wembley and crowned themselves “world champions.”
There were more recent encounters in an overall record that reads England 48 wins, Scotland 41 wins, and 25 draws. England edged a two-legged play-off 2-1 on aggregate to qualify for Euro 2000, and their last encounter came in June 2017, when Harry Kane scored a stoppage-time equaliser to snatch a 2-2 draw in a World Cup qualifier.
But it is Euro ’96 that draws the strongest parallels with this summer, coming precisely 25 years after Scotland’s last tournament in which they played England in the second game at Wembley.
The backdrop of Euro ’96 and now
Scotland’s manager at Euro ’96, Craig Brown, once described how he suspected that BBC commentator John Motson was acting as a “spy” for his England counterpart Terry Venables by watching their training sessions. Brown revealed he consequently switched the team’s set pieces, devising different plans with alternate takers, so any information passed back was “total nonsense.” It was, perhaps, the original Spygate, yet arguably not even the most ludicrous aspect of the build-up.
Singer and football fan Rod Stewart even trained with Scotland prior to the tournament. Stewart was also pictured having a drink in an Epping beer garden with England midfielder Paul Ince just days before the tournament began, and shortly after the infamous “dentist’s chair” drinking game in Hong Kong, which had mired the hosts in controversy before a ball was kicked.
There have been no such off-field distractions in the build-up to Friday’s encounter; in fact both countries have agreed to take a knee before kick-off on Friday as a show of solidarity in tackling racial inequality. Political common ground is not in ready supply, however, straining relations between the two countries.
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The Scottish National Party continues to push for a second referendum vote to leave the United Kingdom, having lost in 2014, largely on the grounds that the circumstances have changed after a majority of Scots voted to remain in the European Union in 2016, but they were forced to leave because of results elsewhere.
Many Scots feel their voices are not being heard, though around 3,500 members of the Tartan Army will do their best to change that on Friday evening.
How do the teams match up?
The gulf in quality between the Premier League and the Scottish Premiership is reflected in the two squads to some extent, certainly in terms of strength in depth. Yet Scotland boast two excellent left-backs in Liverpool’s Andy Robertson and Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney — ironically a position in which England played a right-back, Kieran Trippier, for their Group D opener — while Scott McTominay offers proven pedigree arising from his emergence at Manchester United.
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Steve Clarke’s preferred 5-3-2 shape will make them difficult to break down, and it could be an issue for an England side that’s long lacked a midfielder to set the tempo in their passing akin to Holland’s Frenkie De Jong or Croatia’s Luka Modric. Yet England have the firepower Scotland can only dream of and Southgate will expect their superior quality to tell, especially given they can play without the same pressure to achieve a result after winning their opening game at a European Championship for the first time in their history.
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Who could provide another ‘Paul Gascoigne’ moment?
The summer of 1996, which remains fondly remembered in England, turned in the space of 60 seconds. Terry Venables’ England side were leading Scotland 1-0 when Gary McAllister had his 78th-minute penalty saved. England launched the ball up field and when Darren Anderton slipped a pass forward for Paul Gascoigne, history was written. Gascoigne lifted the ball over defender Colin Hendry with his left foot, and volleyed past goalkeeper Andy Goram with his right.
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It is an iconic moment that has resonated due to the neat symmetry that Euro 2020 has with Euro 96, and there’s been a natural desperation to anoint a “new Gazza” this summer.
Manchester City’s Phil Foden has had to endure lofty comparisons with many of the game’s greats early in his career and hardly did himself any favours in that regard by dying his hair to resemble the peroxide blonde Gascoigne wore during that tournament. He almost delivered within six minutes of England’s opening game against Croatia, hitting the inside of the post with a curling left-foot effort, but ultimately denied a goal that would have taken the hyperbole around him to another level.
England boast the second-youngest squad at these finals — their average age of 25.2 years is beaten only by Turkey, at 24.9 years per player — and the array of attacking options is clearly their biggest strength. But Raheem Sterling’s winning strike against Croatia was the first goal any of this squad had ever scored at a Euros. Harry Kane did win the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, but a true creative star in the Gascoigne mould is yet to emerge from several promising candidates.
Foden remains the obvious candidate given his breakthrough season at Manchester City, but Jack Grealish advanced his case during England’s two warm-up games and was unfortunate not to play against Croatia. Grealish has the force of personality and a swagger on the ball akin to Gascoigne, offering an invention different to the more direct approach of Sterling or Jadon Sancho, the latter of whom was not in the 23-man matchday squad vs. Croatia either.
Mason Mount’s inclusion in a three-man midfield with Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips might feel conservative given the clamour to include Grealish, Foden and others, but the Chelsea star offers a discipline without the ball that Southgate values, as well as the ability to transition quickly to offer a real threat in the final third. If balance enables brilliance, the Chelsea midfielder will be difficult to leave out.
This plethora of options is in stark contrast to Euro 96, when England were reliant on a mercurial 29-year-old who was facing question marks after missing 15 months with a broken leg.
“Gazza is no longer a fat, drunken imbecile,” wrote the Daily Mirror the day after England beat Scotland. “He is, in fact, a football genius.” Such is the impact an England vs. Scotland match can have.